One of my favorite craft materials lately is shrink plastic (a.k.a. Shrinky Dink), which is a type of clear plastic (#6 to be exact) that once heated, thickens and shrinks to approximately half of its original size. It is great for making personalized crafts and gifts since we could essentially draw or trace any design on it.
The Dumpling and I have turned our plastic trinkets into wind chimes, ornaments, accessories, name tags, and key chains, just to name a few.
Color pencils, permanent markers, or acrylic paint
Oven safe tray
Hole punch (optional)
Clear nail polish (optional)
Draw or trace your image onto the smooth side of shrink plastic sheet with permanent marker. My sheets came pre-sanded on one side and smooth on the other, so check carefully. Size the images accordingly as they shrink to half of their original size once heated.
Color on the sanded side of the plastic. Flip the sheet over and color on the sanded side — the rougher surface makes it easier for the pigments to grab on. Coloring on this side also ensures that the color doesn’t cover the design outline.
Cut along the outline. Be gentle as plastic can rip easily.
Punch hole(s) on where you want to string the shrink plastic.
Pre-heat oven to 175°C and then bake cutout for approximately 3-5 minutes in oven-safe tray. The funnest part of this activity is watching the plastic curl and then flatten into a miniature version of itself. The first time I did this, the cutout did not flatten properly — my guess was that I did not wait for the oven to pre-heat to the right temperature, so be patient!
I did not think it would happen so soon — the Dumpling is now learning Chinese words in school that is beyond my elementary knowledge of the language. Frankly my exact reaction when I saw her second semester vocabulary list was “WTF?!”
While she is not expected to write at three years old, her current curriculum requires her to recognize characters. Feedback from the school’s initial progress report stated that she “needs more practice”.
I dislike the competitiveness, methods, and intensity of the Hong Kong school education system (her current kindergarten is actually considered lax by local standards), so I am unwilling to deploy any tiger parenting tactics that would add additional pressure. That means I do not intend to enroll her in after-school tutoring or various extra-curricular courses so she can “get ahead.” I believe that learning at her age should be done seamlessly through play; anything extra should be purely based on her interest level. For example, I will only sign the Dumpling up for additional classes because it is an activity she loves to do—not something I want her to learn.
My challenge, therefore, is integrating Mandarin into our daily routine without making the process feel like a “lesson.” Despite living in Hong Kong, English is the primary and dominant language in both our household and expat community, so Mandarin is actually a very foreign sound. In order to do that, however, I first have to learn the words myself. Google Translate has been my BFF, and I have been practicing the activities below alongside the Dumpling (and pretending like I know what I am talking about).
I made flash cards and taped them on relevant or highly visible places around the house. For example, 花朵 (flower) was taped right next to my vase of flowers and 牛奶 (milk) was taped on the fridge. Sometime we would play a “scavenger hunt” for the words or we just pointed to them as we went about our day. Those few seconds of daily exposure added up — by mid-semester, the Dumpling’s progress report improved to a “well done!”
I made coloring pages of her vocabulary words in PowerPoint, which can be done with just a few clicks!
Instead of using just markers and crayons, below are few ideas to keep the activity fresh by “coloring” with different materials.
花朵, 青草, 樹木: Scavenge for small flowers, grass, and branches to glue onto the characters
米飯: Glue rice (I dyed mine with food coloring)
兔子: Glue cotton balls or white pom poms
刷牙: Paint with toothpaste (preferable a colored one) on with an old toothbrush
洗手: Paint with colored foam soap/shaving cream
雨天: Draw raindrops with white crayon and paint over with blue watercolor (wax resist)
Below are a few other learn-through-play activities I have done with the Dumpling in the past:
Self Correcting Puzzle with Vocabulary Words
The Chinese characters used in the puzzle correlate with the vocabulary words from her Semester 1 vocabulary list.
This was another puzzle to help the Dumpling get familiarize with Chinese numbers. When we first started the activity, the Dumpling actually lacked the coordination and strength to pinch the clothing pins open, so clipping them on became an exercise in itself.
To play, lay the pieces with their backsides facing up. Flip over two pieces on each turn with the goal of finding two matching colors in as few moves as possible. Again, I do not expect the Dumpling to read just yet; I just say the colors aloud as we play. We initially started with only two colors and have currently built up to six.
For the Dumpling’s school Easter party, I made a mini activities book that I am sharing as a free printable. I love using this template because the book is printed single-sided on a regular piece of copy paper and is assembled without any gluing or binding — just fold and cut.
Print. Under the print options, select “Fit” under the Page Sizing section. This ensures that no matter what size paper you’re using (whether A4 or Letter), the entire image would be scaled appropriately to fit within the print area.
(Confession: I actually forgot this step and my books came out slightly cut off on the edges.)
Fold and cut. Cut along the solid lines and fold along the dotted lines according to the guide below. Remember to trim the rectangular border on the perimeter of the sheet as well.
I recently printed a free A-Z alphabet hunt pack from Frugal Fun for Boys and Girls to review letter recognition and sounds with the Dumpling. To spice up the activity so that she was not just circling the letters 26 times on repeat, we divvied the worksheet pack into four to five separate exercises and “circled” the letters a different way each time.
1. Apply Sticker Labels
I wrote the letters out on circle labels and asked the Dumpling to stick them on as each letter was identified.
2. Dab On Colored Glue
If you do not have colored glue, create your own by mixing food coloring or liquid watercolor (add more drops for higher color intensity) to white Elmer’s glue.
3. Stamp with Fingers, Bottle Caps, Etc.
4. Paint With Watercolor
This step is optional: I pre-circled the letters with a white crayon so the correct answers were “revealed” once they were painted over.
5. Squirt Watercolor With Liquid Dropper
Sometimes just switching up the tool does wonders to renew my kiddo’s interest. Using a liquid dropper saved from an old medicine bottle, the Dumpling squirted liquid watercolor on top of the letters.
6. Puncture With Push Pins
Placing a folded towel (or two) underneath a worksheet, the Dumpling punctured each letter that she found with a pin.
N.B. Needless to say, the pins are sharp and adult supervision is required.
That was the most frequently asked question I got after announcing my family’s relocation to Hong Kong. It turned out that I had no say in the matter as the label was automatically bestowed on me upon arrival. If I had the means to be a housewife, it was assumed that my husband made enough to qualify me.
There is not a definitive guide to tai tai-ing, but it seems that a woman at minimal must marry into a family with enough financial mean so that she does not need to work. While housewives and stay-at-home-moms are common in the U.S., this prerequisite is actually not attainable for many in Hong Kong given the city’s high cost of living and large income disparity. The median monthly income for an employed person is approximately HK$18,000, but with the median cost for public rental housing at HK$17,800, most families need dual earners to put a roof over their heads.
There are different tiers of tai tai-hood. Various factors move a woman up and down the ranks, such as the affluence of her neighborhood, amount of leisure in her day, quality and quantity of her social connections, extravagance of her consumption, etc. At the top echelon are the daughters of Asia’s elites — tai tais of the 0.1% (think Crazy Rich Asians) sleep in past 9:00 AM, employ multiple maids, never do housework, go on international shopping sprees, indulge in regular spa treatments, dress in the latest designer fashion, etc.
Expat wives are an unique breed of tai tais who rarely call themselves as such. Simply self-identifying as an expat already oozes a certain status. Composed of outsiders, the ones I know are mostly trailing spouses of executives, lawyers, pilots, bankers, or consultants. Although they do not boast lineage from Asia’s political nobility or flash F.U. money like China’s nouveau riche, expats flaunt their elitist Western upbringing, education, and values like some kind of non-monetary currency — from enlisting their children in private international schools, to assuming that everyone understands English, to decrying the locals’ treatment of their maids, to being morally outraged by the use of plastic straws and bags. Some of these initiatives are well-intentioned, but also patriarchal. Mostly found in pockets of expat neighborhoods with coffee houses, yoga studios, and imported organic food, expats do not adapt to local culture; they insist that locals cater to their bougie ways. (I am Exhibit A.)
To Tai Tai or Not Tai Tai?
I may be in the minority, but I absolutely hated being called a tai tai. Having grown up in Boston and worked in New York City, I came of age in the Sheryl Sandberg era. No one in my social circle aspired to be housewives, even after having children. Giving up my career, therefore, felt like a betrayal when I moved to Hong Kong; I did not want to be a stereotypical tai tai on top of that.
I held out, doing menial chores myself for a year, before I finally brought in a full-time helper — a maid, cook, nanny, and personal assistant rolled into one. The benefits are life changing: no more cooking, washing dishes, folding laundry, or doing chores…period. After messy activities with the Dumpling, our workstation would be miraculously cleaned by the time we washed our hands. Tasks as simple as refilling the water pitcher, making a grocery list, or changing hand towels are no longer on my mental to-do list. Impromptu social outings are now possible because I have a babysitter on-call six days a week.
I naturally gravitated towards meeting other expat moms. Through play dates, community outings, school events, and coffee meetings, I learned the ins and outs of daily life, built a support network for my family, and made amazing new friends along the way.
First World Problems
Even as I reap the benefits of living a life of relative comfort, the transition was not easy. Loneliness was overwhelming at first because jigg regularly works 14+ hours a day and is sometimes away on business trips. Walking away from my career was a blow to my ego. In a culture where being a housewife is a status symbol, there is still a sense of sadness, even shame, when I tell people that I am a one. My days can be monotonous and mindless if I do not push myself to remain productive since I no longer have engaging projects, demanding deadlines, or ambitious colleagues to challenge me at work. Every year that I am unemployed, I become less employable; I may even be obsolete one day. I am entirely dependent on my husband’s income, so I face huge financial risks if we were to ever separate.
The truth, however, is that the perks are hard to give up. Between returning to the grueling grind of New York City or living a life of leisure in Hong Kong, there is no competition. I may despise the title, but being a tai tai, semantics aside, is amazing.
When we first moved to Hong Kong, it was a rude-awakening to discover that daycares are not popular. Many working parents have grandparents or live-in nannies (they’re extremely affordable in Asia) for childcare, so guardian-accompanied playgroups are more prevalent for non-school aged children. They were a regressive step for the Dumpling because she has attended a drop-off since she was six months old back in the U.S. As we waited for a spot to open at an unaccompanied program, however, accompanied playgroups were our only immediate options at the time.
The one we joined was typical. For two hours, one to three days a week, parents or caregivers bond with their toddlers through engaging, educational activities, such as circle time, singing, dancing, arts and crafts, and sensory trays, led by an experienced teacher. The children will have opportunities to develop social skills, confidence, and independence—soft skills needed for an easier transition into drop-off classes.
Sounds promising, right?
I hated the fact that I needed to be there—not because I did not want to spend time with my daughter, but because I did not want to be her security blanket. This particular program allowed kids to join and unjoin any time, so the lack of continuity and familiarity made friendships difficult to form. The Dumpling naturally gravitated toward me instead of exploring on her own because I was the easier option.
The teacher functioned more as an activity prompter than a leader—she would not intervene when a child was disruptive, acted inappropriately, or did not participate. Adults were solely responsible for their children, which was problematic as each toddler saw his guardian as the main authority figure instead of the teacher.
With a dozen adult-child pairs in class, it seemed like everyone operated under different “playground rules”. When the Dumpling snatched a toy from another child during one session, that child’s nanny lunged and aggressively snatched it back from the Dumpling before I could react. I was shocked that a grown-up behaved this way. I guessed she believed in “an eye for an eye”.
The differences in everyone’s parental values and styles were apparent. During an arts and crafts activity, the teacher presented a cherry blossom painting created by dotting pink paint on a tree silhouette—an example of what the class was to replicate. I did a demo for the Dumpling on our sheet. She dotted maybe three or four flowers before she smeared the paint around with her hands instead. I shrugged and looked around to see what other pairs were doing. Most adults were taking their kids’ fingers and dotting for them; the rest were completing most (if not all) of the activity on behalf of the children, who either lost interest or did not want to touch paint.
When the paintings were placed on the table to dry, I noticed that all of them fell within the spectrum of the teacher’s sample…except for the Dumpling’s. The others depicted delicate, tranquil blossoms blooming, while my kid’s tree looked like a typhoon bulldozed its way through.
The Dumpling was so proud of her work, and I was proud of her. I was proud that her piece was different…that she was different. She was not afraid to explore, completed the painting on her own, and did not mind getting dirty along the way.
I often reflect back on this moment. In an age where “over-parenting” is normal, I was glad that I did not interfere. But did I overvalue her independence and creativity? Under different circumstances, these traits could be viewed as insubordination or arrogance.
Painting a cherry blossom was trivial in the greater scheme of things, but what if it metaphorically represented a different activity (say baking or playing a team sport), could the Dumpling’s “tree” be viewed as a failure? Was the process that much more important than the result? Should I have encouraged her harder to follow instructions? Or guided her fingers (like what some adults did) instead of letting her go rogue? If she had refused to paint at all, would it have been acceptable to return home with nothing? If the stakes were higher, would I have completed the project for her (like what a few others did)?
The other adult probably judged me as I had judged them, so only time would tell whom made the right parental choices. We strive towards grooming our kids into happy, smart, successful, good people, but even our best intentions could produce a variable of unforeseen effects.
I left this playgroup after a few weeks and tried another one—it was just as chaotic and dysfunctional as the first. My biggest critiques with the accompanied programs are their continuous open enrollment and the mandatory presence of a guardian, which in combination hindered the development of soft skills they claim to foster. Luckily a spot opened up for the Dumpling at a drop-off class soon after. (Hallelujah!) In the end, she did not benefit much from attending accompanied playgroups, but at least I learned something about my parenting values.
The Dumpling’s kindergarten is throwing a birthday party for all November babies at the end of the month. Since she’s one of the birthday kids, I wanted to do something extra. So along with treats, I also made her classmates a coloring activity book as a party favor that I’m sharing as a customizable printable!*
The book is super easy to make because it’s printed single-sided on a regular piece of copy paper without any gluing or binding. While the customizable version provides the option to include a short message, I have also made a generic version with a simple “Happy Birthday” on the cover. The content is suitable for pre-schoolers and kindgardeners.
Customize the cover text in Adobe Reader (skip if using the generic template )
Open up the PDF file in Adobe Reader and click on the form fields (highlighted in blue) to edit the text.
Print. Prior to hitting the print button, select “Fit” under the Page Sizing section. This ensures that no matter what size paper you’re using (whether A4 or Letter), the entire image would be scaled appropriately to fit within the print area.
Trim the page border. Although this step might look extraneous, it ensures that all your pages will be of equal size.
Fold and Cut.
I managed to whip out 20 of these within the hour…mom-life is hard work!
* Please note that the two graphic elements in the template are different than the version featured in the video—the font used on the cover and the balloon design on the letter tracing spread.
Could you have guessed that all these prints were created in PowerPoint with the Dumpling’s scrap art? It’s actually quite easy—all you need to make custom text art are scanned copies of your child’s artwork and access to PowerPoint!
(Before starting the tutorial below, please refer to Part 1 for tips on how to set up the PowerPoint slide to fit your paper that you would be printing on. I have since given up trying to narrate a tutorial because I’m just a terrible speaker!)
Step 1: Create and format your text in PowerPoint.
In a blank PowerPoint slide, go to “Insert”, select “Text Box” and draw a text box on the slide. Then type in your custom text and format it to your preference, but do not change your text color—keep it black.
Go to “File”, “Save As”, and then select either “PNG” or “JPG” from the file type drop down.
Step 3: Delete the text box.
Click anywhere on the text box perimeter to select the box, then delete it—we don’t need it anymore!
Step 4: Insert your child’s artwork file.
Go to “Insert”, “Pictures”, and select the image file of your child’s artwork. Please note that it’s best to use a piece that’s abstract, bright and colorful, with lots of paint area coverage. Feel free to also resize the dimensions to fit your side if necessary.
Step 5: Insert the text art file.
Go to “Insert”, “Pictures”, and select the image file of your text that was created in Steps 1 and 2. This would temporarily cover your chid’s artwork, but don’t worry!
Step 6: Make the text transparent.
With the text art file selected, go to “Format”, click “Color”, and select “Set Transparent Color”. Then click anywhere on the text that is black. This function tells PowerPoint to transform anything that’s colored black into a transparent area. As a result, we see your child’s artwork layer that’s hidden underneath. Pretty cool right?
The “Set Transparent Color” function would work if you used black and white images as well—just insert them along with you text box in Step 1!
It started when I noticed the Dumpling drawing lines between random dots on her magnetic doodle board two months ago, so I began making more dots for her to connect. She got really into it, so we moved onto shapes, numbers, and letters and are now even solving simple connect-the dot puzzles!
As much as I want her penmanship to improve, I know that I would miss her scribbles one day. Wouldn’t it be great if I could archive her chicken scratches forever…without keeping piles of paper?
Enter Calligrphr, a free app that I used to convert the Dumpling’s handwriting into a font. I downloaded their template, filled it up with the Dumpling’s traced numbers and letters, and then re-uploaded the template back onto the site.
If anyone is interested in downloading the font, click here! (Please note that only numbers and capital letters are available…no lowercase, punctuations, special characters, etc.)
This would make great “handwritten” holiday cards or letters to Santa!
I plan to turn the Dumpling’s handwriting into a new font annually and to track how her handwriting progresses!