Monday, August 20, 2012

2012 Review of Funshine Express Fireflies Kit



Last spring, I learned about a company called Funshine Express that sells monthly curriculum kits for preschool aged kids.  They have two basic kits: Fireflies for 3 - 5 year olds and Buttercups for 18 months - 3 year olds.  I did a detailed post in the spring showing exactly what comes in the monthly Fireflies kit.  Since then, I have actually used the kits for a couple of months, so I can now share how it actually works in our family.  In addition, Funshine Express sent me a kit for September, 2012, so that I can show you some of the changes (improvements) they have made for this coming academic year.  Let me first say that we LOVE the Funshine Express Fireflies curriculum in our house.  This past year we had two preschoolers, and they really looked forward to our preschool time each day.  And even the older kids get excited about the crafts.  Also, I want to disclose that we have ordered a 9 month subscription for this coming year, so basically I am just a giant Funshine Express fan, and I proselytize about it on Facebook, my homeschool organization, and online forums all the time.  I have used it enough to have some ideas of what I think should be changed, and I will mention those in this post, as I show the various supplies, but overall, I absolutely love it and get so excited when the monthly box arrives!

So, if you choose to order a monthly subscription, each month you get a box that is this size (glue stick shown as a size reference):
It is worth noting that this particular box had a rough time in the mail and came all crumpled and dented in one corner.  But Funshine does a nice job packing, so none of the materials inside were damaged at all.  All of the materials are encased in plastic bags, so even if the package gets a little wet sitting on your doorstep, the materials should survive ok.

In the first package of the year (regardless of which month you start your subscription), there is a "Starter Pack."

 This contains the re-usable items that you will need each month, inlcuding the calendar base, and the displays for the shape, color, and numbers of the month:





These are all printed on glossy paperboard.  Last year, I taped my pieces on each month.  This year, I think I might try velcro instead.

Included in this starter pack is a "helper" chart, showing different classroom jobs:

This is unlikely to be used by me, as I am homeschooling just one preschooler.  Much of the Fireflies kit is designed for classroom use, which is a downside to me.  On the other hand, it hasn't been much of an issue to just leave out the things that don't work in a home setting.

The last item in the starter pack is the daily weather chart:

This was my children's favorite part last year.  They took great delight in peering out the window and debating whether it was cloudy or partly cloudy.  I really like that this year the chart show a picture of each condition.  I think that will help little ones understand the meaning of each term.  The button is meant to be a marker for the day.  I think I will attach velcro to the back of the button, and a square of velcro in each box on the weather chart.

An optional item (which is included for free if you place an order of 3 months or more) is the music and movement CD:

Each day there is a song or chant to sing with the children, and a few times a month, you will find the song on this CD.  So you can absolutely do without the CD if you would like, but it is nice to have.  The songs are generally set to a very familiar tune (like Row Your Boat or Mary Had a Little Lamb), but they will have words that fit the monthly theme.

The next basic component of the kit is the monthly Teacher Pack:
Again, it is in a clear plastic bag with a half sheet of paper showing the contents.  The Teacher Pack is sent with each monthly order.  The most important part is the monthly curriculum booklet.  This is a thick magazine with a detailed lesson plan for each normal school day (Monday through Friday, not including holidays):
We do most of the activities each day.  The curriculum notes give specific suggestions on  how to introduce colors, shapes, numbers, and other concepts.  There are ideas for opening the day, closing the day, and transitioning between activities.  Plus there are craft instructions, song lyrics, and sometimes math and science activities.  The majority of the activities work for us each day.  However, this is a kit that is really aimed at a school classroom setting or at least an in-home daycare program with a bunch of kids and learning centers set up around the room.  So there are some activities that we need to skip, like group games.  I would love if Funshine Express decided to make this a little more homeschooler-friendly by offering another suggestion for those times when a group game is scheduled.  Also in this curriculum booklet, there is a monthly list of all supplies that will be needed on each day in order to complete all the optional activities.  They are always very normal supplies (like alphabet soup, or magazines to cut up for pictures, etc.), but it is nice to have a heads up.  In addition, there are detailed notes on classroom management, bulletin board ideas, and basically a philosophy of early education.

In the monthly teacher pack, you will also find the color, shape, and number of the month pieces and the calendar pieces.  These are printed in color on perforated cardstock, so you can just punch the pieces out.


 I really, really love that the pictures on the calendar pieces relate to the three monthly themes.  Also, there is a pattern of both color and image.  I point this out each day to my children and ask them which color or image will come next. 

Each month, there is a simple puzzle.  It is printed with a second picture on the reverse side.  The parent or teacher needs to cut along the dotted lines.  This year, the puzzles are simpler, with less pieces.  Another change for this year is that there is a "puzzle key" included, so you can show a picture of what the completed puzzle will look like.  The pictures for the puzzle relate to one of the monthly themes as well.

I'm going to be honest here.  You know I love these kits.  But this is the weakest part of the whole kit.  This is printed on glossy paper, and it is just not stiff enough.  I also am not a fan of the simpler puzzle design and will likely be cutting mine in a more complex design.  I think Funshine could improve the monthly puzzle dramatically if it were printed on heavy duty cardstock and if there were a simple puzzle design printed on one side and a more complex design printed on the other.  That way, the parent/teacher could choose which shapes to cut out.  Even my 3 year old can do pretty complex puzzles, and a puzzle that is just 4 squares is not going to cut it for her.  But I do love that a puzzle key is now included.  That will make it SO much easier to complete. 
One of the big hits for our family has been the Spanish language learning cards.  Each month there are 4 flash cards with English on one side and Spanish on the other:

A pronunciation guide is included on the bottom of each flash card.  (That might be new this year -- I don't remember that from last year's kits.)  My kids just love learning Spanish words and showing them off to friends and family.  In the curriculum guide, there is often notes of other Spanish words as well, when new concepts, shapes, colors, or numbers are introduced.

There are multiple letters introduced each month.  There are glossy, punch out flash cards for each letter.  I am going to make a display this year to post all of these, so we end up with a complete alphabet by the end of the year.  The children learn the ASL sign for each letter as well.  It is tricky for my preschoolers to figure out how to fold their fingers in the correct way to make the signs, but they enjoy trying.


Another monthly item included in the Teacher Pack are topic cards.  They show a picture of something that relates to one of the monthly themes, and then the curriculum guide suggests how to use this to have a conversation.  I have found these to be surprisingly useful, and my kids have been exposed to concepts that would not have come up otherwise.  And my children have really retained the information.  Specifically, I can remember my 3 year old talking about covered wagons weeks after I showed her a topic card with a picture of a covered wagon.


The Teacher Pack also contains a bunch of items that will vary a little each month.  There is always a couple of games, usually some kind of math manipulative or game, and a top quality softcover children's book.
Of course, all of these items relate to the themes for the month.  Every kit that I have seen (3 months so far for this household!) has had one game that I would describe as a "simple path game" where the child moves their piece along a path, trying to be the first one to the end.  These games are, of course, deadly boring to adults but endlessly fascinating to 3 and 4 year olds.  At least it is a different game each month instead of having to constantly play CandyLand!

Another plastic bag you will find in the monthly kit is the Children's Resources Pack.  This contains glossy full color newsletters to be sent home to parents (again, not useful if you are homeschooling, but great if you are in a larger setting), children's personal journals, and stickers. 


The Children's Journals are new and improved for this year.  They are larger in size -- full 8.5 x 11" this year.  And the pages are perforated, so you can tear them out as you complete them.  I am not sure if I like this feature or not.  I kind of like the idea of keeping them all together in a stapled journal.  But if I was working in a classroom setting, I would probably want to send them home to parents as pages were completed.  In any case, I do like the new larger size, as that provides more room for little hands to write and draw.



The journal pages are very appropriate for 3 - 5 year olds, and the curriculum booklet will tell you when to use each page.  The stickers are needed for specific pages in the journals, so don't use them up randomly! 

I saw a picture (on Funshine's Facebook gallery, I think) where someone had compiled all the journals at the end of the year.  I think I might hole punch each one and place in a binder, so that we have a record to look back on at the end of the school year. 

Ok, now let's talk about the arts and crafts.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this is what draws people to these kits.  In each monthly kit, there are 12 craft kits, containing all the supplies for one craft for the number of children for which you placed the order.  You do need to supply some basic items, like glue, markers, crayons, and paint -- all things which I always have on hand anyways.  The craft kits are generally scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each week in the daily lesson plans in the curriculum guide.  All the instructions for completing the crafts are in the curriculum guide.  For some reason, there are always only 10 plastic bags for the 12 kits, so some of the kits are doubled up.  I am not exactly sure why this is, but everything is clearly labelled so it is not a problem.  Here are pictures of a couple of the craft kits:



The crafts are always very reasonable and easy to complete.  Now, I am a very crafty sort of person, and I kind of feel guilty buying a kit when I could just pull everything together on my own.  But somehow, I would never actually complete 12 crafts a month with my kids.  Plus, the supplies are very varied, and it gets pricey to buy all of that variety of supplies.  Here in the kits, they send just enough for a child, so there is not a lot of waste.  Don't get me wrong -- we have never felt like we needed or wanted more.  Can you see in the picture above where the kit for "Sparkling Stream" has a bag of small pebbles?  I am always impressed with the variety of items in the kits, which provide a tactile experience for the kids.  I also really like the section on each of the yellow sheets called "While you create" which lists some discussion prompts to use with the kids while they craft.  Usually, these involve how the materials feel or sound.  Like everything in the kit, the crafts relate to the monthly themes.  Here are some examples of completed crafts that my children made in the past few months:

This was for the theme of bees.  My kids loved the gold foil for the wings.


This was for the theme of Rainy Days.  The blue rain drops were painted by dipping a tear-drop shaped make-up sponge in paint and using it to stamp on the cardstock.  This is supposed to look like a cloud with rain coming down.  I did not help cut the cloud shape but let my 5 year old do it himself.  That is why it is still kind of rectangular shaped.  My son really adored the tear-shaped sponge and continues to use it all the time when painting.  This craft reinforced one of the books we had read about clouds being composed of lots of little drops of water.


This is another rainy day themed craft.  The kids used plastic pipettes (droppers) to drip thinned paint onto a sheet of vellum to make the rain drops.  Then they glued on cotton balls for clouds.  When you lift up the vellum, you see there is a sunny day picture underneath, with a sun, grass, and flowers.

My kids loved the idea of this "action" craft where it could go from a sunny day to cloudy and back again!  There was another craft that month that the kids loved, too, where you dressed a boy in a raincoat, hat, and boots.  They played with it again and again and again, for weeks.

Each day, the daily lesson plan will contain instructions for a craft.  In general, there are about 20 school days in a month, and the kit contains 12 craft kits.  That means for eight days (each Monday and Friday of the month), there is no kit included, but there are instructions for a craft you could do.  The supplies for these other days have generally been things I have had on hand, but we sometimes just skip those crafts depending on how our day is going.

I have been thrilled with the crafts, because they use a variety of materials and techniques, and because they can sometimes be played with afterwards.  A general criticism I have of preschool craft projects is that they are generally "project-oriented" rather than "process-oriented."  In other words, I feel like too often we give little kids craft projects that have a strict outcome, and there project is supposed to look like the example we have shown.  I think there is great value in allowing kids to just mess around with paint and other craft supplies, just for the fun of it, and not worrying about the end process.  In fact, I think it is ok to sometimes throw away the paper when we are done, rather than saving it to dry.  Funshine tends to have many of these "project-oriented" crafts, like I have shown in these pictures.  However, there are also some process art projects as well.  In particular, the project ideas on Mondays and Fridays, when no craft kit is included, are often process art.  One time, following Funshine's directions, I gave the kids a big pile of whipped cream for them to play with and make clouds, before eating, of course.  In the September 2012 curriculum, I would classify 5 of the projects as Process Art rather than Project Art.  Personally, I would like to see a higher percentage of Process Art, but I recognize that I am probably in the minority on this one, and most people probably prefer defined projects with clear instructions and product that can be hung on the wall at the end.

I did notice in the September curriculum guide that one of the art projects uses the included book of the month.  The children study the pictures and then try to create a picture in a similar style.  I love this literacy connection.

The last thing I wanted to mention was the monthly book lists.  Each month there are 3 themes, and included in the curriculum guide is a list of story books that relate to these themes.  You can download the book lists on Funshine's site under the section called Funshine Extras found here.  I trek to the library a couple of times a month and check out as many of these as I can find.  Some of these books have been really fantastic, and my kids have loved them.  We go to the library multiple times a month anyways, so I wasn't sure that I really needed a book list.  However, some of these books are ones that we probably would not have chosen otherwise, and they have been really great.  The majority of the books have been easy to locate within our county-wide library system, and I would encourage you all to check out the book lists (available free on their website even if you don't purchase a kit from them).  Hey, if someone from Funshine Express reads this review, I have another suggestion.  I would love to see the book list separated into Fiction and Non-fiction, as that would make my library browsing a little easier. 

So, overall -- I absolutely, completely recommend Funshine Express Fireflies kits.  It is an incredible amount of materials delivered right to my doorstep each month.  I would suggest that if you are purchasing for a homeschool environment, you might consider getting enough craft supplies for all your children, as my older children would be terribly jealous if they didn't get to participate. 

I hope you will post comments below if you have used Funshine, are thinking of using Funshine, or have questions.  I also have a question for you all -- are there any forms or resources you think Funshine could include that would make them seem a little more homeschooler friendly?  They have lots of forms to download on their website aimed specifically at schools (letters to parents, field trip permission, etc.).  I think Funshine is missing a big market of homeschoolers, and I am wondering if you have any suggestions for the company.

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