What do Catherine the Great, Roller Coasters, and Matryoshki Have in Common?

(If you would like to purchase the Expedition Catherine’s Russian Mountains, scroll to the bottom, or click HERE.)

Recently, I came across something that suggested that the first ever roller coaster had been built by the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. I was so intrigued that I dug in to every record of this that I could find! After so long in self isolation, this little fun fact had me reeling for a good amusement park.

My initial interest was mostly just in the roller coasters, but pretty quickly I became infatuated with Catherine herself. Like, I-just-listened-to-a-20+hr-long-audio-book-of-her-whole-life infatuated. If you’re new to audiobooks like me, that translates to a 6 Part, 73 chapter, 625 page textbook of her life. And like a true nerd, I loved every second of it!

I learned so much about Catherine, but here are some of my favorite snippets of her life:

Impressing an Emperor

Before moving to Russia to be betrothed to the heir selected by Empress Elizabeth, Catherine had to first win over Emperor Peter the Great’s approval. Peter. The. Great. No big deal. As a 15 or 16 year old minor princess, she sat across from this great monarch and impressed him so much, that she was invited to sit next to him and discuss literature and other pretty refined topics for a 16 year old at dinner. The whole situation seems just absurd today. I can’t even imagine!

Throw A Coup

When her husband took the throne, everyone knew he was unfit to rule, but she was as good a wife as I can imagine the circumstances allowed her to be. If you’ve seen the Hulu trailers for the satirical show about Catherine the Great, then you might agree she could have acted like this:

Subtitles read: “I could kill you. You are a bad person.”

But she didn’t. So kudos to her. So maybe my bar is low, but she’s got patience I aspire to.

Eventually though, she caved to the pressure to throw a coup d’etat (a violent coup, as opposed to the peaceable ones that are so common, ya know) for the sake of Russia, BUT she didn’t want any blood shed. The army obeyed and they walked into the palace and took over while Peter was away. I guess it was violent only in that the army escorted her and was prepared to forcibly remove Peter from the premises.

She repeatedly throughout her reign enforced her stance that torture and bloodshed were no way to get to the truth or desired outcome of any situation. Even in the coup, she did not want any harm to come on her awful husband. Instead, she provided him with a very comfortable home and ordered that he should be given everything he wanted. Her letters and recorded commands around this time seem to suggest that she genuinely held to this position regarding her husband, but soon after going off to his superb quarantine, a fight broke out and some guards killed him, arguably on purpose, but officially on accident. If not for that, she would have pulled off an entirely bloodless coup.

Matryoshka, Forgive Me

Empress Elizabeth was vain and had an unpredictable temper at times. A lady-in-waiting hinted to Catherine that one of the things the Empress wanted most was to be seen as a good Matryoshka (little mother) to her people, and that if Catherine ever displeased the Empress, she might get out of trouble by calling the Empress “matryoshka”. Sure enough, the Empress eventually flew into a rage at Catherine’s expense. Catherine remembered the advice and tested it out, saying, “Matryoshka, please forgive me!” It worked!

I learned that this is very common to refer to the Empress or Tsarina as “little mother”, since the Russian tradition upheld that the royal ruler should be like the overseer of the whole Russian family. Likewise, male leaders are also referred to as “Batyushka”, or “little father”. Matryoshka is also the name of the iconic Russian toys we know often as “nesting dolls.”

The Royal Library

Catherine the Great often showed wild generosity beyond just political cunningness. My favorite example of this is the story of Diderot’s library. When Empress Catherine learned that Diderot, a French philosopher, was selling his library to come up with the dowry needed to marry off his daughter. Catherine purchased the library, left it in his care, and gave him a salary to be able to call on him for his books and intellect! I wish there were a Catherine in the world that would pay me for my library without taking away my books and give me a big enough stipend to continue building my library!

The Hermitage

One of the first Russian movies I ever watched in my undergrad was “Russian Ark”. This movie was a big deal, as I remember, because the entire film was taken in one continuous shot inside the actual Hermitage Museum in Russia. Catherine the Great is mainly responsible for this incredible collection of art. The only thing that could have made it more impressive is if she had focused more on supporting Russian artists and representing their art in the museum.

Russian Mountains aka Roller Coasters

If you know anything about Russia, you know that it’s cold. The winters are long and there is a lot of ice and snow. Walking down steep, icy roads is almost impossible at times, and some people I knew actually put spikes on the bottoms of their boots to go out in winter. If I had a recording of every moment in Russia, I could create a montage of moments when I decided (thinking no one was around to see) that I would rather just sit down and slide down some road, rather than try to walk it and risk wiping out. Obviously, I did not have those nifty boot spikes.

In the time of Catherine the Great, building giant mountains of snow/ice to slide down (katalnaya gorka) was a thing. Apparently the long winter of this winter sport wasn’t enough for the Empress. Also, she was adventurous and loved to be loved by people, and brilliant with design. So she built herself a dacha (getaway garden home) where she constructed the first type of roller coaster using cars that could be used year round.

The Common Denominator?

Do you see what I did there? Catherine the Great, Empress and Matryoshka of the Russian Empire built the first roller coaster! That’s what they all have in common. To learn more, you can purchase this Expedition of Catherine’s Russian Mountains here! It’s perfect for all your little explorers who are working on counting to 25, or who are ready to be introduced to simple addition or subtraction! It also includes plenty of reading, tracing, coloring, building things, and playing! (5 detailed lesson plans and suggestions included)

Expedition Catherine’s Russian Mountains

Read, Count and Color your way to being an expert about Catherine the Great of Russia and the first roller coaster made by her!


  • Book Recommendations (A Royal Ride: Catherine the Great’s Great Invention, and others)
  • Catherine the Great Coloring Booklet
  • 2 Coloring Pages
  • Stackable, Printable Nesting Dolls Activity
  • Copy the Shapes and Matching
  • Tracing Pages
  • Scissor Skills
  • Tens Charts
  • Matching Number Forms activities (standard form and word form)
  • Roller Coaster Addition and Subtraction
  • Build Your Own Roller Coasters, and more!
  • A total of 40 pages plus detailed Lesson/Activity Suggestions!

Who is Zheng He, and Why Should My Child Learn About Him?

First off – how do you even pronounce “Zheng He”?! It took me a while to get it. At VIPKID I am certified to teach 24 different types of curriculum. TWENTY FOUR. I like the variety and got bored teaching the same lessons on repeat when I first started. But the problem that arises with teaching 24 different curriculums, is that sometimes I will get halfway into a lesson I didn’t prep for when I realize I am relying on the student to explain to me details of whatever person, process, or grammar structure we are talking about. Like, who the heck knows what a schwa sound is?! I do! Now. After five lessons of relying on the answer key without being able to give explanations, I finally figured it out.

Something similar happened the first few times I had lessons discussing the explorations of Zheng He. I found myself pronouncing his name differently every time until I finally had a regular student I get along with really well tell it to me in Chinese. It helps to know that sometimes it is also written as “Cheng Ho” or “Jung Ho”. Zheng He uses a schwa sound! The e’s both sound like “uh”.

Anyway, none of that is probably very interesting. So let’s talk about the real giraffe in the room.

Samples of Expedition Zheng He and the Giraffe.
Scroll to the end of the post or click for purchase.

Zheng He and the Giraffe

Zheng He was born to Muslim parents and inspired to explore the world by his father and grandfather, who both made the Mecca. But, when he was young, his father was killed and Zheng He was captured and enslaved by the Prince of Yan. Under the prince, Zheng He received an education and got the prince’s trust. He even helped coordinate a plan for the Prince to claim the throne, further improving his standing with the royal family.

Eventually, he became the captain of a HUGE fleet. We’re talking over 60 treasure ships and tens of thousands of men in his crew. He finally was able to explore the world for his country. He traded all kinds of goods and on one voyage brought back the first ever…you guessed it.. GIRAFFE that China had ever seen. The people were so confused at the animal that they believed it was actually a mythical creature, called a qilin. Isn’t that a fun piece of history! I love it so much!

But really, think about all the new things we discover all the time and just can’t wrap our heads around, like the Peacock Mantis Shrimp. It’s not a peacock, mantis, or shrimp, but it looks like all three and has capabilities that just blew scientists minds away, so they just called it after what they already knew.

Why Should My Child Learn About Him?

Children do this same thing all the time. They bring giraffes home and call them qilins. They discover something new and describe it to you by comparing it to things they already know. My son, for instance, LOVES alligators. And usually it’s a safe assumption if he tells you that he sees an alligator, it’s actually just a log or something else with an alligator shape.

This is actually my absolute favorite part of his current development, because he really speaks so, so well. But in the instances I don’t understand what he’s saying, he pauses so thoughtfully and comes up with a different way to explain his thoughts. He can change trajectory from “the car honked at you” (where I couldn’t understand his pronunciation of “honked”) to “the car said BEEPBEEP”. And suddenly I knew exactly what he was talking about! It blows my mind every time to think that a little boy can do that, but full grown adults and professors often can’t.

In this activity, children will meet a new penpal named Baobao, who will tell them all about the qilin that Zheng He has brought to China on his ship! Baobao will use some similes to describe the unfamiliar creature, and children will use the activity pages to respond to Baobao’s letter to tell him the animal is actually a giraffe! It’s perfect for littles that love to get mail (who doesn’t?!), and also to work on making big connections.

Expedition of Zheng He and the Giraffe

Learn about the famous world traveler, Zheng He, and the first time a giraffe stepped foot into China!


What’s Included:

  • Detailed Ideas/Instructions for 3 Expeditions worth hours of fun!
  • 2 Letters from a Chinese penpal, named Baobao, who will tell the children about Zheng He and the giraffe! Perfect for children who love mail!
  • Connect the dots and Matching activities to help children test their understanding of the letters and respond to Baobao
  • STEAM ideas for boat building just like Zheng He
  • Coloring Page

How Can I Help My Toddler To Have Healthy Food Habits?

I’ve said it a hundred times lately that I’m so excited, and out of all the projects I’ve been working on, this is the one that just has me PUMPED! Seriously. So excited!

Like any toddler, mine goes through roller coasters where for weeks we fight through 90 minute dinners just to have him take five bites, and then last week, he ate his weight each day of whatever we gave him. But it was in those weeks where he wasn’t eating that I tried desperately to explain to him why he needed to eat dinner before dessert, or why I wouldn’t let him snack before lunch, or why he couldn’t have a spoonful of brown sugar straight out of the packaging. Sometimes those things all happen. Regularly, even. Don’t judge. But in my house they can only happen if he also eats what we have prepared for him to be healthy. Or just if I’m desperate. The odds are usually in his favor. I’m not alone on that, right?

But how the heck do you explain to an irrational small human why they get it sometimes, but not now? After a lot of thought, I think I’ve got some suggestions, aaaand some awesomely applicable resources/games to help! If you’d like to purchase this 40+ page Expedition of Chinese Food, you can keep reading/scroll to the end, or click on any image to go to the China Shop.

What should I say when my child demands dessert/snacks before meals?

I’m no expert, but I’m pretty proud of the explanation I’ve come up with during quarantine:

Oh, I can’t wait to eat ice cream tonight, if that’s what you want to do! BUT. If we eat too much sugar, it’ll make our bellies hurt. So we need to eat more fruits and vegetables than sugar. Can you eat a lot more fruits and vegetables tonight before we have a little dessert tonight?

I mean, that’s a pretty soundly scientific explanation for a two year old, right? It keeps in line with the food pyramid, and also doesn’t deprive them of a healthy love of sweet food. Win-win, I’d say!

It’s all about Yin and Yang and having that balance, right? So I went a step further and did an activity that illustrates exactly that!

How do I encourage them to CHOOSE a healthy diet?

I’m a full grown woman – old enough to have two babies, at least – and I still am 5000x more likely to get excited and dive in to a pretty plate of totally new food, than one that I have eaten 50 times and know is good, but is just, well, colorless. Afredo, chicken and rice mixes, rice and beans. You can’t go wrong with any of them. But to me, they’re last picks because – apparently – I’m mentally a toddler about food. I want a RAINBOW on my plate. Luckily, that also happens to be a pretty guaranteed way to get a variety of nutrients.

You’ve maybe heard of the rainbow diet – try to eat as many colors of the rainbow as you can at each meal. Really, it’s pretty brilliant. It’s also a ridiculously simplified branch off of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Chinese Food Therapy. If you don’t know anything about TCM, the theories are based on food being used to heal and enable the body. We can all get on board with that, right? I believe that’s exactly what food’s purpose is. But TCM takes it way further and break down foods and people by colors, tastes, target organs and even seasons to help keep people healthy. It’s old, and the details are scientifically outdated, I know. Still, I decided to use it as my model to encourage having a variety of foods on my son’s plate each day, because colors, tastes, body parts and seasons are right up a toddler’s alley. You can see how I approach it with the Food is the Best Medicine Lesson. Try it for yourself!

Expedition of Chinese Food

40+ pages of activities directed toward helping your child better understand their body's relationship with food and encourage them to eat healthy, all based on Chinese food practices.


6 Easy-to-Follow Expeditions of Food and the Body with Discussion Prompts and Activity Instructions/Ideas to lead you through every page
A list of Additional Resources – Books and Videos – with links to purchase and/or access for free
Bonus Activity Ideas
A pretend play Chinese Restaurant setup with all the pieces needed