Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Grateful for nature, when and where I find it

I’m grateful for little bits of nature, where ever I can find them. I am thankful for:

  • The fiery sunset my son and I watched from our car at a McDonald’s parking lot, which transformed a rushed errand with a cranky kid into my favorite part of the day.
  • The walking trails left over from long-ago farms that the subdivisions in my community maintain.
  • Dandelions that bloom in the cracks of concrete lane dividers.
  • The walk I forced on my kids to check out a new trail in a town park, during which they complained non-stop until it started snowing. Then we all got quiet.
  • The bike ride and walk with my kids that I forced on myself on a day I felt I had too much to do, which turned out to be one of the last warm days of fall.
  • The yard behind our music school that would make a nice parking lot but instead is an oasis of free play for many children before and after lessons.
  • The small, wooded patch and creek outside my son’s school, where the kids battle trolls and other bad guys.
  • Interstate rest stops that have picnic areas, trees and playgrounds.
  • The flock of tiny, chirping black birds that took over a high-voltage transmission tower near my home. 
  • The wait for the school bus with my son just before dawn, when we try to identify planets and answer other questions about the universe of an 11 year old.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Easy backyard teepee

   I'm not crafty or patient enough to measure fabric, cut wood or otherwise make one of the super cute, authentic looking DIY teepees that are all over the internet. But my kids love having a teepee. So we collect fallen branches from our yard and dig out the old bed sheets and do our best. The result is usually a lopsided is-that-a-tent-or-did-garbage-blow-into-our-yard kinda look. This year, for the first time, using deadwood cut from an overgrown shrub, my son and I have created a reasonable likeness to a teepee. At least I think so. I can hear my handy, camper friends laughing at the suggestion that this is a big accomplishment. I'm telling you, it is. No nasty letters from the homeowners association this time. I'm recording our method, so next year I will remember how we did it.
The key to it all is a Y shaped stick, at least 6.5 feet long. You will need at 3 more sticks at least 6.5 feet long to make a teepee with a diameter of about 4.5 feet. That is just the right size for two or three small children, or one small child and regular sized mom who is folded up like a crinkled twisty tie.

Cut off any sharp ends where branches broke off so no one gets poked.

Lean the Y stick against another stick, so that the "armpit" of the Y is holding up the other stick. Then place the other two sticks at opposite directions so they are balanced and stable.  Each stick should be doing its job of holding up the other sticks.

We usually tie a bungee cord at the spot where they come together.

Next, wrap a bed sheet, blanket or other piece of fabric around your teepee. And there you go!

Younger Son added some homey touches:  a Super Lock made of bungee cords and cup holders.
Teepee Selfie

Monday, November 9, 2015

Keep Daylight Savings Time!

It’s been a week since we set our clocks back an hour and my family is still reeling from the change. We miss Daylight Savings Time! Every one of us is sleeping poorly, cranky and out of sorts. But the worst is that our after-school, after-work outdoor playtime has been abruptly sheared.
It’s often 4:30 p.m. or later by the time my kids are heading outside to play during the week, after activities or homework. Now, it’s getting dark already by that time and they come back in for an extra odd hour of being indoors – which is the last thing they need. It’s the last thing any of us need. Adults should get to see the sun shining, too, even in winter.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. There is in fact a movement afoot to make DST permanent, and several states having considered doing so. See these articles by Vox and CNN. For a long time there have been calls for sticking with Standard Time and dropping DST altogether. If nobody likes changing the clocks, then why, why, oh why do we still do it? (BTW, the energy savings isn't there.)
I say give us all more time to play outside! Keep Daylight Savings Time year round! Of course, there is a real problem of young kids having to wait in the dark for the school bus, as sunrise would be as late as 8:40 a.m. in December. Maybe school start times could be a wee bit later, although that can pose a problem for working parents. Or, maybe communities need to invest in lighting for bus stops – solar-powered lamps that turn on at 6:30 a.m. ? Not so cray-cray.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Easy, messy outdoor Halloween projects

October always brings abrupt weather changes in Western Pennsylvania, and it still it surprises me. One day it is sunny and warm with the deepest blue sky, the next it is wet and cold. One day shorts, the next we want snow suits. Those first cool days make my family want to curl up in front of a Lego Justice League video with a cup of hot chocolate.
But no! Wait! I want us to go out! Which is why I’ve been planning these fun, messy Halloween projects. Halloween stuff always gets my kids outside – they would brave a snow storm to decorate our yard (they actually have done that).
DIY Gravestones. We go for fun and easy. What you need: Cardboard, box cutter (for adult use only), tempura paint, brushes, sponge, metal yard sign sticks.
1.       Cut out head stone shapes in cardboard.
2.       Paint in black, brown, purple, using white to create different shades. Sponge on paint for a rough stone look.
3.       Once dry, use white and black paint to add funny names or sayings, like “Here Lies Dem Bones” or “Rest in Pieces”. 
4.       Attach metal yard sign posts to back with duct tape. Your gravestones are ready to go!
·         Note: Not weather-proof. We save ours for Halloween night.
Spider Webs. What you need: Cheese cloth, black food coloring, water, bowl.
1.       Add food coloring to water in bowl. The more you use, the darker the webs.
2.       Unfold cheese cloth. Then submerge in bowl with food coloring. Let it sit for 10 minutes or more.
3.       Wring out cheese cloth and let dry. Cloth can be stretched, torn or simply draped on trees and shrubs.
Dryer Lint Slime. This was a nice addition to our tomb stones. It could also be used on pumpkins or any spooky scene. What you need: Dryer lint, green and black glitter paint, white glue.
1.       Mix dryer lint with paint and glue.
2.       While still wet, apply to whatever item you wish to make look disgusting. Let dry.
Tree Face. This can go scary or silly, whichever you prefer. What you need: A good sized tree trunk, air-dry modeling clay or play dough.
1.       Create facial features out of clay/dough and press onto tree trunk. More than one face can be put on a tree.
2.       Let dry.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

6 Unique Ways to Celebrate Halloween in Pittsburgh

Every parent in Western Pennsylvania knows about pumpkin patches, hayrides and corn mazes. And they are a lot of fun – until you've enough waiting in line and negotiating pumpkin size limits and dodging more free candy. So I went digging for alternatives. Turns out there are lots of fresh and frightful ways to make October memories in Pittsburgh. And they are all outside! Here’s my list:
1.       Not so-scary haunted tours. Point State Park’s gallant past as a key military fort is just part of the story – learn about the mysterious and dark side of its history on a walking tour Friday, Oct. 23, Sunday, Oct. 25 and Friday Oct. 30, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. I was assured this is a family-friendly tour and more history than fright. Be sure to register  because space is limited.
Raccoon State Park will lead a Halloween Night Hike, also on Friday, Oct. 23, 7 to 8:30 p.m., starting at the Wildlife Reserve Interpretive Center. This one is designed for the kids – a chance to learn about and observe the park’s nocturnal wildlife, with the promise of candy at the end. The later hour means it will be dark, which always make ghost stories scarier. Flashlight recommended. 
2.       Urban Gargoyle Hunt.  No need to visit Notre Dame Cathedral, or even the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Grotesques, gargoyles, lions and other fanciful creatures haunt the buildings of Downtown Pittsburgh and Station Square. Families can hunt them down with the help of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s Downtown Dragons interactive website. Downtown Dragon offers guided walking tours to students, but the virtual tour gives you what you need to go on the hunt alone. If all 25 stops are too big a big bite for one day, pick and choose from locations around town.   
3.       Ghosts in the graveyard? Nope, just peace and quiet. There can be a certain “ick” factor to entering a cemetery for fun. But get past that, and you’ll find a quiet green space. Use your imagination, and it can be a trip through the dramas of local history. Recently, my family stopped at Evans City Cemetery, where scenes from the classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead” were filmed. We also found markers dated back to the 1880s.
Next on our list is Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, which has been hosting Pittsburgh’s dead on 200 acres since 1845 – that’s a lot of lifetimes. It looks like a castle from the street; within are stunning monuments and stands of mature trees. Before you go, download maps and grave locations for local notables.
4.       Who-o-o-o is up for a little owl banding? The teeny saw whet owl is awfully cute, but staring into its yellow eyes might give you a Halloween spook. Or at least a good look at nature. Do just that at a Project Owlnet owl banding event at Sewickley Heights Borough Park. Naturalists with the Fern Hollow Nature Center and the National Aviary in Pittsburgh will catch saw-whet owls and band them with identification to study owl migration. Owl banding takes place weather permitting on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Oct. 17 through Dec. 1, starting about a half hour before dark and continuing until around midnight. Plan for an evening outdoors: headlamp or flashlight, snacks and warm drinks are suggested. Visitors may come and go as they please – perfect for families!
5.       Go a little batty. While this isn’t technically outdoors, the bat exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is a great way to get chummy with Halloween’s winged mascot, the bat. Bats are hugely important to the environment, and I know this. But my hair still stands on end as I enter the zoo’s dark bat den. It’s conveniently located near Kids Kingdom, so you can shake off the willies while your kids play on the slides. For a chance to peak at a bat in the wild, or at least where many bats will spend the coming winter, take a walking tour at Laurel Caverns Park in Hopwood, PA. Claiming to be the largest hibernaculum in Pennsylvania, the caves close November 1 so that hibernating bats are not disturbed.
6.       Fun for the littlest ones, with more chances to wear that cute costume! Hike It Baby Pittsburgh, a family hiking group that organizes tot-friendly walks in parks around the region, will meet for several festive hikes. My favs: The Spooktacular Glowstick Walk, Friday, Oct. 23, 6:45-7:45 p.m. at Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park in Sewickley; The WILD Rumpus! Hike on Saturday Oct. 24, 10 a.m. to noon at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve; and the Costume Hike on Tranquil Trail on Saturday, Oct. 31, 10 a.m. to noon at Frick Park. Hike It Baby also is planning a Pumpkin Patch Hike and to meet up for the Clean Air Dash. Click the links for more information, updates and to sign a waiver.

Monday, October 19, 2015

One Family Hiking Story

The sun was shining Sunday morning when I suggested a walk in the woods as a family. By the time we got going – after laundry had been folded, breakfast dishes put away, kids pried away from morning TV – it was raining. Actually, it was more of a hail/sleet/snow mix. I’m not sure what got us out of the warm, dry house and into that weather, but we did it. It turned out to be one of the best hikes together we’ve ever had. 

I use the word “hike” loosely; more adventurous types might call it an amble, or even a stroll. But I think we get bonus outdoorsy points for being out in the first sleet of the season. We are lucky to live near Slippery Rock Creek Gorge in McConnells Mill State Park. Glacial melt carved the dramatic cliffs and rock formations, leaving lots of fascinating overhangs, boulders to scramble over and waterfalls to find. It kept us moving and we soon warmed up. And the sun did come out.

There were complaints at times, I admit. Someone didn’t bring a warm enough jacket and had to borrow his father’s. Someone mentioned that we’d now have to walk UP the big hill we’d just come down, causing someone else to start whining that he needed a piggyback ride. But eventually, everyone quieted and became engaged in watching kayakers brave the creek, climbing the highest boulder, noticing how the sun ignited the golden leaves, or just walking ahead of the rest, alone. I’m so glad we came outside.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lunar eclipse activities for kids

This Sunday there will be a lunar eclipse fully visible from our location that will produce a red supermoon. It's the only time this will happen during my kids’ childhood. That makes my usual Sunday night concerns – laundry, groceries, getting the kids to bed early, drinking wine – seem a lot less vital. A glass of wine makes any full moon better, so that will stay on the to-do list. But everything else has to go, at least once 8 p.m. hits.
That’s when the nightsky show begins in our location (find your start time here). Unfortunately, that also is the time when my family’s collective case of “Sunday-itis” – the anxiety, stress and general bad mood that hits as we face another week -- is often at its worse (thus the need for wine). As amazing as this rare celestial event will be, I know it’s going to be a battle holding my family’s interest until the full eclipse at 10:11 p.m. So how am I going to keep them outside with me?
With snacks and screens, that’s how.
1.       A variety of delicious and snacks and beverages will be served to my fellow eclipse viewers. I won’t be making the snacks – this is not a cooking blog – but picking up our junkiest, garbage-y favorites. And I will be sure to make a disappointing dinner so everyone is hungry (I can already hear the jokes, “How is that different from any other night?” Again, not a cooking blog.)
2.        I will permit, and even encourage, the use of handheld electronic devices. But they must be used to photograph the lunar eclipse.
·         First, we’ll look at tips specifically for this purpose from,  
Nikon and the CBC.
·         We'll set up a tripod for smart devices.
·         Then we’ll shoot away.
3.       Don’t worry, I’m not stupid. My kids will be done with that in about 15 minutes. Next up will be checking out these websites on the lunar eclipse:
·         NASA Eclipse website contains maps, historical data and dates for future eclipses, from 1951 to 2050.
·         NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory site for amateur astronomers.
4. Of course there will also be an educational video on why the moon will look red. 
5.  And because I’m not a cheapskate, I will offer to purchase a free app of my child’s choosing, as long as it is related to the lunar eclipse.
6. If all else fails, then we will watch a movie, that I’m sure will have nothing to do with the lunar eclipse, but that lasts at least the two hours and 10 minutes that I want them to be outside. If the kids complain when I pause the video to check on the moon's progress, then we will go back to Step 1.