Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Monday, August 31, 2015

How to go back to school, stay outside

Does back to school have to mean back inside? 

Pre-bus-boarding moonset
One of the saddest things about the start of school is seeing my kids’ skin pale to a sickly gray because of all the time they spend indoors. They are lucky enough to attend schools with daily recess outside (hurray!). But school + riding on the school bus, after-school activities and homework = a lot less time outdoors.

Even in our relatively contained and unwild backyard, I can tell they let loose in ways essential to them. They move freely, talk openly. Younger Son has been concentrating on digging a small hole under the swing set. Older Son turned a worn out dehumidifier into a go-cart and then a Zamboni. They fight out there, too – usually when the poor neighbors are trying to enjoy their deck. But even arguments seem to resolve more easily outdoors (or maybe I just go inside where I cannot hear them… Well, I only do that sometimes.)

As we move into the stressful weeks of adjusting to new routines and expectations, I’m going to try hard to keep the good times going outside. Here’s my plan.

1.      Watch the sun come up. I’ll take my cup of coffee and spend a few minutes outside with Older Son before he heads to the bus stop. Dramatic impact on his day? Maybe not. But in 10 minutes today we saw a beautiful moon set and enormous flock of migrating birds soar overhead. Not a bad start to a Monday.  
Goodbye, birds!
2.       After school, go directly outside. For Younger Son, this will mean playing on the school grounds after pick up or a stop at the playground if we have to run errands. At home, we will grab the bikes or work on a backyard project.  
3.       Dine al fresco. We should have at least another month of weather warm enough to enjoy snacks and meals on the picnic table.
4.       Homework al fresco. My son likes his desk, so not sure this will be a winner. But I’ll try to interest him in a shaded-table work station or blanket in the grass.
5.       Take evening walks. Talk about stress relief. Also a good time to review for quizzes, discuss life problems, plot plans for the future. Haha – I have a pre-teen, it’s more likely to be begrudging silence. I can live with that.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Creek walk adventure

Sometimes the best days happen when I just follow my kids’ curiosity wherever it takes us. Younger Son had out our little portable microscope kit, and he wanted to make a slide with water from the sink. I told him creek water would be more interesting because that might have plants and critters in it. And he said, “Yeah! Let’s go get some!” as in, Right now! The shopping list started running through my head, then the list of errands.  But a walk to the creek sounded so much more fun. So we were off.



Our creek is what we in Western Pennsylvania call a “crick” – not big enough to have a formal name but well known to the kids in the neighborhood. It ribbons through our housing plan on its way to larger creeks and the rivers of Pittsburgh. After rain it can be knee high and even deeper, but is often just a trickle of water.


We collected water, mud, gravel and a few plants. An apple from a tree. Oh, and a rock that looks like it has coal in it. The rock was part of fill put down along the path that leads to the creek, and we think it might have been from mine waste.


The microscope is really kid friendly – small, plastic and portable.  The magnification is not high, but it gives a good close up look. We could see the hair-like strands of a water plant and what looked like scales on the surface of a stone. Pretty neat. 


The outing and microscope work on the back deck took up most of the morning. Never got to the errands. But YS and I had such a good time together. It was one of my favorite things we’ve done this summer. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Open Water Swimming Adventure

We love swimming, and are very fond of the clean, clear blue of Grammy and PapPap’s chlorinated pool. It’s heated, too. But swimming in open water – the ocean or a lake – is a thrilling way to cool off and experience nature. Oldest Son and I had an opportunity to try a swimming workout in a state park lake – wow!  We’re talking boy-eating sea monsters and resurrected fish.* Open water swimming is an adventure for strong swimmers and the not-so-squeamish.  

*Some of the details of this report may or may not have been exaggerated by an imaginative 10 year old and his mother.

As we entered the cool green water, the floating lily pads politely parted to allow us to pass. Then slimy tentacles grabbed our ankles and wrists – What is happening? Can you see it? Is it going to eat us? As we struggled, the treacherous rope-like strands tightened and threatened to pull us under, but we broke free just in time. Don’t tell me those were just harmless plants that root in the bottom of the lake. It was definitely a sea monster.

Putting my face down into that dark water and opening my goggled eyes took a serious act of will power for me.  I like to see the bottom of where I'm swimming. And if I can’t see the bottom, I’m more comfortable not knowing what's down there. But I was with my kid, so I couldn’t freak out. Plus, there were dozens of other people -- accomplished competitors as well as casual swimmers, teenagers and younger children -- all digging in.

I forced myself to focus on the beauty of the blue sky above and lush greenness all around. Talk about being, literally, in nature: smelling it, moving with it, touching it, and even kind of tasting it. There were fish right beside me and birds above, and I was okay with it.  Aren’t we humans odd, I thought, to pump water into giant concrete holes and sanitize it with chemicals to create what nature does on its own with springs and rain storms? I started to wonder why I didn’t swim this way all the time.

Then I saw a dead fish floating belly up. I tried to pick it up by its tail and toss it before the kids saw it, but it went under and disappeared. Was that a fish? What was wrong with it, my son and his friends asked. Was it dead? Nope, not dead, just resting, I said. R-i-i-i-ght.

My Big Guy didn’t love this outing. He was much happier back on shore rolling around the inflatable buoys. But I'm proud of him for trying. He’s just starting out with competitive swimming, and facing a large body of water was daunting even for me. We’ll try it again when he’s ready. And when I’ve forgotten about the fish.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Beginner’s Guide to a Backyard Campout.

We did it! We braved the rain, a tornado (no joke) and partying neighbors to spend the night in a tent in our backyard for the very first time, and we had a blast. It was just Younger Son and I, although Older Son and hubby were just inside the screen door on the couch. Here’s a play-by-play, with a few lessons we learned along the way.

Keep it simple. I started off with big plans: Break out the old propane camp stove. Keep a roaring campfire going. Cook all our meals outside, including coffee the next morning. That got overwhelming fast. Fortunately, we remembered the sage advice of the National Wildlife Federation, sponsor of the Great American Backyard Campout, to just have fun. We did s’mores and a simple tent. Perfect.
Don’t sweat the weather. If this is the weekend you finally have time for a sleep out and your kids have been looking forward to it all week, don’t let a little rain and wind stop you; unless, of course, the weather is dangerous. Like a tornado. Such as the one that touched down about 3 miles from our home the evening of our campout. It’s a good thing we didn’t learn about it until the next morning, or we probably would’ve cancelled and missed out on a wonderfully cool evening beneath a steady rain. We had rain tarps and extra blankets, it was very cozy. And honestly, there was no storm in our neighborhood. 
Let your children help. Setting up a tent for the first time in more than a decade required my complete focus. It was a tad stressful when we lost a stake in the grass. And there’s the little guy over my shoulder, “Can I help? Can I help? Can I help?” It was time to get him busy. We showed him how to do the stakes and zippers, and made a picture list of things to pack for the night: flashlights, books, pillows. He also had the great idea of hiding our foam dart guns and plenty of ammo in the tent, in case older brother ambushed us.
Maintain the bedtime routine. We were both sleepy, had read four stories together and watched the fireflies from our pillows, but my son was still having trouble settling down. On our way back from our third trip to the bathroom, he figured out the problem. “I always fall asleep with a light on! It’s too dark.” We left on the flashlight and he was asleep in minutes.
Take it easy on the s’mores. I think this is self-explanatory.

Know when it’s time to abandon ship. We were doing great. Yes, I awoke to every sound just like I would in a new hotel room. But Younger Son was soundly asleep. Until about 4 a.m. when he started waking and complaining of a tummy ache. See the above warning about too many s’mores. We went into the house to use the bathroom, and that was it for the tent. But it’s all good. What he remembers is the fun, and we’re already making plans for next time.  

Saturday, June 27, 2015

New look, new name. Come outside with us!

We started here writing about cooking healthy, whole foods as a family. But because we like playing outside even more than cooking, we wrote a lot about that, too. We’ve decided now to focus the blog solely on getting outside, every day, as a family. Because as the kids get older, it seems to be getting harder. And I don’t want to raise two pasty screen-fed zombies more comfortable on a couch than in the open air. As adults, I hope they’ll remember the smell of a Western Pennsylvania creek, the feel of mud between the toes, and the squiggly tickle of an earthworm moving across the palm.


We’re kicking it off tonight with our participation in the National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Campout! Unfortunately, only two of us are braving the rain tonight. But we plan to make the other two so jealous of our fun that they promise to do it next year. Or maybe next week!


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

45 minutes to kill, what to do?

Little Chef and I had to wait around while his big brother had music class. Fortunately, our music school has a nice little yard to play in, AND, on this day, massive snow mounds left by the plows. So much to do! We...

1. Made snow slides down the snow piles (no sleds, so had to ride down on our bottoms).
2. Crunched new footprints through the snow. Only deer had walked there before us.
3. Made snow creatures with sticks, leaves and dried plants.
4. Brought smart phone and Leap Pad out of the car and made videos of Little Chef sliding down snow piles.
5. Took pictures of each other, snow creatures and nature.
6. Before we knew it, class was over and the Big Kids were out with us, walking on the top of the snow mounds -- also a lot of fun, and,
7. Throwing snow boulders onto ground for explosion effect.


Friday, February 20, 2015

"Chores" to get reluctant kids outside

We’re all a little tired of the bitter cold and snow around here, and it’s getting harder to convince the kids to go outside. So I’ve been sending everyone out to take care of some “chores.” Required for allowance. Yes, some of them I made up and are completely pointless, but they get us moving outside. And while working away at a boring task, the icy sledding hill and drifts of snow seem like even more super awesome fun. The idea is to get them out, and then they usually stay out.

We’ve only made our way through some of these so far. (There’s been a lot of real work to do shoveling our driveway.) I’m ready if we need more to do:


Clear snow off the patio/deck.
Turn all outdoor lights on and off to check they are working.
Shovel alternate path to mailbox through yard, in case driveway is too icy.
Break off the icicles on the deck railing, shrubs, car, etc.
Clear snow around swing set.
Already shoveled the sidewalk? I think you missed a few spots, go over it again please.
Let’s shovel the neighbor’s sidewalk. Already done? Then let's...
Broom sweep sidewalk.
Tidy deck furniture.
Rake snow -- the shovel is getting worn out (makes cool tracks).
Look for lost toys left in yard last summer.
Take down Christmas lights (I already took them down? Oh yeah, I forgot. Now that you’re out here, why don’t you sled?).
Stomp down a path for the deer (follow their footprints).
Set old carrots and apples around yard for wildlife.
Brush snow off shrubs and tree branches.
Dig out snow to uncover sewer vent, utility hole cover, utility tap, etc.
Build snow ramps for sledding hill (not sure this is a chore as much as a really great idea).