Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Join the revolution: Play outside!

My children are outside right now playing with other kids in the neighborhood.  It’s the kind of thing that supposedly never happens anymore in America, kids playing outdoors on their own. The game appears to be a soccer/kickball/war/superspy combo, very creative. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about my parenting right now.

Except that they won’t be playing like this tomorrow, and maybe not the day after that. My kids might head out into the yard after school, but before they get too busy I will be calling them to the car to go to music lessons. Their friends across the street might be off to sports practice and dance class. And there’s always homework to do.

The links between a healthy child and outdoor play are well documented, and the evidence for more play time in general just keeps building. Simply being outside is one thing – connecting to nature and breathing fresh air. There’s also the special kind of play that can happen when kids gather outdoors, beyond parental interference, with the time and space to organize themselves and their ideas. They enter the Land of Kids.

I know this, I believe in it, I am blogging about it. I understand the dangers of an over-scheduled, over-supervised childhood. But it can be really hard to do things differently. Fears of stranger danger, the pull of organized activities, demanding school work, too little recess and car-centric communities all are real forces pushing our families indoors, into rigid schedules. I encounter these pressures every day.

This day, with the kids outside on their own on the same day that their friends are free, with nothing to do but play, feels revolutionary.  In a way it is. Fortunately, I'm not alone. My neighbors, the parents to my kids’ playmates, want their children outside, too. We all send them out when we can, kind of like the moms of old who wouldn’t permit their children indoors again until they rang the dinner bell.

I used to feel guilty about a free day, worried my kids were missing out, fretting that I just didn't have it together enough to fully maximize their experiences. That finally started to seem crazy. We've cut back, not entirely but enough to have more free time each week. Sometimes I say okay to my kids leaving homework to last on a fine day, and maybe staying outside so long it doesn't get done at all. And then I have to be okay with the resulting grade.

Often our neighborhood is empty of kids playing outdoors, and I think of the block-wide kickball and war games kids played when I was growing up 35 years ago. I met someone recently, a few years older than me, who claimed that as a kid he would ride a raft 10 miles down a creek and then jump on a passing train to get back home. I don’t advocate kids riding the rails, and frankly I wouldn’t go back to the good ‘ol days, even if we could. For one thing, it would likely mean all of us mothers would have to stay home all day, as well.

But we can make little changes around the edges of our lives, revolutionary or not. On this day, the kids have been outside for hours now, having a blast. If I had a dinner bell I’d ring it to call them in. Today it is enough.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It's a Great Time to Clean Up a Creek

It’s amazing in early spring to look into the woods and see beyond tree trunks and thickets, that in summer are covered in leaves, all the way to the ground.  We like to walk in the woods at this time of the year, when you can follow the outline of the land and explore without poison ivy and bugs. It’s also a great time to pick up trash.

I carried a plastic grocery bag with us on a walk to our neighborhood creek this week, and filled the bag in about two minutes. It’s a beautiful place, and when summertime foilage is fully grown you see almost no trash. Now, I see it tangled with dried cattails and among the stubs of wilted grass. Most of it ends up there, I think, accidentally when wind knocks over trash cans. 

Whether it's noticed or not, garbage that collects in and around streams pollutes water. This creek feeds into a larger creek and eventually a river that supplies regional drinking water. It also is home to fish, frogs and a large blue heron. I picked up plastic bottles, a rusting can of silly string and an empty engine oil container – I wouldn’t want any of that in my drinking water. 

I could’ve easily filled two extra-large garbage bags with what was still on the ground. As we walked home, I started plotting a neighborhood creek cleanup party. Get lots of  families involved, offer incentive prizes, have a picnic afterwards. It still sounds like a great idea. But Younger Son wanted me to play Legos, and I had laundry to do and dinner to start. So the plan got shelved for now. In the meantime, I will keep carrying bags on our walks. I bet I fill a few more this spring.

Tips for Cleaning Up Your Creek:

  • Protect your hands with gloves or "wear" a plastic bag on your hand like a glove. 
  • Carry a bag for recyclable materials and another for trash, and deposit in appropriate bins.
  • Parks need help cleaning up, too. Check out trail associations and park events around you for organized cleanup days.
Not my creek, fortunately. I'm not sure where this is, but yuck!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Outdoor Play Spring Gift Guide

I belong to an online parent group, where a recent post asked for ideas for alternatives to candy for the Easter basket. It made me smile to see how many parents responded with toys and gadgets aimed at outdoor play. I started thinking of some of our favorite get-out-there toys, many of them given at Easter or for the spring birthday we celebrate. Here's our list:

For Littler Kids 
Bubbles, Bubble Toys, Giant Bubble Wands * Sidewalk Chalk * Chalk Paint * Swim Suit * Goggles * Snorkel & Mask * Bug Collecting Kit & Critter Cage * Sunhats * Balls Of Any Sort * Kid's Gardening Tools * Garden Bucket on Wheels * Sunglasses * Seeds & Starter Pots * Rain Boots * Umbrella

For Older Kids
Pool & Diving Games * Helicopter Flyer Toys * Boomerang/Disc-type Toys * Foam Bow & Arrow Set * Water Guns * Beach Towel * Foam Rocket Toys * Bike Helmet * Bike Light or Reflectors * Water Bottle or Canteen * Caribiners (for attaching gear to pack)  * Camping Headlamp * Compass * Swiss Army Knife * Flint & Steel/Firesteel Kit * Walkie Talkies * RC Vehicles * Build A Birdfeeder Kit

Bigger Than the Basket Ideas
Scooter * Swing Set accessories * Rope Ladder (for a tree or swingset) * Zipline Kit * Slack Line Kit * Play Tent * Giant Inflatable Balls

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Profile: A Family that Maple Syrups Together

The K Family hard at work.
Since we just don’t live at a time when kids spend large chunks of their days outdoors on their own, it helps to have an outdoor hobby if you want your family to spend time out of the house. In late winter, when other people are finishing up a ski season or watching at the window for spring to arrive, my friends Jason and Susan K. of Baden, PA, are in their backyard with their two young children making maple syrup.

From about mid to late January through late February, the K Family collects about 250 gallons of sap from maple trees in their yard and over the properties of four neighbors.  They spend many days and evenings boiling it down over outdoor stoves into thick, delicious syrup.

 “It gives us something to do before we start fishing again,” says Jason, who started making syrup just four years ago. “We wanted to have something to do to get the kids outside.”

Just one of several stoves cooking syrup.
Needless to say, Jason and Susan enjoy being outdoors and keeping their hands busy. They hunt, make their own sausage and tackle impressive DIY home improvement projects, among many other activities. Their home feels like a place where the adults are having fun alongside the kids, with the syrup making operation and building projects progressing next to the sandbox, a toy truck parade and preschool art creations.

The kids help out a lot, walking through the yards to check the containers at the taps on 30 maples and pouring the clear watery sap into a collection bucket two or three times a day.  When the weather is right – cold nights and warm days – the sap runs fast. That means the K’s have to keep the propane stoves burning to cook off the water in the sap, leaving the rich, sugary stuff behind. The early sap runs produce light, honey-like syrup, while later in the season the syrup gets darker and more intensely flavored. By the end of the season, the K's will have made about 5 gallons of syrup. That’s a lot of pancakes.

When I first learned how simple it is to tap a tree, and that the sap is just cooked down to produce the same syrup I buy at the grocery store for nearly $20 a quart, I was ready to order my own tap from Amazon and sink it in my backyard maple tree. But maple syruping is a serious commitment – did you get that the ratio of sap to syrup is at least 45 to 1?!  For a significant harvest, you are talking hours, days, evenings of cooking sap. And it all depends on the weather.

The kids help collect the sap.
And that’s why I admire the K Family so much. They’ve decided this is important for their family, and they involve their children in the process, too. It creates plenty of time for playing outside with the kids and dogs and working on other projects while keeping an eye on the sap.
Late season syrup dark and rich.
And, perhaps my favorite part, maple syrup time draws neighbors and friends, especially the ones contributing sap, who stop by to check on the progress, share a beer or just chat. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the gathering was like a neighborhood block party. Not something you always see in late February. And of course everyone leaves with a jar of syrup.
Thank you for letting me join in the fun, K Family!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Make a Winter Terrarium

I brought out this Winter Terrarium idea on a day when Younger Son had a friend over, and the two of them were killing me in a game of war-hide-and-seek-tag. They made it up, and kept changing the rules. I needed to rest. Since Kindergartners like digging in dirt almost as much as running around, this was a hit.

What we used: Plastic containers with lids (like the transparent boxes used to package salad greens), potting soil, soil from the ground, wild plants, zinnia seeds.

We filled the containers with a mix of potting soil and dirt the kids dug from the ground. We walked into the wooded area behind our house and plucked out plants. It was still winter, so we found grasses, vines, mosses and others that retained some leaves and green stems through the winter (we stayed far away from poison ivy). The idea was to see, if we brought the plants inside where it was warm, would they start growing again? We also added a few seeds, which I knew would do okay.

As they dug in the earth, the kids were disappointed to not find any earthworms and surprised that the ground was still frozen in places. They uncovered something that might have been an insect egg sac, but, thankfully, decided to leave it in the ground to hatch.

They wondered if other creatures might wake up from their winter rest once brought inside. That stopped me, because it wasn’t something I had once considered when coming up with this grand idea. I started to imagine tropical-sized centipedes and snakes rousing from the earth, busting out of the flimsy plastic containers and into my kitchen.

Fortunately, nothing that large has appeared. But we do have a tiny spider, a small centipede and several even smaller flies living in our boxes. I can handle that.

We placed the lids on the boxes (and plastic wrap on one that didn’t have a lid) and set them near a window. The covers kept the soil moist. A week later when the plants had started to grow we took off the lids and added water. Spring has come to our terrariums.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Signs of Spring

Growing up, my mom always talked about the signs that a new season was starting, especially in spring. She still does this. We all got a text the other day announcing that she had spotted her first robin. The appearance of pussy willow buds, the first crocus bulb popping up through the ground, the first time there was still light in the ski as she drove us home from evening swim practice were all big deals. I ignored a lot of this as a kid, or at least I thought I was ignoring her (Gawd , Mom, who cares that the forsythia has bloomed?). As a parent, I realize how much those observations grounded me in nature.

It was after first becoming a parent, when I started spending more time outdoors with my kids, that I realized how out of touch with the seasons I’d become, and how much I missed that connection. That's what years of driving, working in an office, and spending free time inside a gym, restaurant or air conditioned home will do. A year would pass with me barely aware of the seasons, let alone how much time had gone by. Now, with my children, I'm trying to point out the little changes that come with a season, to make sure they are paying attention.

It's also pretty interesting stuff, knowing that the sound of what could be thousands of car alarms coming from the creek is actually tiny frogs just emerging from the mud and looking for their mates. And that a queen wasp comes out of its winter hiding spot and has to get to work building a whole new colony over again. Younger Son and I had a contest yesterday at the park to see who could find the most signs of spring, and have continued adding to our list since. Here are some of our observations:
1.       People wearing short sleeves.
2.       Lots of people playing at the playground.
3.       Green plants growing near the creek.
4.       Flowers beginning to grow (daffodil plants).
5.       New bird songs.
6.       Buds on trees.
7.       Little flies flying around.
8.       Spring peepers peeping at night.

Please feel free to add to our list. We'd love to learn more.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

How to Plan an Outdoor Winter Birthday Party

My youngest son has a Winter Birthday, and we had his first at-home party for friends a few weeks back. I’ve thrown his older brother some rockin’ backyard parties, if I do say so myself. But those celebrations have been in the late Spring, when it’s a no-brainer to be outdoors. Still, I was determined to do the same for my February Baby.

Why outdoors in winter? We have a fun backyard and modestly-sized house, so the best way to party here is outdoors, even in winter. In my experience, kids love being in a new outdoor space, it’s like a great big never-seen-before toy. Plus, I figured they are outside so much less in winter that even without snow they would be happy.

I was right! The kids had a blast. Here’s how we did it.

The Weather:  We hoped for snow but were prepared for anything. We called it a Winter Games party and I made sure all the parents knew we would be outside and to please dress their kiddos appropriately.  We did have snow, but used tissue paper snow balls anyway (see below).
Sledding is a great way to celebrate!

The Logistics: Because of the cold and the young ages (5 and 6 years old) of most of the guests, we couldn’t keep them outside for too long. Thinking again of my small house, we set the guest list at a manageable size and scheduled the party for about two hours.  The agenda: Lunch, outside for games, and back in for cake.
What I hadn’t accounted for was the chaos and time involved in getting a dozen kids dressed in winter clothes, and then later getting them out of their wet layers, all at the same time. The other parents helped and we worked in shifts.

The Games:  The Birthday Boy and his brother helped me come up with several fun games that kept everyone active and moving, which helped keep everyone warm.
1.       Colored Ice Cube Scavenger Hunt. What you need: Ice cube tray, food dye, water. Fill ice cube trays with colored water, enough for each child to find six ice cubes. Freeze for 48 hours. Hide ice cubes around the yard. Send the kids out searching!
Frozen ice cubes are fun to find.
2. Snow Ball Relay Race. What you need: Snow balls (real or made with crinkled up white tissue paper), at least one per child. Snow sleds with a rope attached for pulling, one for each team.
Separate the children into two or more teams, have them line up at a starting line and give each team a sled. Put the snowballs into a pile some distance from the start line. On their turn, each child pulls a sled to the pile, places a snow ball into the sled, brings the sled back to her team, dumps the snow ball and gives the sled to the next player.
3.  Winter Obstacle Course. What you need: Orange plastic cones to mark each obstacle station, and a variety of outdoor toys, like balls, hockey sticks, snow scoopers, sleds, hulla hoops, etc.  Set up 5 or 6 obstacle stations. We had our guests sled down a hill, crawl through a tunnel, hit a hockey puck into a goal, scoop up snow into a bucket and throw a Frisbee. If you have enough snow, build a snow wall to climb over or a snow pile to jump into. Have each child take a turn trying out the course.
4.    Snow Ball Fight. Using the tissue paper snowballs from the relay race, we let the kids go at it for a few minutes.
5.   Free Play. Any good party lets the kids just do their own thing for a while, without adult direction. As some got cold or tired, they headed inside to play Legos or to make letter necklaces, which I had set up at a table.

The Finishing Touches:  We wrapped up the day with Icecream Cake and sent everyone home with a Lego goody bag.  An Outdoor Winter Birthday party lends itself to all kinds of clever themed snacks, decorations and favors, if you are that kind of party planner. I am not.  Our “theme” was a combination of Lego Ninjago meets wooden necklaces and hotdogs. But we got outside!