Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

4 Awesome Kids Activities for Autumnal Equinox

Today marks the autumnal equinox, and for the Northern Hemisphere, the official start of fall. I always thought the hours of day and night were equal on this date. Turns out, I was wrong – daylight lasts a few minutes longer, for a few more days.  This is basically because the sun takes several minutes to completely pass over the horizon at sunrise and sunset, and also because the atmosphere bends the light. For a more thorough explanation, see this be-a-smarter-mommy article at

The day of true half-light, half-dark is not far off: Saturday, September 26 at my latitude, according to this handy chart. I realized this morning at the bus stop there is also the issue of terrain – we live on a hill and cannot see the true sunrise. That didn't stop me from wowing (and annoying) my kids today with my new-found knowledge, as well as starting us on these totally awesome autumnal equinox activities:

1. The ol’ basketball.trick. If you have a globe, use it and a flashlight to demonstrate how the Earth’s usual tilt toward the sun goes away on this day. No globe? Use a basketball. Or, show them this video. 
2. Determine your latitude with a neat tool from NASA that generates a satellite map of a location, allowing you to drag the pointer to the exact street and lot. Have your kids check it against what they find with a GPS device or app, and with this nifty calculator find your date for exactly 12 hours of daylight.
3. Find due east and west from your front door. Mark each spot with a painted rock. Then you can easily track the sun’s southward movement as winter approaches, and its return north in the spring.
4. Document sunrise and sunset with a digital photograph that marks the time. Do this for several days around the equinox. When are day and night the same?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

3 Easy Ways to Stay Cool in Your Backyard

Ages toddler to early elementary school

School has started and the pools are closed, but summer isn't over yet. Don't let a hot day keep your kids inside! Try these ideas, all easily pulled off in your backyard. 
Water gun target practice. Draw a bullseye with sidewalk chalk. Fill water squirter. Go. 

Bicycle-scooter-toy car wash. Spiff up muddy toys and cool off in the process. A hose is all you need, but a bucket and sponge are fun, too. 
Super spy lair with laser beam-activated slingshot security. Or maybe it's a fort, or castle. Whatever. Toss an old sheet over two chairs, a tree branch or swingset frame and you've got shade. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A working parents guide to getting kids outdoors

I marvel at my friends with full-time jobs who have figured out how to raise outdoors-loving families.  I’ve been a “working” parent of varying degrees over the years. When my paid work demands are highest, our outside time slides. There’s more childcare, more errand running, more screen time while I make a phone call. So when I see other parents overcoming all of this and getting their kids out there, I take note. Here are some of my favorite ways busy families get outside.
1.       Parents play outside with their children. I once had a neighbor Heather who spent time outside with her two young boys every afternoon when they got home from daycare. She bundled them up when it was cold and played with water when it was hot. She had fun outdoor toys for them and brought them over to play with my kids. They’ve since moved to a warmer climate and she reports that she and her children – now school-age -- continue to be active outdoors.
2.       Families enjoy outdoor pursuits together. Notice a pattern here? The best way to get kids outside is to get out there with them. I have parent friends who are accomplished hikers, skiers, cyclists, etc. and share their passion with their kids on a regular basis. Whether it’s weeknight bike rides, weekend camping trips or vacations to wild spaces, these families gain skills and experience together.
3.       Find outdoor-based childcare. One family we know turned us onto an outdoor summer day camp.  When school is out, the kids play in dirt, climb trees, learn archery and swim all day long. My son came home absolutely filthy. It was great! Another tip: Tell sitters and nannies no TV!
4.       Create a fun outdoor space at home. My friend Tracy and her husband are masters at supporting their daughter's creative impulses, as well as her love of being outside. They hung a rope ladder in a tree and provided an excellent swing set. Over the years, their daughter has added toys and boxes and other things to turn the swing set into whatever she imagined. She’s now moved into the wooded area behind their home, installing hammocks and a tree-top table. Other children in the neighborhood love playing in their yard. 
5.       Walk the dog.  There is a family in our neighborhood who walk their dog daily – the parents and two kids, all together. Sometimes twice. They are my heroes. 
6.       Grow a vegetable garden.  Family gardens can be a lot of work, but the kids who help out are always so proud. One family we know has involved their children in the jobs of countering pests, cooking and preserving their harvests.
7.       When you work at home with kids around, do it outside. This idea comes from my hard-working husband, who frequently works from home. Sometimes Dad sitting on the deck with his laptop is all the kids need to come out, too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why I really hate air conditioning

It’s over 90 degrees outside and humid. Sweat trickles in all my crevice-y places, the humidity weighs me down like a troll sitting on my shoulders. And I am nostalgic for the days growing up when my family didn’t have air conditioning.

The reason is that the unbearable heat indoors sent us outdoors as much as possible. Eighty-five degrees in the shade of a tree is more bearable than 85 degrees in a heat-trapped room with no breeze. If you’re lucky, you go swimming. If not, you dump water on yourself, or on your sister. Play under a sprinkler. Ride your bike down a hill really fast. You might still be hot but it’s not any worse than being inside.

With the AC keeping our home at a pleasant 70 degrees, why head out in the heat to find something to do? We will dream about this sun and blue sky in winter, but right now my kids are content to watch it from the cool side of a closed window. I get it. I remember as a kid dragging myself between the living room floor, front porch and backyard looking for relief, muttering rude things about my parents’ intelligence levels for not having AC.

But my best summer memories are all about the outdoors: the smell of cut grass, a pulley I built in a crabapple tree, the feel of summer rain, popsicles in the backyard. Could an air conditioned room ever be so great?

I’ve tried shutting down the AC lately to chase my family outside. And it’s worked! I’m not saying they are happy about it – I’ve heard plenty of rude remarks about my intelligence level. But it does get them out. When the doors and windows are open, our yard and back deck become extensions of our living space. I think we all have greater tolerance for the heat as a result.

Sometimes it’s a bit of a thermostat battle. Our house is built for central cooling, not natural breezes, so it can get awfully hot. I’m reasonable. The AC can be stay on when it’s really truly uncomfortable. But let’s try keeping the indoor temp at 74 or 75 degrees. I know my family is onto me when I suddenly want a sweater because the thermostat has been knocked down to a chilly 68.

Of course, when the windows are open, everyone can hear what goes on in our home. And you can bet that one of us will let loose with a major tantrum. Younger Son realized on his own that he was broadcasting his meltdowns to the entire street. He has started closing his windows for privacy when he is sent to his room.

I can’t speak for my neighbors, but I’d rather hear the sounds of children whining, dogs barking and couples bickering than the constant whir of HVAC units. It’s a reminder that we all have bad days. We don't have to be alone in our cool, closed up Colonials. If you head out, you just might find a sweaty mother with questionable intelligence playing outside with her children, who are are happily squirting her with a hose as payback.

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.