Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

12 Days of Outdoor Christmas

What’s my family going to remember most about this Christmas?

A. the perfectly posed photo card I’m rushing to send out; 
B. the iPod under the tree that’s likely to be old news by summer; or 
C. a few hours doing something fun together when we’re all focused on the present and feeling great. I’m pretty sure the answer is C, which is why I’m going to try to put as much outdoor family time into this holiday as I can. Here’s what I have in mind:

12 Days of Outdoor Christmas
1.      Light candles outside. Maybe it will be a Menorah with our Jewish relatives, the Advent wreath or plain white votives.
2.       Go on an Evergreen Hike. Identify the pines, firs, holly and other plants still green and festive.
3.       Get close with snowflakes. Catch them on black construction paper and study with magnifying glass. Then try to draw what we see with sidewalk chalk.
4.       Stroll the neighborhood and enjoy the holiday lights.
5.       Feed the animals!  Make edible ornaments out of birdseed, fruit, fresh vegetables or cereal and hang around the yard.
6.       Visit our favorite playground – haven’t been there in a while.
7.       Look for animal tracks – Santa’s reindeer? Maybe make a plaster mold.
8.       Visit a frozen creek.
9.       Toast marshmallows over a bonfire, or at least the grill. Add crushed candy canes to the s’more recipe.
10.   Clear out old toys and trinkets by making a geocache chock full of goodies for others to find.
11.   Skate at outdoor rink.

12.   Participate in a Christmas Bird Count.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stretch out those moments outside

It can be so hard to get outside on a cold, dreary day, and even harder to stay outside. Frankly, I'm often the one rushing to get in out of the cold. Fortunately I have a very curious preschooler who always likes to take his time. The other day he wanted to play "don't step on a crack or it will break your back" on our way from the store to the car. So we did. It was just five more minutes of being outside together. But those can add up, if we let them.

Here are more oldies but goodies to help eke out a few more minutes outdoors.

1. Curb balance beam.
2. Weird walk. Stand side by side, holding onto your child. If you are on your child's left, take a wide step with your right foot placing your right leg over your child's left leg. At the same time, your child takes a wide step to the right with her right foot. Then, your child takes a wide step with her left foot placing her left leg over your right leg while you take a wide step to the left with your left foot. Get it?
3.Walk backwards.
4. Walk like a pirate.
5. Hopscotch
6. Three-legged walk. Like you're in a three-legged race, without the race and with a pretend rope holding your legs together.
7. Follow the leader.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Still warm enough for water

Now that swimming pool season is over, of course there will be scorching days in September and October. Fortunately there are lots of other fun ways to cool off with your kiddos and enjoy the water.

1. Splash pads are the best thing to show up at the playground since the wood-and-chain wobbly bridge and many are open past Labor Day. Don't need a swimsuit, swim diaper or lifeguard.

2. Natural waterfalls beat out the chlorinated kind any day. You just need to know where to find them. In Western Pennsylvania, McConnells Mill State Park features a kid-friendly fall and a solid soaking along the Hells Hollow Trail. Check out your state park agency or search the National Park Service for one near you.

3. Check out autumn foilage from the seat of a kayak or canoe. First timers and families -- hook up with a local guide for a how-to course or tour.

4. Water balloons are fun any time. We've been having a great time with a jug and pumper toy that lets the kids fill them without having to use the hose every time. Clean up after with a contest of who can find the most balloon bits -- make sure you have a motivating prize, like first dibs on chocolate cake.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Chocolate for Breakfast

Actually it’s vegetables for breakfast, but I can’t call it that and generate any excitement, can I? I’m trying hard to not waste a single thing from our CSA farm box this year. Zucchini bread is an obvious solution, but today I also wanted to use bananas. Found this recipe at for whole wheat zucchini-banana muffins with chocolate chips. I didn't have pastry flour, so I used regular whole wheat flour, which I'm always trying to figure out ways to sneak into my family's eats.  I liked the idea of chocolate, which would make even the whole wheat part taste good. Chocolate for breakfast is a sure thing with my kids.

The recipe worked out great.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Pick-Your-Own Strawberries

Give your kids a taste of local strawberries, and they'll understand the true inspiration for "strawberry" flavored candy -- Pennsylvania berries are sweet and delicious, not tart and bland like their giant cousins shipped here from California. Pluck them from the plants yourself to really appreciate them for the short time they are available. Remember water bottles and and sunblock.
Here’s a quick list of places to pick your own strawberries in the Pittsburgh area:

More listings at




Monday, May 12, 2014

Move Minecraft Outdoors

This activity is meant for the elementary school-aged Minecraft-er; although any gamer who likes dirt and playing with Minecraft toys might dig it

My kids love Minecraft – the block-based simulated world game where characters mine for materials and making things they need for survival. My 4-year-old doesn’t even play the game yet, but he knows all about the Endermans and Herobrine from watching over his older brother’s shoulder. Although I’m often fighting against the screens and limiting my kids’ time on theirs, I actually like Minecraft. It allows a player’s imagination to drive the game and in low-stress creative mode is just about building things.
When I started seeing Minecraft toys  – like a foam diamond sword, building blocks and character figurines -- I thought, that’s great! The kids can enjoy the game in real-D, interacting with each other instead of the screen. Then I decided to go the next step and take the play outside. Here’s what we did, and even the “big” kids (tweens) got a kick out of it:

We made a “Herobrine mask” out of cardboard. This was my little guy’s idea. Taking the diamond sword outside was my idea.

Then we painted rocks gold with tempura paint. When they dried, the younger kids helped me bury the “gold” in an empty flower bed.

Let the mining begin! Now it's time to dig for gold.

*TIP FOR WINTER PLAY: SNOW MAKES GREAT MINING SOUNDS when hit with a plastic bat or toy golf club.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Five Ways to Get Your Spring On

First day of spring? Yeh right. The soundtrack to Frozen is apt, I’m not even tired of hearing it play every single day on our iPod. The temperature is in the 30s with snow flurries, an “eternal winter,” just like in the movie. The only way to enjoy being outside is to get moving, and think warm thoughts. Here’s what we’ve been doing lately to try to get our spring on.
1.       Throw a baseball. One day we hauled out lots of summer toys: baseball, lacrosse sticks, water squirters, bubble blowers, rafts for the water slide, golf balls. It’s too cold to play with the water stuff, but just seeing it has inspired great planning for a summertime water slide.
2.       Blow bubbles. We went to the Gazillion Bubble Show last year in New York City, and have been really into making ginormous bubbles with a large wand and old fashioned strings (gifts from the boys’ auntie). I’m going to try to make our own solution soon with these recipes
3.       Outdoor cleanup. This was mostly fun for me, but the kids always enjoy digging and prodding the ground for worms if not for weeds. Raking and cutting keep you moving and warm.
4.       Hunt for signs of spring. It was very exciting the other day when we found the first crocus, tulip and hyacinth sprouts peeking up from the ground. There are also buds on the trees. With a little sun, everything is going to pop.
5.       Take care of the birds. We neglected the bird feeder for a few weeks, but our beaky friends have forgiven us now that we’ve refilled. Next up is a bird house we’ll be painting and mounting. It’s also fun to leave bits of yarn and ribbon around for nest building.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lessons From a Snow Day

Just off yet another snow day -- the kids have missed more than a week of school in days off and delays so far. While it was fun in the beginning, now the rearranged schedules, cancelled appointments and makeup homework have gotten kind of old. Nonetheless, I tried really hard to make the most of it yesterday, and I think I did a pretty good job of turning my frown upside down. Even if it wasn’t the last snow day of the year (oh please let it be the last), it won’t stay winter forever. And my kids won’t stay young forever. Here are a few really good things I thought about snow days:

1.       Forced to live in the moment. Plans are out the window, the schedule I’d penciled in next to a lengthy to-do list isn’t going to happen. I find myself with four kids in the house, counting the neighbors, and I just gotta go with it. It’s an attitude I try for daily, but usually ends up overrun by the things I have to do, the places I have to be. Today, there is no being stuck in my head.  
2.       Priorities become clear. Dangerous roads and having the kids at home are great excuses to clear the schedule of things I don’t really want to do – such as a stressful appointment to work out a kitchen remodel on a tight budget. Sometimes, you can’t do the things you really want to do either – like getting that appointment over with and moving forward on the kitchen remodel. But I did get to the Y to swim laps – the kids came along, too. Everyone was happy.
3.        We get to sample homeschooling, the good and the bad. My friends who homeschool their children are my heroes, and I toy with the idea from time to time. Having the kids at home, working together with Legos and putting together a crystal making kit are the kinds of wonderful learning experiences we don’t always have time for with regular school work. But then everything devolves into chaos and no one is listening to my suggestions that we not crash the complex Lego creations into each other, and Legos are everywhere, someone is crying and I want to hide in the closet with a box of Valentine chocolate. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be very good at homeschooling.
4.       Outside, outside, outside. Getting to play in the snow almost goes without saying. In my family on a snow day, it also goes without saying that my husband or I will be playing in the snow with our kids.

5.       Enjoy the beauty of winter. A friend of mine recently came inside on a bitter cold day, her breath puffing white around her, and said with a smile that it was a beautiful day. She said she’d started feeling down about the weather and instead took notice of the ice and the way the light reflects in the snow, how different it was from anything else. She inspired me the next day to lie back in the snow with my youngest and look up at the sky. Giant spiky flakes were falling through the ragged lines of a thorny berry tree. I would never have seen that otherwise. In North America, winter is waning. Watch it while we can. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Got Snow (insert tall glass and snow mustache here)

The question of whether to let your kids eat snow – white, fluffy, clean snow -- is one of those parenting issues that doesn’t seem like a real issue, and yet there’s plenty of scary advice out there about it. Even if I tried to stop my children from eating snow, I couldn’t. Every sledding wipeout or snowball in the face gives them a mouthful of it. And when they’re worn out and thirsty from running around or climbing a sledding hill, of course they are going to take a taste. Just like anytime you are faced with a “bad mommy/good mommy” list of should’s and shouldn’t’s, you gotta take it all with a dose of common sense.

So here are the reasons I found for not eating snow, and why I’m going to ignore them.
1.)    Freshly fallen, clean snow is basically distilled water. Drinking a lot of distilled water can be dangerous. Okay, so we won’t live off of snow, or eat it until our electrolytes are off kilter. Check. Next please.
2.)    Snow can carry bacteria. Studies show this to be true, and that bacteria can actually help create snow – cool.  After years of braving public restrooms with toddlers or preschoolers who touch EVERYTHING, I’m kinda over my germ phobia. If I learned about snow in my area specifically being dangerous, I’d take pause. But our culture’s over-concern with germs is causing enough problems -- antibiotic-resistant bacteria and – it is strongly suspected – possibly the rise in allergic disease. I’m not worried about germs in snow.
3.)    Snow can contain pollutants. This isn’t great news, but also not surprising. The snow is formed in air that we breathe, and falls on ground where we play. We accept a certain level of pollutants and potentially dangerous substances in our environment. Even our drinking water may contain pesticides and industrial chemicals at levels considered “safe.” I wish they weren’t there. But the point is, I’m not seeing snow as being any worse than what we live with every day.  
4.)    Snow can be contaminated with salt and chemicals for treating ice, or other nasty things from the road or ground where it has fallen. We already know the rule about not eating yellow snow, and really what that means is look at the snow before you put it in your mouth. What I do tell my kids: Don’t eat snow near the road or driveway, and only eat the snow that is clean and untouched.

So why eat snow? It's a way to taste and smell nature at a time of year when there aren't many other ways to do it. If this post hasn’t frightened you off from trying snow, here are some fun snow eating activities my family loved. All start with big bowls of freshly fallen white stuff:

Snow Sundaes Vanilla, sugar and milk for the icecream, then whipped cream, sprinkles, chocolate sauce, cherries, etc.

Maple Sugar Snow Pour on the pure maple syrup. 

Molasses Candy  This idea was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In "Little House in the Big Woods," she describes making Christmas candy by boiling molasses and then pouring the thick syrup onto snow to harden. Someone who knows how to get syrup to the right temperature to make candy could do this with ease. I didn't get it hot enough, as shown in the picture. In the next try, I burned it. Still fun, though!


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Getting Outside in Bits and Bites

It’s bitter cold here this week, and getting my kids outside to play is a tough sell. So I’ve been making use of what I call “bits” of outdoor time. It’s a strategy that also works when we’re driving around for errands or loaded up with indoor activities. To me, some time outdoors is better than no time. We don’t have an hour to be outside – or in this case, an hour might give us frostbite. But we do have 10 minutes. What can we do?

Make use of the green space we’ve got, even if it’s the plantings around a parking lot. While his brother was in music class, the little guy and I walked behind two small suburban strip retail centers. We found snow hills to climb, snow balls to throw and lots of crunchy ice. His favorite thing was knocking the tiny icicles from car bumpers. And just when I felt it was probably time to get in out of the cold, we were in front of the deli. Quick warm up and a drink, and we headed back.

The next day was a bit warmer and we had more time. But still, no voluntary takers on my suggestion the boys play outside after school. So I instituted the “bites” approach. First, there is the “bait:” I get them out there by means of a chore (shoveling snow), a rule (no screen time until you help shovel snow) and/or a fun enticement (packets of unsweetened Kool-Aid for pouring on the snow to make designs, color ice, flavor a snowball, and whatever else.). None of these keep us busy for long. But once outside, something more interesting almost always gets them to “bite:” They stay out for their own reasons. On this day, it was a neighbor friend and the sleds.

Not a bad outdoors week, given the weather.

I really want my kids to experience how unique and magical it is outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures, if only for a little while. When else does the inside of your nose freeze? 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ice Skating on a Frozen Pond

We are so lucky to have family who live on a lake that freezes up enough for skating. There is nothing like standing in the middle of a body of water that you’ve gazed out across countless times throughout the year. We’re actually on frozen water where a few months ago we saw fish surface, were skipping stones and searching for turtles! We make jokes about walking on water like Jesus, and think about how this is what the ducks see when they look at us on the bank in the summer. The skating is fun, too, even with the boys just starting out. A fall on the bottom just doesn’t seem to hurt as much (perhaps a sheet of ice actually gives a little? Hhmmm...) Older kids gather daily on this small lake for the few weeks that the ice is thick and smooth and play hockey for hours.

I have no advice on how to determine if a frozen pond is safe, so please read about it at this link, and this one about safe skating in general. We only skate at a lake where we know the owners, who have years of testing the ice. Don’t take any chances – falling through ice can be deadly.

That said, it was a lot of fun!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Coolest Snow Fort!

Sled riding is our current favorite outdoor activity. But since I usually end up standing at the bottom of the hill blocking the little ones from obstacles and freezing my toes, I was ready for something new. One day we found a slab of ice in the back of a toy left outside, and it made a great brick for the igloo we were building. I saw others on the web adding food coloring to their ice molds – great idea.

At some point, if your kids are like mine, they will want to smash the ice to smithereens or sled over your beautifully crafted snow wall. (Sigh.)That’s ok, too. Get your pictures in then let them go at it.

How to Build with Colored Ice Bricks

Pull out the old plastic ware. Dig through the recycling bin, too, for wide plastic containers, or cut off tops of tall containers or the narrow spouts. We had the best luck with square or rectangle containers. Plastic newspaper bags work, too.

Fill with water and dye, indoors. The kids love helping with this part. They want to mix the food coloring though so everything is dark black or brown (like our play dough). So I prepared a few myself in pretty colors. You can also use ground up water paints, in a pinch.

Set out to freeze, or put in freezer. Give yourself an overnight to be sure everything is solid. Wet mittens are no fun. I don’t recommend setting in snow like we did at first, because the snow seemed to insulate them.

Head outside to build! The ice should just slide out of the containers. If not, run the containers under water inside. Or give up and keep the ice in the containers, like we did for a few. Use in a fort, igloo, snow princess castle, snow walk or any creation you like.

MAMA ZI’S RULES! Wear gloves. Stay dry. Don’t throw the ice bricks.