Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Spending holiday break outdoors in Pittsburgh

Oh, ho, ho. Holiday break will soon be upon us. That means 11 straight days of no school or regular activities. I'm hoping for skiing, sledding and lots of time for the kids to play outside with their buds. But in case we find ourselves drawn too strongly to the screens and sofa, I've made a backup plan. Not counting Christmas, New Year's Day or their eves, here are outside ideas for every other day of the season.

Saturday, December 26

Annual Christmas Bird Count

If you’re like my family and usually spend this day lounging around in jammies nursing a cookie hangover, here’s a better idea: Join in the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s annual Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count. Contact the ASWP ahead of time to connect with a local organizer.

Sunday, December 27

Ice Skating at PPG Place/Market Square

The tree will still be up, and you can enjoy Christmas in Downtown Pittsburgh without the hustle bustle part. Hours for Sunday Dec. 27 are noon to 8 p.m., skate rental is available. The rink will remain open for evenings through Jan. 3, click here for more information.

Monday, December 28

Christmas light walk

The moon will just be past full, and the Christmas decor will still be blazing. No school tomorrow, so we can wait for hubby to get home from work and walk through our neighborhood as a family.

Tuesday December 29

Visit the Pittsburgh Zoo

Winter is one of my family’s favorite times to visit the zoo. It’s not crowded and some of the animals are more active in cool weather. The zoo is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 31, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting on Jan. 2 .

Wednesday Dec. 30

Playground day

The playground in winter is a treat. If you haven’t been there in a while, it’s like visiting an old friend. And it will look different, especially if it has snowed. Invite a friend along, because you might be the only ones there.

Saturday, Jan. 2

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

We have never visited the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Oakdale, and this seems like a great time to go. Walking trails are open Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click here for fees and weekday hours. 

Sunday Jan. 3

Try out a new trail

The last day of holiday break. Back to school tomorrow. We will definitely need a family walk. I’ve always wanted to check out Mt.Washington’s Emerald View Park. Or maybe we’ll just try a new path through our community.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

How to get older kids outside: Let them F.A.R.T.

The group of preteen boys calls itself the FARTs. The boys say it stands for Friends Are Really Terrific, but really they just found a convenient way to use their favorite word. What the FARTs truly are: My very best bet for getting my eldest son to do anything new outdoors.

Parents of my son’s classmates take turns organizing outdoor adventures for the kids. It started with a couple of fathers who wanted a more purely-outdoors, no-meetings alternative to scouting, and they kindly invited the rest of us. Outings include river tubing, a treetop ropes course, backyard picnics, a city bike tour and, most recently, a geocache hike. Siblings often join in.
No complaints on this hike.

Let me try to illustrate the magic of this group. Let’s say I plan a short hike for our family, but my child would rather stay home and watch Star Wars IV for the 12th time. First, we attempt negotiation.

Me: “Come on, you’ll feel great after a walk and you can watch TV then.”
Son: “How much TV?”
Me: “Don’t worry about that now, just come on.”
Son: “No, it’s too cold/too hot/too early/too late/I have too much to do.”
Me: “How about we get ice cream after the hike (which used to work)?”
Son: “Nope, I don’t need it. I’ll stay home.”

Then, I try Tough Talk.
Me: “We’re all going, and you have to come, too.” After I repeat that several times, he stomps angrily out the door.  At this point, a less experienced parent might think she’s won. I know better. He comes along and maybe even enjoys it, but he won’t let me know that. Instead, the background noise on this hike is a steady stream of complaining and/or pre-adolescent attitude. If only he had that kind of endurance for hiking.

Which he does, if his friends are around. And that’s the beauty of the FARTs.
Found the cache!

It was a frosty December morning when the group of 10 kids and 6 adults tackled a steep, muddy trail to find a tricky, two-waypoint multi-cache. I heard no complaints about the cold or the fallen trees we had to scramble over. There were a few slips in the mud, but no one threatened to go back to the car. Everyone willingly pushed through brush and dug through wet leaves to search for a cache. One child quietly asked when we were going to eat, but the group overwhelmingly wanted to go on. We ultimately found three caches over about three miles.

I love using my GPS and smart phone app to find a geocache, but I don’t think my son does. That’s okay. There are so many other things to do on a walk in the woods, and it’s so much fun to do it with buddies. Everyone found a way to participate, whether it was finding a cache, leading the group through the maze of the park’s compost piles, scrambling over an enormous root system of a fallen tree or tackling friends during the picnic afterward.

I’m so grateful to the FART families, and to all of our friends who join us on outings or take my kids on their family adventures. I hope we can keep this going.

Friday, December 11, 2015

What's it mean to be an "outside" family?

My son’s teacher was telling us about a mountain resort she’d just visited, saying we might like it because we are so “outdoorsy.” My son was adamant: “We are NOT outdoorsy." He went on to explain that the term better describes people like his friend, whose family does a lot of adventurous and exciting things – like river kayaking, 100 mile bike rides and scuba diving.

I agree with my son, sort of. I wouldn’t call us "outdoorsy," if you mean it in the rugged, sleep-with-the-bears, scale-a-mountain kind of way. Since I write a blog about getting outside, consider this my disclaimer.
Indoor husband plays outside.

My husband and I truly enjoy the things we do as a family outdoors, and we think the kids do, too. Sometimes, though, that is merely trying to bounce a large plastic ball on the driveway so high that it lands on the roof, or taking a walk in our neighborhood to look at holiday decorations. 

I don’t really like taking risks involving physical danger, and my husband hates poison ivy, so those limitations narrow our list of "outdoorsy" activities. White water rafting? Done it, I still have bad dreams about it. A trek on cross-country skis for a night of winter camping sounds amazing, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin that project. Pitching a tent in the backyard, loading it up with sleeping bags and then putting it all away seems like plenty of effort to me.

We do enjoy pushing ourselves, a little. The boys and I are learning to downhill ski, and that’s going well as long as there are plenty of hot chocolate breaks. What works for us? Bike rides on maintained trails, short walks in the woods and sled riding. One time, while the oil was being changed in the car, I played tag with my sons in the small grass yard outside the garage instead of sitting in the waiting room watching TV.

Whoa, right? Talk about adventurous.  

The thing is, in the middle of a week full of driving for errands and activities, evenings eaten up by homework and the lure of ubiquitous screens, taking even a few odd minutes to be outside can feel radical. Sometimes it is very hard to do.

I see how nurturing outdoor skills and adventurous hobbies helps other families build an affinity for nature and wild spaces, and I hope we’ll do more of that as my family grows. We’re all for learning new things. Someday, when the boys are older, I’d like to maybe do a multi-day bike journey, or a backpacking trip.

Today, if I can get them out to play in the yard for an hour or so, I will feel like I accomplished something. It may not be a mountain climbed, but it’s something

Monday, November 30, 2015

Getting kids outside on the coldest of days

When it feels too cold to be outside, that’s when we have to be outside.

Otherwise, when will it ever not be too cold? It’s just the very beginning of winter weather here, and not all that cold. Temperatures in the 40s feel pretty darn chilly. But in a few months, that will be a nice day. We have to make friends with the cold. And I want us to stay friends.

Why does it matter? Why can’t we just curl up under a blanket on a wet, miserable day? Why not just exercise indoors? To strengthen my resolve, I’ve made a list of reasons to get outside every day this winter. Oh, we’ll log plenty of indoor hours. But being outdoors makes my family healthier and happier.

1.  Germs spread more easily indoors, especially in crowded, stuffy quarters.
2. Sunshine helps boost Vitamin D, and Vitamin D is good.
3. The loss of unstructured playtime for children is blamed for a host of mental disorders and other health problems. I see with my own eyes how playing with their friends in our yard sparks their imaginations, a walk in the woods calms my kids, an hour on a swing helps them sort through their thoughts.
4. Did you know children can suffer from seasonal affective disorder? True.
5. Outdoor play, on the other hand, helps fight obesity, may prevent ADHD and other health problems.  Outside is where my kids move around, without being told to do so by a coach or teacher. And without my yelling“no running in the house!” 
6.  I’m a better parent outside. It’s simply true.

I’m always disappointed when I learn that our schools cancelled outdoor recess for snow or chilly weather. I really like this guidance I found online, meant for childcare providers in California, urging centers to plan to be outside everyday with weather-appropriate activities. If children are dressed to stay warm and dry, most days can be outside days.


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.

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.

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. 

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).