Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Smoothing school stress with outdoor time

Yes, that's a finger. It's hard to work a phone on a hammock.
The transition from summer vacation to a new school routine is easily the most stressful time of the year for my family. We are a month into the term and still reeling from the sudden onset of tight schedules and homework, although thankfully starting to settle in. Getting my kids outside has been one of the best ways to help them relax and recover from the school day. Here are some of my favorite ways we've been getting out there this fall.

Hit the playground: 

With many school cutting back on recess and far less playtime all around, kids are eager to blow off steam and socialize with friends or classmates. If your school allows after-hour use of the playground, you’ll probably find other kiddos there. We also spend extra time around sporting events to allow for playground romping and make plans to meet friends at the park.

Hammock time: 

We installed a couple in our yard this year and found it’s a great way to cuddle and reconnect after school, or for older kids, to enjoy some privacy with a book or earbuds.

Take a walk: 

The kids aren’t always eager to do this, but we’ve insisted on hikes and evening walks through the neighborhood. Sometimes we resort to a sweet reward at the end. It’s worth the extra sugar (and bribery guilt), because a walk never fails to help each of us unwind.

Keep the water games going: 

Summer officially wrapped up a few weeks ago, but fortunately it’s still warm enough here for kayaking, runs through the sprinkler, blasts from a water gun, and – for lucky swimming pool owners – a dip in the pool. When it’s hot, it’s hot, and water makes it a lot more fun to be active.

Try a new outdoor hobby: 

For my family this year, it’s fishing. We haven’t had a lot of luck catching anything but water plants, but they are still having a ball with their new rods and organizing their tackle boxes. The novelty is still there, making it easy to have some time in nature.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Amazing ideas for water play

Magical potion made with nature bits
There is something to be said for boredom, and for sending my kids outside when they complain about being bored. With nothing to do, no one to play with and no screen time left for the day, Younger Son came up with two great ideas all on his own.  First he made "potion," by combining dirt, pebbles, twigs, flower petals (and I'm not sure what all else) and water. We've been reading a lot of Harry Potter lately, I'm sure he was behind this. 

1.       How to Make a Potion. What you need: Water, nature stuff (twigs, stones, flower petals, grass, etc.), clear plastic bottle. Glitter and food coloring would work, too.

Fill the bottle with water and colorful stuff you find outside. Twist on the cap and shake.

Later, my son came up with something he called “a tiny little ocean.”   We found it makes a lovely decoration for the bathroom vanity.

2.       How to Make an Indoor Ocean. What you need: Water, nature stuff, clear plastic or glass container. Plastic animals and a toy boat could be nice, too. 

Fill the container with water and other items. Use as decor for table, bookshelf, bath, etc.  

Although I'm quite proud of my child's creativity (ahem, haughty throat clearing here), I'm pretty sure any kid can have fun with a container of water and items collected from their backyard. When I was a kid, I mixed tomatoes from the garden, moss, sand and water into “stews” in a sand bucket. The variations are endless. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Get the kids outside with a challenge (okay, it's a bribe)

My kids wanted hammocks, and I wanted them outside. So I came up with the Great Hammock Challenge. Upon completion of the listed tasks, they would each receive a hammock. Yes, I know it's a bribe, pure and simple. But I probably would've gotten the hammocks anyway, because hammocks are fun and yet another thing to enjoy outside. This way, I got my family to try a few new things. With the exception of my failed attempt at archaeological excavation (Number 4, below), these "tasks" have turned into activities they've wanted to try again and again. 

Task 1: Whittle something.

We started simple – make a marshmallow roasting stick. All this takes is a few scrapes with a pocket knife. The kids loved this and made enough sticks for our family and the neighborhood. Older Son went onto make a walking stick and started working on carving designs in the wood. Fortunately there is plenty of information online about teaching kids to whittle, including a line up of safety videos, books and tips from This safety article was helpful, too. Soap carving is a way to get started making more complicated cuts, like this family tried.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed here are my own. I am not an expert. Please be your own judge of what is right for your family.

Task 2: Build a fire.
My boys are six years apart, so I had to make this age appropriate. Younger son helped me set up the kindling and logs. Older Son got to try a flint and steel fire starter. Again, the Internet was our sage: We found campfire safety and building instructions from Smokey Bearand more tips with pictures from Outward Bound.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed here are my own. I am not an expert. Please be your own judge of what is right for your family.

Task 3: Find constellations.

We realized that we aren’t often outside late enough in the evening to see a lot of stars. This goal gave us a reason to stay out a little longer and look up -- always good. I've just started checking out apps for stargazing, including the free NASA app. For screen-free ideas for enjoying the sky as a family, check out

Task 4: Dig a hole.

The idea for this was to get into backyard archaeology, hoping that if we dug deep enough we’d find some sign of previous inhabitants, even if only a plastic toy.  Unfortunately, a lot of our yard seems to have been built with construction fill and we found mostly bricks and rocks. The crawlies and worms were cool, though. Looks like this family had much better luck. The National Park Service's Archeology for Kids site has some fun-sounding project ideas beyond the dig. 

Task 5: Walk at night.

This is one of my favorite ways to end a day as a family, especially if we haven’t been outside much in daylight. The kids complain at first, but once we are all out together I wonder why we don’t do it all the time.

Yep, they got the hammocks!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Identifying creatures in vernal pools

Fairy Shrimp in action. Credit: Jack Ray
We’re still trying to figure out if the ponds we are visiting are true vernal pools, and Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, continues to be a great help. When I told her I’m not finding much sign of life around the ponds we’ve been searching, she said not to give up hope: It may take a few years of observation, through heavy rains and dry springs, to figure out what is happening at a location.

In the meantime, here are some more tips for spotting wildlife at a vernal pool:

  •     Look for egg masses early in the season, from around mid-March to mid-April. They shouldn’t be too tough to spot in small and unvegetated vernal ponds, which offer clear views of the entire pool, Leppo says. We might have to look around a bit in  pools with a lot of vegetation.   
“Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders (the two most common vernal pool indicator amphibians) have large egg masses that are usually floating at or near the surface of the pool,” Leppo says. She suggests checking out this handy guide for identifying different species by their eggs. 

  • By May, many of the larvae have hatched, and some egg masses, like that of the Wood Frog, have fallen apart. But that doesn't mean there aren't interesting things to find. Leppo says we still might be able to locate egg remnants of the Spotted Salamander. “The egg matrix is very durable,” she says.

 The smaller long, thin creatures are mosquito larvae, and the larger
fluttery ones are Fairy Shrimp. Credit: Betsy Leppo

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tips for protecting vernal pools

Vernal pools are rare but important habitats to many species of amphibian, reptile, crustaceans and insects. They require our protection, as they are under threat from development, motor vehicles, lawn chemicals and other human activity. So should curious parents and their children stay out of them?

It’s a question I posed to Betsy Leppo, Zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. My son and I had been splashing through mud and water around a small pool in the woods, looking for frog and salamander eggs. I want him to explore these places, so that he can learn about them and to value them. But I don’t want to wreck them.

It turns out there is plenty of damage we might accidentally inflict on a wetland  -- killer fungus and sunscreen contamination, among others. But if we take a few easy steps to be careful, it’s absolutely okay to explore, Leppo assures me.

 “I think it’s great to take kids out to vernal pool so they can learn about them,” Leppo says. Part of the learning experience can be “just being aware of the potential impacts you can have.”
It’s a great teachable moment. Here’s how to handle things gently, here’s how to handle an animal carefully. They have to be taught that. It’s a great chance to teach kids how to approach wildlife,” she says.  It’s also an opportunity to help children to get past fears and squeamishness.

Here’s what we need to do to help protect the vernal pools:

Be mindful. Leppo advises to take care where you are stepping to avoid egg masses and creatures in the water. It’s best to remain on the edges of a pond and avoid stirring up the mud too much.

Rinse your hands. Antibiotic soap and sunscreen can be deadly to developing creatures, so avoid these before heading into the water. If you wash your hands, rinse them thoroughly.

Clean your gear. There are two diseases that are devastating wetland animals in some places around the country. They are Ranavirus and Chytrid fungus. (Read more about these diseases here.) Although they aren’t known to be widespread problems in Pennsylvania, they are a concern. Leppo says the way to avoid spreading disease is to wash gear between uses.
The other benefit of washing gear is to avoid spreading invasive plants like Japanese knotweed, reed canary grass, mile-a-minute, purple loosestrife and others, Leppo adds. Seeds can get on our boots just from walking through a yard. She recommends scrubbing all mud off of boots, nets, buckets and the like in a tub of soapy water and rinsing them clean. Conservation professionals use farm-grade antibacterial soap, which can be found at farm supply stores.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Meet a Vernal Pool

I’ve been obsessed with finding vernal pools, those mysterious ponds that appear in early spring where salamanders, frogs and many other critters lay their eggs. Why does this excite me? I’m a nature geek, of course. The other reason is that it’s another way to get my kids just a little more interested in what’s going on outdoors.
Late winter hike -- Will we find a vernal pool?

I’m constantly saying things to my boys like, “Do you hear that jingling sound? It’s the Spring Peepers!”, and we’ve muddied a lot of shoes walking around ponds looking for eggs. I got really excited when my younger son and I went exploring in the woods across from the school bus stop and realized we were ankle deep in water. I was sure we’d found a vernal pool.

But because I wasn’t 100 percent sure, and I like to be accurate, I went looking for a guide. I found one in Betsy Leppo, zoologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, who created this webinar for the Penn State Extension. It gives a detailed description of species, geology, vegetation and soil of vernal pools, and how to protect them. More for conservation professionals than nature moms, the presentation left me with a few questions. So I contacted Leppo and she kindly agreed to help.

What fascinates me about vernal pools or ponds is that they appear like magic in spots that may be bone dry by late summer, or at least much less wet. They are created from ice melt and rains, Leppo explained, and a true vernal pool has no permanent inlet or outlet of water. They can be found in a land depression in the middle of the woods, as part of a swamp or marsh, among small shrubs or in a field.

A vernal pool can be as small as “little leafy puddles you can jump across,” Leppo says, or “large wetland thickets where you can easily fill your hip waders.” 

These conditions mean there are no fish, making it a great place for amphibians, reptiles and other creatures to lay eggs without fear their babies will be gobbled up. Many species depend upon these unique waters, in fact. Some salamanders and frogs return to the same vernal pool from which they hatched.

In late winter, creatures begin emerging from the nearby woodlands where they spend the rest of their adult lives, sometimes crossing snow and ice to arrive at a pond to breed. In March and April – long before leaves are on the trees and much at all is sprouting from the ground -- a vernal pool is a busy amphibian baby nursery.

Taking a mud break. 
So how do we know when we’ve found a vernal pool? Leppo says the sure way is to locate one of the species that breed almost exclusively in these waters. In Pennsylvania, that would be four types of mole salamanders, as well as the Eastern Spadefoot frog, the Wood Frog and two crustaceans – fairy shrimp and clam shrimp.

Shrimp?! I had no idea there was anything that could be called a shrimp in the water around here! And I’m not at all sure how to identify species of salamander or frog. First you have to find a salamander or frog, which can pretty hard to do. This is where a field guide is really handy, especially an online guide that also features sound clips of frog mating calls, like

There are many other animals that live around and breed in vernal pools, including species of toad, turtle, frog and newt. The noisy Spring Peeper is another one. Many insects and tiny crustraceans tend to thrive in these waters, creating what Leppo calls a “vernal pool soup” that feeds the larger animals as they develop.  

My original hope for a vernal pool – the puddle across from the bus stop – turned out to have been only a puddle that had pretty much dried up in a few days, which isn’t long enough for creatures to hatch and grow. A nearby marsh seemed like another good possibility. We did find squirmy black mosquito babies and other teeny spots swimming around. And lots of snails. But no tadpoles yet.
Not sure what this is, but it looks cool.

We will keep looking. At the very least, we are having fun squishing around in the mud.

More Vernal Pool Resources:
Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

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!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Make the most of a snow day

It's a snow day here, and everyone is happy to not have school. But to go out and play in the cold? Not so much. At least not while favorite TV shows are on and minecraft is available on mom's smart phone. So I came up with the following kick to get my kids outside. They will thank me later. 
1. Screens off. Sorry, guys, but if you stay indoors today you won't be on your devices. Or the Television. Or Netlfix, Wii or DS. I started a two-hour online anti-virus checkup on my son's laptop to tie that up, too, so he can't retreat to his room to do "school work", a euphemism for watch YouTube videos. 
2. Indoor chore list. If you must be inside, boys, I've got a lot things that need done. Laundry. Closet organizing. Toilets. And if you start fighting out there so that I have to call you in and break it up, the chores will be inside waiting. 
3. Join them. A snow day is a great chance for my kids to get the unstructured, outdoor free play time with their peers that they otherwise get so little of, and so I like to stay out of it and let them be with their neighbors and each other. On the other hand, I want to be a role model and show them that I, too, like to be outside on a snowy day. So later on I will be out chucking a snowball or two. Maybe building a snow shelter. But by that time, they won't need me to be out there. When I called them in for a lunch a few minutes ago they were making plans to sled after they eat. So I will probably end up shoveling the driveway, alone. 
And that is my plan. Once outside, they almost always want to stay. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Great Sandwich Caper, and other tales of winter woe

My family has had three lousy experiences this season while skiing that could’ve ruined what have otherwise been some wonderful weekends. I’m happy to say we shook it off….pretty much. I think it was the skiing the helped us keep our cool.

First, we came home from an overnight trip to find that our mailbox post had been sheared off. We thought at first a car must have slid on the icy road and hit it. Then we noticed the S-curved tire marks scoring our neighbors’ yards and that two other mailbox posts and a lamp post had been knocked over. The tire tracks reminded me of the carved turns of an expert skier, they were so smooth and intentional. Yeah, we got pretty irritated.

The following weekend, a surprise awaited us when we came inside the resort lodge to eat lunch. I had made sandwiches for us that morning, put them in a backpack and left the pack beneath a picnic table. Like lots and lots of other people. When we opened the pack, we found that someone had eaten three of our four sandwiches! And. They. Left. Behind.The. CRUSTS! That was the worst part. How can you not eat the crusts on a lovingly homemade sandwich?!  I’m telling you, the mustard and mayo extended all the way to the edges. Didn’t their parents teach them anything?!

And then on the weekend after that, my son returned to his skis after a break and found that his poles had vanished. Yep, we’d left them in a ski stand unlocked. My son had to fight back tears. In the moment, it just felt like the last straw, like I was ready to enter into war with Those That Do Me Wrong.

What is the lesson here? Lock up our ski poles and lunch? Install night vision security cameras and automatic laser guns aimed at tire level (the kids’ idea) outside our home? Basically expect the worst and get ready for it? In our initial anger – and I was angry about those sandwiches -- we plotted all these things and more. But, I don’t know, we got tired of being angry. It got boring. I think the fun we’ve been having just overpowered the bad juju.
Keeping calm, skiing on
That's not always enough, at least at first. I overheard an angry father complaining that his family had been waiting for an hour to rent snowboards. Apparently the computer system had crashed.  I’ve seen people get nasty over tables in the crowded cafeteria, and it’s not uncommon to hear little kids wailing in the rental shop. Skiing can be a lot of work, especially when you’ve got young kids to dress and equip and get to the bathroom. Especially when it’s still kind of new, because that makes anybody a little jittery, a lot excited, and maybe nervous.

It can be easy to take things personally when things go poorly on a ski day. I was pretty short with my son in the immediate aftermath of the poles going MIA, not because I was angry with him but because of the hassle and the hurt feelings of having something taken. Fortunately, we decided to take a short walk outdoors to think. It was cooler, we breathed. The sun was shining and the slopes looked gorgeous. A simple solution appeared: I sent him off with my poles and took a break, which I actually kind of needed.

The truth was, we had encountered a lot of really nice that day. A group of teen snowboarders let us cut right in front of them in the lift line when my son started to accidentally slide toward them. Several people stopped to help anytime anyone of us fell. A group politely asked for our lunch table when we were packing up.

I'm sure we'll have other rough moments, but I think we can handle it. If I don't have change for a token to lock up our lunch, I won't sweat it. We will ski. We will be together. And the rest just doesn’t matter that much.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Winter Trees

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Best Places for Kids to Learn to Ski in Pittsburgh

Beautiful day at Seven Springs
Skiing has been a great thing for my family. It gets us outside, keeps us active in winter and we do it together. But while my husband came to this party with some serious skiing skills, the rest of us are having to learn. We’ve found plenty of ways to get a family started skiing in Western Pennsylvania, where we live. Here’s a rundown.

Hidden Valley Resort is my family’s favorite place, and I’ve heard a lot of families of young children say the same. It has a variety of beginner and intermediate slopes that are nice for those of us in the greenish-blue zone --- ready to move past the easy trails but still getting butterflies at the top of steep terrain. Even when busy, the slopes rarely feel jam packed and you’ll see a lot of other kids with their parents.
Along with sister resort Seven Springs, Hidden Valley offers “Fun-Based Learning.” The beginner area is shaped into banked turns and rises that allow a new skier or snowboarder to get a non-scary feel for slowing and turning.  Lift tickets are $63 on weekend days for adults, $51 for kids 6 and up. At Hidden Valley and Seven Springs, kids under 6 are free!  Click here for information on group and private lessons as well as ski school for kids ages 3 to 12. 

Seven Springs is a close second for us. It offers a variety of trails and slopes for all abilities, especially when the challenging North Face slopes are open. My kids love the Arctic Blast terrain park with zany features that even early skiers can handle. We spent a lot of time the first few years of skiing in the sculpted FBL zones and beginner areas and had a blast, without worrying about my sons losing control and getting hurt (we don’t use harnesses).  
You pay more for the 33 slopes and trails, at $81 for adults on weekend days, $63 for kids 6 and up. The big downer for us is the resort can get crowded on a busy weekend, and a party crowd starts to appear around 3 p.m.  We’ve never had any problems and the resort staff works to keep things clean – I observed an employee dressing down a young man for his rough language. But we often spot fresh beer cans dropped beneath the lifts on Sunday morning. I’m not sure which bugs me more, drunk skiing or littering. Not everyone avoids the evenings – I met a father and son on the lift who Go hear for information about getting around the mountain, here for more about lessons and ski school for ages 4 and up. 
were excited to ski after dark under the lights. We prefer to ski early in the day. 

We’ve never tried it, but Mystic Mountain at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is another popular ski spot for families.  It’s quite a bit smaller with just seven slopes, but our friends who ski it say it’s just right for young children. The price is nice: $43 for an adult lift ticket, $35 for kids 6 to 11, $25 for 5 and under. Getting a season pass before Dec. 15 makes it even more affordable if you plan to visit more than three times. Go here for details on lessons, ski school and special deals. 

Boyce Park in Monroeville can be the best place to learn to ski, or the absolute worst, depending completely on the weather. It doesn’t get the heavier snows or colder temperatures of the Laurel Highlands, so you just never know what you are going to get. You can’t beat the $22 weekend lift ticket for adults, $16 for kids 6 and up, $8 for 5 and under. Those prices, coupled with avoiding a trek on the PA turnpike, might make up for lousy conditions, or a day on the slopes that just doesn’t go well, as is apt to happen at times with young kiddos. The trouble is that ice, slush or mud spots are harder to ski. Before heading out, call the park first, at 724-733-4665. 

More to know:

1.       Renting equipment from the resorts is convenient, but you might deal with higher prices and crowded rental centers. Lower prices can be found at independent rental shops outside the ski areas.
2.       Check out first experience packages, which include equipment rental, lift ticket and lesson.
3.       Keep an eye out for discounts as the winter progresses. If you can ski mid-week, you’ll find lower prices and smaller crowds.
4.       A good lesson is worth the splurge.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Learning to love winter

friend of mine who prefers golfing in Florida to winter’s chill inspired this post. Her face still tan from a recent southern excursion, she accused me of being “Someone Who Loves Winter.” She meant it as friendly teasing, but there was in her tone a bit of what is wrong with you?! I was wearing snow pants over my regular "mom" jeans, had just hauled sleds out of the back of our car so the kids could play in between their music lessons. I'm excited by snow and sub-zero temps (we can freeze bubbles!) So yeah, I'm cool with winter. It’s so much better than simply enduring it. 
How do you get on the good side of winter? I just so happened to have started reading, “Exploring Nature in Winter: A Guide to Activities, Adventures and Projects for the Winter Naturalist,” by Alan M. Cvancara. A section of the opening chapter is titled, “Learning to Like Winter.”  Perfect. A university professor and past resident of North Dakota, where it can be as cold as negative 60 degrees, Cvancara knows what he is talking about.

“The wintry environment will not always be entertaining to you,” writes Cvancara. “You must mentally meet it part way.”  You get ready to “meet” winter by accepting the cold and dressing warmly. He suggests conducting an “awareness experiment”  to notice how being cold and uncomfortable takes us out of the present moment, causing us to miss interesting things like rabbit footprints or the smell of earth in the morning, which he says might mean snowfall is on its way (wow, didn't know that.)
The whole book is about being curious and active in winter, even if you don’t do snow sports. Chapters cover forecasting the weather yourself, observing wildlife and plants, winter astronomy and outdoor photography. The take-away message: Get out into the winter!  Because the season isn’t really about dates on a calendar or new episodes of Downton Abbey.
I have a few tips of my own to add:
1.       Be outside every day. It helps that my family enjoys skiing, as well as sledding and skating. But even when there is no snow, and especially when it is very cold, we try to get outdoors every day.  We get used to it, and then it never feels “too cold.”
2.       Keep moving. It’s the best way to stay warm, after dressing right. If we aren’t doing a sport or sledding, then I try to get us walking, involved in a chore or playing an active game.
3.       Learn from other People Who Love Winter.  Check in with outdoor-loving families to find out about great gear, new winter toys, ideas for building a backyard tubing track, the fun you can have on your own temporary ice skating rink, the skinny on sledding hills, etc. etc. I always get the best ideas from our friends who are already out there.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Winter Activity for Kids: Salt and Snow

What is that blue stuff all over the sidewalk?

I've been explaining to Younger Son for years that the blue crystals and stains on sidewalks in cold weather are salt that help melt the ice. But it’s taken lots of experimenting with salt for him to get how that could possibly be so. The other day he asked for some salt to take outside and was at it again. We used two types of salt to see if one melted faster (the sea salt did seem a wee bit faster). Next time we will test out sugar, which also lowers the freezing temperature of water.

What you need:

  • ¼ cup of sea salt
  • ¼ cup of table salt
  • ¼ cup of sugar
  • Let your child pick out some other things around the kitchen to test (Pepper? Cinnamon? Hot cocoa mix? Meat seasoning?)
  • 4 or more ice blocks (made ahead of time by filling food storage containers with water and setting in freezer or outdoors overnight)
  • Smooth surface for a work area (we used a sled)

1.       Loosen the blocks of ice and let your child examine them. It’s okay to break them up into pieces.
2.       When you are ready to start the activity, set each piece of ice on work surface with at least a few inches in between.
3.       Sprinkle each substance on a different piece of ice.
4.       Leave one piece of ice untouched as a control.
5.       Go and play while you wait! Check back frequently.
6.       Discuss your results. This activity is more for fun than scientific study, although it’s a little of both. Lots of things can affect the rate at which the ice melts – the size of the ice, the amount of salt or sugar added, the temperature of the substance put onto the ice, etc.