Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

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.