Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

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.