Thursday, August 30, 2012

Unwind Outside After School

This week was back to school for our kids. With one going into third grade and another into kindergarten, it was a week of brand new routines and experiences for them both. The kids have a lot going on physically and emotionally in this first week of school. Our evenings together have never been more important to unwind and process the activities of the day.

Since the kids spend a majority of their school day inside, we try to encourage outside play in the evenings. We also try to provide quiet opportunities to reset and lots of opportunities to talk about their days at school.

Here are a few activities we've enjoyed after school this week to unwind as a family:
  1. Homework has to be done first, so we complete any assignments on the back deck together, enjoying the sun before it sets. This gives me an opportunity to ask questions about what they did in school and make sure I've signed all their paperwork and agendas.
  2. Read in a hammock: my third grader is assigned 20 minutes of free reading every evening. I've encouraged him to read in the hammock, enjoying the quiet of the backyard and proximity to the rest of the family as we get organized for dinner and other evening activities.
  3. Swing: the rhythmic motion of the swing is a great quiet activity to reset. I'm usually close by pushing the littlest brother in his swing which gives me a great opportunity to ask about new friends they met at school.
  4. Do something silly: changing pace from the rule reviews and academics of the day, as a family we'll do something fun and active together. Run a race, climb a tree, dig in the sandbox, anything goes.
  5. Go for an evening walk: we usually walk the dog after diner, which helps us digest and unwind before bedtime. I try to ask, while we walk, about what they'll be doing in school the next day.

I hope you've had a wonderful first week of school wherever you are. What have you done to unwind and enjoy the evenings together after school?

Kitchen Counter Chronicles

Linked up at Learning for Life.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Sandbox

We had a sandbox for just a few summers growing up. It was one of the green plastic turtle shaped sandboxes that we ultimately got rid of, I think because it drove my mom crazy. The sand got everywhere and it was hard to keep full of clean sand.

My boys have grown up digging in our yard. They would spend all day digging in the dirt along the edge of the forest, moving rocks and logs, climbing through the weeds. Who needed a sandbox!

Our new home has a wood framed sandbox in the backyard with a roof overhead. I hung some wind chimes there to make the space more sensory. And next spring I fully intend to grow topsy turvey tomatoes and peppers alongside the sandbox. During our move, the boys entertained themselves playing in that sandbox while we unpacked boxes and arranged furniture. I think the sandbox was what saved us from too many moving transition problems.

We've worked hard to establish rules to the sandbox: no throwing sand, toys back in the sandbox when you're done playing, wash off before you come into the house, etc. Otherwise, the sandbox is an entirely creative space. As long as everyone agrees, almost anything goes.

We've come up with some creative ways to play in the sandbox that have helped to maintain the magic of the space.
  1. Just add water: the boys haul buckets of water over to the sandbox from the hose, essentially making a mud pit. It's great for sand castles and cleaning off afterward. The sandbox is admittedly off limits for a few days after until it dries.
  2. Treasure hunt or dinosaur dig: before the boys go out to play, I go out to hide a few plastic gems or dinosaurs in the sand for them to unearth. In addition to shovels, they loved using paint brushes to dust off their dino finds.
  3. Sandbox imprints: one boy makes an imprint in the sand, then the other boys have to identify what toy or tool made the imprint. When Mom gets involved, it gets educational. I scratch a letter or sight word into the sand to be identified.
  4. Pan for gold: paint rocks in metallic gold then bury them in the sand. Kids can find the gold by sifting piles of sand through a sieve.
  5. Make a sand timer: fill a plastic bottle with sand halfway. Tape a similarly sized and shaped plastic bottle onto the mouth of the first to make an egg timer. Have the kids find out how many tasks they can complete before all the sand drains through the timer.
  6. Make a volcano: make a mountain of sand with an indentation in the top. Fill your volcano with baking soda. Slowly add vinegar and watch the reaction occur.
  7. Make a river: fold several sheets of tin foil into long u-shapes. Fit the foil together to make an open tube. Dig a trench in the sandbox and lower the foil in. Fill the foil with water then float tiny boats in your tiny river.
  8. Paint the sandbox: fill spray bottles with a liquid chalk paint, like the one we used to paint our fence. Paint pictures or write messages in the sand.
What fun games do your kids enjoy playing in the sandbox?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Finding a Canvas

We have one rather uninspired corner of our backyard. Behind the swing set, is the dark corner where grass doesn't want to grow because of kids and dogs running and a total lack of sunshine for the better part of the day. This part of the yard would be easy enough to ignore if the swing set and porch weren't situated in just such a way that we have no choice but to stare at it.

I have made many attempts to reinvent this space. Some shade-loving plants would surely brighten up this space. But nothing could thrive in the poorly-drained, North Carolina clay when constantly being trampled by the kids and the dogs. I thought some brightly colored chairs would fit the space nicely and allow us to sit where the kids were playing. But the space was always rather muddy and buggy. Even the kids seemed to always run through the space, never interested enough to stay and play in the dirt that was exposed there unlike other more manicured parts of the yard.

The fence in this corner of the yard was warped and leaning, probably due to the moisture that lingered there and due to the large mature trees growing into the space from the other side. The fence became key to reclaiming this space; what was an eyesore became our canvas.

We mixed 1cup of water with 3tbsp. cornstarch and several drops of food coloring. With sponges, spray bottles, and squirt guns, we painted that dark corner of the yard (and each other). The old, wet wood of the fence absorbed much of the color and is shielded by the tall trees from direct rainfall, so our masterpiece has lasted almost a week. The corner of our yard is still dark, wet, and buggy, but it is no longer an ugly eyesore to stare at. And the boys had so much fun painting the yard!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

It's Not Always Easy

I wanted to write today to provide some encouragement for parents who struggle to get their kids outside and playing. My older two boys especially, are some days very reluctant to go outside despite my strong held beliefs that playing outside would be healthier and more fun for them.

Today was one of those days. Everyone was inside, entrenched in whatever they were doing. That meant two were in their room playing army together and one was singing and dancing along to a TobyMac cd.

I had a fun day planned. We were going to spend the afternoon throwing water balloons at chalk targets in the driveway. I had planned to incorporate some late summer math review into our game. Then we were going to have a picnic snack in the shady front yard. However, no amount of cajoling could draw those boys away from their chosen activities leaving me rather frustrated and wondering why I, of all people, couldn't get my kids outside to enjoy a beautiful afternoon!

It's days like these that we need to cut ourselves some slack. My children were playing nicely together. They were being active but not destructive. No one was staring at a tv or computer screen. So I opened all the windows in the house, turned up little man's music and enjoyed an afternoon of singing and dancing vowing to incorporate an after dinner walk into the evening plans.

Check back, in coming weeks I will hopefully have the water balloon target practice math review game to report on! In the mean time, don't forget to link up your favorite ideas for outside play. We all need the inspiration somedays!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Food for the Birds

My boys love to climb trees. We have been blessed so far in that the worst climbing-related injuries we've endured have been a few scratches. So I let them climb. I love to hear them discuss from above how big the yard looks from up there. I love to hear how they squeal when they climb right past a spider web. I loved the delight I heard when they discovered an old bird's nest.

They marveled as they observed how different materials were woven around and secured together with a paste of mud. I was so proud as my nature explorers looked, but did not touch, taking in all they could of this tiny litte home up in a tree.

As the boys descended, we were able to talk about the types of birds likely to have nested in our backyard trees. We talked too about how bird families care for each other, building a secure nest, sourcing and preparing food, teaching their young to fly. I talked lovingly about a fictitious family of birds as I thought about my role in rearing my own children, preparing them for a world that would have proverbial wind storms and backyard dogs.

My tender-hearted children wanted to welcome birds back to this tree for another season. As the days grow shorter and the nights cooler, birds will soon fly through our mild state in search of warmer winters. So we settled on a simple bird feeder of yarn and Cheerios - a snack and building supplies for another nest. We hung our feeders in the climbing tree and will keep our feet on the ground for a few days, giving the birds a chance to enjoy. Hopefully next year, we will find new nests and new feathered friends.

In what ways do you help your little ones connect to nature right in your backyard?

This post was linked up at Natural Suburbia's Creative Friday Link-Up.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If you could be any animal...

"If you could be any animal, what would you be?"

It's a simple question, and in our house, one that was raised by my eight year old. This question does provide a great opportunity for conversation to explore what children know about animals. The answers I got were varied:

An ant: because they are strong and busy
A lion: because they are fierce and really good hunters
A girl mosquito: because they go out and suck blood
A dog: because they are taken care of by families that love them

These responses led to great conversations about the difference between wild vs. domesticated animals. We looked at maps of where wild animals come from far away from where we live. We talked about how we can love and take care of our pets at home. We also talked the "work" that animals do in nature - bees pollinate food sources, spiders and bats eat harmful bugs, worms aerate soil, etc.

Ask your children today, if they could be any animal in the world, what would they be? And why? Like I was, you may be amazed at their answers.

Monday, August 20, 2012

My Outdoors Bucket List

I never thought I'd be the type of person to make a bucket list, because I just wasn't old enough, obviously! But as I got older ... yes, it's true ... and I explored my own passions further, I realized that there are so many things I can only hope I get to experience someday before I "kick the bucket".

An integral part of every bucket list is sharing it publicly as a means to fostering accountability. In theory, if I never share my list, I'll never explore some of my greatest outdoor wishes. Further, I share my list here in hopes that I may inspire some of you to explore your own passions and set your own goals to experience the outdoors in new and exciting ways.

My Outdoors Bucket List (in no particular order):
  1. See the cherry blossoms in Japan
  2. Spend a day at the Amsterdam Flower Market
  3. Pray while walking along the Western Wall in Jerusalem
  4. See the morning glory pools at Yellowstone National Park
  5. Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible
  6. Eat pizza at the sidewalk cafe in Italy
  7. Camp beneath the Northern Lights
  8. Take a boat ride on the Sea of Galillee
  9. Take a hot air balloon ride in Albuquerque
  10. Watch the sunrise in the Moab desert
  11. Hike an active volcano
  12. See the Incan pyramids
  13. Ride a camel in Morocco
  14. Float in Senegal's Lake Retba
  15. Hike in New Zealand
  16. Sail Turkey's Ionian Coast
  17. Meet some South African penguins
  18. Go white water rafting on the Nantahala River
  19. Scuba dive in Iceland
  20. Tour the Judean desert by bicycle
  21. Hike along the Appalachian Trail
  22. Kayak on the Colorado River
  23. Camp in a hanging tent
  24. Go on safari in Africa
  25. Sit in the hot springs in Costa Rica
  26. Tour Alaska from the air

There's no sky diving, no bungee jumping, nothing too extreme. Just a few ideas I hope to experience someday before I die.

Please share, what's on your bucket list?

I'm a North Face Role Model

I just took the North Face Role Models Pledge. I pledged to hike a state park with my children and share with them my passion for the outdoors. Explore the great outdoors with someone you know – take the pledge @ The North Face Facebook Page.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

9 Backyard Science Experiments

My children are educated in the public school system. However, I strongly believe that parents are a child's first and most important teacher. Over the years we have engaged in some after-schooling activities. And every summer, I pick certain themes for each week so that we can read books from the library and plan activities in a way that is exciting and educational.

So today, as I was trying to wrap up our recent science week lessons, I decided that we needed to do a little tree study. There are many transpiration experiments online and it seemed an easy enough subject to describe (my favorite online explanation is this one). So I headed out into the backyard with a bag and a rubber band, planning how I would explain to my "eager" children that trees breath and sweat.

I explained to my kids that trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Lucky us, since we breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide. Trees also take in water and nutrients through their roots then "sweat" out water through the stoma on their leaves as a way of pulling water up through the tall plant. The water quickly evaporates off the leaves and into the atmosphere ... unless we catch it first. The plastic bag went onto the tree, covering a small bundle of low hanging leaves. The rubber band then went around the bag to secure it. We checked back often and found that the transpiration was slow at first, but really picked up once the leaves were in full sunlight. The warmth of the sun made more of the water condense on the inside of the bag explained my eight year old!

There are so many simple backyard experiments to keep us outdoors and learning in a natural environment. Try one today:

1. Solar energy experiment:
Place ice cubes on white and black paper, other colors as well, and compare melt rates.

2. Worm farms:
Fill a large clear container with dirt and several ants or worms. Watch as they tunnel through the dirt.

3. Feed some ants:
Ants stomachs are apparently transparent (I haven't tried this one yet. But it looks really cool!).

4. Build a moisture trap:
Learn about how moisture condenses in the cool air of the night by catching the dew for morning observation. Dig a hole and place a small plastic container in the bottom. Cover the hole with plastic wrap and secure the sides with stones. Place a few small pebbles in the center of the plastic causing it to sag but not collapse. Check back in the morning.

5. Make a compass:
Check out a map, consult your iPhone compass, or build your own with household materials.

6. Make a weather station:
Measure the temperature with an outside thermometer. Plant pinwheels in the garden to measure wind speeds - fast or slow. And make a rain gauge out of an old plastic cup to catch and measure precipitation.

7. Look for fossils:
With a magnifying glass in hand, explore backyard rocks or shells looking for regular patterns or swirls.

8. Watch seeds grow:
Plant seeds in small compostable containers such as toilet paper rolls, eggs cartons, or tea bags. Keep the seeds wet with a spray bottle, observing the plants growth each day. After about 2 weeks, transplant the entire container into garden soil.

We'll continue to collect great ideas for learning in the backyard on our Classroom Without Walls Pinterest board. Leave a comment below with your favorite backyard science experiments and we'll pin it!

Planting for the Second Harvest

When we moved into our new home in June, we inherited what our landlord referred to as orphaned tomato plants. Indeed, there in the backyard, inside a raised bed garden planter, was about an inch of light brown soil and seven scraggly tomato plants. The plants leaned in on each other and over the sides of the box with little support. The roots peaked out of the hard, dry soil, reaching for any ounce of nutrition. Despite their circumstances, these perennial vegetable plants were already producing beautiful green tomatoes and bright yellow buds worthy of envy.

We promptly provided tomato stakes and fertilizer to our newly adopted tomato plants and have since enjoyed two months full of sweet, delicious tomatoes. At some points during the summer, I wondered how we could ever eat enough tomatoes to keep up with our harvest. Along the way, I learned varied new ways to cook and preserve those beautiful garden gems. Now as summer draws to a close, our tomato plants are no longer producing and are showing signs of their early season neglect.

So today, in order to reclaim our garden beds in time for a second harvest, we cleared out those tomato plants, filled the beds with rich compost and fresh garden soil, and sowed new seeds for the fall. In double rows, we planted seeds that the kids had selected themselves at Lowes: garden peas, lettuce, and carrots. To experiment, we also planted some store bought garlic and white seed potatoes. We've already started talking about ways they might enjoy our fresh produce in recipes this coming fall.

The boys and I will be watering daily and hope to see some fresh green growth in our garden within the next week. (We watered after planting the seeds of course. Notice that the shed and my smallest son were watered as well.)

For an inside learning opportunity, we put a few of each type of seed in a sealed plastic bag along with a damp paper towel. These are taped to our kitchen window for close observation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Racing Airplanes

Just days after last school year ended, we packed all of our earthly belongings into a moving truck and crossed four state lines following a wonderful career opportunity. Despite the boxes to unpack and the friends left behind, I was determined to pack our summer with many fun and educational activities.

To kick off our summer of fun, we headed to the library and checked out a number of books about our new home state - fun right? We learned about the Civil War and gold mining, NASCAR and bluegrass. It was the Wright brothers, though that ultimately captured my young sons' curiousities. The history of flight lends itself well to lessons across many subject areas. We read biographies. We did physics experiments. We even incorporated some math comparing flight times and speeds to current aircraft technologies.

Being summer, our lesson time quickly evolved into play. I encouraged the boys to experiment with different paper airplane folding techniques. We decorated each plane and headed outside to test them out. After several test runs, their competitive spirits kicked in. The "M Glider," aptly named for its shape, flew the longest routes and did the best tricks. It was the best candidate of all our airplanes for a game of paper-airplane-frisbee-golf.

The rules:
Each player takes turns to throw their paper airplane onto one of five frisbee bases.
Frisbees are positioned flat and upside-down (or bowl-side-up) on the lawn or on play structures in the yard.
Players take turns to throw their airplanes onto same bases in the same order taking as many throws as needed to get on the base.
Each throw is worth one point.
The player with the lowest score at the end of the game wins.

The kids had a great time creating this game and spent hours refining the rules. What new, and maybe silly games have you and your family created in your own backyard?

Need more great ideas for games to play in your backyard? Check out our Backyard Games Pinterest board!

There are many more ideas across the blogosphere. Check out the Outside Game link up over at Inspiration Lboratories:

Outside Play: Games

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Unclimbable Tree

In our backyard, is half of a beautiful Bradford Pear tree. Years before we moved in, the tree was struck by lightning and the entire right half of the tree crashed into the fence. The fence was repaired, the tree limbs removed, and amazingly, the tree continued to grow. An ever present reminder of the strength and beauty of nature, right in our backyard.

To my children, the tree is a confounding mystery. Oddly shapen and nearly impossible to climb. There are few low branches to grab onto and those that are left, are stacked closely together making it hard to grab onto or slip a foothold into. As I write this post, they are in the backyard gathered around the trunk of the tree and dreaming of climbing high into its branches. I have told them a million times that the tree is unclimbable. And there are other trees in our yard that are much more hospitable to small children.

Today though, I quietly let them scheme. They are working as a team and sharpening their problem solving skills. They are using the materials available to them and using them creatively. At the end of the day, they will either be challenged to success or taste a small failure. Both can serve as motivation to tackle other problems, or trees, in the future. I won't tell them, "It's okay. You can only try your best." I will tell them to try again tomorrow. And they will. And they will climb many unclimbable trees.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Perseid Meteor Shower

Don't forget to spend some time outside this weekend checking out the night sky. In the northern hemisphere, we will be able to see the Perseid Meteor Shower peaking tomorrow overnight (August 11th into the predawn hours of August 12th) as the crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus shine brightly in the sky. Before you head outside, be sure to read EarthSky's top 10 tips for meteor-watchers including links to help determine the best time to see the shower where you are.

You can also download NASA's free Meteor Counter app (scroll to the bottom of the article) so that your junior star gazer can contribute their own meteor count numbers in a scientifically meaningful way.

*photo by Dominic Alves

Catching Nature

When it rains in Central Pennsylvania in the spring, bright orange newts come out of the streams and forest in legions. Their orange and red bodies dot a backdrop of lush green grasses. They're not very quick, leaving them vulnerable to predators and inquisitive little boys who hunt and chase and capture their curious prey.

We've always encouraged an ethic of capture and release, hopefully sparing the lives of countless earth worms, caterpillars, lightning bugs, and salamanders. During those few moments of captivity though, there is much to learn from our catch.

1. Learning with our senses
Newts are easy to pick out due to their bright color. And we're able to observe lots of other creatures from afar: turkeys, deer, snakes, frogs. But when you hold a creature in your hands, there is more to experience then just their physical appearance. A newt is smooth and sometimes wet which leads to conversations about their habitat in the cool, wet places in the forest. They make no sound leading to conversations about their docile, sluggish temperament. Some creatures have a distinct smell. As my son says, "Newts smell like rain and worms smell like dirt." We use all of our senses to experience nature and those who live in it.

2. Response to danger
The myriad of newts in our yard after the rain are slow and make no attempt to allude capture. They none-the-less wriggle and squirm when held and move away from danger when released. We've had other more exciting run ins with nature. A small snake was warming itself on our brick front path one afternoon when he was encountered by a small boy with a whistle. The snake reared up and hissed at the offending intruder before slithering into the cool of the grass. Other animals, like skunks and porcupines, provide wonderful illustrations of defense mechanisms that do not involve flight from a dangerous situation. Luckily, these have never been close encounters.

3. Respect for nature
Through watching nature respond to us as a danger, I can teach my kids to respect the living beings we observe. Nature is fragile, a lesson we have learned through the accidental dismemberment of daddy long legs and lightning bugs left too long in a jar. These have been sad lessons to learn and reminders that we need to be good stewards of nature around us. Nature is also wild, it cannot be tamed or contained. I love to watch my children explore and experience nature, but at the end of the day, "Outside things stay outside".

I love when we experience nature that can be held and touched and explored up close. There are so many lessons children can learn from an intimate closeness with the natural world around them.

In what ways do you foster and encourage your children in their exploration of nature?

Saturday, August 4, 2012

All Natural Sun Protection

My news feed recently seems filled with questions about the merits of traditional, store bought sunscreen. Is it effective? Are the ingredients potentially toxic? Could sunscreen itself cause cancers?

I don't consider myself to be an alarmist. I also clearly value the benefits of sunshine and loathe the results of an accidental day without sunscreen (it happens to the best of us). However, with three small children who play endlessly in the sun, it's good to occasionally question if we are using the best method to protect their young skin. Luckily, there are several options to utilize, a combination of which seems to be the safest and most effective strategy to ward off a bad sunburn.

Choose a good, natural sunscreen:
It's best to choose a sunscreen that is natural or organic. However, with so many marketing ploys, it's best to check out the ingredient list of store bought sunscreens to determine the best option. Need help deciphering that ingredient list? Check out the FDA for a list ofchemical ingredients to avoid in sunscreens and other cosmetics. Also remember, it's best to use a broad spectrum sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection that is PABA free.
Also consider application type and ease of use. I'm a fan of sunscreen sticks or bars, especially for squirmy toddler faces. It has been noted that spray on sunscreens, although effective when trying to target the sunscreen adverse types, may pose unknown risks due to the inhalation of chemicals.
You can easily make your own, all natural sunscreen with products purchased online. Andrea over at Frugally Sustainable offers up a really easy sunscreen recipe and links to purchase the ingredients. Or you can just add some zinc to your favorite lotion.

Physical barriers:
I put a hat on my kids' heads each morning before they go out the door. We also tend to eat lunch in our shady screened in porch avoiding some of the strongest sun rays of the day. There are numerous clothes, hats, and beach umbrellas that provide a barrier to the sun. Just make sure you find something with an SPF protective factor appropriate for your family's outside activities.

We can boost the natural protective factors in our own skin just by eating a healthy diet filled with the right vitamins and minerals.
This Modern Mom Health & Fitness article describes the potential benefits of Vitamin F Skin Care and the limitations of the current scientific research.
Fox News lists 9 Sun-Protective Foods in their health coverage including orange, yellow, and red pigmented fruits and vegetables like peppers, squash, tomatoes and watermelon.

The benefits of playing outside and experiencing nature on a sunny day far outweigh the risks and hassles associated with finding and using the right sun protection. If you've made your own sunscreen, please tell us about it in the comments below. What other ways do you protect your skin while enjoying the outdoors?