Sunday, September 30, 2012

Help Kids Get Over a Fear of Bugs

My littlest man is terrified of bugs - a trait that has made many outside play days very interesting. His fear is a very rational fear that developed after he stepped into a fire ant nest and got bitten at least a dozen times on his poor little feet and ankles. For days he cried and itched at those swollen, red bites. Now the pain is gone, but he will scream as soon as a fly lands near him or a potato bug crawls past his toes. 

At two and a half, a fear of bugs seems to be pretty common. In all likelihood, he will grow out of his fear of insects, as quickly as he grew into it. In the meantime though, we've adopted a few strategies to make playing outside a little less scary and will hopefully help move my little guy quickly into a less fearful stage. 

1. Sing about it: when a bug flies anywhere near my little man, he cries out in fear and I immediately start singing, "Shoo-fly don't bother me". Sometimes, that sing-song melody distracts him long enough that the fly or lady bug in question flies right along. We also sing the Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Baby Bumblebee, the Ants Go Marching, and There Ain't No Bugs on Me just for fun. 
2. Model good behavior: my son sees how I react to bugs and feeds off those reactions. When a bug is known and harmless, I am careful to not act afraid or even bothered. I do have to watch my reactions when bees buzz by. Teaching and modeling safety, I walk calmly and quietly away from stinging or biting bugs and simply keep my distance from unknown bugs. 
3. Learn about bugs: feeding my boys' curiosities, learning about what bugs do and even how they can be beneficial has been a fun way to dissuade some of little man's fears. Yes, bees sting, but they also pollinate flowers creating beautiful blooming gardens and even sweeter tasting fruits and vegetables. One of the best ways to learn about bugs is to observe them. Create a bug friendly habitat in your backyard by creating feeders or planting flowers that attract certain types of bugs. 
4. Meet some buggy characters: there are many cute books at the library with insect characters. Start with fictional books about butterflies or ladybugs that introduce kids to non-threatening insect friends. Once kids are comfortable with these characters, they may choose to move onto more educational books about hard working bees and ants or even strange looking beetles and worms.

How have you worked through a fear of bugs with your kids?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Animal Habitats

This past summer, I spend countless hours selecting weekly learning themes and researching activities that I could do cheaply and easily with my three boys.  So many of those lessons just never happened in favor of playing with new friends or staying longer at the park or...

Thankfully, teachable moments pop up constantly and allow me to structure our learning around subjects that my kids take an organic interest in.  Throughout this past week, we have been watching the progress of an army of ants as they constructed a rather impressive network of ant hills through the cracks in our concrete driveway.  The boys were later thrilled to find literally thousands of ants living under the bark of an old tree stump in our yard.  My littlest man is terrified of bugs, so I encouraged them to sit back and just watch the ants at work.  Later we came back to find no ants and I explained how they had moved inside or underground for shelter after we had inadvertently knocked the bark off their previous residence.

Then, just yesterday we discovered in the grass a wasp's nest.  After getting over the initial fear factor, we were able to just observe the shape of the nest and talk about how wasps construct their homes hanging from high places they can easily fly into.  This conversation led us to check out the rafters on the roof over our sandbox.  We were delighted to find a bird's nest there giving us another home to observe.

We compared all three.  I asked the boys what each was made of and how each home might have been constructed.  We talked about how each home provides security for the families that live there versus what dangers each home might face.  The ants lived where they could be stepped on.  The wasps where wind could, and probably did, knock down their nest.  And my favorite, the boys went on to wonder for hours just what those birds were thinking building a nest right above their sand box where it was always noisy and dirty!

The important lesson that I wanted my boys to take away was that our backyard, in our noisy, busy suburban neighborhood, is home to lots of wild animals.  Ants, bugs, and birds as well as rabbits, bats, and deer.  Regardless of where you live, you can teach children about animal habitats starting close to home:
  1. Learn about local animals and discover where they live.  Make a list of animals you see on a regular basis and research what they need to stay safe, source food, and have fun.  Talk also about how your local habitats change over the course of the year.  How do animals act differently in the fall and spring, for example.
  2. Create a habitat in your backyard.  Invite beautiful butterflies into your yard by filling a shallow bowl with sugar water or rotting fruit.  Or create this cute butterfly feeder from a paper cup with your kids. You can also build bird houses and bug hotels.  Watch from inside to see who comes by to check out your new habitat.  Be sure to have binoculars or a camera ready and keep your nature journals with colored pencils near the observation window.
  3. Create habitat sensory boxes to explore inside.  Start with a shoe box and some colored rice.  Then add an animal that your child would like to learn about.  Add small toys to represent where the animal lives, what it eats, and what it does all day.  Need some ideas?  Check out!  I love their philosophy of simple, open ended play and Nicole has so many great ideas to explore animals from penguins to tadpoles.
  4. Check out critter cams from National Geographic or the zoo to learn about animals that live in far away habitats like the deep, dark ocean or the Amazon river.
  5. Read books!  We ran to the library and picked up a few that the boys and I have really enjoyed:
 (all are Amazon affiliate links)

What animals fascinate your children?  What animals do you see everyday near your home?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Daily Nature Walks A-Z

As a self-proclaimed advocate for outside play time, I have in the past struggled when my own children did not necessarily want to spend any time outside.  As I delved into our own struggles to get out the backdoor, I realized that we are very much not alone.  In fact, nearly every family that I spoke to lamented how much time their children spent playing a variety of video games or texting with friends or watching television.  Meanwhile, community parks stood empty, nature centers unused, neighborhood sidewalks abandoned.  So how do modern parents transform their inside children into kids who actually want to play outside?

We made a few changes to our priorities to start.  We made outside time a part of our daily routine and responsibilities.  My favorite part of this transformation has been our daily nature walks.  In all honesty, these walks are through rather mundane areas of our neighborhood and backyard, and probably walks that we would take anyway as we have a very energetic 9-month old lab puppy.

In order to make this time outside meaningful, my preschool aged son and I have been on an alphabet hunt.  Each day as we walk, we try to identify objects in nature for a new letter of the alphabet.  To pull my older kids into this project, we've started uploading those pictures to our brand new Instagram feed (@OGBackyard).  We've missed a few letters so far due to forgetting the camera or just not being quick enough (as in the white-tailed deer we saw this morning at the bus stop).  Our list is growing every day though:

B is for butterfly
B is for bark
B is for berries
B is for bumble bee
C is for cactus
C is for clover
C is for cloud
D is for daylily
F is for feather
F is for fly
I is for iris
K is for knot
L is for lake
L is for ladybug
L is for leaves
M is for mud
P is for pinecone
P is for puddle
R is for rocks
R is for roots
S is for shadow
S is for strawberry
S is for sunset
W is for waves

Please do follow us on Instagram (@OGBackyard) as we complete our nature alphabet. Or you can like us on Facebook.   We're adding more pictures everyday, which means we're outside every day!  Join us.

How do you make playing outside everyday a priority in your house?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Outside Activities for the Book "SHOUT! SHOUT IT OUT!"

To start the new school year, my two year old and I have been exploring some basic concepts such as ABCs, counting, colors, and shapes through various songs, books, puzzles, and movement activities. At the library this week, my little one selected a book that has quickly become a new favorite.

"Shout! Shout It Out!" is a wonderfully interactive book that encourages preschoolers to shout out recognizable letters, numbers, colors, animals, and vehicles. This is not a book for inside voices. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book and take it outside. Read, shout, and explore each page.

The fun and learning doesn't have to end after the last page. The shout and learn concept is easily adaptable for many outside activities:
  1. Hopscotch: draw a traditional hopscotch board then fill in the squares with letters, shapes, or numbers. As kids hop, they can shout out what is in each square.
  2. Bean bag toss: paint or cover shoe boxes in colored construction paper then cut a round hole in the bottom each box. Shout out the color as beanbags are tossed through.
  3. Target practice: a simple target can be painted onto styrofoam or chalked onto the driveway. Throw water balloons at the target, shouting out the numbers you hit.
  4. Scavenger hunt: hide colorful blocks or animal figurines outside in the backyard. Children can shout out the names of the animals found or the color and shape of blocks as they're discovered.
  5. Road watching: I have boys who love to spot construction trucks and emergency vehicles along the road. Make a game of it by shouting out every type of car, truck, and bus that passes your front porch.
Do you have a favorite noisy way to learn with your kids outside?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Weekends are for Play

After a week of filled with school, work, and household obligations, our weekends are family time reserved for fun activities we can all enjoy. In the fall months, we spend most of our weekends outside at football and softball games. It takes some creative thinking and careful planning to make sure that the constant running from one field to the next does not become a chore in itself.

For one, if at all possible, we all go to every game and every practice. This allows us some additional family time together. Also, it allows me to know first hand how my kids are behaving and performing in their chosen sports. It doesn't really matter how I feel about those sports because my kids love them.

We try not to let sports interfere with our normal routine. When we have back-to-back games that fall right in the middle of dinner time, we pack a picnic and eat at the field. This allows us to still eat together and at a normal time. No one comes home starving and grumpy and I don't feel that we've missed this important family time ritual.

We don't let ourselves get too overbooked. One sport per kid per season has always been our rule. With three kids, that's more than enough! In addition to limiting our shuffling and driving time, this rule reduces the number of evenings that we're double booked. This rule also teaches my children the importance of focus and commitment. For this fall, my sons will focus all their sporting efforts and energies on being the best football players they can be until the end of the season.

On the odd weekend free of sporting events, we still make it a priority to get outside and play together. Some of our favorite activities include:
  • visiting a farmers market
  • finding a festival outside, especially if music is involved
  • hiking in the state park
  • playing catch or other games in the backyard
  • riding bikes together
  • working together in the yard and the garden

How does your family spend time together outside on the weekends?

For the Kids Friday

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

OGBackyard on Instagram

In order to document some of our greatest nature walk finds, One Great Backyard is now on Instagram. We hope that you will follow us @OGBackyard as we share some of our favorite nature pictures and outside adventures.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homemade Applesauce

Homemade applesauce, and pearsauce, is a fall staple in our house. It is cheap and easy to make and there are endless variations that keep applesauce showing up on our table year after year. My favorite variation has become a regular on our Thanksgiving table. Served warm and chunky, I mix in a can of whole berry cranberry sauce and some orange zest before serving. My husband, however, prefers his applesauce cold and processed smooth. Fresh fruit sauces can also be served in oatmeal, with yogurt, or over ice cream, yum!

I don't post many recipes here on the blog because I am generally a recipe detractor. Even when I start with a recipe, I cannot keep myself from adding just a dash of extra something. So here is my best shot at a "recipe" for my homemade applesauce.

3 lbs. of apples (any variety or a mixture of different types)
1/2 cup apple cider (water can also be used)
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 tbsp. brown sugar

Peel and slice apples and place directly into a medium, heavy saucepan. Sprinkle with lemon juice if desired to keep the apples from browning.
Add apple cider or water to the pan and turn heat on medium. The liquid will keep the apples from burning on the bottom until they begin giving off their own juices.
Cook to desired tenderness, mashing with a wooden spoon throughout cooking.
Add cinnamon and brown sugar before taking the apples off the heat. More or less spices and sweeteners can be added to taste.

The apples are essentially done once they are the size and softness that you prefer. Cook longer and mash more for a smoother applesauce. For a consistently more like store bought, cool slightly then process your applesauce in a food processor or in small batches in a blender. The sauce can be served warm which is delicious, it can also be stored and served cold.

My sons love to help in the kitchen and I encourage them to do so whenever possible. With this recipe, my oldest son (8years) can help with the chopping and my middle son (5years) likes to help with the peeling. To keep my youngest son (2 years) involved, I'll let him sprinkle the apples with lemon juice and stir while we are chopping. If he comes back around later in the process, I'll let him stir in the spices off the heat. Even when it's difficult and messy, I look for ways to let my sons be involved so that they're excited to eat the finished product.

This recipe was created inside, but there are numerous ways to enjoy beautiful fall apples cooked outside:
Dutch oven applesauce could certainly be cooked over a camp fire
Grill apples and serve with cheese and honey
Caramel apples on the campfire
Apple dumplings in the smoker

I truly hope you enjoy! Are you finding fall produce yet where you are?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

National Teddy Bear Day

Happy National Teddy Bear Day, today September 9, 2012!

My children have a literal menagerie of stuffed animals including a few good old Teddy Bears. Some of our favorite ways to play include reading to our bears and doctoring them up at the Teddy Bear vet.

Jez Alborough wrote one of my all time favorite teddy bear books, Where's My Teddy?, about a sweet little boy who misplaces his beloved bear in the woods. The book is fantastic for teaching rhyming, opposites, and real vs. pretend. Hop on over to my Helium article for some great educational activities to go along with a reading of the book.

How did you celebrate National Teddy Bear day today?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Learning About Animals Through Play

Kids seem to have an intrinsic curiosity about animals. From a neighbor's pet dogs to grazing white-tailed deer, I've noticed my kids always come running when given the opportunity to see and hopefully "say Hi to" a new animal.

I often try to utilize their love of animals to entice my kids to play learning games. The animal theme can be applied to many games. Here are a few games you may enjoy playing with your kids while practicing basic skills and learning more about animals around us.
  1. Animal scavenger hunt: this is a great game to play with kids at the zoo of course, but can also be played in your own backyard. Kids will use a digital camera or a nature journal to "capture" as many animals as they can find. Look for bugs in the garden, birds in the trees, and pets in nearby backyards. ***Remind kids that no animals should be touched without permission from an adult.***
  2. Animal ABCs: The idea of this game is to name an animal for each letter of the alphabet starting with A. Older kids may enjoy an additional memory element, listing each previous animal in alphabetical order before adding their own animal for the next letter of the alphabet.
  3. Animal charades: children will take turns acting as a chosen or assigned animal without providing any verbal or written cues while other players try to guess the animal being acted out.
  4. Animal sound match: this large group game is fun for parties or summer camps. Each child is assigned an animal sound and each sound is assigned to two players. When the round begins, children begin making their assigned animal sounds continuously until they can identify their match by listening. Matched animals sit quietly together until all the other animals find their match.
I hope you enjoy learning about animals with some of these games. What other ways do you learn about animals while playing with your kids?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

8 Ways to Enjoy Rainy Days

We have had very rainy, stormy weather here for the past two days. Generally, we try to get outside even on rainy days to splash in puddles, dig in the mud, and check out animals after the storm. With thunder and lightning though, we've been forced to stay pretty much inside.

From our kitchen window, we watched the storm clouds roll in and counted the seconds between flashes of lightning and booms of thunder. We read the Electric Storm (Magic School Bus Chapter Books, No. 14)and watched the Kicks Up a Storm episode on YouTube. Then after the rain let up some, we spied out the window at a beautiful black and blue butterfly drinking water from the puddles on our glass patio table (the bugger was gone by the time I grabbed my camera though).

We did get out yesterday evening for my 8-year old's first flag football scrimmage of the season. Unfortunately, after just 30 minutes of play, the scrimmage was called for more awful weather. By the time we made it to our car, we were drenched and freezing. So once we got home, the boys jumped into a bath to warm up before bed. I brought out some water color paints for my littlest to explore hoping that he would get out some of his energies there after a day all cooped up inside.

He loved painting in the bathtub! Scrubbing the watercolors off the walls with a sponge was just as fun as painting there in the first place.

With more rain forecast through the end of the week, I'll need to be creative to keep these active boys entertained and hopefully get outside each day. We have a few favorite rainy day activities that I'm sure we'll pull out before the end of the week:
  1. Watch the weather: we enjoy watching the skies change from our garage or screened in porch. When heavy rain or dangerous storms prohibit sitting outside, we'll watch from our kitchen window.
  2. Animal scavenger hunt: certain animals seem to come out shortly after each rainfall. We love to collect earth worms and deposit them back in the garden. We've also enjoyed seeing frogs, birds, and butterflies enjoying a bath or a drink from the rain's puddles.
  3. Singing in the rain: with rain boots and umbrellas, it's fun to just get out, run around, and make some noise in a light rain.
  4. Play in the mud: whether it's digging or stomping in the mud, it's fun to get outside after the rain and make a bit of a mess.
  5. Make art: if we can get outside, the wet driveway makes a beautiful canvas for vibrant chalk drawings. When we're stuck inside, crafts are a great way to keep little hands occupied and energies contained.
  6. Movement games: inside the house or out in the garage, we can roll a ball, bat a balloon back and forth, or play organized games like Simon Says.
  7. Bake something: there's something about dreary weather and comfort food. Banana bread in the oven warms the house and the soul.
  8. Build blanket forts: a few spare sheets and lots of chairs will occupy my little guys for hours. Building forts is great for encouraging problem solving and team work. Once the fort is built, they can read, do puzzles, and play board games in there until the sun comes out.

What are your family's favorite rainy day activities?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Fall Starts Tomorrow

Happy Labor Day!

Did you spend the day outside? I remember Labor Day picnics growing up. The entire neighborhood would congregate around the pool and the grill. We would swim, eat hamburgers, swing in the hammock, and play bocce ball.

The next day we'd jump into fall and school with both feet. But just because the pool is closed, does not mean that we also need to close our front doors.

I love spending time outside in the fall. The following is a list of some of our family favorites:
  1. Visit an orchard to pick apples or pears. For a reasonable price, you can purchase enough apples and pears to make sauces, butters, and pies to last until Thanksgiving.
  2. Cut a few apples in half, dip them in paint, and make an apple stamp collage.
  3. Take a hayride. Wear rain boots and a jacket and be prepared to spend a day at the farm. While you're there, pick pumpkins and enjoy some of the other fresh fall produce.
  4. When you get home, carve your pumpkins, bake with them, and roast the seeds. Save a few seeds for a seed spitting contest outside.
  5. Make a scarecrow with hay from the farm and old clothes waiting to be donated. Sit outside and read to your scarecrow. Kids are often more confident reading to an animal or inanimate object.
  6. Enjoy a petting zoo. Also take the time to ask the farmer lots of questions about what the animals eat and what their normal temperament is.
  7. Rake the leaves in your yard into letters, pictures, or mazes to follow. Of course, you can also rake the leaves into a pile and jump into them.
  8. Rake the leaves in your neighbor's yard for them just because.
  9. Collect leaves in several different shapes and sizes. Lay the leaves under a sheet of white paper and rub the paper with a crayon.
  10. Take a neighborhood nature walk. Stop to take pictures of each other in front of the fall foliage. Take note of any animals you see and how their behavior might be different in the fall as compared to other seasons.
  11. Take another walk at night and try to identify fall's emerging constellations such as Pegasus and Aquarius.
  12. Light a campfire and roast s'mores or banana boats.
  13. Attend a high school football game. Drink hot chocolate and cheer for the home team.
  14. Organize a two-hand touch football game in your neighborhood.
  15. Tailgate at home. Roll the grill into the driveway and set up a few lawn chairs. Enjoy listening to a game on the radio with a few neighborhood friends.
  16. Weed the garden, spread new mulch, and plant bulbs for spring flowers.
  17. In many regions, it's not too late to plant vegetables to harvest through the fall and winter. Try lettuces or spinach and several root crops that will mature before the ground freezes.

How do you enjoy the changing seasons outside? Don't forget to add your favorite ways to play outside before September 30 at our Outdoor Play Link Up!

Linked up at Sun Scholar's For the Kids Friday.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Outside Play Has Made Me a Better Mom

Do you see that picture? That's a very happy me. Where are my children? They're in the backyard exploring a creek bed with their Uncle Jeff.

I've always loved spending time outside with my children. But I've noticed some changes in our family since we made the commitment to spend time outside every day. For one, I'm a better parent. And overall, we are just a happier, closer, more creative family when we spend time outside and I believe there are three elements that explain why.
  1. Everyone is happier outside: when we play outside, the natural environment does so much to inspire imaginative play. Nature is the perfect playground and the perfect classroom all in one. Additionally, pressure is taken off of me to negotiate activities appropriate for our inside space. I could stay up all night reading about what new and expensive activities the Super Moms of the world have dreamed up for their kids, but I'll never live up and I'll never keep up. Our outside play is much more fun and meaningful than anything I can produce on my own.

  2. The kids get in less trouble outside: in the backyard, they can make more noise, more of a mess, and release more energies than will ever be acceptable inside. There is nothing they can break in the yard. No space that is off limits. We have taken great pains to ensure that our backyard is a safe and kid friendly place for imaginations to run wild. Even when we venture beyond our safe little space, the outdoors is generally much more kid-friendly than the indoors.

  3. I get in less trouble outside: Mostly because of everything listed in number 2, I spend less time disciplining my kids when they play outside. There's an additional element too and I'm terribly embarrassed to admit it. I'm just a better parent in public. It's a mixture of peer pressure and wanting to avoid judgement, but I just honestly yell, complain, and get annoyed with my kids a lot less often if I think there's a chance I'll be overheard.

They say that our character is defined by who we are when no one can see us. They also say that practice makes perfect. So I'll be in the backyard, practicing my best parenting until I can be the parent I am when everyone can see me.

Linked up at Friday's Nature Table.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Nature themed birthday party for all seasons

Since I first saw Sunny Mama's Picnic Party ideas on Pinterest a few weeks ago, I've been dreaming of hosting our own nature- themed birthday parties. The only problem is, my boys' birthdays are in December, January, and February. Even in North Carolina, an exclusively outdoor birthday party for kids is pretty much out of the question in the dead of winter.

So I've been researching, brainstorming, and pinning great ideas for nature-themed birthday parties for all seasons. By December we should be good to go.

An outside venue is often going to be a cost saver. Look for parks with pavilions for rent and remind guests to dress appropriately for the weather. Have a few extra sweaters, hats, and gloves available for anyone who forgets their own. Regardless of the season, have sunscreen available for outside activities. In winter, when outside is not an option, consider booking a group tour of a nature center, aquarium, or even the library.

Be eco friendly and encourage your guests to do the same. Use recycled paper products and utensils. In addition to a trash bag, provide guests with a place to dispose of recyclable and compostable materials. In lieu of a wrapped gift, encourage guests to make a donation to a wildlife foundation or other cause. You can also host a gift exchange of second hand books and toys - an additional benefit is that every kid goes home with a gift, not just the birthday child.

Fresh whole foods can be served any time of the year. Cute snacks might include ants on a log, broccoli florets, and melon balls. For dessert, consider serving fresh berries under a "cloud" of whipped cream or cup cakes decorated like bugs or mountains. Campfire foods, such as s'mores and hot dogs, can be a fun way to prepare food and keep warm.

Activities should be selected carefully considering the weather and the age of the guests who will be participating. In colder months, a mixture of indoor and outdoor activities will keep guests warmer and more content. As Sunny Mama suggested, a nature walk is a fantastic activity for young guests. If weather prohibits an outside nature walk, you can stage a nature-themed scavenger hunt inside by hiding animal figures or print outs of flowers.

Provide guests with several sheets, clothes pins, and twine to construct a fort. Inside the fort, they can tell campfire stories, sing songs, or play games.

Regardless of the weather, you can also view nature cams at a variety of different zoos to watch the animals in their habitats. Crafts can be done inside or out depending on your venue and the season. Make bird feeders in the winter from toilet paper rolls, peanut butter, and bird seed. Make terrariums or plant seeds in early spring. Paint butterfly houses in the fall.

Party favors are a great opportunity to send guests home with inspiration to get out and enjoy some nature play after the party. Find 15 ideas for inexpensive nature themed birthday party favors for all seasons in this article I wrote recently. Wrap favors in a red bandana for a cute hobo sack look.
With these ideas, I can't wait for birthday season to roll around!