Friday, August 28, 2009

up north!

We are heading to the north woods for an extended get-away with the kids. We're going here:

And here:

And here:

'Gonna be lots to tell you when we get back! Have a wonderful week.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

teachable moment

So, I've realized that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for the outdoors. Recently, a close relative who shall remain nameless was at our house playing with the kids. L and J were full of stories about our recent "camping trip."

"We played in the woods and catched bugs!" She gushed.

Relative: "Oh, that must be why you have so many bug bites. Do they itch? Do they hurt?"

L had to think about that one. "Yeah." she concurred. It's not as if this fact hadn't occurred to her prior to this moment, but it wasn't where she had been going with her story.

Relative: "Did you get a lot more bug bites? You were outside for such a long time. I bet you got a lot of bug bites."

L: "Yeah, I did."

Relative: "That must not have been very much fun. There sure are a lot of bugs who like to bite people."

L: Slightly puzzled, "Why?"

Relative: "That's just what they do, honey. They just land on you and bite your skin and drink your blood. Maybe that's why you got sick, maybe something bit you and made you sick?"

(Gasp!) Another teachable moment. This time, it's not the kids whose tolerance of bugs I want to impact. But this was definitely a "choose your battles" moment. Some people, this particular relative especially, are completely convinced of certain things, hold certain opinions (bugs = bad) and aren't much interested in discussing it. Might even be offended that I'd try.

Seconds passed while I thought about this. Wisely, I refrained from speaking. How could I best counter her negative comments about bugs? How could I undo the negative frame Relative had just put on the experience of catching bugs, of being outside? Should I try to tell This Relative some of the many great things about bugs, perhaps remind her how much the kids enjoyed being outside? I knew I couldn't challenge her belief about bugs--I know for a fact she won't budge. But how could I gently redirect the course of conversation? I sat there, contemplating my next move.

L: "No, I just had a virus. The doctor said. And catching bugs is FUN!" she gushed, leaping off the chair to go play.

'Atta girl!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

the camping trip that wasn't

This was to be the second night this summer camping in a tent and the kids were so excited. Unfortunately, L woke up this morning with a low fever. Since we all really wanted to go, and had already loaded the car (no small feat) D and I had planned to "see how the day goes" and once we got there, a little after lunchtime, the kids had a great time playing in the woods, catching bugs in their little tiny bug nets (never mind that they were all mosquitoes!) and we even made some sandcastles at the beach for a while.

On our walk back to the campsite I spotted a tiny baby toad hopping in the grass. I picked it up and the kids were thrilled. L held it so gently and carefully, and J touched it ever so softly with one outstretched finger. When it was time to let the toad go, L gingerly lowered it to the grass and said "bye bye toad, thanks for showing yourself!" She seemed to be doing OK. A little less spunky than usual, but overall pretty good, considering.

Dom and I had been on the fence up to this point about whether to stay or go, should we tough it out and stay through the night, should we just bag it and go home. Normally I'd err on the side of staying at home when one of the kids is that sick...but....we had come all this way, we were camping, everyone had been so looking forward to it. And who knows? We told ourselves. Maybe she'll be fine. I admit that much of this was purely self-interest on our part. We have so wanted to get out camping this summer. The last time we went camping, in early May, it was wonderful, the kids had constant fun and fwhen they finally slept they slept the whole night through. And, we figured today she could just take it easy and maybe the medicine would help kick down the fever enough for her to have fun. That strategy got us through the afternoon, anyway.

Yeah. But then she barfed. Right after dinner, all over our good friends' sleeping pad. That pretty much cinched it for us. Despite her pleas of "but I want to sleep in the tent...please can't we sleep in the tent?" We toasted one last marshmallow, re-loaded the car, and made a long, sad trek back to the city.

Better luck next time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

sounds good

Aren't children wonderful the way they just take it all in? They are naturally inclined to use all their senses, all the time. We adults get so used to processing our world through one or two channels, it's easy to overlook all the delightful other ways we can interact with the natural world. Here are a few ideas.

Touch: Not only can we touch things with our hands, but we can try to notice the way different things feel under our feet. The kids love walking around barefooted as much as I do, so we are constantly taking in information about the world through the bottoms of our feet! But how much do we really notice? I've been asking them to really feel the ground, the logs, the grass. Take your shoes off too! What does the sidewalk feel like? How about the forest floor? Can you find a place to stand where you can put one foot in the hot sunny sand and one foot in the cool water of a lake? What's that like? Can you feel with another part of your body, aside from your hands and feet? How about an arm? A cheek?

Sight: When was the last time you laid on your back and just looked up through the tree branches? Or lay on the ground and gazed at the clouds floating by? I'm not just talking about tilting your head back either. I mean this: stop, lay down where you are, change your body's orientation from vertical to horizontal, and look. What do you see? Describe it. Watch clouds for a while. Or watch the leaves dance in the breeze. Your kids will be great at this. Ask them to show you how. Another idea: Lie on your tummy and look at what's in front of you. What's down in the grass? Find five things, or ten, or twenty. Make a loop out of string, lay it down on the ground and discover together what's inside that circle.

Taste: Of course, I'm not advocating that you eat the wild plants you find. (Unless you are hiking with a very knowledgable mycologist or naturalist, o'course.) But--where can you find things to taste outside? We have a patch of mint in the garden and the kids love to grab a leaf or two and munch on it when we're playing out back. They also seem to enjoy licking rocks, don't ask me why. This won't hurt anyone, (although it makes my mother cringe) and I like that they are exploring so naturally using all their senses. (It simply hasn't occurred to them not to) Other ideas: Have you ever tried to catch raindrops on your tongue? When was the last time you ate snow? If you aren't entirely comfortable literally taking in the natural world through taste, then why not try eating more meals outside? Or making a batch of Sun Tea? Let a popsicle melt in a cup and drink the sun-warmed juice. Sunshine has an amazing effect on the taste of food and drink.

Smell: The kids are (I think) lucky to have a mom with a bionic nose-and (yay!) they're starting to comment on the smells they notice outside. It's amazing what they can smell. L can smell the rain coming. J loves to smell the flowers. They both love the smell of dirt. (but who doesn't?) Not so much the fresh tar on the street, or the garbage truck as it drives by. So maybe you don't have a bionic nose-how can you encourage your kids (and yourself) to notice more of the world of smell? Next time you're on a walk, challenge yourself to smell ten different things (or let the kids pick the number)-be they plants, fence posts, your neighbor's wet dog running past. Just notice things, or actually make a point to stop and sniff.

Hearing: In the city, especially, it's easy to get used to tuning out sounds. In my neighborhood, there is car traffic as well as almost constant air traffic-a lot to tune out. It's often hard to pick out anything else. But, we love to try. We listen in layers: What do you hear besides the cars? Besides the planes? We close our eyes and listen. (Closing your eyes really does help! It shuts out the other stimuli) They can pick out the birds, the dog barking down the street, the kids playing on the slide nearby. What else can you hear? I ask them. They can pick out the water lapping on the shoreline, the wheels of a stroller. Try this sometime: Go someplace. The park, the forest, your yard. A street corner. Close your eyes. Put up one finger for each sound you hear. You don't have to identify it. In fact, if you make an agreement that you don't have to know what the sound is, it may help you hear more sounds. How many can you hear? (Note: I have found that this is also a wonderful way to "get centered" when I'm stressed out. Brings me right back to the present moment.)

Got any fun sensory games to share? I'd love to hear 'em.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The story of the stump and the log

Recently I happened to drive past a place where the city's forestry department was doing some tree work. Excited, I lept out of the car and described my grand plan for the back yard. Forester Man just shrugged and said, "Sure.Pick out a couple logs." Then he cheerfully carried them to my car. Hooray! I am so grateful! Thank you Minneapolis Park Board.

Something interesting (and unexpected) has happened. At first, the kids were thrilled. That first day they spent a lot of time climbing, balancing and dancing on the log and the stump. But now, the novelty has worn off. When we're outside playing, the kids seem to forget about them. They often play "around" them, rather than integrating them into their play. When they do "remember" that they're there, they love them, and do lots of climbing, piling rocks on them, lying down on the log, etc. But still, it's as if they view the plastic stuff as "toys" and the other stuff (stump, log) as "not toys." So how do I blur that line for them?

Without making a big deal out of it, I try to include them whenever we play: piling sand and rocks and flowers onto them, sitting on the stump to watch the birds, using the log as a lookout tower. Lining up J's endless collection of vehicles on the log, to see if it can hold them all. This week we'll do some crayon rubbings on the bark and paint with water on the stump. Maybe we'll have a snack on the log. We might gather up all of our rocks and arrange them on the log. We'll see.

With reminders and encouragement, the kids seem to easily incorporate the log and stump into our play. What's more, they really enjoy it. I think it's just going to be a matter of time and habit.
So, at the risk of sounding like a total treehugging freak, I am nurturing the relationship between my kids and the log and stump!

Monday, August 10, 2009

stormy weather

Are your kids scared of storms? Mine go back and forth. Sometimes they love 'em, sometimes not so much. If there is a rainstorm during the day, what fun! We are outside in rain gear, splashing away, collecting the rain in buckets, watching the flowers in our garden get drenched.

What helps my kids relax about storms is to watch them, experience them, and talk about them. It's great to find ways to have fun in the rain. Even a simple walk down the street can be a real treat during a storm. When a nighttime storm happens, remembering the fun we've had playing in rain during the day can be a real comfort. Think about it: when we head inside at the first sign of rain, what does that communicate to our kids?

Thursday night's storm was a real doozy. The lightning and loud thunder went on for a couple of hours in the night. I knew L would be pretty freaked by this one. Sure enough, when I opened her bedroom door and crept in, I found her with her hands over her ears, and her face squashed into her pillow. She was sweating. (J slept right through it!)

I brought her to my bed, which is surrounded on all sides by windows. There is a wonderful, spreading silver maple just outside the window. I perched her on my lap and held her tight. Although it was the middle of the night, the city lights, and the frequent bursts of lightning kept the yard pretty well lit. We watched the rain. We watched the tree moving in the wind, and I rocked her with that same rhythm. When the sky lit up with lightning, I held her tight and told her she was safe.

Then, I started pointing out what I could see, and asking her to tell me what she could see. Once she started noticing the familiar she seemed to feel more comfortable, and it helped her mellow out considerably:

  • We watched the limbs wave back and forth in the rain.

  • We watched the raindrops pour down over stuff in the yard: my wheelbarrow, the lawnchairs, the sandbox, the birdbath.

  • I pointed out the garden, and described the water going down into the soil, so the plants could slurp it up with their roots.

  • We listed animals that were so happy it was raining: The ducks on the lake. The birds in the trees, getting a bath and splashing in the puddles. The squirrels in the trees, getting their fur wet and clean.

  • We remembered times that she and J and I have splashed in puddles and played in the rain.

  • And, of course, we talked about thunder. I didn't bother explaining to her that thunder is created by the sudden burst of heated air from the lightning. I didn't go into details about electrons flying around in the sky (a.k.a. lightning). I simply told her that thunder is the sound made by two heavy clouds bumping into each other way up in the sky. The clouds are heavy because they are full of water. A little "scientific license" is necessary sometimes. Heavy clouds, she can relate to. Electrons and air pressure? We'll get to that, later.

Since we didn't go out in the middle of the night, the next day, we checked out the effects of the storm. We looked at puddles. Splashed in them. We checked out the garden, plants still drooping and heavy with the rain. We felt the dirt, felt the softness, smelled the richness of the wet soil. We needed to get up close and personal with the rainstorm. This takes some of the mystery away, and it's good for kids to see that everything's OK, and for the most part, still the same, even after a loud, wet, long rainstorm. Wet and soggy and muddy, but OK.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Got to love the lake!

We head to the lake whenever it's warm enough to swim without our teeth rattling. Our closest one is Lake Harriet, but Minneapolis is just full of great swimming holes/nature adventures waiting to happen.

Here are my top ten reasons for loving our wonderful urban lakes:

10. Sand, sand, sand. An endless supply of it. The kids make towers, riverbeds, and ice cream cones in the sand. And who doesn't love having their feet and legs buried?

9. L's brilliant creation: Sand Angels. (think of snow angels, in summer)

8. The glorious cocktail of smells! Seriously! Have you ever noticed all the smells in the air on a summer day near the water? Take your kids to the lake and ask them what they can smell.

7. The tiny fish in Lake Harriet. I believe they are sunfish. My kids are positively thrilled whenever they appear. L is determined to "get one" by catching it with her hands. You go, girl. I love that they are not afraid to play in a lake when there are fish around! (when I was a kid, my mom was utterly horrified by the thought of this, and therefore so was I, and so we rarely if ever swam in lakes)

6. Our urban lakes are home to lots of cool birds including mallards, canada geese, American Coots, and even, in early spring, the Common Loon. My kids love to watch around the lake. And these are great ones to watch: not afraid of people, generally easy to spot, fairly slow-moving, and active throughout the day.

5. The water is generally warm enough that the kids are happy to play and play and play in it. For a really long time. Lake water is so different from pool water. It feels different on the skin. No chlorine. (although the lakes are decidedly NOT chemical free, not by a long shot) Water has an amazing ability to soothe the soul, no? Have you ever laid down in the water, with just your face exposed?

4. Swimming with unseen animals and plants is something I believe everyone should experience. How else are your kids going to learn that this is safe, OK, fun even? See # 7 above.

3. I realize I am a total geek, but I love having the chance to see the great big Milfoil Harvester, whirring around on the lake.

2. Sometimes, it's really windy, and L loves to watch the waves. Sometimes it's loud and makes interesting noises, and it always feels very exciting to be near water that's moving in this way. I remember the first time L experienced this. She hugged her kitty, "Sad Johnny" and just watched and watched the lake.

1. You just never know what you're going to come across.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

natural play spaces

No, this photo wasn't taken in my back yard. Don't I wish. We took a trip to one of my favorite places last week, and as usual I left feeling totally inspired to make the yard even more kid-friendly and a better natural play space. When I take the kids out to play in nature, I'm always delighted at the things they come up with to do. Climbing, jumping, pushing, pulling, dumping-- it's better "large muscle activity" than any plastic playground, it really is.
Here's my wish list:
  • some good, climbable rocks
  • a log or two, for climbing, balancing, and scooting around on
  • more sand: heaps and heaps of it
  • shrubs, or willow walls or something, for secret "hiding places"

We're off to a pretty good start. The yard is just full of bare dirt which I sweet-talked the Lyndale Avenue construction crew into delivering one afternoon. After using the dirt to correct some landscaping errors, I heaped up the leftovers under an ash tree, where nothing seems willing to grow anyway. This has has provided the kids with hours of fun-they've shaped it into a road, a river, a "town" and of course, it's endlessly good for dumping into the water table or the swimming pool. I want to add sand to "The Dirt Pile" (as we affectionately call it) so it's not quite so muddy and prone to washing away, and then just have a dedicated area in the backyard which would serve as a large "sandbox"--and finally ditch our plastic "tugboat" sandbox, with tiny built-in seats, which my tailbone hates.

So, my next project is to find a good log or two. I have a friend who works at a tree care company, so I've asked him if he can score me one. I'm also scouting my mother's back yard, which borders on a wetland. Surely there must be a reasonably-sized log out there somewhere. If all else fails, check this out. I can actually buy a "natural balance beam" (also known as a log) online. Ah, gotta love free enterprise. Why does this surprise me? You can buy dirt, and rocks, why not logs too? It is just me, or does this seem just a little too weird?