7 ways to welcome mud season

mud sensory table

Oh my lord, I thought it would never come. But despite the waist-high piles of snow and ice settled around my house, there’s finally been enough thawing to begin to welcome that lovely microseason of early spring known round these parts as Mud Season. Although I know it will soon have my washing machine begging for mercy, I am so excited for my kiddos to have something to play in outside besides the ice and snow that has blanketed our part of the world since last November.

Let the Children Play had a great post a few years ago on how to embrace and even, gulp, enhance mud play for preschool-aged kids.

Puddle jumping is the classic mud season activity, and one that kids certainly don’t need to be taught or provided any encouragement to do, in my experience. But I’m just putting it on here to encourage parents to give it a try themselves! I think my all time favorite Henry and Mudge story is Henry and Mudge in Puddle Trouble, where Henry and Mudge sneak out and go bonkers in a huge mud puddle, and then when Henry’s dad finds them, instead of being mad that they a) snuck out without a grown-up, b) made an enormous mess of themselves, and c) splashed mud all over him, he just decides to jump in along with them. I absolutely adore these photos that Melissa of Fireflies and Mud Pies took of her boys going to town in some amazing mud puddles.

Another great idea is to stock a simple mud pie kitchen, like this one from Inner Child Fun. Some vessels, some utensils, a water source, and a few extra ingredients like dried beans or birdseed, and you’ve got yourself a pretty sweet set up for some mud kitchen magic.

You can also use mud to create art with, believe it or not. Anything from making hand- and foodprints on a large cardstock or canvas

to making sculptures and drawings with mud

and apparently, you can even make paint out of mud!

Speaking of paint, I can’t wait for a good rainy day to try this cool raindrop splatter paint project from Little Page Turners.

Happy mudding, and if you’ve got any more fun mud-based play ideas, send ’em my way!

winter’s last gasp wishlist

Oh my god the snow, you guys, THE GOLL-DANGED BEAUTIFUL TREACHEROUS SNOW. About 4 feet so far up where we live, and that’s small potatoes compared to our friends in eastern Massachusetts. Ethereal, marshmallowy landscapes that create impassable roads and frightening ice dams on your roof. I love it and I hate it. I’m enchanted and yet I’m halfway to losing my mind.

In a few hours, it will be March. MARCH! The month in which Spring officially begins! Although it usually arrives in the midst of a giant snowstorm, I’m clinging to the knowledge that in these parts, the first day of Spring means that in about two more weeks, it will actually be Spring. Brown, muddy spring with almost no flowers yet, but Spring nonetheless.

So with that in mind, I’m trying to make the last few weeks of this seemingly endless winter go by more quickly with an end-of-winter wish list. Some wintry things I’d like to do before Old Man Winter finally eats it once and for all.

1. Make an Ice Cube Garland

ice cube garland

This picture is from a few Februarys ago – I can’t believe we could see grass at this time of year! Making an ice-cube garland is super easy and a great way to add a little color to the unrelenting whiteness around us. Just fill an ice-cube tray with water, add drops of food coloring to each cube compartment to make different colors, and dip a bit of twine into each cube with the end hanging out. Once they’re frozen, tie each one onto a length of twine and tie the ends to trees or whatever outdoor place you have to tie things to. The nice thing about doing this project when there’s snow on the ground is that as they melt, the colors transfer from the garland to the snow below, so you end up with a cool rainbow splotch pattern on the ground.

2. Read Snow Music one more time.

Oh, man. This is my favorite winter picture book. I’ve been meaning to write about it literally since I started this blog and now I’m so freaking sick of the snow that I can’t face writing an entire blog post about how magical it is. But seriously, this book makes it extremely magical. It perfectly captures the sounds of a new snowfall. I remember once in college, walking home from work on a snowy evening when everyone had already left campus for winter break, the streets were so deserted that as I crossed Lincoln Avenue, I could literally hear each snowflake hitting the ground. I was so struck by the magicalness of it that I just stood there on the median, listening. Lynne Rae Perkins perfectly captures it in the opening of Snow Music (“Everybody whisper: Peth peth peth peth peth peth peth peth”) and it just gets cooler from there. The music of a snowplow scraping down the street. The music of an escaped dog, running happily through the snow. The “k-tk” of a dried leaf blowing along the pavement. Just trust me folks, this is a good one.

3. Make Ina Garten’s Hot Chocolate.

gourmet hot chocolate

You really can’t enjoy hot chocolate in the spring, summer, or even fall like you can in the winter, so I’m going to go out with a bang. This Ina Garten recipe is the most decadent, yummy thing ever. It’s not my everyday in-from-playing-in-the-snow recipe, but it deserves to be drunk at least one more time before winter’s over. (As do we all.)

4. Make Swedish Snowball Lanterns.

I saw these the other day on The Artful Parent and posted excitedly about them on the facebook page, but my plans to make them the next day were foiled by some unforgivingly cold temperatures. Nonetheless, we still have plenty of snow (rueful laugh) so this is definitely on the docket. Maybe we can even make an ice lantern with the enormous chunks of ice I just had hacked off my roof. Oh New England, you beautiful snowy ice damming bastard.

5. Sugar on Snow.

sugar on snow

This is what spring in New England looks like, folks. You still have plenty of snow, but now with fresh maple syrup. Since we just finished reading Little House in the Big Woods and are entering maple syrup season, this is the perfect dessert of the moment. All you have to do is heat your maple syrup to 234F, drizzle over some fresh snow, and enjoy. Next, eat a pickle. Cause that’s the New England way. Other acceptable accompaniments: coffee and a donut.

6. Visit an Ice Castle

I probably have the only 4-year-old girl in America who isn’t into Frozen. (There was a brief period after we watched it last winter when she spent a lot of time playing Frozen. Which in her case meant pretending to be a dinosaur hunting and devouring Elsa and Anna.) However, I think any kid – hey, any adult – would be enchanted by these awesome ice castles. There’s a couple of these in our region, and I think they’re closing really soon, perhaps as early as next Sunday.

7. Pajama Muppet Show Marathon

What they lack in Elsa and Anna fan-dom, my kiddos more than make-up for in their devotion to the Muppets. Muppets were the only thing they asked Santa for this year. (Unfortunately they had to go and fall in love with the most obscure and un-merchandise-friendly ones: Beaker and Camilla… these kids never make it easy for me, I tell ya.) But Santa delivered, and muppets are right up there with legos, dragons, and dinosaurs for most played-with toys in our house at the moment. So while I love spending the morning outside playing in the snow, I’m keeping this idea in my back pocket for the next time we all just feel like hunkering down with a cozy blanket and having some laughs. I have a feeling they’ll all be excited about this:

how to let hanukkah shine (even when you also celebrate christmas!)

11215164975_bbc66724ae_oSo yeah. I’m officially putting it right out there: I’m one of those bad Jews who celebrates Christmas. Like many children of interfaith marriages, I grew up celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. Though even before her marriage to my lapsed-Protestant dad, my (Jewish) mom’s side had already been putting up Christmas trees and welcoming Santa for generations, so if you are troubled by that you had best take it up with the 19th century Fishbeins who passed the tradition down to me and mine. If you want to know more about the history of Christmas-celebrating Jews, check out this fascinating piece from, of all places, The Jewish Daily Forward.

As lucky as I feel to have the joy of celebrating both these festive holidays, I do feel like Hanukkah, a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish religion, can feel a little lackluster under the shadow of the behemoth that is American Christmas, even if you don’t celebrate Christmas in your home. So over the years I’ve honed a few strategies for bringing out the excitement and beauty of this holiday for my family, with traditions that highlight the anticipation and nostalgia of celebrating Hanukkah, as well as foster a sense of connection with Jewish history, and let it stand alone as a bright light in the dark of December.

1) Start early. (And if you celebrate Christmas too, start that late).

As if I didn’t have enough winter celebrating to manage, I went and had a child on December 19. It seems like every pregnant woman I’ve known perseverates on one thing that is The Problem I Must Solve Before This Baby Comes. For some it’s researching, test driving, buying and returning and re-buying the perfect stroller, or going on a manic pixie dream nesting spree to create the perfect nursery. For me, it was figuring out how the heck I was going to make my daughter’s birthday ever feel special amid the hubbub of the crazy Hanukkristmas michegas we have going on over here. So one tradition we began was that we don’t put our Christmas tree up until the 20th. (Other December birthday tips: never use holiday wrapping paper for birthday presents, no combination birthday-holiday gifts, at least until the child is old enough to ask for something really freaking expensive, and do not be afraid of the outdoor birthday party! If I can do it in snowy Vermont with a 2 year old, so can you!)

Anyway, all that to say that waiting until later in the month to put up our Christmas tree has the added benefit of giving us a nice long time to focus on Hanukkah (uh, and also the whole, y’know, birthday thing). I get all our Hanukkah books out the day after Thanksgiving, (uh, except for last year when Hanukkah came so early we had to start reading Hanukkah stories as soon as Halloween was done!) Beginning to talk and read about Hanukkah and all the ways we celebrate it well in advance of the actual holiday help to build up a sense of excitement and anticipation for the holiday to begin. Thanks to the terrific PJ Library program, we have quite a collection of Hanukkah books! Here are some of my favorites:

Grandma’s Latkes by Malka Drucker is a great picture book about a little girl making latkes with her grandma and talking about the story of Hanukkah. However you may want to edit it as you’re reading as it doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome parts of the story. (E.g., I leave out the part where Mattathias kills a poor Jewish guy who agrees to acquiesce to the Syrian soldiers’ demands.)

Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap by Deborah Bodin Cohen also tells a lot of the Hanukkah story, with no gruesome details. It’s about a train engineer in Israel who has some mishaps on his way back home and ends up making friends with a Bedouin and celebrating Hanukkah with him in the desert. Bonus points for depiction of a peaceful Arab-Israeli friendship.

Latkes and Applesauce by Fran Manushkin, now sadly out of print though still readily available from used booksellers, is the story of a poor Jewish family whose celebration of Hanukkah is derailed by a terrible snowstorm, which brings a forlorn kitten and dog to their door begging for shelter. The cat and dog end up helping the family find their own Hanukkah miracle.

Inside Out Grandma by Joan Rothenberg. I love this book because it gets right to the heart about what I love about holidays and traditions. Every time you celebrate, you are connected to all the past celebrations in your memories, and those of your parents and grandparents before you. The grandma in this story wears her clothes inside out to remind her of all the things about celebrating Hanukkah that will spark her memory to buy lots of oil for frying her potato latkes.

Hanukkah Bear by Eric Kimmel This story, first published in the stellar Cricket Magazine and then later as a picture book under the title “The Chanukkah* Guest” has the feeling of an old Jewish folk tale. It tells of Bubba Brayna, an elderly woman whose sight and hearing are not what the were, but who still makes the best latkes in her village, and her Hanukkah visitor, who is not, in fact, the rabbi she is expecting.

*A sign of the times – they changed the spelling likely due to the fact that in recent years Hanukkah has become the most popular spelling, ousting longtime favorite Chanukah. (Chanukkah with two K’s being much further down the list). I guess when Reform Judaism and the Library of Congress have adopted Hanukkah as their official spelling, you go with the tide.

Another great Eric Kimmel Hanukkah book is When Mindy Saved Hanukkah. If you’re a fan of The Borrowers, The Littles, or the obscure 1980s comic strip The Tweens at Deep Lake, you’ll love this tale of a tiny family living inside the walls of a synagogue, and their daring mission to bring home a Hanukkah candle. The illustrations, by Barbara McClintock, of Adele and Simon fame, are gorgeous and stunningly detailed.

I can’t talk about Eric Kimmel without mentioning his Caldecott Award-winning masterpiece, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. Another story originally published in Cricket, this book finds Jewish stock folk tale character Hershel of Ostropol outwitting a series of Goblins in order to end their suppression of Hanukkah celebrations in the village. While it has nothing to do with the tale of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil, Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins draws on the same themes of bravery against a mighty foe and carrying steadily on with Jewish practices in the face of oppression. Though the illustrations, by my beloved Trina Schart Hyman, might be a little scary for some preschoolers, my three year-old monster and dragon fan daughter adores them.

I always love the sweet Jewish holiday books by Jane Breskin Zalben. Her book Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah is no exception. It’s a bit long for reading at one sitting, but it tells about Pearl and her family celebrating Hanukkah in different ways for each of the eight nights, and includes instructions and recipes for readers to try at home.

Which brings me to my next Hanukkah tip:

2) Celebrate a different way each night. Beyond lighting candles, saying blessings, and opening a present, there are lots of different aspects of Hanukkah that you can highlight to bring a new excitement to each night. I actually got this idea from a PJ Library blog post a few years ago, and we have had great success with this idea ever since.

Some of the different themes we’ve enjoyed are:

Decorating Night. This a great one for the first day of Hanukkah, to get your house looking festive right off the bat. Spend the afternoon making some decorations and make sure to hang them up in time to light your menorah at sundown! Here are some decorating crafts I love:

Dreidel garland. (We did an even simpler version than this, just cut out a bunch of dreidel shapes from some blue paint chips I had left over from our entryway painting project, and stitched them together with the sewing machine.)

IMG_3335Magen David window stars

Sculptural Lego menorahs

Hanukkah stained glass windows

And for the very littles, Handprint menorahs!

Singing and Dancing Night

I start busting out my Hanukkah song repertoire around the same time as the books come out, right after Thanksgiving. By the first week of December, my kids are singing Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah in their sleep. I find that with kids and music, the more times they have heard a song, the more they enjoy it, so we sing songs ALL the time. But it’s still fun to set one night aside as a night for a Hanukkah dance party! Another fun way to celebrate music night is to sing Hanukkah songs for a friend or family member, whether in person or via skype. I guarantee there will be major kvelling.

Latke Night

This is probably my longest standing Hanukkah tradition, with the exception of candle-lighting. My cousin and I (and in later years, my boyfriend-then-husband and I) used to throw an annual Latke and Egg Nog bash and over time, my latke preparing method became this finely honed masterpiece of a recipe. No kidding guys, these latkes are fool-proof and superb. Savory, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside, even when reheated. And they smell like heaven when you’re cooking. My family is already getting excited for them and Hanukkah is still 8 days away!Now with the aforementioned December birthday in our family we don’t usually get around to hosting a holiday party, but I still maintain my habit of frying up about 8 dozen latkes near the beginning of Hanukkah, and my recipe reheats beautifully in the oven for subsequent nights or for bringing to a party that somebody else invites us to!

And if you like to make your own applesauce, this is my absolute favorite recipe: Roasted Applesauce a la Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe fame (home of that famous dry-brined chicken, which is extremely succulent and pairs quite well with a dinner of latkes and applesauce).

Community Night

Speaking of parties, whether it’s getting together with extended family, friends, or strangers, we always try to spend at least one night of Hanukkah doing something with a community of other Jewish families. If you live in a city, it’s usually not to hard to find a synagogue or JCC who is hosting some family-friendly Hanukkah events. In other places, like here in rural Vermont, it’s not quite as easy. We have been lucky enough to be incorporated into the small but festive network of southeast Vermont Jews and can usually count on somebody to organize a Hanukkah gathering. Maybe I’ll even have the energy to host one again myself one of these years!

If you’re not a party person, another way to celebrate with your community is to attend a Hanukkah concert, play or puppet show performance. We had a great time a couple years ago at the Yiddish Book Center seeing the Galloping Gryphons wonderful interactive performance of The Magic Dreidel and A Parakeet Named Dreidela musical based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. My kids had such a good time singing along that two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, in fact, my daughter laid awake in bed singing, at the top of her lungs, “HOW MANY CANDLES IN OUR CHANUKIAH?” Score one for Hanukkah.

Mitzvah Night

I think that spending one of the nights of Hanukkah focused on helping others is a wonderful way to share the joy of the season and help foster a sense of empathy and generosity in kids. Whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen, making a donation to charity, or just spreading holiday cheer by visiting a nursing home or bringing some treats to your neighbors, doing mitzvot is a really fun and rewarding way to celebrate Hanukkah.

If you want to make your mitzvah night part of a larger movement, Massachussetts parents Robert and Rachel Glazer and Amy Finn started The Fifth Night Project a few years ago. This project focuses on making real the concept of tzedakah (charitable giving) to preschoolers. Instead of receiving presents, kids go to a store and buy a present for someone in need. Other cities across the US have joined in and host annual gatherings  to make these gift donations as a group, making it more concrete for kids just how their gift is going to help others.

Even if there is no Fifth Night event in your city, I absolutely love the idea of creating a nationwide tradition to spend this night of Hanukkah giving to others.

Dreidel NightdreidlNothing like a good old fashioned dreidel tournament to get the blood pumping! We have a penny jar that we use for gelt, but other fun things to play with are buttons, poker chips, or if you don’t mind the victors eating their spoils, nuts, raisins, m&ms, or of course chocolate gelt. At 6 and nearly 4, my kids have mastered both the rules of the game and the motor skills of a good dreidel spin. If you need a reminder on what the letters mean and how to play, here ya go.

Sweets Night

So I don’t know what brought the Israeli obsession with sufganiyot to America in recent years, but any tradition that involves eating a lot of donuts is one I can get behind. (Despite the fact that sufganiyot are like the Elf on the Shelf of Hanukkah – the Israeli Labor Federation popularized them in the 1920s as an alternative to latkes, knowing that many home cooks shy away from deep-frying, thereby creating jobs and income for Federation bakers.) And actually, they are not that hard to make at home. Two Lazy Gourmets has this easy sufganiyot recipe that is as tasty as it sounds.And if you’re not up for celebrating the miracle of the oil by deep frying dough, you can always satisfy your holiday sweet tooth with some sugar cookies, Hanukkah brownies, or chocolate apricot gelt.

Memory Night

I think taking a night to think and talk about favorite holiday memories is such a sweet way to spend the final night of Hanukkah. PJ Library even suggests making a couple of scrapbook or journal pages about favorite Hanukkah memories, and adding to that each year. Reinforcing what you have loved about the holiday is a great way to give it some sticking power, especially when, like this year, the end of Hanukkah is succeeded immediately by the excitement of Christmas Eve.

 3) Don’t make it all about the presents.

It’s really hard, even for families celebrating just Hanukkah, not to feel they have to compete with Christmas on the present front. Heck, it’s hard for Christmas not to compete with Christmas(TM) on the present front! The whole tradition of giving Hanukkah gifts was, in fact, created specifically to bolster Hanukkah’s luster as the American Christmas began to take on epic proportions at the turn of the 20th century.

Deciding how much is too much is a very personal decision for each family. We choose not to give our kids any presents for Hanukkah, (and for that matter, only a few items for Christmas). We are lucky to have very generous relatives on my husband’s side who give presents on Hanukkah, and when we celebrate all together, seeing the kids joyfully opening their Hanukkah gifts is indeed one of the happiest moments of the holiday. However, I really enjoy that all our other nights of Hanukkah are spent really celebrating and relishing all the other wonderful aspects of the holiday, and not just rushing through to the presents. Not to seem like a total sanctimonious simplicity grinch, but I find that having a very limited amount of presents helps our children fully appreciate and enjoy the gifts they do receive.

When we first became parents, my husband especially was concerned that Hanukkah be something really special for our kids and not just a warm-up for Christmas, so he was a little skeptical about my idea of not buying them any presents. But six Hanukkahs later, he is fully on board with our festive, musical, delicious, fun-filled, and low-on-presents way of celebrating. I think one of his most vindicating moments may have been one year when we were staying in a hotel room in Baltimore, visiting family for Hanukkah, and watching the ending of White Christmas on the TV. Our then two year-old daughter saw the little elf dancers twirling and spinning around and yelled, “SEVIVON, SOV, SOV, SOV!” (For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Hanukkah 2, Christmas 0.)

Another one of our favorite Hanukkah picture books is the lovely holiday story Light the Lights. It follows a little girl through the holiday season as her interfaith family celebrates first Hanukkah and then Christmas. It ends with the line “…she remembered the bright winter lights in the dark winter nights for a long, long time.” The glory of Christmas notwithstanding, I hope that our traditions let Hanukkah shine on as a moment of warmth and light in the darkest days of winter, connecting us to our family, our community, and our ancestors.

fall lantern walk

10769919035_007d20ef10_kOne of my favorite fall traditions is the Lantern Walk. A late afternoon walk in the woods, with homemade lanterns to light our way as darkness falls.

DSC04661We love to hike but normally our hikes are morning affairs, sometimes with a picnic lunch to enjoy along the way. However, there is a special feeling you get hiking in the woods in the dim glow of dusk. Everything seems imbued with a magic, anticipatory feeling as the nighttime forest begins to awaken.

DSC04688The first time we were planning to go on a lantern walk, an hour beforehand, my son fell off the couch and broke his arm. PSA: apparently, sitting quietly listening to audiobooks can be hazardous to your health. So we made our own lantern walk a week later with a short tramp around our neighborhood, singing lantern songs and stopping for a candlelit story in a nearby meadow.

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The following year, we got a little more ambitious and did a half-mile hike in a state park near our house. Though the hike was short, the plentiful snack we brought took my kids so long to finish that by the time we began our walk back out of the woods, it was well and truly dark and our little tealight lanterns were barely sufficient to light our way. Lessons learned: pack less food and a flashlight.

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This year’s walk was a complete success in terms of timing, and we had the luck to have our year’s first snowfall on the same day. Finding a quiet meadow dusted with snow halfway through our hike was a highpoint for us all.

DSC00967When we stopped for our modest snack of cinnamon toast, grapes, and warm moonlight tea, I told a version of this sweet story from Joyful Toddlers about a family finding light and warmth as the world begins to grow cold and dark for the winter. That’s actually my favorite thing about doing lantern walks – the feeling of bringing a warm glow to the chill of late fall. I love that the story talks about acts of kindness as a way to warm our own hearts.

DSC01001As we made our way back along the trail, we cheerily sung our lantern songs, making sure any nocturnal animals in the vicinity would give us a wide berth. We arrived peacefully back at the trailhead with nary a stumble over a tree root, though my daughter was heartily disappointed that at the end of our walk there were no neighbors to sing to like in the story. Looks like we’ll have to plan a cookie-and-caroling walk next!

rainy day dragon bread

DSC00694Ever since we went to How to Train Your Dragon 2 at the drive-in movie theater (just barely squeaked that summer wish list item in on Labor Day weekend! By the way we were 11.5/14 on that wish list – not bad but a far cry from my pledge of TOTAL SUMMER WISH LIST DOMINATION. Next year, baseball, camping and preserving!) As I was saying, ever since we saw HTTYD2 it has been All Dragon All the Time over here. My son especially goes really full-on with his passions, and in the past 4 years I’ve learned more about steam locomotives, creatures of the deep sea, evolution, and outer space than I ever knew in my previous 30-cough cough years on the planet. And so it is with dragons. Budding naturalist that he is, the classification system of the dragons in the HTTYD universe really appealed to him, and I’ve even heard my three-year old tell us that “Deadly Nadder isn’t his name, it’s his species.” Of course, being recovering dinosaur addicts, they enjoy all the stomping, roaring, and giant reptilian destruction as well. We’ve read the first two books in the HTTYD series by Cressida Cowell, which the movies were very loosely based on, and with 11 books and counting in the series, I think it’s fair to say there’s no end in sight to the dragon mania.

As a onetime Waldorf preschool parent, I especially think of dragons at this time of year, with the Michaelmas holiday that Waldorf schools traditionally celebrate at the end of September. So when a dark, rainy day spoiled our plans to go hiking and apple-picking, I decided to declare it Dragon Day and have an indoor adventure instead.

We started out by reading the story of Saint George and the Dragon, a retelling by Margaret Hodges with pictures by probably my all time favorite children’s book illustrator, Trina Schart Hyman. As an early subscriber of Cricket Magazine, of which she was the art editor and frequent contributor of illustrations, her pictures shaped so many of the stories of my childhood and I loved to pore over the beautiful and rich detail of her Cricket covers.

The Saint George story is pretty weak in terms of female characters, but hopefully that’s mitigated by the awesome library book we read last week, another Trina Schart Hyman beauty called “The Serpent Slayer: and Other Stories of Strong Women.” It’s a collection of folk tales from different cultures, that all happen to feature female protagonists. Not all the stories have dragons, but a bunch of them do, and they all have kickass heroines.

The Saint George story, however does have an awesome dragon and some good blood and gore in the story for those of you who go in for that. (The cover features blood spurting out of the dragon’s severed tail, which I was like, ewww, but my children apparently found deeply entertaining.)

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After the book, it was time to make some dragon bread. One of my very favorite things to do with kids is when you can tell a story that goes along with an activity you’re doing, so I was so excited when I found this dragon bread story and recipe on Cypress Space. I made some adaptations to the recipe, and as it turned out, to the story as well. My version was a far cry from the original, which comes from the lovely book All Year Round, but this secular, angel-free retelling was the perfect dragon story for our family. When it comes to storytelling with children, it’s my experience that the best way to capture their attention and imagination is to adapt your story to the needs and interests of the particular children you’re telling it to, being flexible enough to improvise along the way if you need to. And regardless of your feelings about dragons, angels, or Waldorf woo woo, this bread is indisputably super delish. So if you just want some fabulous, slightly sweet, wholesome bread that’s great with a cup of tea, scroll down to the bottom for the recipe. But if you want a dragony story to tell as you make your dough, read on.

This story begins in a small but beautiful village in a valley surrounded by lovely forests, hills, mountains and rivers. [We used mixing spoons to shape the flour into the hills, valleys, mountains, and riverbeds.] The people worked very hard tending their farms and caring for their families and each other, but they were happy.

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But one day, an angry dragon flew down and breathed fire upon the land, boiling the rivers up until they flooded the valley. [We poured in a foamy mixture of warm milk, yeast, sugar, and melted butter.] The heat from the dragon’s fire scorched the land and made it barren. [We stirred the flour and milk together until they created a sticky dough.] The smoke from his breath cast darkness over the land. [We sprinkled brown sugar down onto the dough]. And without the sun to warm them, the clouds froze and rained ice down upon the village. [We sprinkled the salt over the dough.] The villagers were so cold and scared and sad that they hid inside, unable to work or play outside, and worried if they could survive in this dark, desolate land.

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In the traditional Waldorf telling of this story, it is at this point that the Archangel Michael (or, the knight Michael, depending on how secular the storyteller is attempting to make it) comes and gives cheer to the villagers and encourages them to be brave and work together to defeat the dragon. Just as I was about to get to that part, my daughter piped up said “They just need to train that dragon.” In the movie version of How to Train Your Dragon (unlike in the book), the vikings are so terrorized by the dragons that they strive to kill any dragon on sight, until Hiccup, the young hero, teaches them they can tame the dragons with nothing more than kindness and understanding. This is an especially powerful message to children who themselves struggle with aggressive impulses when they’re feeling threatened or ill at ease. So at that moment I realized that instead of telling these dragon-loving kids yet another story about slaying a dragon, I should give the dragon a chance to redeem himself. So our story continued like this:

From his home in the cliffs above the village, the dragon looked down upon the land and the unhappy people, and his heart was filled with remorse. He felt such compassion for the poor frightened villagers that with his next breath, he sent golden sparks down into their skies. The sparks turned into a thousand stars, and the people marveled at the magical light in the dark night. [We scattered golden raisins over the dough.]

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With another breath, he gently blew away all the smoke and icy clouds so the sun could shine down upon the land once again. [We dropped in the egg yolk and mixed it and the raisins into the dough.] The people were warmed by the sun and began to venture out of their houses to begin repairing and restoring their farms. The dragon came down and brought them new seeds to plant. [We scattered the pumpkin seeds over the dough.] He told them how sorry he was for what he had done. The warmth of his words softened the icy cold ground and the plants soon grew into tall wheat fields. [We mixed the seeds into the dough with our hands.]

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When the crop was ready to harvest, the dragon helped the villagers thresh the wheat and grind it into flour. They mixed the flour into dough and the dragon baked the dough with his fiery breath until there was enough bread for all the villagers to share. They gave the biggest slice to the dragon, and their generosity and friendship warmed his heart. From that day on, the dragon was a friend to all the people in the land, giving them courage to face even the biggest of challenges.

And with that, we placed a cloth over the bowl of dough and set it to rise.

While we waited for the dough to be ready, we made some dragon paintings with crayons and watercolors.

painting a hideous zippleback

When the dough had risen, we turned it out onto a board and began to shape it into a dragon. I followed a method of shaping that I learned from a post on Waldorf (Inspired) Moms. By the way I pre-emptively apologize for the unattractive photos in this post – it was such a dark dreary day that it was a difficult lighting situation for photography. But a dark dreary day is pretty much the perfect day to stay indoors baking bread and telling stories.

So basically, you chop off about 1/3 of your dough and divide that piece into a chunk for the head, four short legs, and a long skinny log to make the dragon’s crest and spines. The remaining 2/3 piece gets stretched and rolled to a point at one end to create its body and tail.

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It’s easiest to assemble the dragon on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, so you can just slip this bad boy into the oven when you’re finished. Once you’ve got the head and body shaped and attached, lay the crest/spine piece along them and add some almond slivers or other flattish nuts or seeds for his teethDSC00233

We used prunes for his eyes and sliced almonds for his scales. Attach the four leg pieces and use a knife to divide each foot into three toes, which can then be embellished with seed or nut claws. Brush some egg white wash over the whole beast and snip along the crest/spine piece at 1-inch intervals to create the spikes. Bake until toasty and golden brown.
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Our dragon turned out more like a Gila monster than a Monstrous nightmare, but he’s still cute and terrifying in his own pastry reptile way.
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And most importantly, he’s totaly scrumptious, especially when spread with honey butter and served with a mug of hot apple cider.DSC00252

Here’s the full recipe for our dragon bread, even more fun when baked with a story. Feel free to adapt mine as you wish or make up your own!

Rainy Day Dragon Bread

1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 ½ cups warm milk
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 egg, separated
¼ cup of pumpkin seeds
2 prunes
¼ cup of sliced almonds

1) Add 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar and the yeast to the warm milk. Stir and set aside.

2) Stir together the flour, creating a valley in the center.

3) When the milk/yeast/sugar mixture has bloomed and you see a foamy top, add the melted butter to it, stir, and pour into the valley in the flour bowl.

4) Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of brown sugar, the salt, the raisins, the egg yolk, and the pumpkin seeds over the dough and mix well.

5) Cover with a dishcloth and let rise for one hour.

6) Preheat the oven to 375.

7) Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Cut off about 2/3 of it and shape it into the body and tail of the dragon.

8) Divide the remaining piece into a head, four small legs, and a long, skinny piece the slightly longer than the body and tail, which will become the dragon’s crest/spines.

9) Place the body and tail piece on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Shape the head and attach it to the body, adding the prunes for eyes and almond slices for teeth.

10) Lay the long skinny piece along the head and back of the dragon. Attach the legs and use a knife to cut each one into three toes. Stick pumpkin seeds or almond slices on for claws.

11) Add almond slices along the back for scales.

12) With a pair of kitchen scissors, snip the crest piece at 1-inch intervals all the way down to the tail.

13) Mix the egg white with 1 tablespoon of water and brush over the entire dragon.

14) Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown.

May every slice bring you warmth, strength, and courage! Huzzah! Dragons!

12 amazing autumn nature crafts

Wow, you guys love a good nature exchange! Over 100 enthusiastic participants signed to trade natural finds with a partner, from school groups to families to individuals! I sent out emails last week assigning everyone an exchange pal. (If you think you signed up and haven’t received a message from me assigning you a partner, please send me an email at rainydayriotblog@gmail.com and let me know.)

So for all those who love to collect and receive Mother Nature’s goodies, I put together this little round-up of different ways to explore and create with natural items.  Whether you’re gathering on your own or trading with a partner in the nature exchange, these are some great ways to have the fullest experience with your natural finds! Just a reminder, if you are using items you’ve received in the nature exchange, please keep your exploration indoors so you don’t accidentally introduce invasive species into your environment.

When we come home with treasures from a nature walk, I usually begin by just setting them out for open exploration. This can be something as simple as a large platter or tray to spread the items out on, or you can make a whole nature table with them, like this wonderful one from The Imagination Tree.

After examining and enjoying the items, sometimes they find their way to a bowl on the coffee table or a centerpiece. But this indoor land art project from Smiling Like Sunshine looks like more fun:

Another way to enjoy natural items is to create a small world box with them. Any semi-enclosed space can work for this kind of project. In this post on Create with your Hands, our old favorite, the cardboard box, does the trick. With natural items combined with small animal figures or dolls, kids can make a whole little world of their own.

After plenty of time to enjoy the sensory, and tactile experience of nature finds, you can make them into something to decorate your space. I wish I could find the original source for these simple but beautiful hanging decorations. It looks like some twine and a large stick are all you need to make them – and maybe a dab of hot glue here and there for the more slippery-shaped objects.

Here’s another way of making a hanging decoration out of nature stuff – this adorable mobile from Red Ted Art. Bonus: this one actually has instructions!

For the slightly more ambitious, here’s a really cool wreath project from Fun at Home with Kids, with, once again, cardboard and nature things as the main materials.

And it wouldn’t be a 2010s craft round-up without a garland, would it? I’ve been admiring this one on pinterest for a while, but it turns out it’s another one of those untraceable images seems to exists nowhere but pinterest and a bunch of Eastern European home decor image collection blogs. Still, this one looks super easy to create too, just yarn and your favorite nature and seasonal items.

Another way to create with natural items is to paint them. Colorful acorns are another ubiquitous pinterest thing, but these ones from Home Stories A to Z are just so cute, and you could do the same idea with many other nuts, seeds, or stones.

I also love these acorn cap jewels from Kiwi Crate. So pretty, and easy enough for kids to do it all themselves, with nothing more than markers, white glue, and playdough.

It’s also fun to make something entirely else out of natural items. I love Krokotak’s little snails made from buckeyes (as we call them in the midwest).

And if you have some wool roving and wooden beads, you can make these cute little pinecone fairies from a tutorial on Willodel.

Or these squee-worthy milkweed pod babies from Kleas, another terrific project that even a preschooler can make.

And these are just a starting point – the stuff we gathered last fall, and even things we received two years ago in another nature exchange are still floating around my house, decorating candleholders, serving as hideouts for playmobile people, taking on their own lives in a made up game with rocks and bits of yarn. Here’s hoping your fall nature finds bring you months of enjoyment!

fabulous autumn nature exchange

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I spent every summer of my elementary school life attending Crystal Lake Nature Day Camp. We spent all day outside at a park, learning to swim, making crafts, playing games, and singing the usual camp songs. But my favorite part of the day was right after lunch – the Trading Post. You could bring cool nature stuff you had found to the Post and trade for something else. There wasn’t a strict economic system, but you had to pick something that was generally equivalent in awesomeness to your item. Like, you couldn’t trade a cool rock for a seashell – a prized rarity in landlocked central Illinois – you’d have to bring something like an arrowhead or a fossil if you wanted the shell. I loved the Trading Post so much that when I was 10 or 11, my friend Frances and I started our own trading post. It was awesome – after pooling our resources, we had the most amazing nature collection in camp and the power to deny or approve any trade. The only drawback came at the end of summer when it was time to divvy up our spoils. It nearly came to blows, but fortunately we were able to settle the custody of the shells, rocks, sticks, seeds, and stones with a good old-fashioned fingernail gouging catfight. (Don’t worry, we hugged it out later.)

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So it is with that passion for collecting interesting natural items that I invite you to participate in The Fabulous Rainy Day Riot Autumn Nature Exchange! What is it? It’s a fun, pen pal-like exchange where you fill an egg carton with natural items from your local area, and mail them to someone far away, and then you get a carton of stuff from where they live in return! I first heard of this idea on the lovely and sadly defunct blog Rhythm of the Home. We participated in a nature exchange a couple of years ago, and we received so many cool things from a friend in northern California. Oak galls! Weird skinny California-style acorns! Palm tree seeds! My kids were so excited they seized everything out of the carton and ran off with it before I could even finish matching all the items with their identifying labels. Some were dissected and investigated, others preserved with care. The surviving items served as everything from fodder for our science table to a Thanksgiving centerpiece to characters in an elaborate storytelling game.

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Picking up interesting ephemera to save for later is a universal impulse of childhood. Just the act of collecting itself is immensely pleasurable, both for children and adults. I often have to curb my children’s desire to bring home things from a state park or nature preserve to show Papa. And whenever we take walks around our neighborhood (or often even our own yard!), we come home with all pockets full.

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The Rhythm of the Home blog post I mentioned above has some excellent tips for doing a nature exchange, such as the idea to wrap delicate items in tissue paper, don’t collect from protected areas, and be careful not to include any invasive species in your collection. I’d like to add a tip of my own for collecting: double down. Collect two of everything. Since it’s best to gather only things which are abundant in the environment, it’s usually not too hard to find another of each neat item you choose for your collection. Finding a second one of each treasure can also add a fun element of challenge to the endeavor. Best of all, you get to keep a set of all the neat things you found. It’s an especially good idea if your kids tend to get particularly attached to their finds, as mine do.

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If you’d like to participate in the nature exchange, please email me at rainydayriotblog@gmail.com with your name and address by September 30, and I’ll pair you up with somebody from a different region. Let me know in your e-mail if you’d be interested in exchanging with someone outside the US! Please keep in mind the following guidelines:

1. Each collection should contain about a dozen items. An egg carton is a good reminder of the size/quantity the collection should be, as well as good packaging for protecting it on its postal journey.

2. Gather your collection from unrestricted locations (i.e. not state parks, nature preserves, or other protected areas).

3. Be careful not to send any invasive species, and please keep your exploration of the stuff you receive indoors, just in case. If you’re sending something that might harbor bugs or larvae, such as acorns or pinecones, you can prevent hitch-hikers by treating your items to a couple of hours in a 175-degree oven, as described in this post.

4. Collections should be mailed to your exchange-pal by October 31, 2014.

5. If you’re so inclined, please share photos of your collection, or the one you receive, to the nature exchange flickr group: The Rainy Day Riot Nature Exchange.

Happy hunting!

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forest bathing in southeast vermont

woodsSo, summer’s hurtling to a close, kids are back in school, and I’m actually wearing a cardigan – A CARDIGAN, PEOPLE! – as I type this. We had so much fun exploring new places this summer that I have decided to make a weekly hike or nature walk part of our fall routine. Places we visited this summer are bound to look quite different and maybe even more beautiful come fall. I’m gonna let you in on a few of the hidden gems we have discovered here in the southeast Vermont/southwest New Hampshire/western Massachussetts area. If you’re within an hour’s drive of any of these spots, I highly recommend! There’s nothing like walking through the dappled forest light, smelling the piney fall air, and being forced by your young charges to stop and examine each and every weird mushroom along your path. Just make sure you bring your bug spray and your patience – a one-mile trail recently took us 3.5 hours to traverse, what with the snack stops, the flower-sniffing, acorn-scrutinizing pace, and the frequent detours to look for wildlife.

Speaking of wildlife, one of our most memorable summer hikes was at the wonderful Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, MA.
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Featuring five miles of trails, including the easy loop trail around this vernal pool, Arcadia is a great place to enjoy wildlife of both the flora
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and fauna variety.collage

Plus it has this cool lookout tower treehouse thing!lookout tower

Our most local hiking spot – like, we can walk to it from our house local – is Mt. Wantastiquet, just across the river in Hinsdale, NH. If you go there after a heavy rain, the waterfall near the trail entrance is even prettier than it is here:DSC03349

Wantastiquet is also a good place to spot wildlife. Researching a little for this blog post I found out that apparently, Mt. Wantastiquet is also known as Rattlesnake Mountain. Pretty sure this cute little guy is not one, but perhaps best to keep one’s distance just in case.DSC03416

If you want to get up close and personal with Mother Nature, maybe try a tree instead.DSC03428

Or a mushroom.DSC03438

We found these weird little fungus-like plants, which I later learned are commonly known as Indian Pipe. They’re actually kind of rare plants that grow on a fungus that lives near beech trees, and live totally without chlorophyll. However my three year-old daughter insisted they were a species called “Cylene oxide.” World class science BS-er, that one.DSC03466

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On the opposite side of Mt. Wantastiquet is the charming ruin known as the Madame Sherri Forest.9103893113_92098d7b21_k

Madame Sherri, the former owner of this once lavish estate, was a Parisian singer, a costume designer for Broadway, and a die-hard party girl. After her husband died, she bought this 513-acre parcel of land in Chesterfield NH and had a huge, castle-y mansion built. The woods are beautiful and full of wildflower plants like this mountain laurel.mountain laurelProbably won’t see much laurel blooming in the fall, but this is also supposed to be a terrific site for enjoying the autumn foliage.

My kiddos always love exploring aquatic habitats and there’s plenty to see here as the Anne Stokes Loop trail that goes to the castle ruin passes right by Indian Pond, where you can see frogs, dragonflies, and beaver dams, just for starters.9103889141_abcb615749_k

And it’s always fun exploring what’s left of the stone foundation.madame sherri castle

Apparently, Madame Sherri was somewhat notorious, not only for her wild parties full of *GASP* theater people, but also for her pet monkey and her habit of attiring herself in nothing but a fur coat. She’s pretty much the most flamboyant character to ever live in Brattleboro, and that’s saying a lot. That’s right, I said Brattleboro. By the 50s she had fallen on hard times, and ended up becoming a ward of the town and moving to a rest home in West Bratt. Several years later, her house in Chesterfield burned to the ground, except for the stone foundation and stairway. She died a pauper, with only six people attending her funeral. A biography of her came out a couple years ago, written by New Hampshire author Eric Stanway, and if this Keene Sentinel article is any indication, it is juicy as hey-all. Sounds like Grey Gardens meets Mae West, with a touch of Kurt Weill. Sign me up. Oh, and PS, there are also rumors that she ran a brothel out of her castle.

Somewhat annoyingly, although I guess in the spirit of the original house, the ruin seems to be a favorite spot of revelers. The last time we were there, there was a lot of broken glass and trash left on top of the ruin. My son has deemed himself a litter hero and decided that next time we come we will bring a canvas bag and remove all the garbage that other folks left behind. We have tried this on a couple other hikes we’ve gone on and it always feels good to leave things nicer than we found them, although I think it is giving my little garbage collector superhero delusions of grandeur. As we emerged from the woods with a small bag of second-hand trash, he turned to me and earnestly asked, “Are we famous now?”

On to more wholesome hiking locales, coming home from Walpole NH (home of both Alyson’s Orchard and the mouthwatering L. A. Burdick Chocolates) one day, we stumbled across the lovely Ruth C. Warwick Nature Preserve in Westmoreland. Late May was a great time to enjoy the wildflowers the Warwick preserve is known for – we stumbled across quite a bit of trilliumtrillium

and this Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which looks like something straight out of an Uncle Wiggily story (though how a rabbit could possibly hide in one is still beyond me).DSC08144

There’s also a little stream that runs down the hill, from a spring that the eponymous Ruth Warwick had cleared to provide water for the animals that live in the woods. Perfect for some light stomping and splashing in.hiking warwick nature preserve

We spent Labor Day hiking the trail around Sweet Pond State Park  in Guilford VTDSC00765

Tons of cool sensory forest experiences to be had there.DSC00768

I always love how baby pine(?) trees grow so close together they look like a miniature forest.DSC00772

The trail is a 1.3 mile almost-loop (you have to walk about a quarter mile down the road to get back to the parking area) next to what used to be an large pond. The pond was created in the 1800s when developers built a dam in the Keats Brook to power a mill, but it was recently drained due to concerns about the structural integrity and safety of the dam. Apparently there are plans to repair the dam and restore the pond eventually. For now, it’s become an 18-acre marshy wetland in the middle of the woods that has pretty much the most awesome echo I’ve ever experienced. There are several vista offshoots from the main trail, and the kids and I took one to climb out on this fallen tree and sing at the top of our lungs into the echoing meadow.DSC00859

The edge of the pond was rich with little late summer wildflowers, including these little orange lovelies that I keep seeing everywhere, including at the edge of the woods behind my son’s elementary school. Anybody know what they’re called?DSC00883

Of course, you can’t talk about hikes in and around Brattleboro without mentioning Fort Dummer and the Brattleboro Retreat Trails. Our favorite kid-friendly hike on the Retreat Trails is the path past the cemetery up to the haunted tower. Sounds deliciously spooky, doesn’t it? Perfect for a late October outing!5876515623_f3d41662aa_b

The woods are very pretty and lush, and this hike is fairly short though it gets pretty steep at the end. But I’ve taken 2 year olds on it multiple times with no trouble.9162177629_b272c219ad_k

Oh, did I mention the tower was built by patients at the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (now known as the Brattleboro Retreat)? And yes, it’s supposedly haunted.6434554585_389b11f942_b

The tower is usually locked, but if you’ve ever been curious what it looks like inside, or from the top, somebody made a video and youtubed it:

In November, we’ll do our annual Lantern Walk down the sunset trail at Fort Dummer.10769919035_007d20ef10_k

Fort Dummer originated as a British fort pre-dating the Revolutionary War by about 50 years, used in a conflict between New England and a confederacy of Native American tribes who were allied with New France, called Dummer’s War. It’s named for William Dummer, who was the governor of Massachussetts (which what’s now Vermont was then a part of) at that time. Um, yeah, that may be the most confusingly worded sentence of all time. Three tries and that’s the best I can do. Nowadays, it’s a 218-acre state park, with beautiful vistas for watching the sun set (and rise, if you’re the type of person who goes on hikes at sunrise, which I decidedly am not).10089968306_09e0d29d57_k

Fort Dummer is also a great place to visit for the petless dog lover. I’m not really a dog person but my kids so are, and it always makes them so happy to encounter dogs, as we always do, who are taking their people for a walk through the Fort Dummer park. If you decide to do a late afternoon/early evening hike, this is a great place for it but make sure to bring a flash light. Darkness falls quickly as autumn draws on, and there are a lot of roots crossing the trail for you to trip over if you’re not careful.

Happy hiking, and remember, take nothing but pictures (and trash), leave nothing but footprints!

adventures in cardboard

Ahhhh, beautiful, precious cardboard. Is there anything it can’t become? Our recycling bin is one of our most shopped sites for art materials and entertainment, in fact my son recently forbade me from throwing away any cardboard box, EVER. These kids love cardboard so much that despite having two cutely outfitted twin beds, they have recently taken to even sleeping in it.sleeping in a box

Other past cardboard ventures include fairy houses,toilet paper roll fairy houses

toilet paper roll critterstoilet paper roll bat

a viking longshipcardboard viking ship

a submarine and crewcardboard submarine

a deep sea dioramadeep sea diorama

a plethora of birthday party decorations over the years, including dinosaur lawn decorationspainting a cardboard ankylosaurus

and a great white shark beanbag tossshark beanbag toss

and hilariously, an iPad.cardboard ipad

cardboard ipad

Yes, we’re those mean parents who won’t get their kids a tablet. (I spend enough energy setting and enforcing screen time limits as it is.) They love to play games on their grandparents’ ones, and my son tries to create analog versions of his favorite apps to play back at home.

Some of his best efforts have been “Dino Maker,” a mix-n-match game that lets you select a head, front, back, and tail to create your own dinosaur species

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“Ant Squish,” where you use your fingers to squish the ants as they rotate around the tablet, and make their pipe cleaner guts spill out, but avoid touching the wasps or you lose your turnant squish cardboard ipad app

And “Medic,” where you remove construction paper tumors from the patient’s brain.cardboard ipad app - brain surgery

playing the cardboard ipad

Most readers of this blog have probably seen the amazing video Caine’s Arcade, featuring a mind-blowing game arcade created completely out of cardboard and recyclables by (then) 9-year old Caine Monroy. If you haven’t then it’s required viewing before scrolling on to the rest of this post:

I watched, and rewatched it a couple of years ago when it came out but what I didn’t realize until recently is that it had a huge impact beyond the viral popularity of the video. Donations flooded in for a college fund for Caine (currently at almost $240,000!) and the filmmaker ended up starting a foundation to promote this kind of creative play for kids. It’s called the Imagination Foundation and they also host an annual event called the Global Cardboard Challenge where kids are invited to make anything their imaginations can dream up out of cardboard and other recyclables.

We actually went to a very similar event recently, sponsored by The Play Workshop, a new non-profit organization in Northampton, MA, that is working on bringing a permanent adventure playground to the area. If you read that Atlantic article The Overprotected Kid about adventure playgrounds last spring, then you’re probably as excited about this prospect as I am! A place for kids to play independently, constructing their own play structures out of loose parts. Healthy learning about risk-taking! Self-expression! The pride and excitement of creating things for themselves! I long for my kids to have the kind of free-wheeling childhood I did, and while there were no European-style loose parts playgrounds involved, there was a heck of a lot more independent, unsupervised play than is considered normal, or even legal, today. Less helicoptering, more Roxaboxen. I have a lot to say about the trend toward constant supervision ’til high school, actually, but that’s pretty far off track from what I meant to talk about here, which is my passionate love of cardboard.

So The Play Workshop’s eventual plan is to create an adventure playground in the Pioneer Valley, but until they reach that goal, they are putting on these pop-up adventure playgrounds, where the loose parts are easily transportable stuff like, you guessed it, cardboard boxes and recyclables!pop up adventure playground 3

My kids had a great time exploring other children’s forts and joining in their play,pop up adventure playground 1

as well as making some improvements to them.pop up adventure playground 2

and making some constructions of their own.pop up adventure playground 4

They even built a teeter totter out of an old cable spool and a long board!pop up adventure playground 5

What my three year-old lacks in cardboard building skills, she more than makes up for in imagination. She adopted this scrap of box and declared it her pet tiger, carrying it around with her for a good 30 minutes.

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And both kids seemed to get as much enjoyment out of the clean-up process as they did the building and exploring part, utilizing this pile of flattened boxes as a trampoline.pop up adventure playground 8

I want to finish by sharing my favorite resource on cardboard and kids. The amazing and inspirational LiEr of Ikat Bag wrote this awesome cardboard manifesto a few years ago, and it is basically the bible of how to make stuff out of cardboard with your kids. What kind of cardboard to use for what purpose, how to cut it, how to bend it, how to fasten it, and links to a bunch of tutorials of cardboard toys she’s done, including the cool viking ship we made (above) and dozens of other great things.

Oh, and I can’t end this post without my all time best favorite movie about kids and cardboard ever:

Happy Cardboard Adventures!

fort brambly hedge

So, this blog post is mainly going to be about Jill Barklem’s beautiful Brambly Hedge stories, but first I have to tell you about this awesome stick fort we made.

We have this total mess of a tree/shrub thing at the back of our property.bramble tree

It’s so crazy and fugly looking that I just designated it the stick area and used it as a spot to pile unwanted sticks from around the yard and branches I pruned off our long-neglected lilac bushes, until they made their way into the fire pit. Its only real selling point is that it puts a little bit of privacy in between us and our neighbor’s swimming pool. UNTIL NOW. stick fort

Now it looks like this! Pretty much just as much of an eyesore from the front, but now instead of just a big pile, our sticks are formed into an awesome fort to play in!

stick fort interior

I basically just planted a bunch of dead branches in the ground, laid a stick across them like a beam, and then balanced branches and vines on top between the crazy tree thing and the beam. Then I wove some long sticks in between the ones I had planted into the ground, and at the end we just threw all the smaller sticks at it and let them sprinkle down wherever they stuck. stick fort and pine tree

The kids were pretty enchanted.entering the stick fort

I was talking to a friend the other day about how one of the awesome things about parenting is that in some ways it’s like a second chance at childhood. Whatever you miss from or wished you had in your own youth, you now have the opportunity to do with your kids. I always wished I had a cool clubhouse or fort or treehouse when I was a kid. But we are not a handy family – between me and Jon, I’m the construction expert, and my expertise pretty much begins and ends with competence at assembling Ikea furniture. But as it turns out, I’m also good at making non-load-bearing things out of stuff I find in the yard! So here we are. Extensive modular furniture construction experience + large amount of branch refuse = awesome stick fort.

As a fort and treehouse craving kid, it’s probably for the best that I never discovered the Brambly Hedge books because I would have about died of jealousy over the amazing tree dwellings of these cute little mice.brambly hedge cover

The eight Brambly Hedge stories are kind of Beatrix Potterish, with the sweet naturey illustrations and English countryside setting, but they also have tons of intricate cross-section drawings of the trees and other places where the Brambly Hedge mice live and work.brambly hedge crabapple cottage

The Brambly Hedge mice have a Store Stump, where ingredients can be found to make such foodstuffs as watercress soup, dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs, and meringues, not to mention elderflower wine and blackberry juice. Of course, sometimes, they just want to chill on their stoop and eat a huge stack of toast with jelly, like Mr. Toadflax here.

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Even Brambly Hedge, however, is not immune from the English penchant for titles and class divisions. Most of the mice live in humble trees like the crabapple, but Lord and Lady Woodmouse live in the grand Old Oak Palace.brambly hedge old oak palace

Their digs are rustic but posh, if that’s possible. By the way, did you know you can buy an English lordship for about $33? And of course there’s a plethora of the mills my kids are so wild about. Imagine this place filled with the conceptual art I told you about in that wish list post, and you’ll have a good idea of the Wassaic Project.

brambly hedge mill

Intricate and adorable though it is, the flour mill turns out not to be an ideal place to raise a bunch of babies, as Poppy Eyebright finds out when she and Dusty, the miller, start a family. Getting up two flights of stairs with some groceries and one baby is an arduous enough task, as I learned in our Chicago days, so 92 stairs with triplets, not to mention the noise and dust of a mill, would probably put anyone over the edge.

brambly hedge hawthorn cottage

Fortunately the resourceful and generous Brambly Hedge community comes to her rescue and finds and refurbishes a new tree-cottage for Dusty and Poppy’s family to live in. They even arrange a sleepover for Poppy and the babies at Old Oak Palace, so Dusty and the gang can secretly move and unpack all their belongings and surprise Poppy. I first read this story when we were in the thick of a move ourselves, and how I wished I had a village of helpful mice to do it all for me!

The kids built this Brambly Hedge-esque structure at the foot of our pine tree with some wood scraps left over from a construction project, and the Calico Critters mouse family a friend gave my daughter for her birthday last winter are the perfect accessory. She made sure there were beds for the babies to sleep on

brambly hedge cottage

And my son made sure to provide mouse toilets.brambly hedge toilet

I can already tell this is going to provide weeks of backyard entertainment. playing brambly hedge

Maybe they’ll even be captivated enough to play on their own and I’ll be free to fulfill my ambition of summer novel reading, in my fort!

view from the stick fort