in which i finally attempt to talk about racism with my kids

A book that helped my family finally have this important conversation: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have read the plethora of articles saying it’s important to talk explicitly about race with young kids, including the amazing Nurture Shock chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” I know that humans are hard-wired to visually discriminate and that telling children vague platitudes like “everybody’s equal” don’t do much, if anything to chip into our proclivity for us-vs-them thinking. I feel sorrow and fury over the flurry of recent reminders  that yes, systemic racial oppression is still alive and real in 21st century America. So why, until this week, hadn’t I taken the discussion of race with my own family any further than pointing out that people have all different colors of skin but our samenesses on the inside are bigger than our differences on the outside?

Part of my hesitation was that I wasn’t ready to expose my kids to the awfulness of what humans can do to one another. I felt like telling them about racism and slavery and genocide would exterminate their innocent belief in the inherent goodness of people. One of the joys of parenting is raising little people to love the world around them and look for the good in everyone – my 4 year-old is especially expert at looking for the silver lining, and will often point out the good in what seems to the rest of us to be a rotten situation. (Today she told us that even though Jabba the Hut is disgusting, at least he has a cute smile.) Telling them about the worst that humanity can do seemed like I would be popping that bubble of good will and trust in the world that we’ve spent six years crafting.

But then I realized that we have talked many times about racial oppression, and even slavery, as we celebrated Passover, and I had never really even flinched about having that conversation. Why didn’t I? Probably because the events in that story took place so long ago that it feels more like fairy tale than real life, and because in that story, “we” were the victims, not the perpetrators, of this awfulness. While my kids had reacted with the expected righteous indignation about the unfairness and terribleness of the Hebrew slaves plight, they didn’t seem to make the same leap that I do to grim thoughts about human nature.

Even so, I still felt really reticent to tell my kids that our ancestors also enslaved people, and our whole country is built on a massive genocide. But I knew that they were ready for a discussion beyond “everybody has different colors of skin and that’s great,” and the next step needed to be the introduction of the idea of racism and the history that led us to where we’re at today. I still didn’t know exactly how to broach this subject with my preschool and kindergarten-aged kids, but I finally realized no one was going to give me a script, and like so many other things in motherhood, I was just going to have to wing it.

So in a way I was kind of relieved when my 4 year-old daughter came home from nursery school last week talking about the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. It spurred us to have the conversation that’s been due for a long time. Look, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing half the time, so if you’re looking for the definitive script for How To Talk To Your Child About Race, keep looking. But if you want to hear someone clumsily stumble through a necessary but uncomfortable topic, read on. Our conversation went basically like this:

Me: How was school today? Did you have fun?
O: They shot Martin Luther King and he was dead.
Me: Oh, uh, I see. Did you talk about Martin Luther King at school today?
O: Yes. We read a story.
Me: That’s great. What else did you learn about him?
O: He had a dream and it came true except for when he was shot and he died.
Me: That was really sad. What was his dream?
O: [squinting confusedly] For everybody to be equal.
Me: Yeah. In those days there used to be really unfair rules that people with brown skin couldn’t do the same things as people with white skin.
O: White and pink skin, you mean.
Me: Yes. We call people black and white but really it’s more like brown skin and pink skin, and all different colors in between. When Dr. King was alive, there were tons of rules about what people could do depending on what kind of skin they had.
O: Yeah, like ride the bus.
Me: That’s right. The rules said only people with pale skin could sit at the front of the bus, and people with brown skin had to ride at the back. And even if they were at the back, if a white-skinned person wanted their seat, the people with brown skin had to get up and move somewhere else. And there were a lot of other unfair rules too. Like brown-skinned people couldn’t go to the same schools or eat at the same restaurants, or work at the same jobs, or even drink water from the same drinking fountains as white-skinned people. How do you think that made the people who had brown skin feel?
O: Bad. And sad.
Me: Yes, bad and sad and mad. It probably made them want to yell and punch things. But they didn’t. Martin Luther King and his friends used their words to convince people that they should change the rules. Even though at first no one would listen to them. They had to protest for a long time to get the rules changed. Do you know what a protest is?
O: No.
Me: It’s when a whole bunch of people stand together to make their voices heard. So even though at first none of the white people who were making the rules would listen, lots of other people were listening. Black people, and some white people too. They all protested together for weeks, and months, and even years. Finally the rules were changed to make things more fair.
O: And his dream came true.
Me: Well, yeah, pretty much. There are still some people who think that people with brown skin deserve to be treated differently than white-skinned people. Is that true?
O: No.
Me: Yeah! It’s not! But that’s why he was shot. Someone was so angry about his work changing the rules to make things more fair for brown-skinned people that they killed him.
O: And he was dead.
Me: Yes. It’s terribly sad when anyone dies, especially someone as wonderful as Dr. King. So our job is to keep helping his dream come true by standing up and protesting when we see something that’s unfair to people because of the color of their skin. And of course to treat everyone with fairness and kindness, no matter what color their skin is.

And that was pretty much where we left it. Bolstered by that modest success, I had a similar conversation with my six year old that afternoon. Phew. Step 2 of anti-racist parenting accomplished. Many more steps to go.

On Monday, I’m going to keep this conversation going by showing them this video based on Doreen Rappaport’s terrific book, Martin’s Big Words.

Here are a few other great picture books to help spur discussions with children about race and racism:
We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates
Shades of People by Shelley Rotner
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

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4 ways to foster the joy of giving in children

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At this present-focused time of year, (especially in my house with two holidays and a birthday within the next week!) it’s easy for parents to feel like their kids are becoming little gimme gimme gimme monsters. First of all, let me just say, please don’t feel like your kids are spoiled. It’s completely normal for them to feel that way. This can be a really stressful time of year, even for kids, because there is so much stuff going on that’s out of the normal routine. Even when all the stuff is good and fun and joyous, it’s still taking a toll on their ability to self-regulate.

That said, so much of our holiday celebrations focus on adults making a magical experience for the kids, that often kids miss out on the joy of making others happy. It can be difficult to engage kids under six in the idea of giving or donating. Watching a parent make donations or give presents is a wonderful first step, but passing some of the responsibility into the kids’ hands can be a really wonderful experience.

1) Start with things the child will not have much attachment to – money or food. Having a kid pick out some food at a store (or even out of your pantry) and donate it to a food drive is an easy way to start. This can be a great starting point for conversations about poverty, hunger, helping others, and being grateful for what we have. Of course most food drives can derive way more benefit from financial donations than food donations, so if you’re able to, remember to also write a check. But the selecting and giving of food is a great, concrete way for kids to begin engaging in giving back to their community. (And it’s unlikely that it will be difficult for them to part with that bag of quinoa or jar of peanut butter.)

2) If your child has money of their own, you can encourage them to reserve some in a separate vessel for giving to charity. We just started doing this a few weeks ago, and now my almost 4 year old runs around the house looking for change to put in her tzedakah box. When the money has accumulated somewhat, you can have the child decide what kind of cause they want to give their money to, and then help them select an organization that focuses on that issue.

3) Have them buy gifts for family members. I don’t want to spend $35 on some weird thing my kids pick out, but I do want them to feel the excitement of choosing and giving a present, so I usually take them shopping at the thrift store. They have actually found some amazing presents for like $1.50, which is all the better because then they can experience paying for it with their own saved up piggy bank money. But it’s still a great experience for them even if you are footing the bill.

4) Participate in a toy drive by taking your child shopping and having them select a toy to give to a needy child. This is probably the most advanced level of giving for a child, because it’s something they will be really attracted to, and they don’t have the excitement of knowing the person they’re giving to or getting to see them open the present. The first year we did this it was very hard for my kids to select a gift without wanting to also get one for themselves. But I just kept telling them it was a day to buy presents for others, not for ourselves. I’m not sure if it’s because the message sunk in or just that the kids are just more mature this year (or I just had a lucky day), but last week they each selected two toys to donate, with nary a peep about anything for themselves.

If you are someone who worries about the onslaught of holiday presents making your child into an ungrateful, spoiled little person, take heart. I worry about that too. But last week I saw my six year-old empty all his tooth fairy money, untouched since he began receiving it 2 years ago, out of his bank and bring it to his school’s book fair to buy a book he had been eyeing for his sister’s birthday present.

I think we’re doing all right.

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.

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

dino maker cardboard ipad app

“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.

pop up adventure playground 7

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!

diy nursing necklace

natural wooden nursing-teething necklace

Happy World Breastfeeding Week! In honor of nursing mothers everywhere, here’s a tutorial to make a stylish nursing necklace. I’ll actually be helping moms make these Wednesday morning (8/6) at Windham County Breastfeeding Coalition’s World Breastfeeding Week party from 10-12 in the Tyler Conference Room at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, so if you’re local, stop on by!nursing necklace

Why would anyone need a necklace for nursing, you may ask? Well, if you’ve nursed a child past the age of about 4 months, you may have noticed that they are always looking for something to do with their hands while they nurse. Sometimes this is something as cute and cuddly as patting mama’s cheek or hugging her waist, but often it is really suuuuper annoying behaviors like pinching or even worse, the dreaded “Tune in Tokyo.” So my best solution has been to proactively give the baby something acceptable to pinch, twiddle, and squeeze, rather than say, my own body.natural wooden beads

These necklaces are especially great because they’re also completely non-toxic, made with Alexa Organics‘ natural wooden beads and rings finished with beeswax and olive oil, and naturally dyed leather cords from The Leather Cord Store on Etsy. After having two babies who loved (and still love, much to my chagrin) to explore the world by putting it all in their mouths, I think it’s important to make sure anything that’s going to be near your baby’s face is safe for them to mouth and chew on. In fact, these are great as a fashion accessory for any mother whose child likes to grab and chew on her jewelry, no matter how she’s feeding her baby.nursing necklace supplies

There are lots of ways you can assemble these materials to make a cool necklace. The simplest way is, just string a bunch of beads onto the cord, let the ring slide on over them, and knot the cord at the back.wooden beads and teething ring on leather cord

I like this version because the teething ring is big enough to side over the beads, so it makes a cool Saturn effect (well, when you are wearing the necklace in a vertical position, it’s more like Uranus), and it’s something interesting for your baby to do with the beads.

If you prefer a more static position for the ring, you can make a slip knot around itslipknot on teething ring

and then slide an equal number of beads onto each side of it before knotting at the back.knotting the ends

And there you have it! My fellow breastfeeding mamas, I salute you. May your nursing days be peaceful and rewarding, with a minimal amount of pinching and twiddling!

Oh, and PS, here’s one more diy treat for nursing mamas: my patented recipe for the tastiest ever lactation cookies! Bon appetit! (See what I did there?)

part-time princess

pondering the waterfallThis is a strange time to be raising a daughter. For a million reasons, but in this post I’m gonna stick to those relevant to the four-and-under set, as that is the only kind of daughter I have experience with so far. When I first began to have ideas about raising a daughter (years before I had one, which is the best time to be an expert on parenting, doncha know) I was so overwhelmed by the vast swaths of pink presents at a friend’s baby shower for her daughter that I swore that when I got pregnant I was going to keep the baby’s sex a secret from everyone but its father. And then I had an actual daughter and not only shared the news of her girl-ness, but happily accepted hand-me-downs from anyone and everyone and ended up with this:

pretty in pink

When you are parenting an infant (or just thinking about parenting an infant) you feel so much anxiety and excitement about shaping this little person and their whole outlook on the world that it’s easy for small things like what clothes they wear to take on looming importance. After all, an infant is basically just a lump for you to project all your hopes, dreams, gender politics, and neuroses onto. But as time passes and they grow into little people with their own ideas and desires and interests, it often turns out that our kids are not perfect reflectors of our carefully curated gender-neutral worldviews.

I was a disappointment to my own mother in this regard – as a toddler, I thoroughly ignored all the trucks and cars she kept buying me in her earnest 1970s way, and made a fast favorite of the Barbie knockoff that my babysitter, oblivious to my mom’s anti-Barbie leanings, gave me. My own daughter surprised me with her early penchant for baby dolls and shoes, though she is also passionate about monsters. It’s actually been really interesting raising a daughter who is the younger sister of a brother. His influence rounds out her interests more powerfully than I ever could. Thanks to him, at two she could identify at least two dozen dinosaur species, and by three she knew all the planets in our solar system.

Since my own childhood, we’ve made enough progress at gender equality that a lot of my beloved Free to Be You and Me now sounds strange and dated. And yet. Much has been said about the rapacious pinkification of American girlhood over the last couple of decades. And it’s not just about the ubiquitous pinkness of the “Girl” aisle in toy stores. (Which, why is that even a thing?? What could possibly be wrong with just having toys organized by type, not supposed gender of recipient?) It’s about the constant whittling away at little girls’ idea of what it means to be a girl, from dolls with unattainable body types, to hyper-gendered toy choices, to salacious children’s and doll’s clothing styles, to passive or self-sublimating female characters in countless books and movies.

Which is why it’s been so incredibly heartening to see Disney, the prolifigator of the Princess Industrial Complex famous for its conventionally beautiful, wimpy “heroines,” taking some of this criticism to heart and finally coming out with some truly admirable female protagonists. The two most recent Disney princess movies, Brave and Frozen, both feature wonderful, tough heroines who take their destinies into their own hands and have their richest, most rewarding relationships with other terrific female characters. And then I came across this little gem at our local library (picked out by my son, funnily enough):DSC03570Published in 2013 by Disney’s children’s books imprint, Disney-Hyperion, this cute book by author Deborah Underwood, with pictures by Cambria Evans, tells the story of a little girl who leads an ordinary life by day but at night turns into a kickass princess, capable of not only rescuing herself, but everybody else too.DSC03571

I loved that her royal duties include fire-fighting and dragon-taming,DSC03572

And my amphibian- and mud-loving children appreciated that she goes puddle-jumping with her mom, the queen.DSC03574

There is a royal ball, of course, and the princess quells drama by inviting the trolls to dance with her. There’s also a handsome prince there, but, you know, whatevs.DSC03575

Also did I mention that she drives a monogrammed motorcycle?DSC03576

I love this messy, brave, and fun-loving little princess, and I also love that unlike many kids’ stories, her mother was not only present throughout the story, but a total ally in fun and adventure. Role models for the whole family.

tractor baby

how to survive solo parenting

Solo parenting can be a real slog. Singlehandedly caring for, feeding, and refereeing little kids is no easy job. It drains your patience battery at about three times the normal speed, and there’s no one but you to do all the little things that make your household run smoother, not to mention be the go-to person for every single need, wish, boo-boo, and nightmare, 24 hours a day. (I want to clarify, though, that solo parenting is not even in the same universe as single parenting. I have nothing but awe and respect for moms and dads who do this as their regular m.o., and I don’t begin to think I know what kind of tips and tricks get you through when solo parenting is just The Way Things Always Are.) Right now, my husband is on day four of a ten-day work trip, so I’m on day four of a ten-day solo parenting journey. Over nearly six years of weathering these kind of trips I have developed a survival strategy, a sort of stripped-down way of living that is not just a way to keep my head above water, but also makes it kind of a fun adventure for the kiddos. (You know, the type of adventure where you don’t clean your room for a week and eat ramen for dinner.)

1. Make the Kids Your Teammates.bowling team

I start each solo parenting stint off with a pep-talk huddle with my kiddos, reminding them that we’re a team and our number one job is to look out for each other. With two kids and only one grown-up, I let them know I need their help making sure everyone is happy and safe. My son was really captivated by the concept of bucket-filling when his teachers read a book about it at nursery school, so we talk a ton about that in our everyday life, but especially when I’m flying solo. I tell the kids the best way they can fill my bucket is by being good listeners and helpers, and being kind to me and to each other. When I write it out, this kind of sounds like No Duh stuff, but I think there is a great power in explicitly telling the kids that this is what I expect from them. I’m not saying it’s magic – there are still moments of defiance, ignoring, picking on each other, and other annoying crap that three- and five-year-olds love to do. But if I can address it by calmly reminding them we’re a team and we need to fill each other’s buckets (rather than, oh, I don’t know, irately dragging one of them out onto the back porch because he won’t stop shouting at the top of his lungs while I’m trying to work), then things flow a lot more smoothly.

2. Relax the Rules.

I’m a big family dinner person. We all have our hill to die on, and I guess this is one of mine. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s home in time to kid-wrangle while I make dinner, and I (usually) love to cook. If you hate to cook or you don’t usually do family dinners, no worries. You’re already one step ahead of me on being relaxed about expectations. When my husband’s at home, a typical family dinner might be roasted chicken and potatoes, sautéed green beans, and a salad with homemade vinaigrette. And when he’s leaving town I try to make a really nice huge meal for our last family dinner, not only as a send-off, but so we can have some semblance of a healthy dinner the next night with the leftovers. But by day six, our dinners are little more than scrambled eggs, toast, and carrot sticks. Or ramen.

Ramen is actually one of my comfort foods, having made myself many packets of Sapporo Ichiban during my latchkey childhood. But I always felt kind of disappointed that my little pot of soup bore no resemblance to the delicious illustration on the packaging. Noodles and broth were fine, but where were my peapods, scallions, chicken, bok choy, and mysterious brown things?Nowadays, I keep a bag of shrimp in my freezer, and a bunch of scallions in my crisper. Add those, a boiled egg, and whatever random veggies I have sitting around, and you’ve got yourself a nice little ramen bowl. My kids view this dinner as a particular treat because I call it “Ponyo Noodles.”

Hey, if it’s good enough for Japanese Tina Fey, it’s good enough for me. See also, nachos, grilled cheese sandwiches, and hot dogs.

I also tend to let things slide a little with chores and housekeeping. I’m so, so spoiled by my dish-washing angel of a husband. Normally I handle most of the bedtime routine, and when I come downstairs to watch our netflix du jour, the dishwasher is running, the sink is sparkling, the countertops are clean, the floor is swept, and the garbage and recycling are taken out. So you can imagine what a drag it is when he’s gone. (I kid, I kid! I miss that crazy bastard for a million other reasons than his kitchen cleaning. But still, the clean kitchen is very nice.) Anyhow, when it’s just little old me in charge of all that clean up, plus getting the children washed, brushed, pajamaed, storied, and down to sleep, I’m a big fan of streamlining non-essential parts of this routine. For instance, the nightly putting away of toys in their room.

I just let their room be a big crazy toy wonderland hell-mess all week and turn a blind eye. I can do this and not worry about anybody maiming their instep on an errant lego in the middle of the night because nobody’s sleeping in there.

Oh yeah, my other dirty little secret. Instead of putting each kid to bed separately in their own beds, we have sleepovers in Mommy’s room for the duration. I can put them both to bed at once, and if it’s winter I don’t have to get into a cold, lonely bed when I’m ready to go to sleep. (And to be honest, this isn’t even that big a deal since most nights at least one of them wanders into our bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning anyway.) It’s one of those things I neeeeevvvvver thought I would do in the PKE. When I was in my (single, childless) 20s I had a co-worker who had a similar arrangement with her daughter when the husband worked nights, and I thought it was just soooo peculiar and was probably stunting the daughter’s emotional development. Sure is amazing what an expert I was back then! Now my main parenting philosophy is, Do What Works Until It Doesn’t Work Anymore, Then Do Something Else.

3. Keep your Kitchen Clean

This may seem contradictory to what I said above about letting things slide, but the kitchen is the one area where you’ll be really making things harder for yourself if you don’t get it tidied up. If you can manage this before kiddo bedtime, kudos! You just earned an evening of pure relaxation. If not, make this the one thing you do after putting kids to bed. It’s a drag, but at least you won’t wake up to this in the morning.dirty dishes in the kitchen sink

That’s no way to start a day, amirite? Especially if we have to go somewhere first thing in the morning, like school or swimming lessons or what have you, it’s just that much more frazzling to try and get everybody out the door when half the dishes are dirty and the kitchen is in disarray. But if you’re a lazy mom like myself, or one who has been spoiled by a dish-angel of a husband, it’s extra hard work to get yourself to do dumb boring chores at night when you’d rather be sitting around eating secret ice cream and watching Call the Midwife. This is where rule number 4 comes in.

4. Reward Yourself

Have a stash of little treats saved up to get you through the solo parenting stretch. These can be books you’ve been wanting to read, movies or TV shows you can never get your husband to watch with you (I’m looking at you, Big Love, Barbra Streisand Special, and Real Housewives of New York), fancy chocolate, pints of Ben & Jerry’s, or some good vino. Preferably all of the above. And for god’s sake, MAKE SURE THE CHILDREN DON’T FIND OUT ABOUT YOUR ICE CREAM AND CHOCOLATES. Then, promise yourself you can settle down with a glass of pinot, some truffles, and an episode of Downton Abbey as soon as you get that kitchen in order. That’s right, I have to bribe myself to do basic sanitation in my home. Alfie Kohn is somewhere shaking his head at me.

5. Have a Mommy Havenmommy haven

Even if tidying up falls by the wayside during your solo parenting stint, there’s one other area besides the kitchen that it’s important to keep nice. This is your Haven. It can be anywhere in your home that you can go to escape the chaos of young children. For me, it’s my bedroom. Whenever I’m feeling my patience running thin, or just tired and need a few minutes to regroup, I go in my room for a bit. If you have kids who are too little to play unsupervised, you can do this during naptime. Just lying on my bed and not looking at messy stacks of children’s reptile encyclopedias and five doll sweaters and a heap of matchbox cars does wonders for my inner reserves. If you can manage a few cleansing breaths, even better. I read this amazing book recently about cultivating mindfulness with children, Planting Seeds, and one of the basic tenets was that if you’re not at peace you can’t teach your children to be peaceful. So having a place where you can be calm and restore your inner peace is crucial.

By the way, I know my bedroom is pitifully austere. Isn’t it a rule of decorating that the very last place in your home that you get around to doing anything with is your own bedroom? Sad, but true. One day she’ll get a fresh coat of paint and some art on the walls, and we’ll replace that godforsaken Ikea bedside table, I swear it!

6. Call In Reinforcements.Grandparent Babywrangling

Even the supermommest, tidiest, patientest parent is going to find their reserves low after a week of solo parenting. So this is where you need to enlist the help of other grown people. Whether it’s other moms to vent and laugh with while your kids entertain each other at playdates, or a grandparent or kindly neighbor to look after the kiddos while you get to go run errands alone (the heavenly glory!!), or a girlfriend – the good kind, who doesn’t care about your messy bathrooms and unwashed hair – to come over and drink wine and gossip with you after the kids are asleep, having some adult companionship and/or assistance is a total necessity.

7. Know that this too shall pass.

If you get cranky, fed up, and overwhelmed, as you surely will at some point, remember that you and your kids just have to survive these 10 (or howevermany) days and then your favorite person will come home and help right the ship. You’ll cook dinner in peace while your husband plays with the kids, and you’ll come down after bedtime to a magically clean kitchen and your best friend waiting for you on the couch. And all will be right with the world.home at last

it’s friday i’m in love

Hey, it’s Friday again already! I had so much fun coming up with cool internet stuff to show you guys last week, I think I’m gonna make this a regular Friday feature. And this week, I’m starting it off with magical nordic elves.

Instagram_Iceland_10-14-July-2013_097

image via El & Em

1) OMG how lovable is Iceland. They recently halted work on an Icelandic highway because people were worried it was going to disturb the habitat of the Huldufolk, human-sized invisible elves that 50% of Icelanders believe are real. I’m serious.

2) I’m really into Yael Naim this week. She’s a French-Israeli singer/songwriter who had that great song “New Soul” in the Macbook Air commercial a few years ago. Right now I’m digging “Go to the River.” The video is kind of weird but the song is beautiful.

3) I loved this Modern Parents Messy Kids post on “The Summer of Yes.” Doesn’t that sound like an awesome mantra for summertime? Here is just a snippet of Steph’s wisdom, but you should really click over and read the whole thing yourself.

  • I will remember that just as giving my children boundaries and reasonable, age-appropriate expectations is not going to break their spirit, letting a few things slide in the name of being a preschooler is also not going to create self-centered and co-dependent adults.
  • I will remember that my friends have dirty houses just like mine – they’ll barely even notice it, let alone judge me for it.
  • I will remember how special I can make my child feel simply by stopping in the middle of what I’m doing, making eye-contact and listening for 3 minutes.
  • I will remember that a little silly goes a long way.

4) Check out these adorable summer-themed building blocks by Fidoodle:

Fidoodle makes all kinds of lovely hand-printed wooden stuff. I’m also rather fond of their suburban-themed blocks. Who knew ranch houses and station wagons could be so cute?

5) CHAMOMILE CUPCAKES. So sweet. My pint-sized little old ladies will love these. 

6) My friend Michelle, the brains behind the thoughtful motherhood essay-blog Juicebox Confession, is hosting an awesome, Waldorfy giveaway of kid and baby stuff.

Click over to her blog and fill out the entry form to win some sweet, wholesome swag for the little one in your life, including wool felt play food by Bubba Pickle’s Market, fairy wings from Fantasy Kids Wear, and beautiful carved wooden toys from The Enchanted Root.

7) Finally, I’ll just leave you with this to usher in your weekend.

Happy Friday!

number one tip for summer fun

Parenting pop quiz: What is the most difficult and annoying thing about having children? Ding ding ding ding ding! You’re right! It’s getting out of the house with them!

In winter there is little to be done about this, as children must be dressed in 45 layers of clothing which is variously bulky and snow-play worthy, or slim-fitting and carseat-friendly, yet warm enough to protect their soft little cheeks on the -10 degree walk to the car. Many’s the winter day I have wished for one of these: But summer… ah, summer is the time of just walking out of the house with nary a care in the world, right? Slip your feet into a pair of shoes on the way out the door, and there you go, right? If all you want to do is play in your own backyard, then yes, a thousand times yes, YES, ECSTATIC YES!!! to effortless house-leaving. But what if you actually want to go further afield, to the pool or a swimming hole or on a hike or just a hit-the-road-and-see-where-it-takes-us kind of thing? Then you’re in for 20+ minutes of puttering around, packing this and that and running back into the house at least twice for things you might need and then when you finally get there, you think of three other things you obviously should have brought…. Well, I am here to solve all your summer outing obstacles, folks. I started doing this last summer and it is a game changer. Let me just lay it on you: Adventure Bag. BAM. It’s a bag you keep in your trunk, already packed with everything you need to have any kind of fun summer adventure. DSC09970sI first got the genius idea of an adventure bag from a friend who saw it on this post on 3191 Miles Apart, which incidentally is an awesome blog you should totally check out if you go in for beautiful lifestyle photos from two friends living across the country from each other in the two Portlands. Anyways, I think Stephanie, the Portland Oregon one, must have older or more mess-averse kids, because her adventure kit fits in one of those adorable African woven grass baskets you always see ladies carrying at the farmer’s market, while mine fills an entire giant Ikea tote.Image OK, so let’s get down to the actual helpful part of this post that I promised you in my headline. What to pack. Image

1 & 2. Backpack and tote bag. Good for bringing a selection of your adventure bag items along with you on the post-car part of your adventure, and also for dividing the stuff up when it’s packed, so you can find it easily.

3. Sand toys. These are for the beach or sandy riverside spot, obviously, though my kids were also the toast of the kiddie pool last summer with this awesome Melissa and Doug Seaside Baking Set a friend gave us.

4. Empty jar. Empty jar is the workhorse of your adventure kit. Can be used for any kind of collecting, from sea water to pebbles to feathers to wild strawberries. Or litter, in the case of my son, the vigilante garbage man.

5. Bandanas. These are great for everything from wiping your nose to spreading out for a makeshift plate at snack time. Just not in that order, preferably. Or for first aid, though thankfully it’s never come to that, kinahora!

6. Pocketknife. If I need to tell you why a pocketknife is handy to have along, you need more help than I’m able to give. To cut things with, people. Come on.

7. Kleenex. I think it’s against the international law of motherhood to travel without kleenex. Even if you wiped your nose on the bandana, you still might want to use kleenex for peeing in the woods (girl-style, that is) and stuff like that.

8. Nylon grocery bag. Great for carrying wet clothes or swimsuits back home, or collections that won’t fit in the empty jar, like when my kids find 38 awesome sticks that they absolutely must bring home because it’s not like we have any sticks in our own yard. Or, you know, as a shopping bag like god intended, for when you find some amazing farm stand or kitschy antique shop along your travels.

9. Shelf-stable snacks. For all-day outings, I usually pack a lunch as well, but for shorter  jaunts, it’s great to be able to just bust out some almonds and raisins from the adventure bag as hunger strikes.

10 & 11. Swimsuits and towel. These are our back-up suits. If we’re going to the beach or swimming hole or pool, I normally dress the kids in their  suits before we leave home, cause having to stop and change once you see the water is a total drag. But sometimes you don’t know you’re going to want to get in the water until you get there. Countless times I have brought the kids somewhere just thinking we were going on a hike or whatever, and then there turned out to be some awesome stream to tromp in. Bringing suits, or at least a change of clothes (16), keeps you from having to be that “No, you can’t get in the water. Just stay on the dry part. No, I told you not to go in there. Feet on the grass. I SAID FEET ON THE GRASS. Well, there you go, that’s what I thought was going to happen. I guess you’ll have wet pants until we get back to the car,” kind of mom.

12. Sun hats/shades. Can’t have fun with the sun in your eyes.

13 & 14. Sunscreen and bug spray. We are big Badger fans here. My daughter has super-sensitive skin and has never had the slightest blotch from these products, and they are a 1 (low hazard) on the EWG scale, for those of you who like to be neurotic about chemicals. (Says the lady whose 5 year-old once blurted out, “If anybody brings me parabens, I’m gonna squash them like Brando scaring a child to death!” (He thinks Brando is this guy’s name although I’m sure a threat from Marlon Brando would be enough to put anyone off parabens.))

15. Sweatshirts. Here in Vermont, even in summer the temperatures can hover at that spot where it’s warm and comfortable in the sun but the shade brings a chill, and it often gets quite cool after the sun goes down.

16. A change of clothes. I’d say it’s probably about 60-40 whether my children come home from an outing in different clothes than they left in. These kiddos love to stomp in bogs, crawl in muddy creeks, roll in wet sand, and generally comport themselves as if they were creatures of the woods to whom dirty clothes are no more a care than the stock market report. So yeah, I pretty much never regret bringing a change of clothes for both of them.

17. Pajamas. Sometimes an adventure, or just plain old dinner at a friend’s house, goes on longer than anticipated, and it’s pretty much bedtime by the time we get back in the car. In this case, putting on PJs before the drive home is awesome, so we can just sneak sleeping babes straight into their beds when we get home.

18. Water bottles. I keep these empty in the car and then just fill up with ice cubes and water right before we leave.

19. Picnic blanket. This is the most used item of the kit, even above old workhorse, the empty jar. It’s always good to have a clean spot to sit and snack, or to lay on at the beach, and it can also be used as a blanket or extra towel, in a pinch.

And there you have it. Every thing you need for an outing or day trip with young children. Now that this bag is in our trunk, we are officially ready for summer. Bring on the adventures! Image