Kids in a Wagon - Nikki MacLeay, all rights reserved

Going on a Bug Hunt with KidsI am without my kids for several weeks this summer. While I waste these gorgeous summer days inside, writing like a madman, Grace and Tater are in Colorado with their cousin, Amelia. To keep order, their Aunt Nikki scheduled daily outings and even went so far as to give each week a theme. Rock on!

This week is bug week, and the kids are having a blast. There have been bug hunts, plastic bugs, workbooks with math lessons (featuring bugs!), a visit to the butterfly pavilion, and notebooks in which each kid can draw a picture of their favorite bug. Yesterday Grace actually touched a tarantula. I couldn’t even get her to pet a hedgehog a couple months back.

Here’s her official schedule of activities:

  • Monday — Pom Pom Critters from Jo-Ann Fabrics
  • Tuesday — The Butterfly Pavilion, half-mile nature walk with journal to record observations, read Diary of a Spider
  • Wednesday — Make rock bugs and nature bugs. These are craft projects using found materials like rocks, sticks, leaves, etc.
  • Thursday — Make and wear bug masks. Watch bugs in a bug box using a magnifying glass and draw what you see.

I will be honest: Nothing like this has ever occurred to me. So I am sharing this here and thinking of themes for their return: Tree Week? Water Week? Bird Week? I am just getting started. And with the various resources available online, there are plenty of activities that will boost your efforts, such as adding math or reading into the mix.

I will share next week’s theme next week. In the meantime, what are your ideas?

This started as a post on a cool way to make bubbles. Tater still hasn’t mastered the art of blowing bubbles through that small wand, so we found a way to use old 20-ounce pop bottles and socks to make bubble snakes.

But then I realized that the bubble solution (6 parts water, 2 parts dish soap, 3/4 part corny syrup) was going to be insanely messy. So I added a sprinkler to the mix; our friend Julie brought her son over with an arsenal of water pistols; and we suddenly had the perfect solution for a 95-degree day.

Ginger peanut noodles, Asian noodles, Mom 100 Cookbook

As a dad who is the primary caregiver at least two days a week, who cooks a huge portion of our meals, and does a lot of stuff that we were all raised to think of as “women’s work,” I raise an eyebrow when the mom label gets used on stuff that doesn’t need it.

Feminine hygiene products? Sure, a sticker that says “made for a woman” is appropriate. But a cookbook for people who are cooking for a family doesn’t need to be a “mom’s” cookbook. Really, it doesn’t. And while I am sure the title of this book, The Mom 100 Cookbook, makes sense because it was written by a mom, it sort of limits the audience to where I was going to skip it altogether.

And this, my friends, is where having an open mind and thick skin pays off. I looked beyond the cover that told me “This book is not for you, man-person” and found a GREAT cookbook that didn’t actually require me to have lady parts.

Small confession: I am a bit of an addict when it comes to cookbooks. We have a cabinet in the kitchen especially dedicated for a large collection of books that illuminate everything from how to boil and egg and bake a potato, to the proper preparation for traditional samosas and a special marinade from the Black Dog on Martha’s Vineyard.

I love cookbooks. Even when they don’t always love me back. That’s one of the reasons I like this back-to-basics collection of recipes from Katie Workman. The Mom 100 Cookbook gets it right. The recipes are simple but delicious—some healthy, some not so much—and they all turn out like they should. Perhaps by some fortunate aligning of the stars the author’s test kitchen is calibrated the same as mine. Or maybe after 30 years I am finally getting a hang of recipes (though I’ve always been loose with direction in the kitchen). Whatever the reason, I follow Katie Workman’s recipes, and the meals turn out pretty solid.

The organizing principle here is a series of scenarios and dilemmas , the kind of thing parents are hit with at least once a week: finding healthy snacks; how can I make chicken less boring; what, we’re going to a potluck?! So far I’ve found myself using these categories a half dozen times when faced with culinary conundrums. Each of these 20 chapters has five recipes (often variations on a theme) that add up to 100 recipes in all (thus the title). All the recipes are pretty basic fare, but there are a lot of suggestions for changing it up a bit.

For this post, we tried the Sesame Noodles, which is found in the chapter on pasta. Peanut butter sauce, regular spaghetti, and some fresh veggies. I over did it on the sauce not taking into account our shortage of noodles, so it was a bit looser than I expected, but it was a big hit with the family.

There are also dozens of great ideas for including your kids in meal prep. As a controlling dad in the kitchen, this pushes me a little beyond my comfort zone. But there’s no good excuse for keeping kids out of the kitchen, and these suggestions are great guidance for someone who’s never quite sure how much to let children participate.

Father’s Day is past, but perhaps for dad’s birthday you can skip Cooking for the Man Cave and get him a copy of The Mom 100 Cookbook.


Balance bike, teaching kids to ride

Okay, I’ll say it: When it comes to teaching my kids to ride a bike, I am a better parent than you are. You might have nailed down nutritious snack habits, taught your kids how to save their allowance, and had them prepped for the SATs by the time they were in first grade. But me? I got my daughter riding a bike by four-years-old without resorting to the worn-out, self-defeating crutch of training wheels. And my two-year-old is not far behind. He’ll be pedaling away within the year.

How did we do it? Easy. The same way people developed the bike in the first place.

Have you ever looked at a cup of coffee and asked, “Who was the guy who first picked these beans, roasted them, then soaked them in hot water until it turned black, drank this bitter mess, and said ‘Let’s do that again!’?” You could ask something similar of bikes: Who was the first guy to build a frame with two wheels, add pedals and gears to power those wheels, and then spent a month falling down trying to figure out the balance?

Of course the answer is, No one did. The first bikes had no pedals. You sat on the seat, pushed with your feet, and coasted when you could.

The key, of course, is to teach BALANCE. And that’s why you need to get your kid a “balance bike.” We’ve talked about this before (here and here), but I still see kids out there trying desperately to learn the bike with training wheels.

So why are training wheels bad, you ask? They don’t teach kids the fundamental ability they need to acquire to ride: balance. They teach kids how to get on the bike and pedal fast. Later, when the training wheels come off, they have the confidence to dive into riding but still have to learn balance. It’s backwards.

A balance bike, on the other hand, has kids coasting around and balancing naturally—as a parent, all you have to do is show them the bike. Then, once they decide they want to go faster, you move them up to a bike with pedals. There might be a transition at this point (I had to run behind Grace two times; then she just figured it out).

We tried this “method” first on Grace, but to determine it wasn’t a fluke, we stared Tater on a balance bike at two. As soon as his legs were long enough, he jumped on and hasn’t gotten off since. When he’s on his bike, the world has no obstacles. He’ll ride down the stairs of our deck (they’re pretty shallow stairs), we’ve had to teach him not to ride into the house. I even watched him coast (balancing, mind you) backwards down our driveway. I can’t even balance this good!

I hope you’ll forgive my tongue-in-cheek at the beginning and give the balance bike a try. It’s for the kids!


Seeing stars is no longer as easy as it once was. Light pollution is a pervasive bummer. It’s tragic to consider that my generation is likely the first in all of human history to grow up without a constant nighttime backdrop of stars. I was in my teens before I saw the Milky Way. (See the site for the International Dark-Sky Association.) Just think of the last generation: their childhood memories all include late nights stargazing at an immense field of stars. So inspired, they put launched men into outer space and landed on the moon.

Introducing kids to the stars may be the only way they ever really see them. We live beyond the ‘burbs, but even I can only make out the main constellations at night. The Milky Way? No way. So depending on where you live, you may have to be purposeful about finding a place where they’re shining bright at night.

Identifying constellations is a great way to make stargazing interesting—you know, once the sublimity of it all has worn off. The easiest place to start is by looking north, and from there you can follow a simple “map” to locate and ID five major constellations.

Nearly everyone can spot the Big Dipper, with a little effort. The constellations rotate around Polaris throughout the year, so the big ol’ ladle might be upside down or right side up. But once you’ve found it, you are at the starting point. The Big Dipper is, in fact, part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major (the Big Bear).

1 – Lining up the bottom two stars in the Big Dipper will point you to Polaris. This is usually the brightest star. It’s the North Star that has guided so many navigators. It’s also the tail-end of Ursa Minor, or the Little Dipper.

2 – Using the first star on the handle of the Big Dipper and lining it up with Polaris points you right at the center of Cassiopeia. Kids might have an easier time if you call it the W, since the queen’s crown looks more like a letter than an actual crown.

3 – The far right stars of the W will point you to the bottom of Cepheus. Named after the King of Aethiopia, I like to think of this one as a house. (Come on. No one sees an ancient king in this shape, do they?)

4 – The fourth short cut identifies our fifth constellation, Draco (i.e. The Dragon). This stellar creature is twisted around our other constellations. A line drawn through the two stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper—the ones closest to the handle—point to the head of the dragon, crossing its body in two places en route.

This is just a start, and if your kids take to it, there’s plenty of next steps, from books on astronomy for kids to investing in a decent telescope.

Spring is here (in Michigan it’s been here for a month)! This means our seasonal window for camping has expanded enormously. It doesn’t mean, however, that we are prepared for it. Camping requires some planning, and if you’re bringing kids along, it also requires strategy and stamina.

I’ve read a few books on camping with kids over the years, but none emphasizes the importance or explores the full landscape of preparedness more than this new book from Roost Books: The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids by Helen Olsson.

Olsson is a list maker, and there is perhaps no better trait you want in someone who’s planning or helping you plan a trip. As I’ve mentioned before, the motto we lived by in my scout troop was “A prepared scout is a happy scout.” This is true in for all campers.

In this book, Olsson answers all your questions about camping with kids. There are sections that deal with having all the right gear, from boots to tents. Later she gets you prepped and ready to camp with her signature lists—Little Tykes Gear Checklist, Software Checklist (that’s clothing), Camp Kitchen Cleanup Checklist—before explaining in the next section how to setting up camp, prepare meals, keep the site clean, etc.

The third section is my favorite. Anyone who has planned a camping trip knows the risk of over planning the sleeping and eating to the neglect of the other 14 or so hours in the day. You have to have something planned, be it hiking, rafting, fishing, throwing horseshoes, collecting flowers… something, or your family will go nuts and take you with them to the funny farm. Olsson’s final section has you covered enough games, activities, and crafts to keep your brood happy for a month in the woods.

But that’s not all (trying hard not to sound like a infomercial), there’s a lot of sound advice here. Smart Tips are scattered to nearly every page with sage guidance that will make your trip as smooth as a well-swept tent floor (she has advice on that too):

Save some cash by buying kids’ hiking boots used. (They’re going to outgrow them before they outwear them.)

Fish away from other anglers. Your kids will scare all their fish away and ruin it for everyone.

Stash socks in a mesh bag for easy locating. And don’t forget a plastic bag for dirty laundry.

All this is sewn up with important safety and first aid info, meaning you’ll want to take the book along with you.

Helen Olsson also has a great blog for us “getting kids outside” folks. It’s called Mad Dog Mom, and there you will find a record of her family’s outdoor adventures.

In preparing your children for the coming apocalypse, you must realize that your month-long stores of canned goods will eventually run out. At some point they will need to emerge from the bomb shelter and hunt radioactive chipmunks if they hope to survive. To that end, they will need some proficiency with the making and use of primitive weaponry.

I jest, but nevertheless, we did make slingshots this week, and we’ve been having a blast shooting pine cones at the side of the garage. Here’s how we made them. You will need latex hose from Home Depot or Lowe’s (it’s the same as surgical tubing but found in the plumbing section), Y-shaped sticks and something to cut them with, string, and a knife to whittle down your ends and cut your string. You will also need some leather—I bought a pair of gloves for $1.50 at the hardware store.

With the trimming shears and a saw we trimmed the sticks to a useful size, attached the hose with a little leather cut-out, secured it with the string, and voila! (By the way, I learned this method of string tying from an earlier post from our resident bike guru. See the link to the YouTube video nearer the end of Fun with Bug Excretions.)

With the project complete, it was time to lay down the ground rules: 1) No aiming at people, 2) no aiming at the house (or cars or anything breakable), and in our case 3) only shoot with pine cones. This latter rule is especially useful for us since the kids can hardly manipulate a small rock, nor do I trust a five-year-old to always remember rules 1 and 2.

Winter is the time for montages. Time outside can be difficult, so our memories are summarized in mental snapshots. Flick. Flick. Flick. We tick through the best parts, ignoring the snow that sneaked under our gloves and froze our wrists. Wet socks? Frozen nose and ears? No way! We made a snowman. We made snow angels. We saw mouse tracks on the snow and birds up in the trees!

Here is our snow day montage. Okay, maybe it’s not technically a montage… It’s a collection of pics of Grace building her first snowman. She’s been wanting to do this all year, but we simply haven’t had the snow. School has been called on account of rain twice, but this was the first real snow day, and Grace had a blast!

The word pining comes from the Latin, poena, which means “to suffer.” And even though it seems natural to us this time of year that the word should be related somehow to the name of the conifer, pine and to pine come from very different sources.

In either case, we’re pining for the pines, so to speak. The weather here in Colorado is especially delicious for getting outside, and yet we have a full schedule to execute in a short amount of time, and that leaves precious few hours for getting outside.

What do you do on vacation to get your kids outside when the plan doesn’t really call for a lot of outdoor time?

Tell us your ideas, please!

I have this suspicion that very little of human communication is original. There seem to be “scripts” for a huge variety of situations, and they are odd individuals who deviate from the lines we know that are expected of us. No one really answers the passing “How are you?” Chatting with a stranger almost always leads to observations on the weather. And at Christmas time, the script tells us that we are to talk about how busy we are and how stressed the holidays make us.

Personally, I don’t get it, but then maybe I am one of those odd individuals. Even though I will be packing up a car with presents and kids and then driving 2,000 miles to celebrate Christmas in Colorado, we’re not stressed. Road trips are fun. Christmas morning with kids is fun. Blowing off work for a week and hanging out with family? More fun.

What about shopping?, you might ask. We’ve never been a family to overdo it on presents. When my daughter was three, she got a sleeping bag. We set up a tent in the family room and played the whole day. We’ve learned that we need to do a little more than that, but not much. Throw in a book and Frisbee, and as a five-year-old she’s ecstatic. Did I have to brave holiday traffic and crowds? Heck no. I got online before Thanksgiving, placed my orders and waited for the UPS guy. Generic gifts: Amazon. Personal gifts: Etsy. Vintage gifts: eBay.

That’s not to say that this is a “no brainer.” We’ve worked very hard to get to this place. Lean years, when we were too broke to buy presents, changed our understanding of what a happy Christmas requires. A purposeful attempt to avoid crowds led to my commitment to avoid the mall at all costs from Black Friday in January.

But at the center has been a desire to appreciate the season. We spread it out by celebrating Advent, not just Christmas. We try to find ways for our kids to give. And, you might have seen this coming, we try to spend time together… outside. (That’s the plug that ties my conversation to the mission of the site.)

So what’s all this have to do with my Christmas list? Everything. At the top of my list is “Time spent together as a family.” Then come other things like “Adventurous children” and “Memories that don’t need editing.” If I can keep those on my list, and work as hard at that as people did finding Tickle-Me Elmo back in the day, then it all seems to fall together nicely.

I hope to have more time to post over the holidays, but in case I don’t see you before, Merry Christmas! And a blessed New Year! (completely from the heart, unscripted).

I leave you with this thoughtful video from Advent Conspiracy:

[AC] Promo 2011 from Advent Conspiracy on Vimeo.


(A thousand apologies for the title swiping from Amy Grant. But I saw my opportunity, and I took it.)

Hello, and Merry Christmas! The two of us writing this site both have undergraduate degrees in English Literature, so when it comes to great gift ideas, we often turn to books. We love ’em, and books like Last Child in the Woods and Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids have provided the philosophical ground and inspiration for this site. We read a lot, and this is a great time of year to share a few of our favorites. Check it out and then tell us about the ones we missed in the comments!

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder
By Richard Louv

Having read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that his new book, The Nature Principle is somehow able to again cover the topic of separation from nature, but really tread new ground. I’m not quite sure how he’s able to do this. It may be that the writing is noticeably more personal.

There is still the quoting of experts, but Louv writes now of intimate things, like sitting at the site of his father’s self-inflicted demise, questioning whether separation from nature hastened his mental illness and whether our own can have similar effects. It’s a powerful moment, and involved this reader with the book very strongly. A less emotional but still appreciated carryover from the first book is that we hear more about Louv’s children, now grown older. This helps to give this decidedly non-fiction book “characters” and lends the feeling of continuation you might find in a fiction trilogy. Highly recommended. Look for a longer more detailed review later.

Survivor Kid: A Practical Guide to Wilderness Survival
By Denise Long

Right off the bat I want to thanks the author and publisher for not excluding my daughter with this book. Gender is a big thing for her at this age. She has whole taxonomies to explain that blue is for boys and red is for girls, girls can be doctors but not dentists, and boys can’t dance but girls can. So all the books with titles like Boys’ Adventure Guide or A Boy’s Guide to the Outdoors, or any other such title, causes her to automatically erase it from her list of possibilities. (And the “girl” books are kind of lame.)

Survivor Kid is more pragmatic than all that. Not looking to cash in on a marketing angle, the goal of the book can be appreciated by both boys and girls—the goal of surviving outside should they get lost or hurt. There’s plenty in here for young readers (middle schoolers would love the book), but parents will find a lot for creating fun learning activities. I think there’s a Trench Shelter (pp. 27-28) in our future. Toward the end the book, the author has described everything you need for a survival kit.

The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists: The Coolest Experiments and Projects for Science Fairs and Family Fun
By Ken Denmead

“We seem to have gotten further and further away from an honest understanding and use of science in our daily lives. When emotional and political motivations color the use of scientific results, the true purpose of science gets lost.” So begins the introduction to Ken Denmead’s The Geek Dad book for Aspiring Mad Scientists. And thus we learn that while the title is obviously a joke, inside the joke are (clearly benevolent) honest plans for “world domination.” Denmead really is a mad scientist, looking to change the world to his (again, benevolent) ends!

While the contents are too involved and “recipe”-like for me to get into them here, suffice to say that—I’m condensing madly, here—this book explains exactly why Mentos explode in soda in hundreds of different ways. Different Mentos, different sodas, but the same basic  “average materials with extraordinary results” scenario. And a clear scientific explanation of why it happens. If you’re the type of Dad to look for teachable moments, and have any interest in science at all—get this book. Or Ken Denmead will make you his minion (p.27, DIY Mind Control).

Handy Dad: 25 Awesome Projects for Dads and Kids
By Todd Davis

In the publishing world, there’s a lot of talk about what kinds of traditional books can compete with e-books. And there seems to be a growing understanding that books need to have something special—lots of color, unique design, and interesting materials—in order to compete. Handy Dad rises to that level. The book is as attractive as it is useful. I just was blown away by the heavy stock, the textured cover, the creative design.

Divided up by how long each project should take (easy, afternoon, weekend), Davis gives us twenty-five great projects. From a homemade lava lamp and a water-pressure rocket to a half-pipe and a rope bridge, these kinds of projects can be done with the kids or for the kids—and they’ll love the results either way. Personally, I am looking forward to building the skate longboard. Thankfully it will be a few years before the kids are old enough to want to borrow it.

50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)
By Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler

A little while back I watched Gever Tulley give a little talk on TED. There’s a movement afoot, encouraging parents to stop babying their children. We’re raising a generation of adults that can’t do for themselves—stifling not only creativity and such, but keeping kids from developing competence and a sense of confidence. Cut it out. I wish every parent had a copy of Tulley’s book and worked through all 50 of these “dangerous things.” There would be more scraped knees, cut fingers, and even some broken arms, but there would also be more kids who knew how to interact and control the world they live in.

And your kids will love it, whether they’re standing on the roof, breaking glass with a bat in the driveway, or exploring subterranean worlds, this is the stuff that childhood is made of. Embrace it, scraped knees and all.

Treehouses and Other Cool Stuff: 50 Projects You Can Build
By David and Jeanie Stiles

When I was in high school we went white-water rafting quite a few times in West Virginia. While waiting to return my wetsuit, I would take a look at a few of the books the outfitter had for sale near the gear trailer. One of these was a fully illustrated guide to white-water kayaking. I really loved this book. Through funky cartoons, the author was better able to describe certain paddle strokes and river scenarios than photos ever could. I got that same feeling when I picked up Tree Houses and Other Cool Stuff.

More than just treehouses, the book covers everything from a lemonade stand to a playhouse shaped like a spaceship. There’s also a section on accessories (i.e. treasure chests and canons for the pirate ship, winches and special locks, rope swings, etc.). The full-color photos give you a good idea of what the project should look like, but the hand-drawn illustrations are where it’s at. They show you how to make it. Maybe I should be a little embarrassed how important pictures are for me with this kind of book, but I think you’ll find them very useful. And again, your kids will love these projects!