Dump Dora, and 7 More Tips to Help You Enjoy Reading to Your Young Child

IMG_2974 We all know we’re supposed to read to our kids. And while I often truly love our snuggle time with a book, reading to a child — let’s be honest — can also sometimes feel like a bit of a chore. Especially the third time that we’re both plodding through the same book in a row.

And I’m a notorious bookworm! As a child, I was such an avid reader that I would walk and read at the same time, floating obliviously through the hallways of my elementary school like a bespectacled nerd zombie.

Still, reading is one of those no-compromise parental duties. Despite decades of programs like “Stop, Drop and Read,” many children are not read to enough by parents or caregivers, and the richness of the “print environment” for kids varies widely and tragically among neighborhoods and income levels.

James Trelease’s classic, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,”  notes these differences in fairly stark terms according to social class. He writes about a 2005 study of 42 families over 1,300 hours of observations, and starts with the similarities:

Regardless of socioeconomic level, all 42 families said and did the same things with their children…. [But] when the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old from the “professional” family will have heard 45 million words, the “working-class” child 26 million, and the “welfare” child only 13 million.

That’s a gap of 32 million words, which is a lot for schools to cope with when kids start kindergarten. Trelease goes on to explain that although all those conversations help to develop the brain and interest kids in what can be accomplished with language, spoken words are not enough.

Turns out that kids need exposure to words, images and concepts outside of things like “where are your shoes?” and “finish your spinach.” To better stoke their imagination, equip children with a wide range of “background knowledge,” and keep pace with the fact that kids’ comprehension far outstrips their ability to speak, we must expose them to all the “rare” words in books:

Whereas an adult uses only nine rare words (per thousand) when talking with a three-year-old, there are three times as many in a children’s book and more than seven times as many in a newspaper.

So, how should we think about the job of reading to our kids in a way that makes it fun for both parents and children? And what really matters in the act of reading a book, anyway? While I found Trelease’s book was mostly a screed on educational policies about reading, he did have a few good tips (and includes helpful reading lists by age group at the back).

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Here’s his useful insights plus a few of my own, picked up along the way:

  1. The most important: Make reading a snuggly, relaxed time from the very start. Beginning with your newborn, read as many books as they seem interested in with an easygoing manner. Spread focused times for reading out across the day, and extend the time as the child remains interested. (By the time Maya was 10 months old, we were looking at books for at least an hour a day. It’s easier to find and make this time if TV and other screens are not in the equation.) Don’t force reading time, and discontinue it if your child becomes uninterested. As they get older, talk with them about how nice it is to read together, and make it a habit. We snuggle with books first thing in the morning, before dinner, and at bedtime, at a minimum. Singing your way through Mother Goose is a nice way to be with a toddler, and the rhymes are contagious and help with memory development to boot.
  2. Create a text-rich environment: Leave baskets of books near play areas and around the house where they are easily accessible without adult help. For toddlers, books near the potty areas are a no-brainer. Keep a mix of books, including board books, around, but focus on reading the ones that are more challenging to your child at that developmental moment, and let them look through the simpler ones by themselves unless asked you’re specifically to read those, more or less for old times’ sake. And think about playing with letters and text! Put magnet letters on the fridge, make felt shapes in letter forms for a felt board, play with tracing letters and building them (here’s a nifty set I really like, despite the plastic!), print your names and trace them, etc.
  3. Build patience and stamina for stories by sustaining interest: According to Trelease, by the age of three, most children should be able to endure some stories with longer blocks of age-appropriate text on one page of a two-page spread. Alternate picture books with more textually dense, but well-paced, stories. Audiobooks can also be used to build patience for listening, as they ask kids to use their imagination: start with books they know (we like both The Polar Express, and Blueberries for Sal), and then branch off into new books. When reading, ask questions about the text, prompting your child for predictions about the contents of a new book based on the cover to develop observational skills, or connecting the subjects to something they know (“we picked blueberries, didn’t we?”). Be ambitious in picking stories that keep introducing new subjects, places and kinds of people, and that ask for patience from your child. They will let you know when you’ve gone too far!
  4. Introduce books as beloved creations: Read the name of the author or illustrator, explaining that’s who wrote or drew in the book. Insist that books be treated with care and respect, and ask your child to help keep them neat and organized. Three- and four-year-olds can make books as an easy craft, drawing pictures on folded paper and “binding” them with yarn tied through two punched holes. You can act as scribe for their book ideas, and help them write out a story, talk about and do illustrations, and read it aloud back to them.
  5. Change it up: To combat boredom (mostly for me!) and maintain interest, I like to have a lot of books around to choose from. (While I liked many of the suggestions in the parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, I was staggered by the suggestion that a child needs only 12 books! That’s just absurd.) If you’re like me, you’ll need to find ready sources for cheap books (or time for weekly trips to the library). Luckily, book and library sales, garage and yard sales, thrift stores and used books from online sources are all good options. I like to circulate books, moving them from the playroom to the bedroom and back again about every three months, and getting rid of the ones that are no longer needed. A little re-org on a Saturday morning does wonders for making our collection “new.” Because we have storage space and to keep our many books affordable, books are another thing I buy ahead when I see classics on sale for pennies at the thrift store. When you have limited time to ascertain a book’s quality (or attend as Darwinian a library sale as the one here in Takoma Park — LOL), I’ve found it’s helpful to eyeball the quality of the illustrations. Beautifully designed images or drawings, often by someone other than the author, are a tell-tale sign of more thoughtful execution and expense by publishers.
  6. Dump Dora. Really. Yes, my dear daughter also is drawn to the unnaturally wide-eyed perky wonder that is Dora the Explorer. But over time, I have painstakingly weeded out all of those books, as well as ones starring “The Wiggles,” or containing any Disney princess-y BS or other objectionably idiotic, marketing-driven nonsense. Why? Because they are painfully unpleasant and dull to read, lack a plot or any character development, and are poorly drawn to boot. Anything I don’t enjoy reading is out. I can’t tell you how much this simple principle has improved both our lives since I became a merciless hard-liner for quality reading material. Do it! You won’t regret it one minute. (Still need convincing? Just order or borrow any book by Jan Brett and read it aloud back-to-back with some commercialized dreck that found its way onto your bookshelf like an unwelcome house-guest, and then you tell me.)
  7. Re-write as you read: Since I have a daughter, I can’t help noticing that most books are stuck in, say, 1975, when it comes to gender pronouns. The default of a male persona for animals and other characters is irritating. So I just read them as “she.” I’ll also soften some scary parts of fairy tales a bit to lessen the blow. More fun, though, is playing silly games with substitutions when I find myself reading the same book six times in two days. I’ll sub in preposterous first letters for the existing words (so it becomes “Bleen Beggs and Bam”), and make Maya correct me. Or I’ll add in odd adjectives, nouns or verbs (“Purple Eggs and Spam” ) and insist that they are right. Sometimes pickles just appear at odd moments in the story. The wackier, the better. On occasion, Maya wants the comfort of repetition rather than a game, and she lets me know! But other times, this silliness keeps familiar books alive for both of us, and makes her giggle at me while showing off what she knows better than mommy.
  8. Let imitation be flattery:  When your child talks, don’t correct their language, but do repeat, like a parenting parrot, what they say much of the time by subtly filling in their intentions. For example: “Mom, park today.” becomes, in your words, “You went to the park today?” Fill in and translate emotions for them as well (“Were you sad about that?  You seem sad. You were sad at the park today.”) I’ve used repetition consistently since Maya started speaking until now (she is 3 and a half). While it seemed strange at first to repeat nearly everything she said in a conversational tone, after a little while it felt perfectly natural, and the impact on her vocabulary and grammar is obvious. This modeling of course works the way ’round as well, so let your child catch you reading. Obviously, it’s more difficult to raise a reader if you are not reading books, with interest, yourself. In this age of the digital, young children won’t connect your time in front of a laptop with reading a book. Making sure that books are a feature of your own free time when possible (including reading aloud from recipe books when you cook together!) will bring home the message that books and reading are a life-long pleasure, and a key to life in the larger world.

What’s missing from this list? I don’t think (and research agrees) that pushing academic-style phonics lessons on children is a good idea, unless the child repeatedly asks for more information about learning to read without parental prompting. Fostering a sense of self-directed intellectual curiosity is the point, and that can be stifled by pressure to learn.

While a few very young children do pick up reading easily on their own, and that’s fine, the goal of all this is to ensure that reading is exciting, pleasurable and a point of connection for parents and kids. Stay tuned for my next post on dazzling adventure stories for young children!

Do you have tips for me? I’d love to hear them!

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Foxy: An Easy Tutorial for a Needle Felted Fox

IMG_2577In legends and myths from cultures around the world, the trickster is always the most interesting character. And they are often a fox, as in the book, The Tale of Tricky Fox, which features an addictive little sing-song and dance by the fellow.

So having a fox around to make trouble is useful. For one, if someone happens to do something naughty, both parent and child can blame it on that wily vulpine visitor.

Making a fox toy for your child is a fun little project as well. Below are simple instructions for needle felting your own personal trickster. I would estimate the project takes about ten hours or so, so it’s best tackled in front of some TV series you’ve been waiting to dive into. (I suggest Downton Abbey, so you can poke yourself with the needle every time Matthew is on-screen, to get used to the pain. Or you could just watch the Bill-and-Ted dance Foxy Lady on an endless loop. Totally up to you.)

As I’ve mentioned, I find needle felting a rewarding craft in which it’s shockingly easy to make something adorable, like this sheep or other animals. Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals a few times, you can make almost anything. It’s also very forgiving: you can easily change your mind about an addition or reshape the object as you go. The popularity of the sheep tutorial is what inspired me to offer up another one for this fox, but the principles are similar for both furry creatures.

Children — those over around 5 or 6 years old, depending on their level of patience and coordination — would also be able to make something this way, though you should probably start them on small cookie cutters and flat shapes first. Wet felting — like these Easter eggs — is great for that age and for younger crafters.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A block of some material that can be poked (since I bought this poly foam, which is really the only un-green thing about the craft, I found a shop selling foam rubber, which I have not used but would be greener);
  • A few felting needles (they break easily, so you’ll want a few to start, from Amazon or far better priced in bulk from wool shops like one, which usefully color coats their needle sets, or this shop on Etsy). Definitely pick up some larger needles, like a 38 gauge, as well as finer ones for finishing. As a favorite supplier explains:

    The needles are available in several sizes or “gauges.”  Most dry felting work, done with medium grade wool, uses 36 or 38 gauge.  For finer surface work, or finer fibers, move up to 38 star or 40 gauge.  For coarser fibers, move down to 32 gauge.

  • A wooden handle for the needle if you like;
  • Some sharp scissors or wire cutters;
  • Some roving in colors suited for your project (on Amazon here, or from a much better and cheaper selection on Etsy, e.g., here or here; you can also find even more eco-friendly plant dyed selections). Avoid superwash roving, which is used in spinning but which is not good for needle felting. To make the fox, you’ll need a fair amount of rusty red and off-white and a little black; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. Any color will work for this project.

The concept is straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid. The only rule is to keep the needle moving straight up and down, as the tip breaks easily.

The other precaution is to try to keep from poking your fingers, as the needles are super-sharp. This does not keep me from doing it in front of the television, though, so some injury is likely inevitable. Tant pis.

How to make the fox:

IMG_2519Start by forming an oblong ball in off-white roving and using the larger gauge needle to poke it into shape for the body. Continue turning the oblong over as you felt the roving, keeping the level of felting roughly uniform on all sides and front and back ends. Our fox was about four inches long and two inches high on the sides of the body. As it shrinks from being poked, lay more flat strands of felt around it to maintain the same approximate size. Leave the neck area a little less worked than the other portions of the body.

IMG_2520When you have a shape with the basic dimensions you’d like, but before it gets too tight and packed in, thread two pipecleaners through the approximate front and hind quarters of the fox-to-be, cut them at the appropriate leg length plus a smidge to allow for bending the tips in, and fold the wire tips over to make feet. Stand it up a few times to make sure you’ve gotten the lengths right, and adjust as needed.

IMG_2522Then make the head by forming and poking a ball separate from the body. Start with a oval, and as you work with it and it starts to respond better to the needle, angle the front and sides to create an elongated triangle. Foxes are all angles and snout in the front. Keeping a ridge where the eyes and ears will go is important as well, as above. Again, leave the neck less worked so as to allow for it to be easily attached to the body.

IMG_2523Add the formed head to the body, layering strips of additional wool around the ridge on the top of the head and the neck as needed.

IMG_2524Layer on the red by pulling to extract flattened pieces of roving, laying them onto the body and poking into place where you want it. Where you put your needle is where the wool will go. Look at images of foxes on-line as you may need: foxes have white underbellies, and red coats on top, with red markings on the top of their heads and white jaws below their noses.

IMG_2527IMG_2528 After you get the wool tacked onto the body as you need, add a layer of red wool to the legs as well, taking care not to break your needle on the wire inside the pipecleaner. Poke to the side of the wire, and around.

IMG_2531 IMG_2530Next make the ears by poking a small amount of red roving into a pointy triangle and leaving the bottom less worked. Attach to each side of the head at an angle. Finish all four legs and both ears.
IMG_2535IMG_2529IMG_2536Next, add a less-worked long clump of roving for the basic part of the tail. Work the attached part well into the body.

IMG_2539 IMG_2563Add a layer of black roving to the feet, with less density as it goes up the leg. In the uppermost picture, the left leg shows the worked roving and the right leg shows the work-in-progress.

IMG_2567Add black to the tail, and then a white tip.

IMG_2564 IMG_2565Needle features from very small amounts of roving into the face, including black and white touches in the ears and above the eyes. Add a little more red to the back of the ears if necessary to keep the black from showing through. Add white to fill out the belly and create a nice line.

Adjust the head shape as you like, checking it against pictures. Pay close attention to felting the details — there is a moment when the felt starts to respond to each poke, allowing you to shape your creature’s character and look. Don’t fret if things are perfectly symmetrical, as some differences add to the life-like imperfections.

You can always attempt a more artistic version than I did — many of the most life-like needle-felted foxes on-line have more loose roving to mimic fur on top. Since I intended it to take some damage as a toy, I made it more felted than this gorgeous artisan furball of a fox, for example. You can also get more fancy with adding small glass eyes from craft stores or on-line sources, as you wish.

IMG_2569Ready for mischief!

(As usual, none of the above links are commissioned.)

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One-Day Drab-to-Fab Bathroom Makeover with Chalk Paint

IMG_2305Our basement bathroom was until recently a rather drab affair.

Since it’s not an area we often use, though, I really didn’t want to spend any significant amount of money to make it more cheerful. Instead, I was on the hunt for more modest upgrades: When a friend, awhile back, was looking to sell a sleek new sink fixture set she chose not to use in her own renovation, I replaced the rusty drain plug and awful plastic knobs.

But I was stymied for a long time by the cheap finish on the fake-oak vanity and built-in medicine cabinet, which was not even a wood-like veneer but was, on the sides anyway, a wood-image sticker. The deadly dull, cheap light fixture also did nothing to improve the room.

IMG_1644IMG_1643(Sorry for the cloudy pictures. It’s not an attempt to make it look worse, I swear! My camera got jammed and needed repairs, so these were done with my phone. Anyway, you get the gist: fugly and totally uninteresting.)

Then I discovered chalk paint. Because it sticks to most surfaces, is low-emissions and relatively green, and can be sealed for repeated use with wax, it can be used to create a fresh look for little cost.

And obviously, this is far less hassle, dust and expense than replacing the vanity, cabinet and light. Most vanities and cabinets are press-board and composite woods anyway, which off-gas glues and just generally annoy me. And repainting saves our current stuff from becoming trash.

I chose a green-blue tone for the vanity and light, Florence, from Annie Sloan because its intensity was a nice pairing with the navy tiles in the standing shower, but was still bright enough to create interest and pop. For the medicine cabinet, I used a bright white, called Pure. Because the fixtures couldn’t be easily fixed if I made a mistake, I also enlisted some help from a friend, also named Laura, who knows what she is doing and has done a ton of work refinishing pieces with chalk paint.

In terms of equipment, I used:

We started by washing all the dust off the vanity, light and cabinet. After that dried, we removed the handles from the door and other fixtures and began painting.

Laura showed me how to thin the paint with water by dipping it in a cup of a water prior to dipping it in the paint. A small amount goes a long way.

IMG_1647We did three coats on both the vanity and cabinet. When it was dry (which took only 20 minutes or so), we used a fine-grade sandpaper block in between coats to smooth the paint out further.

Multiple coats make a real difference, and, as Laura told me, thin layers sit better than laying it on thick. Laura had a much more meticulous eye than I do for uneven areas that required more sanding as well as spots missing paint.

IMG_1652 IMG_1656IMG_1658The light fixture was tricky, because the paint didn’t go on in layers easily. The chrome kept popping through, and all of the corners and edges required a careful touch-up.

But after a few layers dried, and with lots of angling of the brush, the paint eventually held on. I originally had in mind to distress it a bit to see the silver. We tried that, then decided it looked better with the color uniform.

IMG_1659IMG_1663 IMG_1660After we were happy with the colors and when the paint had dried, we moved to the wax stage. Using a dry round brush designed for wax application, we added a fairly thin coat of clear wax to the entire surface of the vanity, cabinet and light. We let it sit for just a few minutes, and then buffed it using a large round brush as a drill attachment. (For the sides that were closest to the wall and unreachable with the drill, we didn’t bother buffing the wax.)

IMG_1662 Last, we cured the wax for a few days by cutting several large garbage bags along the seam and taping them along the edges of the sink to protect it from water.

I was very pleased about the result. And with the cost. Because I had help from Laura, who brought along her drill brush attachment, the cost for the new-but-used sink fixtures, paint, some tape and my brushes kept the whole project under $100. Which helped to pay for the new camera!

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DIY Furniture Re-Do: Breathing New Life into Furniture with Chalk Paint

IMG_2294One of my beefs with cheaper types of new furniture is that it’s more or less designed to end up pretty quickly in a landfill. Some of the press-board stuff that you have to assemble can’t even be moved once!

Other pieces, even from higher-end stores, have press-board backs as well as drawer bottoms and sides. Under current law, sadly, companies can call things “solid wood” even when they are made of medium density fibreboard (MDF), particle board or other types of composite materials, yet this stuff is basically chemicals and pressed sawdust, and off-gasses formaldehyde, glues and other nastiness.

Enter chalk paint. With a can of this low-VOC paint and a little wax, even the most dinged-up old wooden pieces can get a new lease on life. The paint is self-priming, so there’s no need to strip the finish from furniture beforehand. It could also be used to seal exposed parts of pieces that have dubious materials inside, to prevent more off-gassing.

Needless to say, this is a huge problem solver for me. Although I have a soft spot for some mid-century design, pieces that are in great condition are expensive. Furniture strippers and refinishing materials are aromatic solvents and are generally toxic, so I don’t really want to mess with them. And nothing’s more green, potentially funkier, or easier on the wallet than upcycling lovely old real wood furniture.

There are a couple of high-end brands of chalk paint, like Annie Sloan and CeCe Caldwell, and there are also recipes online to make your own with a variety of additions to any paint. If you decide to make your own and use the Plaster of Paris method, be sure to follow all safety precautions and do not inhale it. Also, it may help to ensure the base paint is a truly zero-VOC paint like Mythic. One furniture redo diva I spoke with uses baking soda in regular paint as in this how-to, and claims it works like a charm, though others think it’s best for distressed finishes.

I originally played around with some Annie Sloan paint and wax, because I found a local “stockist” for it. It isn’t cheap, though, and the colors are limited (though gorgeous). In addition, the wax comes with a troubling warning under Prop 65, California’s labeling law for hazardous substances, and has a bit of an odor at first. I turned on a fan, opened the window, and wouldn’t let the two-year-old near the final project until the wax was cured.

Since my experiments below, I’ve found a company selling their own DIY chalk paint powder that claims to have a greener wax, Fiddes & Sons. I’m not thrilled with their vagueness about their ingredients, but I’m inclined to give it a go. They also have some helpful supplies, like a wax brush attachment to use on a drill that finishes larger projects in no time. I haven’t yet tried their stuff, so I’ll keep you posted.

Since I discovered the magically transformative properties of chalk paint, I’ve purchased two painted pieces made by local furniture folks (one found on my favorite new mid-century furniture site, Krrrb, and another from Craigslist). The pictures are here to give you an idea of the “looks” that are possible with painted pieces.

Here’s a romantically shabby chic drop-leaf desk that fit perfectly in a small corner of the bedroom:

IMG_2296And a groovy re-do of a mid-century dresser in which the new white paint covers over numerous scratches flawlessly and makes the piece pop, from Salvage Modern, a mom-owned local business whose owners are just lovely:

IMG_2287 IMG_2289I also used chalk paint to add a more fun and decorative element to the elephant insets on my nightstand (matching it to the drop desk). The insets were dull, and no one could see the elephants on the piece as they were too dark. I decided it would be funky to add a bit of relaxed color. The new friend who sold me the desk was kind enough to donate a small amount of the chalk paint she used, and some wax, for the project.

First, I taped up the back area. Then I added two coats of paint and a very light coat of wax, just using a paper towel. Next, I buffed the wax for a good little while with an old cloth diaper, and last, I distressed it lightly with fine sandpaper.

Another easy project was to use chalk paint to jazz up a small, cheap thrift store purchase of a bookshelf for the playroom. For this, I involved my trusty assistant, and we yukked it up while making potato stamps in a star and heart shape, and dipping them into contrasting white paint after painting a few base coats in Annie Sloan‘s Florence paint.

The end result was cute and gives me a little storage for art supplies.

The upshot? Chalk paint provides a fun and easy way to upgrade your existing or used furniture, saving it from an untimely trip to the landfill and making it your own.

As I’ll explain in my next post, I also recently used chalk paint to add a pop of color to a basement bathroom by refinishing and updating a hideous faux-wood bathroom vanity and light fixtures, saving tons of money and giving the whole room a much fresher look. I can’t wait to show this to you, as I’m so happy with the “renovation.” More coming soon!

While you’re waiting, here are a few other posts you may like:

Ten Easy Tips for Hosting a Greener, Healthier Kid’s Birthday Party

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I like parties. I always invite most everyone I know, and find it a wonderous thing to get invited to them as well (hint, hint).

Nonetheless, for the first two years of Maya’s existence, I thought a birthday party was unnecessary, given that she wouldn’t really notice one way or the other. But by the ripe old age of three, well, she’d already attended a bunch, and she was quite specific about her desires for a cake in the shape of a bunny. (As luck would have it, my always-helpful Mom happened to have just such a cake mold on hand, left over from some ’70s baking adventures. It’s aluminum, but I let it go, just this once…I did use raspberries to color some of the frosting, which ended up a light pink.)

IMG_1580So this year, a party it was. And for the first time I had to tackle the problem of hosting a gathering that met my newly adopted standards for organic most-everything. In the end, we definitely blew our budget, but it was delightful. I really enjoyed the from-scratch but low-key nature of the gathering. Most importantly, Maya had a wonderful time, and so did the people who delighted us by coming to celebrate.

IMG_2064So here’s a summary of lessons learned, tips and links for hosting your own greener gathering!

Top Ten Tips for Hosting a Greener Kid’s Birthday Party

Given the higher cost of hosting with organic and nicer foods, I’ll start with a few ways to keep the budget lower on other items:

1) Pick an affordable spot to have it, which may require some searching. We would have hosted it at home, but felt compelled to invite too many people for our wee abode. So we comparison priced local spots at parks. While County parks where we live wanted $100 for a picnic area, the National Rock Creek Park was $8 for a grove. Hosting it in a spot where we didn’t pay per-child also was a relief when extra kids wanted to come, and we could accommodate anyone we needed to.

2) Use seasonal decorations that you can eat or enjoy later. We ditched the plastic decor and kid themes and put squashes, pumpkins, and pomegranates on the table instead, along with a fall-colored orchid. We stuck dried colorful leaves and acorns in a pumpkin vase, and brought out serving plates we use for the holidays, which fit the autumnal theme perfectly. We’ll carve the pumpkins, cook the squash into soup, and enjoy the plants over the next weeks and months.

3) Find some of what you need for entertaining at the thrift store. I hit a local thrift store’s Labor Day sale and found great items for cheaper than you would pay for disposable tableware, including a punch bowl with 14 cups for $5 and a large serving platter for $7. For a tea party theme, mismatched plates from delicate sets work great, and if you pick up these kinds of things, they can be used year after year, or even for playtime with little concern given their affordability.

4) Keep the menu simple, and make it from scratch. For an early afternoon event, I made only four things: mostly-organic hummus, some homemade pickles, guacamole, lemonade and cake. For the rest, I put out fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced or chopped as needed, a few chips and nuts, crackers, olives and cheese. It was plenty! Simple menus allow you to shop for nicer ingredients, and to put care into what you prepare. The biggest hits were the lemonade mixed on-site from organic sugar, water and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. In keeping with the DIY theme, for future parties, I would consider letting the kids decorate their own cupcakes with icing tips on (PVC-free) plastic baggies of frosting, or having guests mash up their own guacamole from a table with all the prepped ingredients and a molcajete.

IMG_20685) Use toys you already own for amusements. Last year, I scored a bunch of costumes and dress-ups at a yard sale for a only a few bucks, and they made the perfect side activity in a corner of the grove. The kids enjoyed messing around with those and a box of puppets I’ve collected from thrift stores and yard sales.

6) Make the crafts part of the favors, and let the kids decorate the favor bags. We used simple brown lunch bags for decorating at the craft table, along with wooden eggs and doo-dads I ordered directly from a great low-cost supplier in the woods of Maine. The kids had a ball painting the eggs, gluing feathers to them, and building items out of the wood. Their creativity was amazing!

7) Pick simple games from your own childhood. There are a ton of simple games, depending on the ages involved — like boiled or raw eggs on a spoon races, gunnysack races, three-legged races, musical stepping stones, water balloon toss or horseshoes and bean bag toss. You can use craft store felt squares to mark out spaces on the grass if needed, and then keep them for felt crafts like these. Some games, like Mother May I, Red Light, Green Light, Duck, Duck Goose and Simon Says require no props at all. If you want to take it up a notch, Green Planet Parties has a number of lovely game options and birthday favors that can work well, especially for smaller parties. (Just allow plenty of time for it clear customs if in the U.S., as the mostly handmade goodies ship from Canada.)

8) Having a “no gifts” rule is a nice touch, if your kid can cope. It’s kinder to other parents and also ensures you won’t be dealing with unwanted items that aren’t as green as the things you prefer for your home.

9) Keep it on the small side — or at least, don’t sweat the small stuff. File this one under “do as I say” but of course the recommended size for children’s parties is modest, and many folks follow a rule to invite the number of children that corresponds to the age of the child. This reduces costs, as well as the number of pricey biodegradable or green tableware items you might have to buy.

We’ll aim for this in future years, as this year’s was a bit ridonculous (though great fun). I did manage to shrug it off when the much-coveted bunny cake actually was dropped into the dirt and obliterated en route to the picnic table. This helped Maya move on as well. It appeared to make some sense to her when I said the bunny had returned to the woods from which it came. It’s always nice when a child’s capacity for magical thinking can help save the day…

10) Pick up the right stuff for entertaining that you can use again and again. In keeping with the greener kitchen list I posted earlier, here are some (un-commissioned) links to greener items for entertaining I found:

IMG_2066On the cake, which is always the most fun thing to think about, if you are as timid a baker as I am, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozens of wonderful cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. That is, you can’t unless you ignore Deb’s careful and detailed instructions as I once did to my profound sorrow. I’ve made her scrumptious apple cake before, and for the birthday I loved the vanilla-buttermilk cake from her new cookbook.

Ms. Smitten is far more meticulous about stacking layers and the like (mine happened to both be lop-sided in ways that perfectly mirrored each other, so it turned out alright), but she does have sound advice on this score if you need it. If you run out of time to decorate more inventively, as I did, I also recommend having some nice-ish fresh fruit on hand, as a few thinly sliced kiwis and some berries are a great cheat and dress up a cake with little fuss.

For gluten-free cake, I did use a mix, and found that Pamela’s Chocolate Cake Mix (which I found at Whole Foods) worked well when I substituted coconut oil (using a little less than called for) for vegetable oil. The cake was very moist and slightly coconut-y, which was appealing with the chocolate.

A few notes on things you may want to avoid:

1) Most bouncy huts and the like are made of PVC, a poison plastic, and some are even likely contaminated with lead. There’s no need to put kids inside these for any real length of time, particularly indoors. Balloons are also PVC, as are many “party store” decorations like banners, etc., so keeping these outdoors is a good idea to the extent you may want to use them. The mani-pedi party one 5-year-old girl I know got invited to is also just a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons.

2) In a 2009 study, 100 percent of the face paints tested came up positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin that is now thought to be harmful in much smaller amounts. We use Giotto Face Pencils, which the company claims are lead-free, but they are no longer available from any vendor I’ve found in the U.S. (you can get it shipped through ebay from Europe). MightyNest also sells Glob, another lead-free brand, but it contains phenoxyethanol, which gets a 4 on Skin Deep, as a preservative.

Most of all, do try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can! This time is so fleeting, really, and nothing marks time for all of us like a birthday!

If you have tips from your party hosting (or party-going) experiences, please share!

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Easy DIY Toy: How to Turn an Old Sweater into a Cuddly Snake

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I love hand-made toys, and this one, an adorable and not-at-all menacing crafted sleeve snake we dubbed Sammy, takes only an hour or so. Ergo, it’s yet another low-risk high-reward DIY adventure. And it’s a form of recycling to boot!

The basic idea is to felt a sweater in the clothes machine and cut off a sleeve, which minimizes (much to my relief) the sewing involved. A needle felted set of eyes, pointy tongue and optional rattler tail completes the project.

Even if you’re not super-crafty, this project is totally possible. So let me bend your ear a sec about why you should bother throwing together some hand-made toys for your home.

Our kids have been born into a world in which most things come from a store. Virtually everything has been designed for them and assembled by machines. The stuff of their lives is mass-produced, mass-marketed, often plastic, and sometimes (like most dolls) made of toxic materials like PVC. It beeps or has buttons that allow only certain interactions. It needs batteries and can break.

But the nicer toys that don’t fit this mold (literally) can be pricey. So we use “un-toys” from the thrift store, upcycle what we find (like these classic blocks or this dollhouse), hunt through yard sales for good finds (like this awesome handmade truck), or try to make our own (like these discovery jars, needle felted animals (including a sheep!) and felt boards).

This is both a practical choice and an aesthetic one focused on simpler, more natural, open-ended materials. The things that kids are surrounded by do inform the way they operate in and learn from the world – after all, that’s what toys are for. Objects that are more like things that we find in the natural world make space for them to notice and appreciate things that aren’t all hot pink and beepy.

Another benefit is that our kids see the care we put into these kinds of toys (choosing or improving them) and the process and patience it takes to make something. Imperfections and flub-ups become opportunities to learn, and signs of something produced by humans. Choices – of color, material, shape – arise, and children can be consulted as participants and co-creators. Most importantly, kids notice when things are handmade, and know that is a form of love.

And sometimes they can even help! Here’s my daughter running her hands through the buckwheat stuffing for the snake.

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So make something, or find something and do it up, or even just paint a picture or make playdough together, as your time allows. It’s all about sharing the act of creating with your child, and having a little something to show for it afterwards.

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What you’ll need to make the cuddly sleeve snake:

  • An old sweater (if not from your own closets, check thrift stores or even ask the neighborhood list serv, where I got some generous and free donations)
  • Some wool roving in contrasting colors to the sweater, including a little white, black and red
  • A needle and some thread
  • Stuffing for the snake and a funnel to fill it (I used leftover buckwheat hulls from another project, rice or dried beans or lentils would also work well)
  • Felting needle and felting block

First, shrink the sweater in the washing machine. You can find a few more details on how to do that here, but the basic concept is to wash a mostly natural materials sweater (more than 75 percent wool or the like) with hot water, a little soap and, optionally, a few tennis balls until it has shrunk considerably and you are happy with the result. You may have to keep an eye on the washer and check on the shrinking progress, repeating the cycle a few times before letting it go to rinse. Pop it in the dryer when done.

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Next, pull your materials together and cut the sleeve off at the shoulder. At the wider end (mine happened to be the end of the sleeve, due to the design of the sweater, but yours is more likely to be the shoulder), bend and tuck the ends into the inside of the tube formed by the sleeve, and experiment with the form until you have a diamond-shaped head with two slanted sides.

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When you’re happy with the shape, sew up the mouth by starting at one corner and doing a simple stitch through the turned-in parts. It’ll look a bit messy until the shape returns, but just keep adjusting until you get it back into the diamond.

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Once it’s well closed up, use the funnel to fill it with your stuffing material. This can be done with a helper to keep filling the funnel. Do leave a little play so that it’s floppy and cuddly when done.

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Next, close up the tail by starting an inch or so inside the tail end and anchoring the thread inside. Stitch around in a circle, cinching it tight as you complete each circle around the tube, and stitch it all the way down to the end.

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Then needle felt in some eyes, using a small amount of the contrasting roving directly on the snake, and then the white and black. It helps to make balls of roving before felting to get the basic shape, and then use your needle to create a circle by poking repeatedly within the shape.

Keep the needle straight up and down, and poke it in the spot you’d like the material to go, picking up stray threads as you work. More detailed instructions on needle felting are here and here, but it’s really very easy and intuitive.

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Buttons would also work for the eyes, of course, if the child recipient is old enough not to worry about choking.

Last, use a little red roving to roll in a line and form a forked tongue, and either needle felt or sew the tongue onto the “mouth” of the snake where you closed. If you like, you can add a black “rattle” wrapped over the tail by needle felting a little roving around it.

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And there you have it: your own Sammy, a ssssimple ssssssssleeve ssssssnake.

You may also like the following crafting and up-cycling ideas for greener, more sustainable living:

Making a Spartan Dessert Sing: Chocolate Squares with Lemon Curd

Lately, I’ve noticed that anyone who seeks to join an Upright Citizens Brigade of self-satisfied health types is told they should happily be willing to make do with a “dessert” of monastic simplicity: a naked square (or two, for shame!) of ultra-dark 78% cocoa chocolate, unadorned and unimproved. They reason, sensibly, that this treat is healthy-ish, as it contains all the helpful flavonoids in cocoa, and only a little of the bad stuff.

I have tried to like this. I truly have. But there’s really no way of getting around the fact that I find it only a tad less depressing than having no dessert at all. It reeks to me of silly, self-imposed deprivation, of nutritionism, and, even, of injustice, because the very notion of dessert has been unfairly stripped of toothsomeness.

However, when out of desperation last week I paired the aforementioned lowly chocolate square with some lovely fresh-made lemon curd from local food-shop extraordinaire, Seasonal Pantry, the chocolate and the lemon both sang. Unadorned no longer, its monkishness replaced with kick and verve for the sweet vagaries of living, the chocolate square was, at least for me, saved.

Now I can have my square, and eat it, too, at least for as long as the lemon curd lasts.

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Parenting with Neuroscience, and a Laugh

Parenting via infographic, #8.

I’ve recently read two helpful books that use the latest findings by neuroscientists to help parents — more to come on those soon.

In the meantime, here’s the most helpful tip I learned. While I’ve long had the urge to tickle my daughter mid-fuss, and found it often took the tension out of the situation, now I have the science to know why it works… at least some of the time, when the fuss is basically over nothing much at all.

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If you feel a little at a loss when irritated to reach for the funny, and tickling is not working or feasible, here’s a few more tried-and-true mommy stratagems from my own personal arsenal:

  1. Scold an inanimate object, the fake-meaner the better (“Diaper, why are you so uncomfortable?” “Door, why do you keep slamming yourself so hard? You know that’s not allowed…”).
  2. Sing a song the child knows well, but make the words super-silly (“Pi-ickle, pi-ickle, little star…”) If you can get them to correct you or quiet down to hear your next silly substitution, storm over.
  3. Make up a silly simile to communicate what you need to change about the situation (“Is that whiny noise the creaky door? Do you hear a creaky door? ‘Cuz that can’t be a child that sounds like that….” or “You are clinging to my back like peanut butter on a rice cake. Peanut butter, you are toooo sticky.”)
  4. Bumble something. Play like you are trying to reach for them but miss and end up hitting your own nose instead. Nothing is funnier than a grown-up missing the mark.

And here’s 7 more great ideas from another toddler mom. Chances are good that if you can get a child to crack a smile, the emergency will dissipate a bit, giving you both a chance to start over.

And the bonding from laughing together is the best stuff there is, really. It’s magical. Then you can have a conversation about what needs to happen next, with less rigidity from either of you and a little more fun.

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Easy End-of-Summer Hostess Gift: An Herbal Bouquet

Going to a Labor Day barbecue? This is the perfect idea for a simple and lovely gift for the hosts. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…

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One Actual Use for Children’s Artwork

Parenting as infographic, #5.

My daughter churns out artwork like she’s competing in a toddler Olympics event called Synchronized Scribbling. I chuck the stuff to which she’s most attached into a large portfolio for future historians to study.

In order to make at least some of the output Someone Else’s Problem, I’ve also hatched the idea of using it for giftwrap for birthdays, which we seem to attend at least twice a month. I sometimes have to use industrial tape, but it works, generally speaking. We cut a card to match, which she “signs.”

If all goes well (i.e., so long as I’ve chosen art she is ready to, er, re-gift) it also seems to add to her pride in gift-giving. With this, I’m basically set for life on gift-wrap, which is just fine with me, as giftwrap is about as single-use and pointless as it gets.

Slide1Please forward through the interwebs as you like — maybe we can even start a movement. Moms for upcycled child artwork, or something.

If you are determined to do something more elegant but still eco-friendly, you might consider using furoshiki, or Japanese wrapping cloth, which gift receivers can always reuse. And here’s anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry’s post on wrapping gifts without plastic or glue.

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