Sheepish: An Easy Needle Felting Tutorial for a Handmade Toy

IMG_6580 Needle felting is an inherently satisfying little craft, as I’ve mentioned once before. The materials are simple, the design principles easy to learn, and the results are wonderfully cute.

Of course, having handmade toys in the mix also makes your home feel more cozy. As a bonus, kids notice when you’ve put the effort in to make at least a few of the objects in their lives. It gives them a sense that things in their lives can be an act of creation, not just purchases from a store. And it may even inspire them, someday down the road, to make their own toys, which could never be a bad thing.

Below is a step-by-step guide to needle felting a sheep. But the principles could be applied to make virtually any animal at all (like these in my prior post), which is another aspect of this craft’s creativity. If you need more inspiration, there are wonderful felted animals and characters by crafters on Etsy (like here or here), or you could always check out a local wool and sheep festival. Our Maryland event last spring had a ton of vendors with lovely little creatures for sale.

IMG_6525Here’s what you 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;
  • Perhaps, if you like, a multi-need tool for the early stages (though this works better for flat projects, as I find multi-needle tools have a flattening effect);
  • 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 sheep, you’ll need a little black for the eyes, some gray and a chunk of off-white; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. White works well 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. But the sheep is worth it. Kind of.

To make the sheep:

Decide the dimensions. This sheep began with a ball of wool about 4 inches long and two inches across, and I wanted an animal about those proportions in the end, so as it became more compacted, I kept adding wool around it.

To save roving, you could also use wool batting in a ball on the inside, or even old balls of yarn, tightly wrapped, and wrap the cream colored roving around it by laying it out flat first and folding it around the ball, as I do with the Easter eggs here.

Poke the ball of wool with a needle (larger number needles or a multi-needle tool works well for this early stage). Turn the wool over and over to maintain the shape evenly and keep it oblong. Push on it with your finger to determine how felted it is becoming and measure the springiness, to keep it roughly even.

IMG_6526Once you have a nice shape formed, but before it becomes too tightly felted to create too much resistance, poke two pipecleaners through it at the front and rear ends of the sheep, which will form the basis for legs that allow it to stand up.

IMG_6527IMG_6530Trim the legs with sharp scissors or wire cutters so that they are even and fold over the sharp ends slightly to form the beginnings of feet. Stand it up to see whether it works, and adjust as necessary. The pipecleaners may not be of exactly identical length, because where they go through the shape may require more or less of the pipecleaner to be inside the body of the sheep.

IMG_6529Wrap additional roving around the sheep to add bulk and secure the legs inside the body. Poke and shape with your needle until the new wool is integrated, but leave what will become the neck area less worked than the body as a whole.

IMG_6531Rolling a small ball the right proportion for the head, add it to the body where a neck should be and secure it by poking the edges together with a needle.

IMG_6533 Form the head, which on sheep is a bit oblong, and further shape the body. I find it helps to refer to pictures of the animal on line for details like head shape, which are critical to recognizing the animal.

IMG_6535 Once the basic form has been created, shape the head into a triangle to form the nose and angle the shape towards a blunted point, adding more roving as you need and poking aggressively to flatten the sides.

IMG_6538Finish forming the head and neck, which on sheep I found requires a ring of additional roving around the back of the head and through the neck, which is thick but distinct.

IMG_6539  Add gray to the front of the head.

IMG_6541Separately felt small circles the size for ears in grey wool, leaving one edge unfelted. Attach to the end to head at the two top corners and secure by poking with the needle.

Then flatten a handful of roving, aligning the fibers, and wrap the legs, poking through and around the pipe cleaner and trying to avoid the wire. Add grey to the end when you are satisfied that the leg is thick enough. Repeat for each leg.

IMG_6546 IMG_6548Needle in two small balls of black roving for eyes, poking with the needle in the same spot over and over to keep them medium-sized. You may also want to add, as I did, some additional small amount of gray felt to make a ridge above the eyes to make them appear deeper-set.

Then add small tufts of white to the inside of the ears if you like, putting the sheep on its side and the ear against the block. You may need to add a small amount of gray to the back to thicken the ears if the white shows through.

Then, add a tail. Sheep actually have a natural tail that is long with a stringy end like a horse, but these are often docked on farms so a triangle is also fine.

Last, evaluate and wrap and fill in extra roving to really fill out the body and create more bulk. For the top coat of wool, leave some parts less felted in order to create a fluffy look.

IMG_6581Baa. Baa. Voila!

Other Crafting and Upcycling Ideas for Greener, More Sustainable Living:

ISO: A Truly Healthy Toddler Snack

Goldfish crackers

Goldfish crackers (Photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author)

I am not going to mince words on this one. American toddlers are drowning in cheesy fish crackers and sugary purees of jammin’ fruits, and it’s about time someone said so.

Both work-at-home moms and working moms rely, heavily, on snacks. We are always going somewhere, and need portable food items. But we should ask what, exactly, our choices of food for children are doing to their developing preferences, brains and life-long habits. Just take a minute to read this brilliant, stomach-churning article about the way the industrial food complex has chemically mapped our taste buds to maximize junk food addiction. I noticed two things amidst my general nausea:

  1. The plastic-packaged, fat, salt and sugar bombs that are Lunchables are now a billion dollar business (!), built almost entirely on the need for parents to have convenience foods for kids.
  2. It only takes a few days — three or so — of “normal” eating to break a salt addiction.

When infants move from dense purees of real food (whether in a BPA-lidded infant food jar or not) to a toddler’s diet, they are supposed to begin to eat what the family is eating, according to our pediatricians. But here’s the catch — most of us (including my family, before we gave it a rethink) don’t eat that well.

Before Maya, we ate a lot of processed stuff out of the freezer, and we ate out a lot. We also barely cooked, though we probably cooked at home more than most folks, both because we like to cook and out of general cheapness.

After people have kids, as should be obvious, they have even less free time than before. With so many families with two working parents, who is supposed to get the cooking done? At our house, most days, we manage something. But it does feel thrown together.

Stop Chef

This lack of time for preparing a family meal has proven to be a serious problem for the quality of our lives and health. In fact, people now spend more time watching cooking shows than cooking. Here’s the ever-insightful Michael Pollan in a column 2009 (making a point he also drives home in his new book, Cooked):

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves…

Could it be that toddlers spend more time in their play kitchens than we do at the real stove?

Pollan also looks at the subject of working moms and the lost time to cook (and explains how women had to be un-guilted out of their cooking obligations by the clever food companies):

It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.)
…. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Yuck. I hadn’t made a connection between nerve gas and the industrial food system until just this second. As he goes on to relate, while women did have to be convinced to hang up the apron, the food industry was up to the task:

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake.

And Pollan helpfully explains what this has to do with health:

A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them. The French fry did not become the most popular “vegetable” in America until industry relieved us of the considerable effort needed to prepare French fries ourselves. … When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food.

Pollan’s writing about the general subject of the lack of home-cooked fare, and not considering, in particular, the (absent) culinary lives of children. But his point is even more poignant when we consider that children (for the most part!) eat what we give them, and will certainly not complain when a food item has been exquisitely engineered to send their brain chemistry into the stratosphere.

Moreover, since working moms have to pack snacks and lunches, and stay-at-home moms like to leave the house to go to the library or museums, what a toddler eats must be easy, ready-to-go, spoil-proof and unlikely to be rejected. The food industry is all over this assignment — giving us the “children’s aisle” full of yo-go-gurts and organic fruit purees that remove all the healthy fiber and leave behind the sugars.

Most Unsweet

A typical snack given to an 18-month-old is a fruit puree with, say, 15 grams of sugar and a paltry 1 gram of fiber, like this one. (Don’t be fooled by the “Sugars” line, which says only 11 grams; as Marion Nestle explains in What to Eat, hidden sugars — that is, those that the government allows companies to exclude from the label —  can be roughly figured out by looking at the “Total Carbohydrates” line and asking what’s missing.) As a side-note, Plum Organics new “squeezable oatmeal” provides a whopping 18 grams of sugars.

A toddler I knew who always seemed to be jumping off the walls had, the one time I observed it, a snack of a fruit puree paired with a banana — one of the highest glycemic index foods around (contributing another 15.6 grams of convertible sugars) — and pretzels, which lack nutritional value, are high in sodium, and made of white flour the body converts into — you guessed it — sugar.

To put this in context, consider that a teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams. So the 30 grams of various sugars from the banana and puree alone is comparable to nearly 8 teaspoons of sugar.

We would never put 8 teaspoons of white sugar in a cup and hand a kid a spoon. Yet that is exactly what we are doing with the “jammin'” fruit smoothies and gummy jelly “fruit” snacks and all the other junk in the kiddo section of the grocery store. Even the healthier-looking options like organic yogurts are full of sugars. And here’s a shocker — a small serving size of Motts apple sauce contains a stunning 22 grams of sugar, which converts to 5.5 teaspoons of sugars.

Here’s the (IMHO far too high) recommendations on sugar consumption from the American Heart Association in 2009:

Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. (In order to accommodate all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for discretionary allowances like sugar.)

In other words, according to the AHA, that one fruit puree should be it, sugar-wise, for the day (though is an 18-month-old really a “preschooler”? And really, 4 teaspoons?! Even picturing feeding a toddler that much sugar makes we want to hork.).

Not that the guideline is very clear. You may have noted the weasel word “added,” which shows that the AHA’s a bit too in thrall to the titans of sweet stuff. Like Marion Nestle likely would, I would suggest a “food product” like the puree is so devoid of fiber that, in itself, the sugars qualify as “added” sugar, and, more to the point, that the AHA’s use of the word “added” has been rendered functionally meaningless by all the many ways that sugar is concealed these days as “fruit” or fruit-y sounding names.

And that was before scientists — and 60 Minutes — started asking whether sugar is actually toxic. Here’s a recent write-up by Marc Bittman about a new study on that question:

A study published in the Feb. 27 issue of the journal PLoS One links increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. And after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.

In other words, according to this study, it’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes.

The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.

As Rob Lustig, one of the study’s authors and a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said to me, “You could not enact a real-world study that would be more conclusive than this one.”

Swimming Upstream

And when toddlers aren’t swimming in sugar, they are often surrounding by salty savories like pretzles or the durn fishies. For a decent break-down of the issues on goldfish crackers specifically — including problematic food dyes, high salt, low fiber and other quibbles (to which I would add the use of non-organic and genetically modified ingredients) see this article.

Unfortunately, the piece rather glosses over the sodium issue. Keep in mind that the FDA “Daily Values” are always for an adult, even if the food is being marketed to and for kids. In fact, the recommended levels for toddlers on sodium are not to exceed 1 gram daily, which makes a (small) serving of crackers that clocks in at 230-250 mgs a full quarter of a toddler’s daily salt intake.

Normal foods have sodium as well, of course, meaning the child could rather easily exceed the daily limit. But the real issue is whether parents are taking the food industry’s cue to develop obedient tastebuds-in-training and whether the crackers, with their fiber-less cutesyness, accomplish anything that toddlers actually nutritionally need for health. As the AHA basically says, empty calories in a child’s diet too often takes the place of where real food needs to be.

The Times piece on addictive foods makes clear that there are certain food combinations rigged to create an addictive quality — including foods that are salty, crunchy and melt away in the mouth. The “melt-away” effect tricks the brain into thinking that the items has no calories. And the marketing triumph here is complete — would parents feed these foods to their young children if they weren’t shaped like fish?

Let’s Do the Time Warp, Again…..

It also often seems like snack recommendations for kids — like these from Parents’ magazine (which were the top post when I googled “healthy toddler snacks”) — are so paralyzed with fear about the obesity crisis that they are utterly stuck in the early 90’s when it comes to nutritional advice. Their list includes processed ham slices and “low-fat cream cheese” as ingredients for healthier fare.

But we know now that processed food is the enemy — not fats per se, and that kids actually need healthy fats (read: unsaturated and some saturated fats like those in milk and coconut) for healthy brain and body development. Among other reasons, healthy fats help build myelin, the basis for neural connections in the brain, and also help satisfy food cravings and reach a feeling of fullness. Certain fats are critical for healthy growth, and children actually use these fats more efficiently than adults do. This is why we still give Maya whole milk, and supplement with high quality fish oil (cleaned of PCBs and other contaminants).

Avoiding fats may actually trigger a larger problem, because the second you look towards “low-fat” foods, you are in the land of chemicals and industrially engineered foods. Fillers, sugar, salt and gums generally take the place of where food should be. We have little idea how many of these additives and substitutes impact human health. And some of the evidence we do have is not reassuring, as the author of Pandora’s Lunchbox, another fright-fest on food, tells us in her well-written but troubling tome.

The other problem with processed foods like crackers or Lunchables is that it is, bacterially speaking, dead. Meaning: cleansed of microbial activity. Michael Pollan’s latest blockbuster article on our “microbiome” of organisms living in our guts has been an eye-opener for me and many others, and makes our lack of cooking and over-consumption of processed foods problematic from a whole new (teeny tiny) point of view. Our children, like us, should be eating real food and playing in the dirt, particularly as the article observes that the basic formations of micro-organisms we carry around in our digestive tract are mainly determined by the ripe old age of three.

Snack-well-er

Unfortunately for me, Maya has figured out that about everyone else in the world has snacks that taste more addictive than hers do, and has developed a preternatural gift for weaseling her way in and mooching off whomever is around. This puts me in the untenable position of having to tell her to put down snacks that some generous person has allowed her to have with a mumbled excuse like, “I’m trying to teach her not to be such a mooch. Ahem.” It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.

So I’m certainly not promising that you’ll be able to fix the situation entirely by dreaming up better snacks for your child. But, FWIW, below are some ideas we’ve used successfully for snacking.

Here’s what I like to see in a snack: 1) Dietary fiber and nutrient density (whole fruits and veggies, grains, nuts and seeds); 2) No sugar or only natural sugars from dried fruits, dates or the like; 3) Low or no sodium; 4) Grains other than wheat, or the use of seeds like flax, chia, wheatberries, etc.; 5) Only a few ingredients and only real foods with no additive, preservatives or other chemicals; 6) Organic if at all possible. Drinks are milk or water, generally speaking, with very little juice.

Specific foods we like as snacks on-the-go:

(just to be clear, none of these are commissioned links)

  • Fruits and veggies (organic berries, apples, grapes and such, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, raw zucchini, lightly cooked broccoli); frozen fruits (or even corn and peas) go right into a container when we leave and are thawed but still cold when ready to be eaten, which Maya loves.
  • With a little prep (really, it’s easy), pickled vegetables are also an option. Here’s my basic recipe, and some fancier ones from the Times.
  • Nuts and seeds — I mix up (organic, unsulphured) sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, and shredded coconut. This can be modified, obviously, with any combo you like and is a great and filling snack. Cashews are also great, as they are soft and easy for toddlers to chew.  (Be aware that some brands of almonds are sprayed with a fungicide, and that peanuts can have high levels of pesticides, so organic is best.)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (Look for “grassfed” or “pasture-raised” organic eggs, which have more vitamins and minerals — available at Whole Foods, through CSAs or farmer’s markets; sadly, the label “free-range” means little).
  • Cooked (organic) sweet potatoes, left in the skin to be scooped out with a spoon.
  • Annie Chun’s salty tasting seaweed snack, which Maya loves, has 140 mgs of sodium per box, while the Trader Joe’s brand has 100 mgs. I consider this on the high side, so it’s far from a daily thing. At least seaweed has a good bit of Vitamin A, as well as trace minerals.
  • Organic brown rice cakes with nut butters (cashew, almond, peanut) — changing the nut butter alters the vitamins and other benefits. We like the Artisana brand, which does not have anything added and appears not to have either vinyl or BPA-plastics under the lid, although it is pricey.
  • Date cookies, like the raw, organic ones from Go Raw, which come in a wonderful variety of flavors like carrot, chai, lemon and even chocolate. You can also evidently make your own, which I haven’t yet tried. They are a bit sweet, but so dense that you don’t really eat very many at a sitting.
  • In moderation, dried, organic, unsulphured fruits, including apricots, raisins, dates, papaya wedges. Be aware that dried fruits also contain a lot of sugar, and eat in moderation.
  • Blue corn chips, like the organic ones from Garden of Eatin’ (60 mgs sodium per 11 chips).
  • Seed-based crackers, like Foods Alive Organic Flax Crackers (we like the maple/cinnamon flavor).
  • Good, ol’ fashioned “ants on a log” — the classic celery and nut butter with raisins, which can be assembled at the park from its ingredients.
  • Homemade, organic low-sugar oatmeal cookies or pumpkin muffins with whole wheat flour substituted in; or zucchini or carrot bread with same.
  • Hummus, bien sur — though I can’t find an organic one at the local store, which grrs me. I sometimes make my own from Eden brand (due to their BPA-free cans) chickpeas or dried beans.
  • With refrigeration, wild-caught canned salmon and albacore tuna salads — with real mayonnaise, sliced almonds and celery, even apple in the tuna. These brands are allegedly BPA-free.
  • Plain (organic, grassfed) yogurt with a little fruit jam mixed in. Again, you can freeze this in a (stainless steel) ice-cube tray and let it thaw out over the course of the day.
  • Organic versions of freeze dried fruits, like Nature’s All Foods organic strawberries (available at Whole Foods). These are desserts though, as they utterly lack fiber and are basically distilled down to the fruit sugars.
  • You could try something fancy and European, like this scrumptious pan bagnat, which may work better with a slightly older child. Maya turned her nose up at it, despite enjoying the permission to sit on her sandwich. I intend to try again sometime to get her to eat it sans anchovies, and I enjoyed it very much.
  • Kind bars (though they are not organic, and some of the chocolate-y ones are more like candy). Trader Joe’s also has a few fudgy organic bars that work as a special treat.

What are your ideas for healthier snacks for your child? I can’t wait to add to our list of possibilities!

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Some related posts:

An Abundance of Needling: A Bunch of Easy Needle Felting Craft Ideas

IMG_6602Summer has arrived. The weather has finally become too hot for gardening or running around to yard sales, so I thought I would slow down enough to share some pics of my latest obsession: needle felting.

I fully concede that succumbing to the call of needle felting is an utter Waldorf cliché. But I must tell you that it’s far and away the easiest and more rewarding of any crafting experience I’ve had to date (and that’s saying something, as I only do low-risk, high-reward craftiness). In a single evening in front of some mediocre TV, an animal will come together out of some loose wool roving. (And btw, my sister mocked me mercilessly re: the Waldorf “thing,” and then she also got obsessed, so she who laughs last…)

Even the supplies are simple. All you need is:

The idea is also straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid.

Here’s what the roving looks like:

IMG_6460And here’s the block, needle with handle, and the start of what will become a sheep (this is actually wool stuffing with cream-colored roving wrapped around::

IMG_6525Unlike wet felting, which is also great fun, this is not a craft for very young children, though kids of about 4 or older can certainly give it a go, with the proper warnings about the sharp needles. To start them off, you can use small, fondant or cookie cutters and some metal thimbles, and give them a small piece of roving to poke inside the cutter to make a flat shape. They can add eyes or other decoration, and even then felt it onto another piece of fabric if their patience holds, as I did below.

I used a cookie cutter shape to create butterflies for a sweater for Maya, using a discarded sweater as the base. First, I collected sweaters in adult sizes by asking for donations on the list serv of old, holey or cast-off sweaters made of 75 percent or higher natural fibers like wool or merino wool. Then I felted them in the washing machine with a little soap and few old tennis balls, using the hot setting and checking them until they had shrunk to a child’s size. Then I popped them into the dryer.

IMG_6258IMG_6260I chose a cute blue cardigan and made a few similar butterflies in a small number of colors, then needle felted them onto the front sides of the wet-felted cardigan, checking the back to make sure they were secure, and pinching up the sides to make it appear as though they may fly away at any moment. Voila, a new no-sew jacket! The result would work with any shape or theme:

IMG_6356IMG_6357I used a similar technique on another shrunken, felted sweater for a gift for my niece, by directly felting onto the front of the sweater (a multi-needle like this one made this go much faster):

IMG_6387IMG_6386The same approach can be used to free-hand flat shapes for a child’s felt board, by flipping a flat piece over and over until it comes together:

heartThen, I got into making felted animals. Oh boy, it was all over then. I’ll post next start to finish about how to make a sheep and an easy sleeve snake, but in the meantime, here’s some pics of my creations thus far.

IMG_6596IMG_6589IMG_6584IMG_6582IMG_6577IMG_6574IMG_6569IMG_6566 IMG_6565IMG_6455IMG_6563 IMG_6605This is a very rewarding craft, as it allows you to create adorable and durable hand-made toys for children or small sculptures. Maya loves playing with them and making scenes out of them. She also likes watching them come together and helping with choices for colors and shape. Hope you enjoy them as much as she does!

Related links:

A Conversation that Could Change the World

Some Things Never Change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we buy stuff for our homes — like food or personal care products — many of us, including my own family, try to do the best we can for the planet and our own health. Conscientious consumption, or a genuine attempt at it given the limits of our budget and information, is a glossy new trend, as we can see from shopping sites like “Ethical Ocean” that have recently sprung up and claim to tailor offerings to your values. (On my recent visit, not all of the things for sale at EO were as good on public health grounds as I would like, but most were more thoughtful than average.)

Yet outside the home, we all find ourselves in situations with far less control, even around food. We end up in hotels, airports, restaurants — spaces, which appear cold, impersonal and impervious to our desires for a better way of being in the world. I’ll often take a minute at the start of a conversation with a waiter to send them back to the kitchen with a pointed question — one that risks comparisons from colleagues to that truly hilarious Portlandia episode in which they track down the provenance of a chicken, including his name (Frank).

Still, I’m undeterred by the joke, and try not to be cowed by the need to seem cool. It’s not about hipsterism, really to ask basics like: “Is the salmon farmed?” “Is the coffee fair trade?” “Are these eggs from free range chickens?” Even when the answers come back as unpleasant ones, as they normally do, the kitchen has been put on notice.

Michael Pollan put it this way last night at his eloquent book talk here in DC, “Food is about our relationships with people, animals, the environment.” You have a relationship, for the moment you are ordering in a restaurant, with the choices they are making for you, with the waiter and the people behind them. Why not use it, just a little, and trade on it, in order to make a statement for good?

Of course, many stores are no better. I can still vividly recall one day, not long after Maya was born, when I walked into a local CVS convenience store and realized with a sudden shock that there was almost nothing in the store I would consider buying. I wandered the aisles piled high with plastic and chemically-laden baby products in a stupor, coming to the slow, somewhat painful conclusion that the state of my own information had far outstripped where the marketplace was. I felt discouraged at the amount of work ahead of me, the decisions that would have to be made about what options were, truly, better ones. And yet I was also determined, even proud, that I was taking a stand, that I knew better than to buy the stuff on offer and slather it all over my newborn.

Being me, I also had to suppress an urge to stand in the aisle and preach to other shopping moms, about whom I felt a little sad. While other parents are wonderfully potent allies in this fight, as I’ve found on this blog, any attempt to convert unsuspecting shoppers with our missionary zeal is more like to alienate than educate. In many ways, our fellow customers are the wrong target, anyway, stuck as we all are with the choices in many stores and with the markup for better things that would decimate too many family budgets.

The real target for our attention and action should of course be the corporations. And it could be so simple! I was moved and inspired by my recent action to tell Safeway to “Mind the Store” by asking them to work through their supply chain to rid themselves of toxic chemicals. All Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force and I did was to look over some items in the store and present a letter to the store manager during our brief and friendly conversation. We were nervous, because any kind of confrontation inherently makes humans nervous, but really, it was all good.

Since that day, I’ve been mulling over how to do more of this addictively easy, heady but minimalist activism. It took 3 minutes! And it made me feel great. You should do it too, IMHO.

As I”m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a world in which 300 people just died in a building collapse in Bangladesh, after major international brands like Walmart, The Gap and H&M refused to agree to a union proposal that would improve the safety of factories. (Most piercing detail: two women in the factory were evidently so pregnant that they gave birth while trapped inside the rubble.) This refusal continued even after last year’s devastating fire, in which more than 100 workers were killed after being locked into a building by managers.

So I’m sure your inner skeptic is whispering in your ear, as mine does, asking, why bother? Just how powerful is it to do this kind of thing, in terms of actually getting changes? That’s a fascinating question.

Most of us are passive about the things that make us unhappy. We listen to the skeptic before we even know what we’ve listened to. Paradoxically, though, this means that those who do speak up are understood as voicing the views of potentially hundreds of other people who didn’t bother to raise the point. Because companies hear from so few customers, you have more power than you may know.

One classic study on how businesses should respond to consumer complaints urges companies to see them as “gifts” that provide a company with the chance to improve and continue the dialogue with consumers. Even companies that lack responsiveness to individual complaints will see a pile of them as a possible new trend that threatens their business model, and will, if they are any good, eventually pay some attention.

Because I tend to go to places with the possibility of healthier food or better products, there’s even more interest there in real dialogue. I’ve given lists of better children’s products to my local co-op, requested product additions from Whole Foods, bothered the management at Trader Joe’s repeatedly with complaints about the BPA lining in their canned goods, and complained at local eateries about styrofoam to-go packaging. Just this morning, I asked the manager at Panera about their eggs, which disappointingly show no sign of being organic or even “free range.”

While it does require a little nerve, and a few minutes of your time, if we all did it instead of assuming that our conversations will be met with indifference, I think we would amaze ourselves at the pace of changes in some (better) companies.

You could also print and hand them a little, friendly card making your point. Or make your own on the spot with a napkin or scrap of paper. It could say: “Hi there, I would be a more loyal customer if you would do X.” Making a record of the interaction makes more of an impression, and links you to others who may be doing the same. And of course, there’s always social media — a FB post or tweet takes seconds, and a video or photo of the action can speak volumes, influencing everyone else in your networks to do the same.

For certain companies, their leadership regarding the environmental practices is on the line. And they’re not always doing all they can. Flor carpeting, for just one example, has excellent sustainability practices in general but lines the bottom of its products with PVC, a so-called “poison plastic.”

For these kinds of companies, as well as all the others who are not even trying, we should hold their feet to the fire and push them to pioneer truly better products and packaging.

First, we have to get over our skepticism, our natural feelings of embarrassment, and our shame in all of the choices we’ve already made. We have contact with literally hundreds of companies every time we shop or eat out, and those relationships are within our power to change, if we only we were to take that power seriously. Its our assumption that how we feel doesn’t matter — and that we have to live, silently, with our complicity in these systems we know enough to despise — that will kill our spirit, in the end.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?

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Tell the Manager: Your Company Can Do Better

Three simple thoughts on the nuts and bolts of shop-tivism:

1) Break the stereotype: be nice. Most of the time, the person you are speaking with has little power to impact the situation. Be clear and be heard, and ask them to act as they can, but a little smile and eye contact can make it more likely they will.

2) Make a record. If you have a minute, write down your issue with specifics so someone can pass it along. It makes much more of an impression, and helps to ensure that someone up the food chain hears from you. Below are some examples:

3) Follow up as you have time. Told to contact corporate HQ? Do it if you can, when you can. Emails, tweets, Facebook are also all great.

If you are voting with your feet — you can let stores and restaurants know that as well: for example, a note to the manager saying this kind of thing can be powerful: “I’m not a customer of yours — Wal-mart, H&M, Gap — because I don’t shop at businesses that won’t ensure the basic safety of workers in their factories around the world. I’m appalled at your anti-union activities and the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and enough is enough.”

Last, please share your stories: let me know if you’re as inspired as I am to get out there and get heard!

(A special shout-out to my new friends in Reno — Lindsay told me you are out there, which was so lovely… so stop lurking and say hi!)

Related posts:

The Un-Toy: A Celebration

IMG_6368Toys, it must be said, can be as annoying as they are delightful. Toddler toys have gazillions of pieces, some of which are required for the set-up to work. Puzzle pieces and the like inevitably end up in the sofa cushions, the car seat, even the refrigerator, making it part of the puzzle just to keep the darn thing together!

So I’ll have to give credit to the inventiveness of Maya’s former preschool in showing me that excellent toys need not be, well, toys. They used tennis balls with mouths cut into them and eyes drawn on for holding buttons, lovely little thrift store change purses with zippers, snaps and clamps for practicing fine motor skills, and even several sizes of old sets of hair curlers with the bristles for building blocks. And of course, there is the always popular cardboard box, which can be a fort, hiding place, or other retreat.

Then there are natural un-toys, like acorns, dried leaves in fall, stones, pine cones, shells and other wonders. These can be displayed on a nature table seasonally with small dolls or building structures if you have the space and patience with all the bits that will inevitably end up on the floor.

Sadly, thrift store toy aisles are rather depressing, plastic-filled places. So get out of there and into the tchotchke aisle instead. Here are some things to look for while at thrift stores, on-line on places like Ebay, or at yard or estate sales:

  1. Old fantasy chess sets or other interesting game pieces, the more elaborate the better;
  2. Sets of interesting similar items, like the three bags of miniature painted duck decoys I found for a buck each;
  3. Small wooden figures;
  4. Small furniture that can serve for dolls;
  5. Glass baubles and stones for a light table (easily made with an upended plastic storage box and flashlight or light stick);
  6. Small figures for the sandbox or a shadow box;
  7. Craft supplies (I found a large bag of simple wooden blocks that Maya has had a ball painting; also birdhouses for painting and raffia for use in 3-D constructions);
  8. Dress-up clothes and small purses;
  9. Large pieces of nicer fabric and scarves to use as forts, dress-ups, etc.
  10. Stamps and batik blocks, rolling pins or cookie cutters for tracing and playdough;
  11. Muffin tins, measuring cups, wooden bowls and nesting bowls;
  12. Baskets to keep all the toys (and un-toys) organized and accessible.

Here’s some of our current items in circulation, including these cool stamps:

IMG_6370 IMG_6367 IMG_6366 IMG_6365 IMG_6362There’s nothing I enjoy more than inventing a new purpose for some castaway that gives it renewed life. What are some things you’ve scored along the way?

Related posts:

A Greener Easter

IMG_6266

Around here, the holidays of whatever sort are mainly good reasons for crafting. (We’re devout Unitarians, meaning that we go to Christmas Eve services religiously every year. Ha.)

This year, I eyed Easter on the calendar and decided, as is my wont, to de-plastic and unjunk the basket. No Peeps for us peeps. And none of that irritatingly static-y plastic grass, which is a pointless use for various poison plastics (including PVC), if I ever saw one.

I found a spare basket at the thrift store for .60 cents, rounded up green shredded paper (though paper from the actual shredder or a little tissue paper would work just fine), and picked up a few small but adorable toys from the stuff sold by Maya’s new Waldorf school, including this cute egg made by Fairyfolk and a chick finger puppet inside from Folkmanis.

IMG_6294I also allowed myself to finally buy these long-coveted pastel Tegu blocks, ostensibly for Ms. M, but really for me to play with.

IMG_6295IMG_6296I liked the idea of a real toy in the mix, and these are gorgeous, sustainably made open-ended building blocks unlike anything we have now. (I paid around $60 at a local store, Trohv, which is about half their current price on Amazon. That is still very expensive, but I believe in buying better toys for all these reasons if you can afford it, especially by not wasting your money on other kiddo junk. And I’ll get hours of fun out of them at least!)

We’re planning on dying eggs, of course, using this natural, food-based dye from Earth Paint, and decorating them with these smooth-as-silk and high quality beeswax crayons that the great mom who runs Stubby Pencil studio just sent me to try.

But that seemed predictable, somehow. So I decided to take it up a notch by making felted Easter eggs last Sunday morning. I’m pleased to report that this is totally the kind of project that is fun and manageable for a toddler, and that the only messiness involved is some soapy water, which is hardly a problem.

IMG_6269To make your own gorgeous eggs, you’ll need:

  • Some wool roving in nice colors (Fairyfolk sells it, as does Amazon)
  • Some wool or acrylic yarn in a light tone (tail-ends of knitting projects work nicely)
  • Some hot, soapy water
  • Some old pantyhose you are willing to ruin
  • A tray or towels to catch the water
  • A washing machine and dryer and laundry soap
  • Embroidery thread (optional)
  • Tennis balls (optional)

(Some directions call for you to use plastic eggs as the base, taped shut, but since my purpose was to have an Easter without plastic, I used yarn egg shapes instead. I would recommend using a thick but light-colored yarn, as the red yarn I used showed through on some eggs.)

First, set up your soapy water in a bowl on top of a towel and make your “egg” base with yarn by wrapping the yarn thickly around two fingers held together, then slipping it off and wrapping in the opposite direction to produce an oblong shape, until it is large and thick enough to form an egg even with some shrinkage. The toddler can help with this process as well.

IMG_6240IMG_6239Dip the egg baby into the bowl and squeeze to start the felting process. Next, grab a clump of roving wool and gently pull out some felt strands, flattening them a bit. Wrap the egg in the roving.

IMG_6246IMG_6253Next, wrap a second flat handful of roving around, with the fibers pointing in a perpendicular direction to the first batch (this is not nearly as hard to do as it sounds). Dip the ball and get it good and wet, forming it into an egg shape.

IMG_6251IMG_6248Decide what decoration you would like. For this one, we used a little yarn. You can also do stripes or dots with different colored roving, use multiple colors of roving to make the egg, or wrap embroidery thread around as well (as in the picture up at the very top).

Next, carefully maneuver your egg into the toe of an old cut-off stocking and use something to bind it off. (Yarn works and could allow you to re-use the nylon. I just knotted it and later cut it open, after struggling with yarn on the first try.)

IMG_6249IMG_6256When you’re done making your eggs, stick them in the washing machine on a hot setting with the tennis balls if you have them around and some soap. Check them to see if you want more than one cycle (I did mine for two), and toss them into the dryer when you are happy with the shape. Dry them until no water comes out when you squeeze, and then you may want to put them in the sun to ensure they will really get dried out. You could also sew embroidery, beading or decorative thread and ribbons on after the fact for additional cuteness.

IMG_6261IMG_6301Happy Easter!

5 Toddler Transition Tips That (Sometimes) Work for Me

IMG_5777Just this morning, we were rushing to get out the door, late and harried, and I was putting our bags in the car when I heard Maya start to loudly bawl behind me. She had wandered out and was standing on the sidewalk leading up to our house, in bare feet, and she evidently didn’t much care for the cold. I ran and scooped her up and into the car. Just another morning with tears, I thought, wiping her cheeks and kissing her while I buckled her in.

There are many mornings I would like to throw a tantrum of my own. After all, like Maya, I would prefer to hang out and play instead of throwing us all willy-nilly into a vehicle. One of the hardest things about modern mommyhood is, perhaps, the amount of schlepping we all do. School, playdates, classes, even a trip to the library can be the trigger for an episode of push-a-me-pull-you that wears both parent and child to the edge.

For this reason, among others, I’m a big proponent of a simpler schedule for kids, especially younger children. As adults, we forget how stimulating the world is, more or less all by itself, and the lessons that come from being able to interact with relatively simple materials. To find that reverie in a quiet moment of play, children need lots of space and time. Rushing from yoga class to music class to kiddie gym does not allow enough stillness for kids to catch up to themselves or to invent the games and fantasy play that they need to experiment with the world on their own terms.

Yet life is full of schedules even when it’s not. Dinnertime, bedtime, the need to leave to meet up with friends — all these things require a toddler or older child to come along for the next thing, to get on board and with the program.

Of course, the gold standard in this area is the three “Rs:” Rhythm, Ritual and Routine. When we are really doing well, we use the natural rhythms of the day, their repetition and predictability, and the nature of our routines to establish the order of things. Around bedtime is the easiest, given that the order is so easy to maintain. But even for dinner times, our very simple ritual of lighting a candle when we sit down to eat can bring Maya to the table and establish the right mood for a nicer meal together.

And then there are the other times, when chaos and change rear up and obliterate all our good intentions. Maya, like me, is a dawdler and a homebody, and she often needs that extra push to leave the house. So here are five tricks we use to move things along that work at least some of the time:

1) An advanced warning and joint review of “the plan:”  I try to tell her, when I remember to, what the plan is for the coming day, highlighting the things I think she might find fun. Then I provide a 3-minute or 2-minute warning for each new thing — “In two minutes, we are going to stop playing and get ready to leave for Grandma’s house” — and ask for her “ok.” This tends to work best when the plan is something she’s genuinely excited about, and not so well for more hum-drum affairs, but even when it’s not enough on its own, the clear communication can’t hurt.

2) The direct request with consequences: I will ask her to come along a few times, but no more than two. If she is unresponsive, I will say, “If you won’t come, I will have to pick you up.” If there is still no agreement between the parties, a last step is to say, “Ok, I have asked you to come by yourself and you are not listening to me. I will count to three and then pick you up if you are still not coming along.” Sometimes, she makes me count and then comes along; other times, she just stares defiantly and makes me pick her up. Either way, the impasse is resolved. (In general, providing some warning with a count-to-three before swooping in tends to be a good strategy for preventing some meltdowns, and works in many situations, including when an interaction with another child has gone south.)

3) Beginning the action by skipping a step: If I think she’s unlikely to come to eat breakfast without a fuss, for example, then rather than asking her to come over, I’ll invent a question that will bring her to the table, like, “Would you like molasses on your oatmeal? Yes? How much?” She always, predictably, wants “a lot” of molasses. More importantly, she wants to come monitor the amount I am pouring, taking her seat as she counts the drops. Mission accomplished.

Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Bribery: Since we’re all in on it, let’s be clear: parenting a toddler is an unexpected education in all available means of extortion, in ways that might shame Tony Soprano. Phrases like: “if you come to the table/eat one last bite/clean up that mess… then I will read you a story/wear that silly hat/give you a treat” slip without much hesitation from the lips, because blackmail is preferable to a physical wrestling match which you will inevitably eventually lose, with your dignity (or even your shirt!) in tatters. The real art is in picking an incentive, as we can call it among friends, that doesn’t unduly compromise your values. Enticements like attention and special time together can work just as well as sugar, I’ve found, though they can also add delay. (And sometimes a little “chocolate-ish” milk can go a long way towards domestic tranquility and achieving a decent bedtime.)

5) Setting an alarm: Maya’s insightful preschool teacher suggested this, and I have to say, it works like the charm it is. I will set the timer on the microwave (or my cellphone if we are out and about) for 30 seconds, and warn Maya that “when the beeper goes off, it’s time to stop playing and come to dinner.” If we’re at home, I usually step away from the timer to let her know: hey, it’s not me, it’s the microwave that’s running the show. I’m shocked by how well she listens to the microwave. And unsure, really, whether to be pleased or insulted…

In moments of timer-less desperation, I have even been known to beep myself like an insistent and inane machine, and, believe it or not, that works as well, although I do tend to get odd looks from other parents who have apparently not yet learned the persuasive power of imitating household appliances.

Mikrowelle, microwave

The new Parent in town  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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What transition tricks do you use with your reluctant child? Do tell!

Nothin’ But Blue Sky

IMG_6130What to do with a low-ceilinged, windowless basement room? Give it to the toddler, of course…

But then, it just screams for some cheer. When my friend Lisa showed me the charming mural she had painted on her son’s wall in honor of his adoption, it was inspiring. She told me how she made the cute and life-like clouds using nothing more than a sea sponge and some water-based tempera paint.

I could do that, I thought. So sometime in my feverish, flu-like state, after days of uselessly prowling the house over the holidays, I determined to accomplish some little thing, at least.

The most manageable (and thoughtless) project on my list was introducing a little whimsy to the “playroom.” It mainly functions as a toy storage area these days, given Maya’s inability to be in the basement by her lonesome. But I have hopes, my friends, that someday she will be capable of independent play, and so this is for that day.

IMG_6161First, because it’s me and this blog and all, I must point out what you know already: paint is notoriously toxic. This is a particular concern in a poorly ventilated basement. As the wonderful Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse (another Takoma Park green blogger!), writes:

Conventional paint contains many volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that “outgas” and escape into the air after they are applied. Indoors, these VOCs cause headaches, nausea, achey bones, and general discomfort. Outdoors, they contribute to smog and air pollution.

And they smell nasty, which can’t be good. The VOCs include chemicals like terpenes, formaldehyde, acrolein, phthalates, glycol, toluene, methylene chloride, styrene, trichloroethylene, xylenes, and benzene, among others. Any one of these is enough to make me gag, personally.

A terrific new guide to building a non-toxic nursery, out just today from our friends at Healthy Child, Healthy World, provides very helpful information about paint types suitable for a nursery or other rooms on p. 16 of their new, interactive ebook and less toxic options. They also have 7 helpful tips for healthier painting. Basically, the best way to go is real zero-VOC paints (i.e., ones that completely and verifiably lack toxics or solvents), or with natural, organic or milk-based paints.

Our local hardware store only stocks the zero-VOC kind, but they at least have a really good brand — Mythic, which I have used on several rooms in our house with excellent results. Mythic is a “real” zero-VOC paint, with no toxics like lead or other known toxins in it, and is also solvent free and goes on beautifully.

In fact, it’s so clean, it doesn’t need a warning label like most paints. (Lullaby Paints appears to be another great option, but I have not used them myself.) Even using Mythic, I set up a fan to speed the paint drying process, open a window when possible, and do not use the room for at least several days.

Before painting, you should also be aware that many, if not most, paints labeled “zero-VOC” can be problematic, because the colorants still contain VOCs and once they are added, then the paint is “zero-VOC” no longer. So I also always take the step of asking the hardware store folks if they actually mixed my paint with Mythic colorants.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission just sued Sherwin Williams over false claims on this issue, and won, sort of. The companies now at least have to say, somewhere, that the zero-VOC claim applies only to the base paint and that the VOC levels can be impacted by the dyes. From The Consumerist:

In truth and in fact, in numerous instances, Pure Performance paints do not contain zero VOCs after color is added,” alleged the FTC.

To settle these claims by the agency, both paint companies are prohibited from claiming their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter.

The companies can continue claiming “zero VOC” if they “clearly and prominently disclose” that the “zero VOC” statement applies only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise.

I am sad to say that I find this agreement a bit ridiculous from a public health standpoint. I wish I shared the FTC’s apparent deep faith in the willingness of consumers to read the fine print on the can about colorants — before the paint is mixed in the store.

I think companies will likely make these disclosures on that can, and that a vast majority of consumers will nonetheless still not realize that the zero-VOC paint they just paid more for has been significantly impacted by VOCs in the dyes. Seems to me that the real solution is to require companies that want to advertise “zero-VOC” for paints produce colorants that keep that promise. But hey, what do I know?

IMG_6159At any rate, back to the fun part. For the playroom, I first painted one wall and a strip of a wall in a bright, sunny yellow. One coat was enough to do it. Then, I covered the ceiling in a light blue paint left over from a sample I considered using for Maya’s upstairs room (Ocean Falls was the color). (Yes, her bedroom is blue. And lovely.)

I didn’t bother taping for the ceiling, as the indistinct edges add to the effect. Mythic is also forgiving; a wet sponge used soon after painting will clean up any messes.

Then, using the sea sponge and a pool of paint in the pan, I painted swirls in large circles across the ceiling with a slightly darker blue, called Peace River.

IMG_6142Last, I added white clouds around the lights and all over the ceiling in various sizes using the sponge dipped in Crayola white tempera paint. This can also be easily fixed with a wet sponge while the paint remains wet. I tried to leave a little extra paint in some places for a slight texture.

IMG_6140I was pleased with the result, which adds a dreamy quality to a small, boxy room. And Maya likes it too!

Tending a Winter Garden

IMG_6055The beginning of the year has been a time of fallowness and flu for us, as well as change. I’ve been having my own personal wrestling match with the Great Flu Epidemic for three weeks now, and canNOT seem to get sleep enough to shake this rattling cough, so please forgive the long silence. (I usually work on the blog at night, when all is quiet, and I’ve been worshiping my pillow instead…)

The weather here has been very cold, at least for the past few days. I’m craving chili and soup, hot cider and cozy blankets. And new projects: I’m in discussions with a good friend and brilliant professor about a book we may write (details to come on that, I hope!), and plotting to launch a green business with another friend. Things are germinating, but they are still only seeds. It’s the middle of winter, after all.

In the larger world beyond my pillow, some things are also apparently afoot. The world has decided to ban new mercury emissions in an important new treaty, which will save future generations a lot of trouble if it actually gets done (and actually addresses the mercury released in mining). President Obama has announced some reasonable new policy proposals to limit access to guns, and my home state of Maryland is moving forward on sensible new gun measures, all of which is as reassuring as first steps can be.

I personally enjoyed the pomp of the inaugural festivities, including the patriotic thrill of the speeches. Unfortunately, the music was kind of awful, though, wasn’t it? Why so pop and warble-y? Even the lovely James Taylor seemed flat. Kelly Clarkson, really? And all the hype over Beyonce? Puh-lease. As we all know now, she Milli-Vanillied it. But that wasn’t the only false note: there were far too many fluttery fake eyelashes and streaky blonde highlights overall, IMHO.

The Prez sadly missed a moment to highlight more stirring acts — like the local and fabulous Sweet Honey in the Rock (perhaps singing “We Are the Ones”) or real blues and jazz folks (B.B. King? Or someone — anyone — with a little soul in their warble?). At least the First Lady rocked out her gown and new hairstyle. Rowr.

Anyhow, my real point is: I’m baaack. With lots of plans for this blog and the new year. While you await the coming guest posts from exciting contributors and my promised download on pjs, here are a few easy ideas for creating your own winter garden of possibilities. Dunno about you, but on these bleak winter days I’m desperate for some green and growing things, indoors where we can see them take root.

Like the mushroom farm, these are manageable and worthy projects for toddlers and bigger kids as well. I saw both the terrarium and the tulips in small glass jars for sale for more than $20 in Whole Foods yesterday — but making your own costs only a few bucks, using materials you can find outside plus a few simple craft-store vases.

Easy Idea 1: The Cutting and the Terrarium

IMG_6088Raid a friend’s (or your own) plants for cuttings and set a few up in a wine glass where you can see the roots start to form and grow. Maya likes tracking the shoots downward and seems amazed by the changes.

Once it’s got a little root action going, feel free to use it to make your own terrarium with moss, a few stones, and a small glass container (with a lid if you have one).

Our cutting was too large for our container, so we used a left-over bit from another succulent instead, as well as some moss from a hike in the woods today, and a few smaller stones. We misted it with the small spray bottle leftover from our mushroom farm, and will cover it with a dish some of the time to keep it moist. Its zen feel is cheering me up already.

IMG_6126Easy Idea 2: The See-Thru Garden

IMG_6079For this, you’ll need:

  • A milk carton
  • Paint and other materials for decorations as you like
  • (Decently sharp) scissors
  • Masking tape (I used painting tape as what I had on hand)
  • Plastic wrap (non-PVC is best if growing herbs)
  • (organic) Seeds that will germinate in such small space and in the light conditions you have indoors (we used organic English Thyme, which need full sun, in our bay window)
  • (Organic, i.e., no chemical) soil, plus a few rocks or corks for the bottom

IMG_6081Using a cleaned milk carton, cut off the top and cut 2 rectangular “windows” in opposing sides. Paint or decorate as you like. Maya painted ours white with tempera paint and then I made flowers by cutting shapes out of a pretty blue watercolor painting she made. She helped glue them on.

IMG_6098Using masking tape, tape some plastic wrap into the windows by setting the tape on one side and taping, then rolling the other side to fit and taping that. Fill the bottom with a few  rocks or corks, and then soil up to the level for planting seeds. Let the toddler shake the seeds, count and plant them as the instructions say, making sure some are close to the “windows.” Top with soil and water per the seed packet instructions. Watch the plants grow!

IMG_6116Easy idea #3:  Bulbs and Rocks

IMG_6060 You will need:

  • Tulip or other bulbs, such as paperwhites (but beware the intense pollen from paperwhites if you are an allergic type!)
  • Rocks — roundish, in a mix of colors and tones
  • Glass vase (clear and round is best)

We like the children’s book, Paperwhite, which tells a lovely and simple story about planting a winter garden with rocks and bulbs, thus inspiring this idea. And collecting rocks to borrow is so much fun!

IMG_6111Soak the bulbs for an hour or so in warm water. After sorting through your rocks, place them carefully in the glass vase. Plant the bulbs (we used amaryllis in the middle and three tulips around the edges) and let the toddler or child water as needed.

IMG_6113Track the roots and shoots as they develop (you could even mark the glass with pastels). Some larger bulbs may need replanting in soil, as you like.

The projects look nice together as well:

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Easy Idea #4: Plant Your Spice Rack

When my Indian mother-in-law visited us several years ago, I came home and found she had planted some fenugreek seeds right out of the spice jar. They grew quickly with a minimum of fuss. And the sprouts were a delicious and healthy garnish on curries and rice.

Since then, I’ve tried cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and anything else handy, with good results. (Obviously, you need to use the spices that are “seeds,” and not dried leaves or another part of the plant.) So just a few days ago, I polished off a planter from outside and now have a batch of fenugreek, or methi, popping up in my kitchen window. Thanks, Nanama!

IMG_6162Other super-easy ideas:

IMG_6104While at the hardware store, I also came across a package with a small glass vase and hyacinth bulb, which I snapped up as well. I got it started, but as they need several weeks under a paper bag in a cool, dark place like our basement, it won’t be the ideal touch of green I hoped for upstairs. Still, we’ll keep an eye on it as the roots grow into the vase.

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IMG_6093I also love, love this small collection of air plants, which are so easy to maintain and look cool in these hanging planters above the kitchen window. (You can order them on Etsy from a number of green-thumbed individuals — including nice planters, such as these — if they would be hard for you to find locally.)

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How are you bringing an early spring indoors?

Happy New Year & Fun with Felt

Happy New Year

I’ve had a bad case of the Crafties this holiday. So I though I would subject you to one more post on a DIY gift that needs no special occasion: an easy way to make a felt play-station for a toddler or young child.

Felt boards are simple to create and can be used for hours of open-ended play. I gave two felt boards as gifts to my nieces, and made one set of felt cut-outs for Maya. For the board, I used a stretched canvas for the ones I made as gifts, and a large piece of felt cut and punched to fit on our easel over the whiteboard for Maya.

Whiteboard markers are dubious due to the xylene they contain, so that part of a child’s easel is better converted to something other use. (Magnet boards are also great and can be clipped on.) If you do use whiteboard markers, there’s a marker made without xylene by Auspen that allegedly works well.

Basic materials:

  • Felt in a wide range of colors (some is made of post-consumer recycled fabric, which is nice; you can also get fun felt with animal prints), and a larger piece in a neutral tone for the board backing
  • Sharp scissors (fabric scissors are best)
  • Stencil stickers for numbers and letters (like those used on posters)
  • Stretched art canvas for the board (I used these ones, which are a nice size, but the price fluctuates), a staple gun with staples, and velcro strips for hanging; or an easel or bulletin board
  • Optional: Fabric glue or thread and seed beads for making animals, trees, clouds, houses, etc.

For the shapes and letters:

For the letters and numbers, to keep things uniform, I used large-format sticky poster board stencil stickers from an office supply store. I further trimmed any useful shapes from inside the letters when I could to use in the sets.

H cutH pieceAfter some random trials, I found it simplest, particularly as I was making multiple sets of numbers and letters, to go through the alphabet in order, making sure to cut many copies of vowels and other letters often used in pairs (t’s, or p’s, for example).

In front of the TV, it was a pleasant diversion and allowed me to re-watch all of Downtown Abbey just in time for the start of Season Three (tonight)! I then divided them up into sets after laying all the pieces out on a board.

The sets for three familiesI also tried my hand at a few animals, using this allegedly non-toxic fabric and felt glue, with only modest success. When so inclined, Maya can easily pry the creations apart, showing the glue. So for the younger crowd, you may want either to keep it very simple with the shapes, or to invest the time in sewing the pieces together for durability. Still, for the few I’ve managed to keep intact, the pieces are cute.

Eden When pigs flyTo make the board:

If using an easel, just cut the felt to match the whiteboard or other support you are using, punch a hole with the scissors and slip onto the screws.

If you would prefer to make a separate felt board, it’s very simple to do so. Cut the felt in the size of your board, leaving three to four inches of fabric on all sides around the canvas.

IMG_5940Then fold and tuck the felt into the backside of the canvas on all sides, making “hospital corners” with the felt on each corner to keep it smooth on the front.

IMG_5947Using the staple gun, work your way around the back edges, paying special attention to keeping the corners flat. Hang with velcro or a nail as you prefer.

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Maya has enjoyed playing with the shapes and trying to name the letters, which often occasions the alphabet song. I’m hoping her cousins are enjoying the sets as well! I’ll be adding more animals, and sewing some, as Downtown Abbey gets back underway…

Next week: A guest post on Type 2 diabetes from a blogger pal, and the full scoop on children’s “flame retardant” pajamas — so stay tuned!