Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers”

kids as seeds

Happily cross-posted from the Food Day blog.

About forty children were crouched into small balls on the ground in front of vegetable planters. “Let’s pretend we’re seeds,” Adam Zmick, a former Teach-for-America instructor, told them. “What do seeds need to grow?” Hands shot up eagerly from down near ground level.

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this week, at Rowe Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, I visited a worksite of the new Gardeneers, a small organization started last fall that is bringing gardening services and education to public schools in the Chicago area. The group was founded by Adam and May Tsupros, and has already enrolled five schools. Four of their five locations have 90 percent or higher levels of subsidized lunches.

The conversation that day between the Gardeneers and the students included how to plant seeds and water them, the parts of plants and their functions, and the balance of nitrogen with other nutrients in the soil. Pickling came up, logically connected to the talk of cucumbers, and the kids rated the vegetables that they liked (and didn’t like) to eat.

Gardeneers’ new programs provide consistent support and curriculum on nutrition, biology and health to accompany the planting, nurturing and watering of seedlings by the students, some early in the spring on classroom windowsills. May explained, “About half of the schools that start gardens cannot maintain them through the school year. So we started a program to ensure that unused space is well maintained, all throughout the year.”

The Gardeneers are ambitious, aiming to grow the program to include 25 schools as early as next spring. They also hope, wherever possible, that the garden’s harvests will be used in the schools as supplements to snacks or meals. Because they are certified in Illinois’ Garden to Cafeteria program, they are well able to take the steps to manage food safely and to track their results.

As research shows, they are finding that the programs fill a need. “Many preschoolers don’t know what a root is, and they think that food only comes from a store,” said Adam. “The kids get excited when the radishes appear, and one girl told me that this was the first time she had ever tried lettuce.”

The curriculum is flexible and evolving – the lessons can involve biology, math, art, nutrition or practical skills like cooking. And the close observation and patience that students develop are good practice for scientific endeavors of all kinds. The Gardeneers also send students home with seeds and plants to care for, which invests children in the ups and downs of living organisms.

Their work is supported by foundation grants and funding for wellness programs at several of the schools. They form the latest addition to an active network of organizations in Chicago working to transform the urban landscape. With WBEZ Chicago and other partners, the group is currently planning an upcoming Day of Action in which the students will take their extra plants to houses in the neighborhood, and help residents to install their own small gardens.

One plant at a time and one student at a time, the Gardeneers are increasing awareness of healthier foods and showcasing the simple but practical steps needed to sustain them in the city.

You can read more about their efforts on Food Tank, and support their work here.

GardeneersThe Gardeneers –Margo Mejia, Randy Jamrok. May Tsupros, Amanda Fieldman and Adam Zmick.

FieldmanFieldman working with students at Rowe Elementary.

MejioMejia and students — the vegetable boxes (these were donated by partner Kitchen Community) hold heirloom and organic varieties courtesy of Seed Savers Exhange, including broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, spinach, eggplants, carrots, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage and lavender.

JamrokJamrok and students discover grown radishes. There was much excitement.

CompostLeftovers from a meal with the kids provides a lesson in worm composting.

Coming soon: an update on our own gardening adventures at home!

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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).

IMG_2978

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

IMG_1460

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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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:

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 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!

Purple Pancakes! Or Johnny Cakes, If You Prefer

We’re kinda, sorta’ gluten minimalists around my house these days. It just seems like wheat (or the kind of wheat we all mostly eat) is getting a much-deserved hard look, and the picture isn’t pretty.

Cutting out wheat (mainly) also happens to rid us of some, though not all, of the empty, low-value calories in our diet, so that works nicely. In addition to ordering some Einkorn wheat flour (which is a varietal of wheat most folks ate before the new, easier to grow and less healthy, kind became the norm), I’ve been experimenting with alternatives.

I won’t burden you with the details of our experiment gone awry in attempting tempura with chickpea batter, which just has to work, but didn’t despite the implied promise of our favorite late-night Japanese cooking show…

More successful were these wonderfully vibrant sprouted blue corn pancakes, loosely resembling southern Johnny Cakes, and based on this simple pancake recipe. They fluffed up for a breakfast worthy of royalty, in shades almost too purple to eat. We doused them in maple syrup, and then nibbled the leftovers as snacks all day long.

One more thing: most pancakes, at least for me, leave me feeling both overstuffed and under-nourished by the fluff factor. In contrast, these were really filling and provided lots of good energy for the morning.

If your kids are older, these definitely beg for funny Grover or Cookie Monster faces on top, using bananas, blueberries, strawberries or grapes. Blueberries are great inside as well, for maximum purple effect.

For grown-ups, they’d also be nice blini-sized, with creme fraiche, greek yogurt or goat cheese smeared on them (though you’d want to thin the batter out a bit).

I also tried making polenta with this unique sprouted flour, using my stand-by recipe. It took longer to set up, but was delicious that way as well (next time I’d skip the rosemary, as it crowded the flavors a bit). It was worth all the stirring just to have this bubbling, belching purple cauldron on the stove.

This flour also makes awesome speckled purple playdough, per this recipe. I substituted the purple flour for 1/4 of the flour called for in the recipe, and it was still very Tyrian:

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose blue corn flour (I used Flour of Life Raw Sprouted Purple Corn Flour)
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar (optional: you could reduce, eliminate or sub in a natural alternative)
  • 1 1/4 cups (organic, grassfed) milk
  • 1 (organic, pasture-raised) egg
  • 3 tablespoons (organic, grassfed) butter, melted

Directions:

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and add the eggs, melted butter and milk.

This is the fun part, as you watch it turn purple. Really purple. Adjust the consistency with more flour as needed.

Like Julia Child, we’re not afraid of butter ’round here. Melt it up and ladle them in. (These were, notably, too large, but also like Julia, we just went with it.)

Just like regular old brown pancakes, these do bubble. But they brown quickly as well, so check the edges and flip when those have firmed up a bit instead of waiting for bubbles throughout the middle.

Douse in maple syrup (optional: decorate with silly faces), and serve!

10 Fascinating (and Sometimes Hard) Things I Learned at BlogHer 2012

My little moment of snark about Martha Stewart notwithstanding, the Blogher12 conference was amazing and worthwhile. It was full of energy and wit, I learned things from each of the panels, and the workshops, in particular, were incredibly helpful.

The highlight for me was today’s lunchtime conversation with Katie Couric, who was insightful, substantive, funny, honest and warm. I hope that her new daytime program finds the viewers it deserves, both because it sounds great and because its success would flag the need for smarter programming for both women and television talk shows generally.

Second, I loved meeting all of these interesting, talented women. At lunch, I just happened to be sitting next to Globetrotting Mama, who recently completed (and blogged about) a year-long trip around the world with her family. She was full of practical advice about how to take that kind of a trip, and really clear about its value for her two sons and their family bonds.

Then, as the coup de grace when things were winding down this afternoon, I stumbled upon Beth Terry, one of my personal eco-heroines, who just published an incredible book, My Plastic Free Life. I’ll be posting a book review soon, thanks to my newly purchased (and signed!) copy. Beth and I had lots to talk about!

Below are a few things I think I learned (subject of course to your review, correction and further explication):

  1. Blogging is just one platform for increasing social influence. While it may be the heart of what you do, as it is for this wonderful blogger who led my workshop, in the end its traffic, readership demographics, time of stay, etc., measures just one form of social media footprint. Your value will be judged by the total picture across platforms, i.e., your blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc. As this implies, shortcomings in one platform can be compensated for by connections and influence in another.
  2. Metrics and stats matter. This is true not only because they will help to measure your social influence (what old timey poli-sci types call “social capital”), but because you can and should use them to see what kinds of materials, posts and tweets gets your community revved up and rarin’ to go. Then you can give them more of the good stuff they like, and, if you’re lucky, the virtuous cycle takes over.
  3. Social influence =’s trust in you. There are two main pathways to monetizing your activities, neither of which are really about your blog so much as they are about your social influence, and marketing you: 1) becoming a trusted, reliable marketing pathway for products and services (sponsorships, product reviews, give-aways and all that); 2) becoming a trusted, reliable expert on an issue or segment of the market, which can include freelance writing or a book, and/or selling yourself as a spokesperson or writer on other platforms or to traditional media. For both, you need the basic materials in your “media kit,” and the saucy Cecily K even gave us a link to her terrific guide for using picmonkey to make one. (I’m mainly in the second bucket, if I’m in any bucket at all. As both Cecily and the incredibly helpful Marcy Massura pointed out, if you’re pitching yourself as a writer, obviously including published clips and highlighting those in the kit is key.)
  4. Be your best self. Despite the sneers that mommy bloggers often surreptitiously receive, expectations for people working in this space, unsurprisingly, are the same as in any other profession. You’re ideally supposed to be organized, professional, truthful, be aware of and follow the law, and generally be nice.
  5. There are a truly unfair number of platforms, technologies, applications and measuring systems to try to get your head around. Of course they also change all the time. In one session alone, panelists mentioned Klout, Peer Index, Cred, Alexa, and Picmonkey. Others talked about Google Analytics, Google+, Survey Monkey, instagram and Tumblr. Many of these are useful tools, I’m sure, but I was unnerved by visions of myself floating aimlessly from platform to platform managing my Interwebs identity, and wondered when the writing and research might actually get done to make decent content.
  6. Connections, as in anything, still matter. But making connections, thanks to the unabashed, and even sometimes forced, intimacy of Twitter, is now far easier than ever before. From panel to panel, the advice was the same: be bold in approaching people, once you know what you want to accomplish and have your materials and story straight. Talk up your strengths and value, and advocate for yourself and your ideas.
  7. Be inventive with DIY publicity and promotions. In the book talk, one very crafty craft blogger shared her kamikaze marketing tactics, which included calling up the sewing machine company featured in her novel for a give-away, barnstorming the book signings of authors she liked to build goodwill towards her own book blurbs, and holding workshops with the purchase of her book built into the cost. Another made satirical videos to promote her book, as well as educational guides for schools. The takeaway was that the more channels and promotional avenues you have for your content, the better.
  8. There are a lot of people trying to do this, and (understandably) to make some money at it, and it’s not easy to do it well. While the Expo Hall was full of potential sponsors who want to engage the viral marketing potential of female bloggers and their audiences, it also seemed clear that the number of people who will dramatically succeed – at least enough to make a living at it – is far smaller than the number of us interested in making a go at it.
  9. Many people just use the Web – and blogging and other social media – for connection, personal journaling, and to give voice to fears and feelings. There was the wonderful woman I met who blogs about her depression and thoughts of suicide anonymously but courageously, and the woman with an autistic child who studies and writes about the science on autism. Blogs are places to share, build community, and get a comforting and perhaps even therapeutic confirmation that the things about us that make us feel alone are almost always things that other people are experiencing right now.
  10. This avenue for expression is not going away. It remains a very powerful way to find like-minded people and to give a thousand voices to the many ways we navigate our lives. While there were nice breaks for informal networking, if I had one suggestion for the next BlogHer, it would be that there should also be space on the official calendar for like-minded bloggers to find each other, so that they can better get to know each other in-person and discuss common interests. BlogHer could be a place to create networks across many more spaces – with less being talked to, and more talking to each other. In this kind of space, bloggers could hatch ideas to help each other out, pooling technical or other expertise, or maybe even share their ideas for changing the world to reflect the many things we all dream of and hope for, both on-line and off.

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What did you get out of the conference? What nuggets of wisdom do you have on the event or blogging in general? I’d love to hear!