Refresh Your Life

5 Ways Parents Can Save the Planet

The boys pick up trash along the river.

I will admit to feeling more than a little apprehensive these past few months. If anything will make you more political, it’s becoming a parent. Suddenly I’m not just invested in decisions about my own life. I’m worried about a whole generation from now.

It’s hard to know where to start with affecting any change at all. We’ve been talking a lot in our house about love and letting the love inside our hearts be more powerful than other feelings. These are things my small children can understand.

But talking about the very real and very imminent threats to our environment is a little harder. How do I tell them that I’m worried for the earth they will inherit? How do I tell them that the planet they grow up on and pass on to their own children is less rich, less diverse, and less wild than the one I enjoyed when I was little? And do I tell them that it’s our fault?

There are hundreds of ways that we can affect positive change for the environment every day. But the single most important change we can affect as parents is the generation we raise. If we want to save the planet, we need to raise children who will speak up for it, take action, and stand against the destruction of natural resources.

Saving the planet isn’t going to be easy. Head over to Parent.co to read my recent article, 5 Ways Parents Can Save the Planet.

Guest Post: Reflections On Our First 365Outside

I’m always excited to hear about how embracing the 365Outside Challenge has helped other families and friends to get outside more on a daily basis. When Nina contacted me this week asking if I’d be interested in hearing her story, of course I said yes.

Nina has just completed her first year of the 365Outside Challenge, and is rolling straight into year two with another baby added to her pack. Read on to hear about how she managed to get outside over 300 days last year, with her toddler and a baby on board. Thanks for reaching out, Nina!

Reflections On Our First 365Outside

by Nina Rhoades

I first learned of 365Outside last December and decided immediately that we needed to do it. My husband and I love nature and time outside, and we consider it a cornerstone of our parenting goals that our kids play in the outdoors as often as possible. However, my son was 21 months old when we started on Jan 1, 2016, and I found out just days later that I was pregnant with our second, so getting outside every single day was definitely going to be a challenge, especially since we live in northern Utah — where the ground is snow-covered from mid-December to late March on average.  

All in all, I got outside on 312 days in 2016, and my son got out on 327 days. (We didn’t count days for my husband because his job requires him to travel regularly, but he also loves to be outside and took my son out to play whenever he was able). Most of the days lost were either during the winter, or in September when my daughter was born. It wasn’t 366/366 days, but I was happy with it — and we hope to improve upon it this year!


As we begin our second 365Outside, now with an almost-3-year-old and a baby, here’s what I learned over the last year:

  1. Gear does matter. No, I am not suggesting that small children need wardrobes from The North Face. But if you’re battling weather at all, you’ll want to identify the couple of items that will make you and your children most comfortable. For our snowy winters, Stonz Mittz for my son, along with some good boots (we chose Kamik) have made all of the difference in whether he wants to go out in the snow or not.
  2. A few solid outdoor toys are also REALLY helpful. Again, I’m not suggesting that spending a lot of money is necessary — I’m actually fairly minimalist when it comes to toys — but if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your yard with a toddler, you will need something to do. For us, a sled and shovel for the snow, and a Strider bike, scooter, and water table in the summer, along with some sidewalk chalk, made a huge difference. While I wasn’t crazy about it, I also came to appreciate his “Lightning McQueen” motorized little car (approximately $60). It’s not the same as running around, but he loved that thing so dearly, and it got him outside many a day that he wasn’t otherwise interested — and you can try to change activities once you’re out there.  Idea: Ask family members and friends to gift outdoor gear or toys for birthdays/holidays.  

    Photo courtesy of Nina Rhoades

  3. That said, varying your activities is absolutely necessary. I love hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, etc., and am thankful we live close to mountains so we can do those things regularly without too much trouble. But in real life with a toddler, it’s just not practical to do that every day — just like it can be painful to draw on the sidewalk every day. I liked the book 15 Minutes Outside by Rebecca P. Cohen for additional ideas.  It’s nothing cosmic — roast marshmallows, build a birdhouse, and so on — but helped us to get out of our daily routine. Also, it doesn’t need to be fascinating.  One rainy summer day we listened to distant thunder from our porch and I taught my son the phrase, “Thunder means be careful; lightning means go inside.”  He repeated it for days.  Another night I had him help put up Christmas lights on the porch after the baby was in bed as a “special activity.”  It wasn’t exploring mountains but we got some fresh air.  
  4. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s about you — and sometimes it’s not. We have done hikes with our son (and even in the fall, our daughter) in a backpack or an Ergo, in the baby’s case, and they enjoyed it. But I’ve also driven an hour to a “perfect kid hike” and let my son determine the pace, where we stop, and how long we’re out. He loved it and spent over an hour throwing rocks into a tiny stream. They’re not going to love being outside if they’re only being dragged along.  
  5. On that note, sometimes you need to push. Sometimes you don’t. My son loves being outside (and I’m thankful to 365Outside that his love for the outdoors has increased significantly over the last year), but sometimes he’s happy doing whatever he’s doing inside, or gets distracted by a favorite train on the way out the door. Sometimes you need to shove him out the door (he rarely complained once out and often didn’t want to go back in,) and occasionally just accept that a book or other indoor activity IS the right choice that day.  
  6. Make it happen. Right now, with a 4-month-old baby, when my husband is at work, getting outside in the snow often means waiting until she takes a nap, hanging the monitor around my neck, taking my son out while staying within range of the monitor, and then going back in when she wakes up.  Sometimes I do take her out in the snow of course but it’s not realistic that she, a baby who can’t yet sit up on her own, is going to stay out for two hours like my son wants to.  I feel bad dragging him back in after 45 minutes, but 45 minutes is better than nothing.  
  7. Get out yourself.  You can see from the numbers that there were days when my son got outside and I didn’t, probably because he went outside with my husband or with the daycare that he attends two mornings a week. I like to go running and do other things that bring me outside without him, but on more than one occasion, I went out after he was in bed and went for a walk, or shoveled some snow instead of snow-blowing it, just to get some fresh air myself on a day when I otherwise wouldn’t have. I never regretted doing that. We all need fresh air.  

Photo courtesy of Nina Rhoades

Nina is a stay-at-home mom to two sweet and amazing children while also working very part-time for an online research company.  Before having kids, she worked as a foreign and defense policy analyst, and lived in the Middle East for two years.  She and her husband love to travel and explore, run and do Crossfit, and debate politics.  They live near Ogden, Utah.  

Enter to Win a Trip to Iceland From Outdoor Families Magazine

Remember last year when we thought we were being scammed into a timeshare or something when really the Captain had won us a no-strings-attached family adventure in Baja, Mexico? Being that we had never won anything, ever, we assumed we’d never be able to take advantage of such an amazing prize.

But lo and behold, two months later we were flying the kids to Mexico for a week of surfing, hiking, horseback riding, and swimming with sea lions. I am still in a little bit of disbelief that this actually happened. While the tan is long gone and the memories are starting to fade, at least we still have the pictures.






It was undoubtedly the most amazing family vacation we’ve ever been on with the kids. The Captain and I used to go on adventures abroad as a part of our work, but that phase in our lives ended when the littles came along. These days we mostly stick to off-grid camping or sailing vacations. But Baja reminded us how amazing it is to experience other cultures, with the added bonus of sharing them with our kids. Traveling as a family is an experience that I don’t think can be matched. And we certainly won’t be able to match the Baja experience anytime soon.

Feeling jealous yet? Don’t worry, now it’s your turn.

Enter to Win A Trip to Iceland

Outdoor Families Magazine, who ran the awesome contest that we won, is running another vacation giveaway right now, and it sounds beyond cool.

Between now and February 2, you can enter to win a three-night vacation for three in ICELAND. Sound awesome? It should!

Iceland has been on my bucket list for about five years. We have a handful of friends who have gone and report back that it’s every bit as magical as it’s cracked up to be.

Why travel to Iceland? Well, for starters I want to see the northern lights, do a glacier tour and, most definitely, bathe in a geothermal pool. I mean, seriously. Look at this thing:

The Captain also wants to go surfing there, but he already won a surf vacation once so I think his odds are pretty slim.

You can find all the details here. (Spoiler alert: 3-course dinner and a Puffin Watching Boat Tour.)

Read the rules and regulations here (to find out if the Captain is allowed to win twice in a row). Obviously you don’t have to buy anything, and if anyone can vouch that this is truly a no-strings-attached giveaway, it’s us.

May the odds be ever in your favor . . . and may you bring me back a keychain.

Stuck in a Rut, and the Importance of a Micro-Adventure

I’ve been stuck in a rut lately. Not so much a bad rut. More like a fairly comfortable one, but maybe perhaps too comfortable because then I’m less inclined to make my my way out. Maybe I don’t want to anyway, I don’t know.

It’s no secret that this is the time of year when this sort of thing happens. It’s cold out. Like – one morning it was 4F so of course our pipes froze in the barn and our old drafty house struggled to stay above 60. It’s that kind of cold. We have to pile on layers to get outside, and then Little Bear runs away squealing in glee because it’s just SUCH A FUN GAME to peel off the socks and the long johns as soon as Mama layers them on him.

It’s also almost the shortest day of the year. I am beyond lucky that both of my kids still nap every afternoon, but the double-edged sword means that often, by the time they are getting up and ready to roll again, it is getting dark out. I scurry around like a mad-woman barking, “Hurry up! If you don’t hurry up it will be dark!” when they casually wander downstairs and announce that they want to ride bikes. We have spent many a flashlight-lit afternoon pedaling back and forth on our dead end. Back and forth. Back and forth. 

So very proud of himself on the two-wheeler.

Back and forth, riding bikes. I think that’s also part of the rut. Little Bear finally learned to ride his two-wheeler, graduating from his balance bike to no training-wheels over the course of a week (YAY!). This was after months and months of us knowing he was ready but him pushing back in his Little Bear way, and insisting that he stick with the balance bike because, let’s be honest, he was very very good at it. So now, he can pedal and weave his way down the road even faster, and it’s all he ever wants to do. Junior is also content to ride his bike, all day every day. And while I love to watch them and I marvel at their physical agility, to be completely honest, it gets boring for me. I am sick of standing in the road while they ride bikes. Back and forth. There, I said it.

I feel a little bit like our tiny section of dead end road has become a part of our house, and that when we go out to play there, it’s no different than playing in the living room. Of course, there’s fresh air, which is great, and the boys get more exercise, which is also great. But we miss out on so many of the things that I find beneficial outdoors. There is very little creativity in their play when they are pushing dump trucks, riding pedal tractors, riding bikes. There is a monotony to it. I know that we are privileged to even experience a monotony to our outdoor play, but I am also missing the days of endless wanderings through the woods, the concentration of building imaginary worlds out of forest-found materials, the magic of discovering animal tracks or coyote scat. But right now the boys just want to ride their bikes, again and again. Back and forth.    

Junior shredding at the BMX park.

I do try to bring them to new places to ride their bikes, but the options aren’t that varied. We are at a strange place where I still need to be on foot to help Little Bear out, but they are both much faster than me once they get going. We did hit a local BMX track a few weeks ago, which was fun for all, but now with the ground frozen it’s no longer a great option. I like to bring them off-road to trails, but this isn’t much fun yet for Little Bear who struggles to get going in the grass. His balance bike was a different story, so he gets frustrated when he can’t pedal through a field. We’re getting there, but it will take some practice.

Another point that’s thrown off our daily outdoor routine has been my writing. My content writing has taken off and I published 30 articles last month. So yes, you could say I have been busy. It feels great to be paid for my writing, and great to do something that’s intellectually stimulating. I feel accomplished at the end of the day, but I also feel guilty because my time spent writing comes at a cost – the house is dirty, the boys were watching more TV, and this blog starts to collect cobwebs.

But this week, with the cold sweeping in and Christmas around the corner, and the boys clawing at one another at epically new rates, I made some changes to get us going again. To get us up and out of the rut, stretching our legs, refreshing our lives. We needed to hit the reset button in a big way.

First, I banned screen-time. We aren’t generally a huge TV family (as you probably could have guessed), but I was using it more and more to occupy the boys while I was trying to write, and, not surprisingly, they were falling into the habit of expecting it. I hated that. They would come downstairs first thing without so much as a “Good morning” and ask if they could watch a show. Then when it was over, they would fight. They were restless and agitated. The TV was just a bandaid when really what they needed a saline wash.

So we stopped watching TV. The first day they cried and pleaded and went through all five stages of grief. But since then, they haven’t even asked for it. It’s been nine days without TV, and they don’t even bring it up anymore. They are playing better together. They are playing better independently. And my guilty conscience feels better too.

Today we ventured out for a kid-paced walk at one of our favorite spots. It snowed yesterday and today was rainy with temperatures in the 50s, so the world is mud-wonderful and slippery soft. We do have some big adventures planned over the next few months (which helps because, it’s always fun to anticipate), but sometimes we forget that there are adventures to be had just down the street. Sometimes we forget that little moments, little things, can refresh us too. Here are some scenes from our micro-adventure.     

365Outside on TV

Recently, I had the honor of being interviewed for our local cable channel, Cape Ann TV. Follow the link below to hear what I had to say about 365Outside!

365Outside on the Cape Ann Report

Will You Join the 2017 365Outside Challenge?

Registration for the 2017 365Outside Challenge will be open soon. Will you join us in committing to a happier, healthier 2017? Check back soon to sign up!


5 Simple Ways to Celebrate the Supermoon

A full moon walk last winter.

A full moon walk last winter.

If you follow us regularly, you know how we feel about full moons. Every month (errr . . . lunar cycle) the boys eagerly await the night of the full moon because with it comes our family’s tradition of a full moon walk before bed. Whether we can see the moon or not, out we go to celebrate it.

On November 13 and 14, we’ll be treated to a particularly rare and beautiful “supermoon”. Read on to learn about what causes a supermoon and how you can enjoy it together as a family.

What is a Moon Cycle?

Lunar Cycle Diagram

Lunar Cycle Diagram

You may already be familiar with the basics of the moon cycle, but just to review, the moon orbits the earth every 27.3 days. As the moon orbits the earth, one half of it is always illuminated by the sun, just as one half of the earth is always illuminated by the sun (the side of the earth experiencing daylight). Here on earth, we cannot always see the part of the moon that is illuminated and the part of the moon that we can see changes slightly each night according to its location relative to the sun. During most of its cycle we see just part of the moon’s illuminated side and part of the shadowed side. When we see a crescent moon, we are actually seeing just a small bit of the side that’s illuminated and the remainder of the shadowed side (which we can’t distinguish from darkness so far away). Check out the Lunar Cycle Diagram to get a better idea of how this works.

What is a Supermoon?


Moon’s Orbit Diagram

But wait, there’s more! The moon’s orbit isn’t exactly round. Although it is depicted as perfectly circular in most diagrams (including the one above), the moon’s orbit is actually almost elliptical – meaning it’s more of an oval shape. This is true of all orbits due to variations in gravitational pull, initial velocity of the orbiting bodies, and any other disturbances such as collisions. Because of this, the moon’s distance from earth varies between approximately 357,000 kilometers (222,000 mi) and 406,000 km (252,000 mi). The moon’s location closest to earth is called perigee while its location furthest from earth is called apogee. See the Moon’s Orbit Diagram for a visual.

When a full moon occurs at the perigee, it is often referred to as a Supermoon. These moons appear 13% larger and shine 30% brighter than a typical full moon. The Supermoon we will experience next week is the closest full moon we’ve experienced since 1948 and a full moon won’t be this close again until 2034. That means this is the closest full moon in a period of 86 years!

How Can We Celebrate?

The moon rises over the bay.

The moon rises over the bay.

Full Moon Walk

Our family celebrates the full moon by going for a walk before bedtime. We do this not just for Supermoons, but every full moon, regardless of the weather and visibility. Next week, rather than walking down our street, we will go someplace special to walk by moonlight.

Aside from the full moon walk, here are some other great ideas to mark this special lunar event:


Did you have a stressful month? We sure did. Between The Captain transitioning to a new rotation on his tugboat, the melancholy of days getting shorter, and the presidential election (I can’t even go there yet), this past month has seemed far from peaceful around here. Buddhists mark the full moon with a day of spiritual focus, meditating and keeping away from worldly distractions. Historically, ancient sages have advised the same thing – to take time on the full moon day to relax your mind and devote time to spiritual development.

If you’ve felt the emotional weight of the past month heavy on your shoulders, take some time under the full moon to be present in the moment. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and you don’t need to have any experience with meditation. Just go outside, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and focus on breathing and clearing your mind. Try taking a deep breath in through your nose, holding it for a moment, and exhaling through your mouth. Let your mind clear and allow yourself to be present in the moment. This can be hard for kids, but even young children can attempt it. Challenge a child to sit quietly and soak up the moon’s beauty for the same number of minutes as their age.


Full moons are, not surprisingly, a symbol of fullness. They mark the highest of high tides and many believe they spark the height of creativity and power. One of our favorite ways to release this fullness is through dance. When our house gets too crazy, too loud, and too full, we put on some music and we dance. It’s often a raucous party with the kids quite literally bouncing off the walls, but when it’s over they are tired and subdued, at least for a moment. Try having your own dance party outside under the moon. Choose whatever music feels right to you and dance with wild abandon.

Bring the light inside

Full moons bring light to an otherwise dark place. One of the reasons we love our full moon walks so much is that the night is normally a time of darkness when we can’t easily enjoy the same places that we do during the day. The full moon helps us to see that there’s nothing to be afraid of after the sun goes down. As a symbol of your appreciation, light a candle outside under the moon, then bring it inside with you. Try having bath time or stories by the light of your candle. There is something simple and peaceful about enjoying everyday activities by the light of a candle’s flickering glow.

Read a moon story

There are many beautiful books about the moon. Goodnight Moon is a staple of many bedtimes, but the list goes on from there. Here are some of our favorites:

Wings Across the Moon by Linda Hargrove

The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson

Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop

If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

In our house, bedtime stories are a way of winding down and enjoying each other’s company before bed. We snuggle up in a cozy spot and read together before turning off the lights to continue with some songs. Moon stories are a great way to cap off the night of a full moon, and even better if you decide to enjoy them outside, under the moon.

This month’s full moon is definitely one for the ages. How will you mark the occasion with your family?

The boys watch the full moon across the water on Christmas 2015.

How to Build an Outdoor Play Tent

Our completed outdoor play tent, constructed by Mama and the boys in one morning!

Our completed outdoor play tent, constructed by Mama and the boys in one morning!

We are staring down the tunnel at winter. The days are getting darker, we set the clocks back tonight, and this morning the back deck was sprinkled with hail. We got off pretty easy as far as winter last year. There were a few snowstorms and we did get in some skiing and a winter cabin camping adventure, but it was still 70 degrees on Christmas Day and the snow never lasted between storms. This year, I am convinced we won’t get off so easy. We have already booked our winter cabin camping trip (hoping for more fluffy white stuff and less hard-packed trail ice this year). And I’m making a mental list of how to make our outdoor space more friendly through the winter.   

Little Bear peaks out from a lunch picnic in the old plastic playhouse.

Little Bear peaks out from a lunch picnic in the old plastic playhouse.

When we got rid of our plastic playground climbers and clubhouse last month and made way for a new natural playground, the one major piece missing from our work-in-progress was a sort of hideout for the boys. In fact, not long after the nature playscape was complete, they had relocated all of the free pieces to a shady little clearing under my lilacs, which they called their “campsite”. I had always intended to build some type of structure for the boys to play in. Originally, I wanted it to be something that they could build and take apart themselves, like a natural lean-to, but at ages 3.5 and newly 5, they don’t really have the strength or coordination to handle very long pieces of wood and I wanted the structure to be big enough and cozy enough to host our rainy (and soon snowy) day picnics. As much as I hated the plastic play structure, that clubhouse hosted many cozy inclement weather meals for me and the boys over the past few years. 

So this morning, with The Captain halfway through a two-week stint on his tugboat, I began my own hasty search for a suitable structure that would blend in with our natural space while offering shelter and coziness. To be honest, what I really wanted was a giant traditional teepee, complete with smoke flaps and a liner and room for a fire in the middle. But it didn’t take long for me to decide that that’s beyond my solo-build-in-a-morning skill set, not to mention that the footprint would be too big in our backyard. I looked at smaller, kid-sized teepees but didn’t think they’d allow enough room for me and the boys to crowd in through the winter.

Eventually I found some plans for play tents. These seemed both roomy enough to accommodate the family, but simple enough that I could build one on my own in one morning. We are lucky in that we have a stockpile of scrap wood, tools, and sail canvas at our disposal, all of which would be needed for this project. A simple play tent appealed to me for its simplicity and the fact that I already had most of the supplies on hand. One quick trip to the hardware store, $18.35 spent, and we were ready to go.

Interested in making your own? Check out my step-by-step directions below!

Materials, plus an old pallet that we grabbed to use as flooring.

Materials, plus an old pallet that we grabbed to use as flooring.


-4 2”x3”x6’ (I would have actually preferred 1”x2” or 1”x3” but they didn’t have them, so I went with what they had in stock – the lengths were 8’ but they cut them for me)

-2 bolts long enough to fit through two of the pieces used above, I used 6” carriage bolts

-2 nuts to fit the bolts above

-10 3” wood screws

-5 2”x3”x5’

-One piece of canvas, 60” x 140”


Little helpers are always eager to use power tools!

Little helpers are always eager to use power tools!

Pre-drill a hole on the centerline 10” from one end of the 6’ lengths of wood. Repeat on all four pieces. These will be your frames.

The primary frames, with predrilled holes bolted together.

The primary frames, with predrilled holes bolted together.

Use the bolts to connect two pairs of the predrilled holes. Hand tighten a nut on each one. They should now effectively be hinged on one end.

Primary frames, with bases screwed on and perpendicular frame in place.

Primary frames, with bases screwed on and perpendicular frame in place.

Use wood screws to connect one of the 5’ lengths to the bottom ends of the frames, making each into a triangle.

Raise the frames and use one 5’ length placed in the top Y, perpendicular to each frame. Secure in place with a screw at each end. 

Completed tent frame. (Note: I added additional strapping towards the peak, not necessary if you use the materials listed above).

Completed tent frame. (Note: I added additional strapping towards the peak, not necessary if you use the materials listed above).

Screw two more 5’ lengths between the bottoms of the frames, thereby connecting them with a square base.   

Use the canvas to cover the tent. Secure in place with wood staples if desired.

I used some additional pieces of strapping across the top to sturdy up the structure but those won’t be necessary if you use 2x3s along the base (which I didn’t – I just used the scrap wood we already had). We also put a used pallet inside to create a floorspace.


The boys wanted to put their sleeping bags in the tent to make it “cozy” and constructed their own benches to go around the fire pit for dinner.

The boys immediately took a liking to their new play tent, but were disappointed when they heard we wouldn’t actually be sleeping in it that night. Instead, we built in a fire in our backyard fire pit and the boys constructed some benches around it to enjoy an al fresco fireside dinner in celebration of our new “home”.


This is one happy camper here.

This is one happy camper here.

Our completed outdoor play tent!

Our completed outdoor play tent!

Getting Our Five-Year-Old His First Knife


This is Junior, immediately after opening his new multitool. He was so proud of it!

When our oldest turned five last week, we thought hard about what to get him for a present. We wanted something that he would enjoy, but we didn’t want another toy that would soon be broken or cast aside. We wanted something useful, but we didn’t want something that he would find boring or take for granted. We wanted something that would have staying power, not something that would soon be outgrown or only meet the needs of some fleeting phase. And finally, we wanted something special to recognize that five is in many ways the start of childhood and an official graduation from any last remains of the toddler years. Our child is no longer the chubby baby-cheeked tot he once was, but now all sinew and bone, lengthy and awkward colt legs, knobby elbows. He is all boyhood, and we wanted to mark the occasion with some kind of coming-of-age milestone.

So we bought him a pocketknife. 

The Leatherman Leap

The Leatherman Leap

Not just any pocketknife, but a sturdy multitool with folding pliers, screwdrivers, scissors and saw. It has a sleek green casing with little locks on each side where the shiny stainless tools fold out. And it has a sharp, smooth knife blade.

Is five too young for something like this? In some ways, yes. He can’t yet use all the tools efficiently and there are even parts that he can’t yet use effectively. But with the appropriate introduction and the appropriate ground rules, we believe he is ready.

We didn’t make this decision lightly. There was no flippant moment where in a last minute frenzy we just thought, “Ah heck, just order him a Leatherman and have it FedExed for tomorrow.” We know that some of you are probably thinking how irresponsible and stupid we are. How could a five-year old be ready for this? How could we risk our kid’s safety like that? Why bother?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about; he just wants to practice picking things up with pliers.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about; he just wants to practice picking things up with pliers.

But a longstanding truth of parenthood for me has been that I often underestimate my children’s capabilities. I am never fully ready to let go and allow them to take these scary steps alone, and then each time, they surprise me. It is always with a bit of fear that I push the back of that bike and send my child hurtling down the road on two wobbly wheels, handlebars shaking before he begins to glide smoothly, feet finding the pedals and beginning to work. I pulled him thrashing from just beneath the pool’s surface, clutching him close to me countless times before a swimming teacher showed me that if I just stepped back, his little head would bob right back up on its own and his feet would flutter as his arms pumped, working his way to the edge of the pool, all baby-toothed smile and glittering eyes. They are always ready before I am.

So when I first considered getting him a knife, I did what any 21st century mom would do and I googled it. It was a bit of an eye-opening experience when I typed in “Should I get my kid a” and the first autofill queries that popped up were:

“Should I get my kid a phone?”

“Should I get my kid a fitbit?”

“Should I get my kid a car?”

“Should I get my kid a flu shot?”

Sigh. . . . Moving past that, the first article that popped up was an old piece from the Today Show that I remember reading a few years back called “Let five-year-olds play with knives?”  The article refers to a Norwegian study that proposed that the best way to safeguard children is to let them take risks. And I believe it’s true that if we childproof every aspect of their lives, they will never learn to assess risk independently.

Junior uses a kitchen knife to cut calamari for dinner.

Junior uses a kitchen knife to cut calamari for dinner.

I also reviewed a number of articles about letting young children use knives in the kitchen. Starter knives are now actually a thing, and they are popular! I know several friends who have used them and even saw an awesome video of one friend’s three-year-old hacking away at a sweet potato with one while at school.  I was confident that a five-year-old could theoretically be ready for a multitool, but I also wanted some guidance in how to introduce it to him.

In addition to making sure that I wasn’t a total lunatic for thinking my five-year-old could handle this, I also wanted to make sure that I framed the experience in the right way. I read up on common rules for a child’s first knife. One pamphlet from the American Knife and Tool Institute had good guidance about safety and maintenance. Material from Boy Scouts of America (I know, I know, but bear with me) had similar advice.

Once we were armed with information, we introduced Junior to his first multitool.  

To start with, there was a lot of fanfare involved in giving him this gift. We built up the anticipation over the days preceding his birthday, and on the big day we waited until he’d opened up all his other presents and was cuddled snuggly between us on the couch before we brought out his one final gift. We lectured him on the importance of the moment before we let him open it up. We talked about the big kid responsibilities that come with it, and the fact that privileges can be taken away just as quickly as they’re awarded.

Oh boy was he excited. First he wanted to open all the tools to see what there was. Next he wanted to practice using the pliers by picking things up and putting them down over and over again. Then he wanted to use the screwdriver to open the battery compartment on one of his other presents. And finally he wanted to cut up some paper with the scissors.

For now, the multitool comes with some specific rules.

  1. Mama and Daddy keep the multitool in a safe place when it isn’t being used. This means that Junior needs to ask each time he wants to use it, and when he does ask, we ask him what he’s going to use it for. We remind him not to use it in any other way without asking us first, and we check on him periodically while he uses it. So far he has only used it to replace batteries in his toys (over and over again, with the same batteries) and to “reach things” with his pliers.
  2. Junior is the only child who may use the multitool. His friends cannot use it, and his younger brother cannot use it. Little Bear is a bit jealous but so far seems to respect the limits and talks about how when he’s “a big boy” he will get his own.
  3. The saw cannot be used without a grown up. Most of the tools are not likely to cause any kind of injury, even when misused. The saw could though, being that it is sharp and serrated. For that reason, when Junior wants to use the saw, he needs an adult present to keep an eye on his use. So far, he has either forgotten about the saw, is scared of it, or can’t figure out how to unfold it. Whichever the case may be, he is not interested in it yet but recognizes its potential risks.
  4. The child-sized Leatherman Leap

    The child-sized Leatherman Leap comes with a removable knife blade.

    No knife yet. WHAT? I’m sure you’re wondering. How could we give him a knife and then make a rule that he can’t have a knife? Well, thanks to a genius design feature by Leatherman, the children’s Leap Leatherman comes with a removable knife blade. If Junior wants to use his knife, he’s going to need to prove that he can use it responsibly without the knife blade first. I’m not sure when we’ll put the blade in; we haven’t put a timeline on it. We’ll see how he does with what he’s got first. I tend to think that when he’s ready for the knife blade, we will get him a simpler knife first to use, and then move back to the multitool. The Boy Scouts guide suggests starting with carving soap when kids first learn to use knives, and we will probably go that route when he’s older.

So far, he is pretty content just to trim weeds with his new multitool.

So far, he is pretty content just to trim weeds with his new multitool.

I will admit, I was nervous letting him use his new tool the first few times. I worried  he would cut himself with the scissors or pinch his skin when he tried to fold it up. Like any parent, I want to protect him. But if I spend all my time protecting him, he’ll never get the chance to grow and learn to protect himself. He cannot learn risk without experiencing it.

I attended a talk recently by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and founder of the Children & Nature Network. One of the issues he addressed was the trends of injuries in children, and how recently doctors report fewer acute injuries, like broken bones and lacerations, and more stress injuries caused by overuse, like tendonitis and bursitis. He hypothesized that this is because kids now have less variety in their play. They are getting stress injuries from playing video games, carrying heavy backpacks, or becoming specialized in one sport from a very young age. Gone are the days of the common acute injuries, like falling off the monkey bars and breaking your arm (as my good friend and I both did in second grade, several weeks apart.)  These are the days of carpal tunnel syndrome in an 8-year-old who spends too much time on the computer. These are the days of 12-year old girls tearing their ACLs in their fifth soccer practice in as many days.

So, could my son hurt himself with his multitool? Absolutely he could. But I would rather my kid have the kind of childhood that encounters acute injuries periodically than the kind of childhood that suffers chronically from stress injuries. There’s no way to know if Junior is ready for this tool other than to introduce it carefully, set reasonable ground rules and, the hardest part, let him go.

How (and Why!) to Create A Natural Play Space

The Backyard Problem

The patio as we found it when we moved in.

The patio as we found it when we moved in.

The patio after we cleared it, still before kids were on the scene.

The patio after we cleared it, still before kids were on the scene.

For years we have struggled with our backyard space. When we first moved in, there was a patio area completely overgrown in one corner. We cleaned it up and set up our grill and lawn furniture there, only to discover that it was so shady and damp, no one naturally gravitated to the space. When Junior was younger, we added a fence along the adjacent side, making it even darker. It’s probably not our longterm solution, but for now it works just right for us.

For a while, the boys were more or less content to push metal dump trucks around the backyard. Gradually though, as they got older their play became more interactive. They wanted to not just push their trucks around, but also load them with mulch, rocks and sand. Over time, our lawn became a depository for any materials they could transport, dumped in tiny mounds on a whim. The boys emptied their sandbox over a period of several months. They disassembled a rock wall. They dug up the lawn in several patches that never grew back. Clearly we needed to up our backyard game.

Trial and Error and Error and Error

Little Bear sits amongst the plastic play zone.

Little Bear sits amongst the plastic play zone.

So, naively, we bought more toys. We wanted to get the kids engaged in playing again and we figured that these were things that would engage them. First it was a climber/slide combo. Then it was a playhouse. Then it was a big plastic tugboat gifted to Junior for his fourth birthday after he requested a tugboat of his very own. Each new piece of backyard play equipment was greeted with initial excitement and became the center of attention for a finite period of time. But eventually each became old news. The climber gathered fallen leaves that rotted into a slimy film at the top of the slide. The playhouse sheltered cobwebs and slugs. The tugboat gathered rainwater and became an ecosystem of its own, breeding mosquitos at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the boys continued to dig up flowers and overturn planters in their oblivious play.

Finally, A Solution

Playing in the natural play space at our neighbor's house inspired us to build our own.

Playing in the natural play space at our neighbor’s house inspired us to build our own.

Over the summer, our neighbors began to transform a small section of their backyard into a natural play space. The boys loved it immediately. They wanted to spend every afternoon there, and they didn’t seem to tire of it. In fact, tellingly, they would plead, “Mama, can we go work in the play zone?” each time they wanted to use it. They didn’t want to “play,” they wanted to work. For play is the work of children.

Really, while we all appreciate playtime, we also all have a deep need to feel accomplished at the end of the day. My boys feel accomplished when they are setting their minds to a task and working towards its end. In the natural play space, they work together and independently to move rocks, build structures, tie ropes, and clear debris. They imitate the physical work they see around them. In their minds, they are doing something much more than simply playing. They are working. To move a log, they may try three or four techniques before they get it right. They build pathways, experimenting with different surfaces and distances. They “plant trees” by digging holes and burying stumps in them. They engineer towers of sticks and rocks. They sort shells.

Our natural play area

Our natural play area, before the boys got their hands on it.

Last week we finally emptied the play gear from the corner of our yard. We called it Operation Plastic Eradication. In its place, we left a collection of natural materials. There are logs, sticks, bricks, rocks, ropes, wood chips and hay bales. We rigged up a few pulleys and a rope ladder from the fence. We haven’t finished (mostly because it’s a fun project to work on) but the boys are enthralled by it.

Junior and Little Bear hard at work.

Junior and Little Bear hard at work.

Since removing the traditional play equipment, their play has become more creative, more engaged and more persistent. I have to drag them inside for dinner, caked in mud, grass-stained knees and dirty fingernails. They discuss their “projects” at the table – voices husky as they assign imaginary work roles and request additional tools (a rake – yes, another shovel – yes, a chainsaw – sorry.)

The Results

Work in progress from the boys

Work in progress from the boys

This natural playscape is more aligned with what I already know about children’s play and how they interact with and learn from the world around them. Traditional playgrounds provide so much context that little is required from the child himself. Natural playgrounds provide only the materials; the children devise the context for their play themselves and in that way, the play becomes endless. The limit is only the child’s imagination. It provides more opportunity for problem solving, for experimenting and for cooperative work. A natural play space in the yard provides the kids with much of what they are missing by having a fenced yard. Essentially it allows forest play in our own backyard.

It has only been just over a week since the natural play space took up residence in our yard. It’s a bit early to say how its novelty will compare to that of the plastic equipment. But if the last 10 days are any indication, I would say that it’s got staying power.

Here are the details:

Step 1: We removed all of the plastic climbing and play structures from the area. I even managed to sell some! We had previously put wood chips down in this space and decided not to refresh them right now, with snow around the corner. We will add a fresh layer of wood chips in the spring.

Step 2: We relocated a large deck box to the corner of the play space. It doubles as a work area and as storage for toy trucks and tools.

Step 3: We cleared overgrowth to create more natural light. This included taking down a wisteria that had grown to completely overhang this part of the yard, making it damp and buggy. We also took down two small cedar trees. Both cedars and the wisteria were repurposed in the play area.

Step 4: We sourced mostly natural materials, locally. These included:

  • Short, large diameter logs (from our own woodpile)
  • Longer, small diameter logs (cut from the cedar trees)
  • Sticks (gathered in the woods and cut from the wisteria)
  • Bricks (found under our porch)
  • Large stones (found around the yard and neighborhood)
  • Shells (from the beach and leftover shellfish – just rinse and leave in the sun until clean)
  • Lumber scraps (from our barn and from disassembled bed slats)
  • Rope (also from our barn)
  • Pulleys (spare sailboat rigging)
  • Cross sections of cedar trunk
  • Hay bales (leftover from a “farm” themed birthday party, but available locally from our co-op)
  • Rope ladder (old Christmas present, happily repurposed)
  • Slate stepping stones (leftover from a patio we’d previously removed)

In the future, I’d like to get some metal buckets to use with the pulleys. (The single small plastic beach bucket doesn’t do the trick, and it’s an eyesore.) I would also like to add some water elements in the summer. The rest . . . will up to the boys’ imagination.

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The finished product!

The finished product!

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