Refresh Your Life

Category: Parenting (Page 1 of 4)

Quit While You’re Ahead On Outdoor Adventures, Or Risk Family Mutiny

Well, it happened. We went on an outdoor adventure and we called it quits, due to weather. Surprisingly, this has never actually happened to us before. Sure, there have been days where we cut a walk short or chose an alternate activity, but we’ve never committed to a big trip, undertaken it, and then bailed when the going got tough.

Of course, that’s not to say that it’s a bad thing, though. In fact, I would say we left at the exact right time. You know what they say about quitting while you’re ahead. Well, we quit at the pinnacle and everyone left happy and excited to do it all again. That’s what matters most.

Let me back up.

Winter Cabin Camping

For the last two winters I have been mildly obsessed with winter cabin camping. I’m definitely not ready to commit to sleeping in a tent on the frozen snowpack quite yet, and honestly the idea of winter camping in a tent with children who still, despite every warning, KEEP THEIR SHOES ON WHEN THEY GO IN THE TENT, is distressing.

So when I first discovered winter cabin camping through an article in Outdoor Families Magazine, I was immediately hooked. And lo and behold, it took just a quick search on Reserve America to find winter cabin rentals within a few hours’ drive.

We booked our first trip for last January. It was a bitterly cold weekend, and the cabin was more a dirt-floored shack-closet to which the captain vowed he would never return. Yet still, the forever-memories won us over.

Just look at the kids exploring the magic of a frozen lake and then roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a fire while the sunsets across the ice. It was beautiful enough that we all wanted to give it another try.

A late afternoon ice hike with daddy.


Cooking hot dogs on the fire.


Late afternoon memories on the frozen pond.

This year, I booked us at some cabins just down the road from the closet we stayed in last year. From what little information I could find online, they looked significantly newer, cleaner, and more civilized. They even had electricity, which I argued actually made this less winter cabin “camping” and more winter cabin “retreating”. In any case . . .

Come November, I knew I wanted to escape and I chose inauguration weekend because I knew we’d all appreciate being unplugged then. We gathered some friends to book the cabin next door, dusted off our trusty camping packing list, prepped some meals, and then proceeded to shoehorn enough gear to reach the north pole for the weekend into every last crevice of the minivan. We were ready.

Mohawk Trail State Forest

Three hours and several potty stops later, we arrived at Mohawk Trail State Forest, picked up our key at the ranger station, and found our way to Cabin 7. We pushed the heavy door open and with the flick of a switch, we illuminated the entire spacious cabin, finished in fresh white pine, complete with built-in cabinets, granite countertops, and a 3/4 wall separating two spacious sleeping areas.

Sleeping area: Bunk bed and single twin separated from a double bed by 3/4 wall.


Kitchen area (no running water), kitchen table, and woodstove.

This was not winter cabin camping. This was . . . bordering on luxury. As we unpacked, the boys got to work with their trucks to build ski jumps, sledding hills, and parking garages in the snow piles by the front porch.

That night, we sat with friends, eating bowls of hearty chili and sipping on hot toddies around the outdoor fire while the kids stuffed themselves with s’mores. We fed the wood stove inside to keep things downright steamy, and everyone slipped into a long, comfortable sleep broken only by the occasional draft that reminded us to keep the fire going through the night.

Little Bear scouting for kindling.

In the morning, we cooked bacon and eggs on the wood stove and us adults fortified ourselves with dark coffee to make it through the day. We hiked to a small summit and followed deer and coyote tracks along the way. Then we descended to a shallow valley with a thawed river bubbling through it. The boys threw snowball after snowball into the current.

Family picture at the mini-summit.


Boys walking with daddy.


Little Bear surveys the river

After some quiet time in the afternoon, the boys were ready for some carefully plotted sledding through the trees behind our cabin, gathering firewood, and then foil packs of veggies and potatoes, and sausage cooked on the outdoor fire.

As the evening got quiet, we began to ponder the weather forecast. We had had no phone or internet since our arrival on Friday and when we left, there’d been rain forecast for both Saturday and Sunday. We had gotten lucky on Saturday with a mild, overcast day free from rain, but we weren’t sure about the outlook for Sunday. We had big plans so we crossed our fingers and headed to our bunks early enough to get a jumpstart on our Sunday morning.

Cooking sausages and foil packs of veggies and potatoes.

The boys roast marshmallows with help from the Captain.

Second night fire – you can see that the snow has melted quite a bit during the day.

Sunday dawned dreary and damp. The air felt cold and wet. We had a full day of skiing booked at the little, local mountain four miles down the road. The kids were taking all-day lessons and we were finally going to have a day to ski together as adults.

The rain started on the drive to the ski hill. It was pretty light at first but soon the drops were falling in giant dollops that landed with a smack on the windshield. We hurried into the ski school and got the run down of options and even a peak at the radar.

It might stop, it might not. The staff were very accommodating and offered refunds if we decided to skip the lessons. Instead, we opted to cut the full-day ski school down to just an hour in the morning, skip the adult skiing, and then call it by ear. Honestly, the ski day wasn’t going to be cheap and I wasn’t about to drop $400 on a day of family fun that simply wasn’t.

Checking out the rain before ski school.


Ready to conquer the rain for an hour!

It was the right choice. The kids skied an hour and were absolutely soaked. Afterwards, they trudged into the tavern looking (and acting) like freshly flea-dipped cats.

We stripped off soaking jackets, rung out mittens and neck warmers, and hung everything by the fireplace. Over a lunch of fried kids’ meals, we took the opportunity to go online and check the weather forecast. The afternoon called for more heavy and consistent rain that would turn to sleet and freezing rain overnight. The next day called for ice.

It didn’t take much conversation to decide that we should just call it quits. If there had been snow in the forecast, we’d have happily stayed to bunker down through the worst and wake to a white wonderland, ripe for exploring the next day.

But we couldn’t face an afternoon of being wet and cold, followed by the rigor of packing up in freezing rain and the stress of driving home through it the next day.

So we quit while we were ahead. The kids were sad to leave. We were sad to leave too. Even the ranger smiled in a sad way and remarked, “Going home early to beat the storm, huh? Sorry about that.”

We’ve found it’s always best to quit before it gets bad, but it’s often a fine line to walk, especially with kids. They can go from having the time of their lives to wailing like mateless coyotes in just a matter of seconds, so our goal is always to get out of there while they’re still having the time of their lives. This also makes it much easier to convince them to go back again another time.

This time, I think we nailed it. There’s no shame in heading home when all signs point to impending misery. The real shame is in sticking to a plan that’s only remaining strength is its title of The Plan.   

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.  

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.     

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!

Check Out Our List of 20 Outdoor Family Traditions!

Headlamps on for some pj-clad explorations under the full moon.

Headlamps on for some pj-clad explorations under the full moon.

“On the surface, family traditions are a fun and exciting way to create memories together. But on a deeper level, traditions reinforce a family’s identity, foster togetherness, teach family values and provide comfort and security. Families that create traditions centered on nature reinforce for their children the importance of time spent outdoors. And the results are long-lasting on two levels. First, children who spent time in nature growing up show higher levels of maturity and lower levels of aggression as teens. And second, teens who participate in positive and mutually-agreed upon family rituals report higher levels of self esteem.”

Head on over to Parent.co to read our list of 20 Family Traditions That Will Teach Your Kids To Love Nature!

Is a Family Campground Right For You?

An early morning walk along the pond with friends.

An early morning walk along the pond with friends.

A few weeks ago, I packed the boys and what seemed to be the greater part of our earthly possessions into the Honda minivan and joined the northbound traffic from Massachusetts to Maine on a Sunday in August. The minivan parade slowly thinned as we passed first Kittery, then York, Cape Neddick, Ogunquit and Kennebunkport. By the time we exited and turned our course inland, just north of Portland, the steady stream of minivans had trickled down to a fleeting few, mixed mostly with pick up trucks pulling pop up campers or fifth wheels.

Through the power of peer pressure, the boys both completed the hike to Pulpit Rock from the pond below on their own two feet.

Through the power of peer pressure, the boys both completed the hike to Pulpit Rock from the pond below on their own two feet.

We were headed for a legendary place – one we’d long heard about and often seen photos of, but never once set upon with our own eyes. We were heading north to meet my moms’ group at Papoose Pond Family Campground.

A few years ago, when one of my awesome mom friends invited the whole group to tag along with her on her family vacation to this fabled place, a few brave souls joined her for a week of fun, friends, and family. Last year a few more joined. And this year, we along with 8 other families made the trek 3 hours north to experience it for ourselves.

We are not new to camping but this trip was unique in two ways:

First, it marked the first time I’d brought the boys on anything close to a camping venture without The Captain along to help. 

And second, it marked my first experience with a family campground. 

The boys bike along with friends under many watchful eyes.

The boys bike along with friends under many watchful eyes.

These facts almost canceled each other out. On the one hand, I was the only parent responsible for the packing and patrolling of my little crew, but on the other I had the hands and eyes of many trusted friends to help me out. In many ways it was the perfect experience to ease into solo-parent camping with my boys.

So did we like the family campground experience?

Family campgrounds aren’t for everyone, but I definitely saw the appeal and the purpose they serve. Our group was more or less centrally based along one dirt road leading down to the pond. It was easy enough for the kids to run amuck under loose supervision. There were hours of bike skid outs and wood gathering missions. There were squeals of childhood oblivion as our crew of 19 kids splashed one another in the pond, prodded fires with marshmallow-laden sticks, and ventured onto the beach in the early morning glow, mugs of hot chocolate in hand.

It wasn’t what camping has always meant to me, but it wasn’t a resort vacation either. It was somewhere in between.

Is a family campground right for your next family adventure? Here are some points to think about as you decide.

Our hutnick, with bunkbeds in the enclosed cabin space and eating area outside on the covered porch.

Our hutnick, with bunkbeds in the enclosed cabin space and eating area outside on the covered porch.

Decide how much privacy you really need. Papoose Pond is really well set up to accommodate a wide range of comfort levels. They have plain tented sites, but also have cabins, huts and campers. We stayed in a “hutnick” which had a cabin-like sparse room with bunkbeds inside and an open porch with picnic table, sink, and electric stove outside. It provided us with so much added privacy and convenience and it didn’t break the bank. We had a separate dark place for sleeping, the boys could easily nap as needed, and bonus- there was no need to light a fire every morning just to make my coffee. Many of the tented sites had private vestibules (commonly called ‘the garage’) set up off the tents where people could change clothes, store gear, or just sit in peace. The sites are very, very close together so the only privacy will be the privacy of your accommodations. Choose wisely!

Moving logs was serious business for this crew.

Moving logs was serious business for this crew.

Decide how comfortable you are letting your kids run wild, even out of your sight. The boys spent much of our time at Papoose digging in the dirt and riding their bikes crazily down the slope of a gravel dirt road. Most of this was done in combination with feral shrieks of glee. There were many scraped knees but surprisingly few tears. I was lucky to have the added security of knowing that many other eyes were watching and knew my kids, but even without all the company, it would have been nearly impossible to keep the kids within sight and under my verbal control all day. They immediately made new friends and took off in packs like wolves on a scent. There was a very casual communal supervision over them all which is more than fine by me, but it may not be for everyone and I can imagine that it would not be fun to be the one parent chasing down the pack of kids every five minutes, squawking about staying close to the campsite and not getting dirty. If you have trouble letting go of that control, this may not be for you.

All day every day.

All day every day.

Decide how much peace and quiet you need. Is the answer very little? Then you should be good. Papoose Pond had quiet hours between 10PM and 7AM which we found were generally well respected. We also found that in the middle of the day our site, which was somewhat set back from the beach, stayed relatively quiet since most people were out doing activities. But for the most part, there was a low background noise throughout the day, pierced regularly by screaming kids. I normally enjoy the quiet solitude of camping quite a bit, but when most of the ruckus is being created by your own kids or the rest of the pack who you love like your own, I found it didn’t bother me as much. On the flip side, had I been camping without my crew of close friends, I think I would have found it exceptionally grating. Then again, I’m not sure who goes to family campgrounds looking for peace and quiet. There did seem to be multiple extended families and groups camping together so maybe there is safety in numbers on this. If you are looking to simply get out into the woods and enjoy the birdsongs, this won’t be your jam. That said, we did enjoy a silent night on the beach after putting the kids to bed, watching shooting stars and the amazing Milky Way.

Little Bear takes advantage of the nightly carousel.

Little Bear takes advantage of the nightly carousel.

Decide how involved you want to be. Papoose Pond is made for mingling. Throughout the week there are various tournaments to be entered ranging from tennis and ping pong to volleyball and washer toss. There are also structured events throughout the day – kids’ kickball, sand castle contest, limbo, tie dying, and nightly entertainment including an old carousel which runs for an hour each evening. All of the activities are casual and done out of the way so they don’t intrude on anyone’s scene, but that also means that if you want to participate you’ll need to be proactive in reviewing the schedule when you arrive and seeking them out during the week. We especially enjoyed some of the kids’ sports since they provided an opportunity for the boys to get out some energy without me having to facilitate. And it didn’t hurt that they were given free slushies for their troubles.

Any occasion for s'mores is a hit with these boys.

Any occasion for s’mores is a hit with these boys.

All in all we had an amazing time and would love to go back. Family campgrounds aren’t what I think of when I think of camping but they are an awesome way to ease into the camping experience and they are a wholesome family vacation with something for everyone if you can get by without the peace and privacy of your own home. They make it easy and they make it communal. I don’t foresee The Captain choosing a family campground for his next outdoor adventure, but when the pressure’s all on me to provide the experience, it’s nice to have the friendship and support of a group trip to Papoose Pond.

Morning fishing trip - this lasted surprisingly long considering there were no nibbles.

Morning fishing trip – this lasted surprisingly long considering there were no nibbles.

How To Wander the Woods With Very Young Children

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

When I first sat down to write about hiking with the kids, I drew an absolute blank. I felt totally unqualified and unprepared to dole out any advice about the topic and, dare I say, I actually felt completely uninspired by it. I know, I know – I felt uninspired by the idea of hiking outside with my kids??! Who am I and why so glum, chum?

But then I flipped my thinking. I realized that whenever I ask my kids if they want to go for a hike (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a hike, whether they like it or not), there is immediate pushback. They never want to go. In their minds, hiking is an arduous task. It’s work to get from one place to another. It is strenuous activity for relatively little in return. Yet when I ask them if they’d like to go for a walk (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a walk, whether they like it or not), they are always game. They help me choose where we’re going. They want to pack snacks and water bottles. They want to know if the dog can come, or if we can bring friends. They are excited. They are clamoring at the door while I finish getting our things together. And that’s exactly the flip my thinking needed.

Hiking, with my very young children, is in fact not pleasurable. If we leave the house with the sole objective to start on foot in one place and end on foot in another place, I am most definitely starting off on the WRONG foot. I am setting myself up for failure.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

But when we go for a walk, or even better yet, a wander in the woods, we are infinitely more happy. When the kids set the pace and the agenda, we all have more fun. That’s not to say we never make it anywhere. It’s just to say I can’t ever count on us making it somewhere specific and if we do, it’s never within a predetermined timeframe.

Later this year, the Captain is hoping to take Junior on a backpacking trip. Just to remind you, Junior is still four years old. And though he isn’t a super-enthusiastic hiker (YET), we think he will actually love being out there, making his own progress and carrying his own gear, if we frame the experience correctly. First, we are going to try to coordinate with some friends so that he has some positive peer pressure to help him along. Next, we are framing it as a privilege. Backpacking is something that can only be done when you prove you’re ready for it. You have to be able to walk a couple miles with a pack on your back. You have to put in some work to reap your rewards. You have to be physically and emotionally strong enough to keep up. In short, you have to be a big kid.

Obviously, having just turned three, Little Bear isn’t there yet. He’s still at the meandering-through-the-woods phase. Which is just fine. Sometimes we have to meet our kids right where they are. And so, for Little Bear and little people like him, here are my top 3 tips for hiking wandering the woods with very young children.

  1. Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Bring plentiful snacks. This is pretty much my top tip for anything with kids. Skiing? Bring snacks. Sailing? Bring snacks. Hitting the beach? Taking a road trip? Sticking your head out the window to check if it’s raining? Always bring snacks. There will come a time when you will be running out the door for a very quick errand or simple stroll to get the mail and you will fool yourself into thinking it’s okay to not bring snacks, but you will be wrong. Very, very wrong.

  2. You may set a target destination or a target timeframe, but never set both. If you’re trying to get somewhere specific, allow all the time your kids want to take. And believe me, that will be ages. Epochs even. Or, if you know you don’t have several days to wander the woods, set a timeframe and confine your explorations to areas that are easily accessible. That is to say, don’t wander off deeply into the woods only to find your time expired and your car two miles away. Murphy’s Law says that this will happen every time, and that your child will then either take four times as long to return to the car, or will need to poop immediately.

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, go ahead and stop, discover and observe right alongside them!

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, let them!

  3. Don’t push it. Go in with low expectations, and let your kids set the pace. Instead of walking ahead of them, follow along behind. When they stop to look at something, stop to look at it with them. If they are tired or uncomfortable or hungry, listen. If they are fussy, ask yourself if they could be tired or uncomfortable or hungry. It is usually one of the three, and all can be fixed. Stay one step ahead of them in preparations, but one step behind in pace. Your patience will be rewarded.

Have you wandered the woods with the very young people in your life lately?

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.


How to Camp With Kids: 5 Secrets to a Successful Adventure

Camping in Tasmania, the night after we got engaged.

Camping in Tasmania, the night after we got engaged.

When the Captain and I got engaged, we were camping in Tasmania. We had flown there without a shred of camping equipment, stayed in a hotel for New Year’s Eve, and then hit an outdoors store on New Years Day, both feeling a bit hazy and under the weather from the festivities the night before. Though we were completely unprepared in terms of gear (or reservations) we didn’t have a worry in the world because camping was no big deal to us. The idea of hitting a down-under version of Dick’s Sporting Goods and then heading into the wilderness for a week didn’t phase either of us in the least. And when it hailed all night our first night out there, we obviously decided that this boded well for our future and promised to spend our the rest of lives together. We were at camping level: expert.

Wild and free kids in their natural habitat.

Wild and free kids in their natural habitat.

But camping with kids is a different story. I’m all for letting my children embrace their inner jungle creature during normal waking hours, but in the round-the-clock eternal lavender glow of the summer solstice wherein free range kids are up until midnight and wake with first light at 4AM? No thanks. We are still admitted novices at family camping. We have only brought the kids a few times. And each time, it takes days of planning, packing, and forethought before I can comfortably wrap my head around our plans. But we’re getting better at it and each time is a little easier than the last. In fact, I’m developing a system to simplify the process. Someday, we are going to be able to decide that it’s a great weekend for camping on Friday afternoon, chuck our camping bins in the car, and hit the road. Here are my top tips for family camping so far.

The dish team puts the buckets and bins system to double-use.

The dish team puts the buckets and bins system to double-use.

  1. Pack in bins. Duffel bags are for air travel and sporting events. Backpacks are for backpacking. Plastic lawn bins and beverage tubs? Totally for car and boat camping. They are sturdy enough to get knocked around, they hold tons of gear and they can double as wind, water and animal-resistant storage at the campsite. Think about it: bags would need to be packed into the tent each night to keep them dry and safe. Bins and buckets can stay outside. They also stack easily and can double as kitchen area worktops when they have lids on. Large beverage buckets are similarly great for hauling things like sleeping bags, pads, tents, etc and then can double as dish buckets at the campsite.

    Boat packed with bins and buckets for camping.

    Dedicated camping gear means grabbing an already-packed bin from the basement and putting it straight in the boat.

  2. Have dedicated camping gear. Though it originally seemed silly to me that we would have one set of cooking ware and cutlery at home, one set on our boat and yet another set packed away and only used for camping, it really does make it so much easier. When you have a dedicated set of plates, bowls, cutlery, cookware and serving utensils, you can keep your camping kitchen bin packed and ready to go. Include your camp stove, a dish towel, sponge and dish soap. By keeping as much of your gear as possible packed and ready, your pre-camping prep gets trimmed significantly.
  3. Make a packing checklist and SAVE IT. Type your list up and each time you go camping, edit it down to delete things you didn’t need and add things you wish you’d brought. I know it seems anal and borderline obsessive, but a list takes so much of the stress and forethought out of the equation. Need a cheat sheet to get started? Check out my packing list here: 365Outside Camping List: A Work in Progress

    Just a glimpse of some of our gear - there is a lot to remember!

    Just a glimpse of some of our gear – there is a lot to remember!

  4. Prep food ahead of time. There is something about camping that makes a hot meal seem beyond luxurious. But prepping it, cooking it and cleaning it up outside makes the whole thing ten times more complicated than at home. I simplify the process by doing as much prep ahead of time as possible. I pre-cook as much as I can and freeze it before it goes in the cooler. I try to make things that can be reheated over the campfire to conserve space on the stove. Bonus points if it can be cooked in foil for no-clean-up. On our latest trip I cooked chili, breakfast casseroles and quinoa salad ahead of time. Friends brought meatloaf-stuffed peppers and onions along with foil-wrapped sweet potatoes and a ready-to-eat chicken salad. Coordinate with camping buddies and host a potluck. And include a few super easy meals like hotdogs or precooked sausages and some instant oatmeal so that you have some simple options to fall back on in a crunch.

    Little Bear, dirty-faced and enjoying a s'mores

    Little Bear, dirty-faced and enjoying a s’mores

  5. Indulge the little ones. We run a pretty tight ship around here, but camping is another story. Kids are happiest when they feel like they are experiencing something special and being given extra freedoms. When we camp, they stay up late, they run wild, they get dirt and food caked into their sunscreen and bug spray plastered cheeks. And we don’t care. They snack all day long. They stuff their cheeks with s’mores and they enjoy steady peace offerings of glow sticks and bubbles. Some may say we spoil them, which may certainly be the case, but vacation is a chance for everyone to indulge and any adult who doesn’t eat, drink and indulge more often on vacation clearly isn’t doing it right. Why not give kids the same experience we create for ourselves?
Our tent and hammock set up overlooking the beach.

Our tent and hammock set up overlooking the beach.

Our camping trip last weekend was the stuff of summer dreams. We were surrounded by good friends in a full-on multi-family camping slumber party. There was plenty of good food, indulgent drinks and relaxation. But at the same time, we were surrounded by natural beauty and removed from the chaos of daily life. The kids romped across the tidal flats, catching crabs and snails. We watched the sun set slowly and the nearly full moon rise. We sat around the camp fire late into the night with sleepy kids who eventually, thankfully, asked to go to sleep. We woke early and sipped our steaming coffee while watching the gentle water lap along the shore. We spent long hours exploring the sound in our boat. And when the last day arrived, we packed up slowly, regrettably, glancing back over our shoulders as we left the island behind until next time. It’s still a bit of a ordeal to create these moments, but it’s getting easier and it’s always worth the hassle.

The Captain wades out for a calm morning swim while the boys play onshore.

The Captain wades out for a calm morning swim while the boys play onshore.


Little Bear

Little Bear


A friend's son ponders his dad's strategic lounging.

A friend’s son ponders his dad’s strategic lounging.


Father's Day gifts: Woohoos. They're as fun as they look!

Father’s Day gifts: Woohoos. They’re as fun as they look!


Junior shows off a crab he's caught

Junior shows off a crab he’s caught

The moon rises over the bay.

The moon rises over the bay.

Junior snuggles into the hammock at sunset on our first night.

Junior snuggles into the hammock at sunset on our first night.

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