Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Preschool Cooking Adventures: July.

Yes, we know that gingersnaps are not typically made in mid-summer. Neither are gingerbread men, which The Boy originally wanted to make.

Sometimes, it doesn't matter. All that matters is being together and doing something we both love.

We have had a bumpy week here with some real ups and downs. This morning, I was just glad to have some uninterrupted time to spend with my little guy while his sisters took their nap.

When he asked to bake gingerbread men, I said, "Sure."
We didn't have everything we needed to make those, but he quickly decided to do gingersnaps instead.

Emboldened by our peanut butter ball success, I let him do pretty much all of it. This was his idea, so I figured he should take the lead. I was his helper this time instead of the other way around.

Roll the dough into balls and dip them in sugar.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer Sunday pictures

The Slip 'n' Slide. (Just as much fun as you remember.)
A backyard hat party.
One ecstatic pool-goer...first time in the baby pool.
A second bathing beauty, whose joy is more measured but still genuine.
Running and slipping never gets old.
A teeny tiny squash, black beauty cherry tomatoes, and one "regular" tomato
The afterparty. Look, they got bathed twice this month. (That's a joke...but only just.)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Merit Badges for Moms (and why our fish need therapy now)

Today, I found myself still in my pajamas at 4:30 pm, making coffee and wondering how I was going to survive the rest of the evening until bed time. I had that slightly manic feeling that comes with a whole day of managing (but just barely managing) chaos and putting out fires, and I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. I thought about sitting down in the kitchen floor with the coffee and the carton of ice cream and doing both at once.

Sometimes, the best way for a worn-out, overwhelmed mama to cope is to bring another equally exhausted, slightly crazy mama and her brood into the picture. Somehow, combining our chaos makes the chaos seem more manageable. I'm not sure why this is, but it always seems to work. There's often not much chance for adult conversation in these playdates, but the kids distract each other, and the mamas can at least look into the eyes of someone else who knows exactly what it feels like to have this kind of day.

Enter my dear friend and her three children, whose ages line up nicely with my children's ages. Babies on the floor together with a basket of toys, preschoolers playing contentedly, we were enjoying each other's company and actually getting to finish sentences.

We should have known something was up. It was awfully quiet down the hall...

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Angelus
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

It all started because I wanted to feel more sane.

(The logistics of managing my family are not usually simple. Sometimes, I can feel my sleep-deprived brain straining as I face a situation where the best solution is for me to spontaneously grow two or three additional hands. I always figure it out, but I often have a moment where I think this might be the time that I absolutely can't find a way to manage. Then the moment passes. I do manage, and I go on.)

Between 11:30 and 1:00 nearly every day, though, I wonder whether I will survive.

This time of day makes me think of running as fast as I can down a steep hill, leaping over obstacles and dodging low-hanging tree limbs while being chased by a pack of rabid wolves, knowing that behind them is a giant boulder, rolling, rolling, faster and faster, picking up speed as it descends. If I stop moving, I will be eaten alive and then crushed to death.

(Perhaps that is slightly dramatic, but you get the idea. I get a little bit tense at this time of the day.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The best play dough recipe ever

A confession: I am one of those people who doesn't mind store-bought Play Doh.

(Is someone calling the crunchy parent police right now?)

It has a particular smell, you know? Yes, it is probably made of chemicals and toxins. But I like that smell. It reminds me of being little and being at church. It reminds me of having apple juice in paper cups and those little flower cookies I could wear on my finger like a ring. It reminds me of Jamie, the boy in my Sunday School class for forever and ever (from birth until we graduated from high school, I think!) who always ate the Play Doh and mixed the colors together, even when the teachers sternly told us not to. I remember wondering why anyone would want to eat Play Doh. Jamie always did.

Jamie also bit me on the knee in Sunday School when we were three, causing my dad to label him a "turkey." I never forgot this.

Now I'm the one with a three year old boy, and he always eats the Play Doh. I'm glad to be able to make a play dough at home that is non-toxic and probably won't hurt him if he eats it. (I still don't know why anyone would want to eat this stuff, but at least it doesn't have anything on the ingredient list that I can't pronounce easily.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Preschool cooking adventures: No-Cook Peanut Butter Balls

The Boy decided he wanted to make his own snack in the kitchen today. He wanted to bake cookies. We didn't have what we needed (including time) to make those, but I thought we could pull off these No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls.

I remember making these with my friend Anna after school when we came home to her house starving after an intense day of fourth grade. We often made brownies, too, but these were easier and faster since they didn't have to cook.

The time came to prepare snack, and The Boy was bouncing up and down, all ready to go. I had my hands full with two very fussy babies.

So, after considering carefully, I handed him the recipe on a post-it note and told him he could start pulling out the ingredients himself. I figured that would buy me a little time to get in there to help him.

1 cup oatmeal
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup dry milk
1/3 cup wheat germ
1/3 cup shredded coconut
1 tsp vanilla 

He was amazingly careful climbing his stool to reach things in cabinets. He knew where everything was, too. He only needed a little help to decide which measuring cups to get out. He deliberated for a strangely long time before selecting a mixing bowl and chose one of the tiny toddler spoons for mixing everything together. (Not what I would have chosen...but I decided to ride it out. This is how he learns that it's harder to stir things with a tiny spoon than with a big one.)

This is what it looks like when a preschooler arranges the ingredients.
When everything was out, both babies were nursing, leaving me still unavailable to help (though sitting nearby in the kitchen to watch and encourage).

I took a deep breath. Then one more. I thought about peanut butter all over the front of the cabinets and oatmeal spilled under the front of the stove. I wondered if he was actually capable of measuring things in cups by himself (even after our moon sand experience, I still had my doubts).

Then, I thought how excited he would be if he could actually pull it off.

And what if he got sick of the whole thing and quit before it was done?

I decided I didn't care. I could give him the option of crackers for snack if he abandoned this project. I'd be able to clean it up later when George got home. It would be okay. It would keep him busy during one of the toughest times of the day, on a day when the babies had obviously decided not to go easy on me.

So I told him he could do it himself and I'd help if he got stuck.
He bounced. He grinned. He nearly fell off the stool in his excitement.

I policed his finger-licking and kept making him wash his hands with soap every time he did it. I sent him off for seven separate hand washes. He didn't argue, which I found incredible...especially considering he had to drag the wooden stool from the counter to the sink every single time.

Measuring the peanut butter...fingers were involved. Go wash your hands again.

 It gets kind of thick and hard to stir. Luckily, Daddy came in just in time to hold the bowl.

The aftermath, and the recipe. Not that bad, really.

You can't see the peanut butter hand prints on the oven door from here.

The finished product looked (and was) edible.

That last photo was taken just before he tried to grab one of the treats with one hand while holding the plate with the other hand, causing all but three peanut butter balls to roll onto the floor. He grabbed them up and piled them back onto the plate, shouting, "Five second rule!" I couldn't argue. Who wants to lose their hard-earned treats before tasting them?

And now, the Busy Parent's breakdown:

Messiness factor: 8
This is way messier than I am usually willing to tolerate. Sticky, sticky, sticky everywhere! You know what, though? I survived. The kitchen is clean again, and nothing was permanently damaged. Maybe I'm growing up.

Prep time: 1
The Boy did all the prep this time. The ingredients are basic pantry items, so I knew we had everything we needed. He just needed to get them out.

Notes on the ingredients: you can easily leave out the coconut if you don't like it. Just use a little less peanut butter. Also, quick or instant oats work better than rolled or old-fashioned oats...the thinner, smaller texture seems to absorb more easily into the balls, which helps them hold their shape without being too dry.

Cleanup time: 4
We needed to wipe down the counters thoroughly to clean off the peanut butter. It was also on the floor. Honey was on the floor and counters, too...a big sticky mess. Then there was sweeping and doing the dishes. The Boy helped with cleanup, but I needed to clean it again when he was done.

Note: if your child helps you clean and you find you need to redo her part, consider how she will feel about it. Some children's confidence might be undermined if they see you coming right behind them to correct what they just did, and they might be less willing to try next time. If you, like me, need things to be cleaner than your preschooler needs them to be, consider doing that cleaning when she's not watching or doing it alongside her rather than constantly correcting her as she is cleaning. The Boy seems to get really discouraged if we repeatedly correct him ("Try sweeping like this...there's still more dirt over need to wipe that part again"), but he likes it when we work together ("Why don't you hold the dustpan while I sweep?" or "Would you like me to show you how we can make the sticky part smooth again?"). We even have a second broom and dustpan so that we can work at the same time (which makes it less obvious if I need to go over a part that he just cleaned). As your child gets more practice at cleaning and develops his skills, you will have to do less and less. Just think how nice it will be when he can clear the dinner table and load the dishwasher by himself while you sit back and prop up with a cool drink!

Learning factor (a.k.a. "what can I work in if I'm feeling motivated to help my kid make connections?"):
  • Math- measuring, fractions, adding, counting
  • Fine motor- pouring, stirring, rolling the mixture into balls
  • Nutrition, awareness of "healthy/growing food" versus "junk food" - these are actually pretty healthy as sweet treats go since they use honey as the sweetener. 
  • Sequencing, putting steps in order
  • Word recognition and reading or pre-reading skills

Ages appropriate: Depending on your tolerance for mess, you could make this snack with very young children. The Boy has been "helping" in the kitchen since about 18 months old. The degree which your child participates depends on your comfort level with spills and whether you are in a hurry or not. This is a good one for little helpers since it uses big measurements (easier to handle than small measuring spoons) and is instant-gratification (no cooking/waiting time for them to be finished).

How long did it last? It took the boy about an hour to do this basically on his own. Normally you could mix them up in ten minutes or so. He was easily distracted and had to keep stopping to wash his hands...your child might be faster!

Would I do this again (was it worth it)? It was a big mess. It kept him busy for an hour, though, and he felt great about it. I would do it again, and I think it would probably go even more smoothly.

The Boy's review: "These are super yummy. We should eat this for snack every day. It's okay if I lick my fingers now?"

Friday, July 13, 2012

Garden update...beetles, giant squash leaves, and teeny tomatoes

As a beginning gardener, I find everything exciting this year.

We have tiny new baby tomatoes!
The pole beans are actually climbing the poles!

There is real, live basil growing out of the ground! 
      And so far, the chicken wire fence is working.

The flip side of my enthusiasm is the absolute dread that overtakes me whenever something bad happens in the garden. I just feel like I don't know anything.

  • What am I going to do about the Japanese beetles? They are eating the maple tree and the new hibiscus Sam got me for my birthday. I even found one inside one of the new roses. Will they find the food in the garden? What do we do if they start eating our veggies? I've read we should try to drown them in soapy water. Is that going to be as hard as it sounds? Will it really work? I have my doubts...but I really don't want to use any pesticide.
  • The crazy yellow squash is so big that it's shading the peppers (which are not growing well in the shade). It is out-of-control healthy and huge. I guess I should be glad that it is doing so well, but...oh, wait, what's that?...there's a weird bug on the squash, and what's under this leaf? Little tiny brownish eggs, all laid neatly in rows...and there are some more, and some more...
 A little research on Google tells me that we have some squash bugs. Oh, goody. Now I have to figure out what to do with these guys, too. Will they also drown in soapy water? Will they leave if I ask them nicely?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bathing Babies

I recently realized that I had no pictures of the girls taking baths. I usually have my hands so full trying to manage the logistics of their bathtimes that it's a small miracle they ever get washed at all. Still, they are now nine months is it possible that we don't have cutesy baby bath pictures of them?

So, I took some.

Now there is photographic evidence that we did, at least once, bathe these babies.

The Belle, enjoying her dad's avocation as a bathtime entertainer.

The Bug, amazed at something, as usual. I think The Boy was talking to her.

Upcoming: a post on how we actually handle the logistics of bathing two squirmy little people while a third not-much-bigger person dances around and "helps."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

One small step for Sam - making moon sand

What have we been doing in this heat? Well, generally, what we do on a hundred degree day is avoid being outside.

Unfortunately, being inside all day is not that easy for a 3 1/2 year old boy.

To distract him, I decided to try one of those cool activities that those really awesome stay-at-home parents do...those Montessori-oriented, fun-loving adults who have time and energy to prepare great, educational, fun, messy things to do with their kids, then take pictures of them and blog about how wonderfully they went.

I wasn't at all sure this was going to be a great activity. Given my short temper on the last activity we tried, I wasn't sure about anything except that I had to do something to keep him from climbing the walls (and I mean that literally...I actually said to him, "Feet belong on the floor...we do not climb walls!"). I was sure it was going to be messy, though, and sometimes, especially with little boys like mine, that's all you need.

Also, it occurred to me that some other parents out there might be interested in knowing how one of these activities went in a family like ours. (You know, a family where things aren't quite together most of the time...the kind of family that is usually in minor chaos...the kind of family that has never posted anything on Pinterest and occasionally eats boxed macaroni and cheese because we forgot to plan something to have for dinner.) To that end, I'm going to rate the activity in several categories at the end of the post. If this turns out to be helpful, I'll keep doing it.

And now, here's what we did.

The planetary obsession here is ongoing. Anything having to do with the solar system is going to go over well. So today, we made moon sand.

Moon sand, for the uninitiated, is this cool-feeling, squishy substance that is kind of a solid and kind of a liquid and kind of extra-terrestrial feeling. You can buy it in craft stores or sometimes in the toy section at Target. It's not cheap, but it's fun to play with. You can make it into balls like play-dough, flatten it like a pancake and put your handprints in it, crumble it between your fingers like feta cheese. It's neat stuff.

I found a recipe here to make moon sand at home. Many of the online recipes are set up to make large quantities, like for a preschool class or to put into a sand table. We just wanted a little bit. Scaling the recipes can sometimes work, but since texture is so important with moon sand, I was happy to find a recipe that would make just enough for my would-be astronaut to enjoy.

To make moon sand, mix together:
  • 4 cups of sand (preferably clean sand...we got a 5 lb bag from Wal-mart for around $4)
  • 2 cups of cornstarch
  • 1 cup of water

The Boy measured the sand, cornstarch and water himself. (I dumped in the first cup of sand and left the room briefly, and when I returned, he had added "all" the sand, which looked to be about a cup and a half. He had, in fact, counted three more scoops of sand and poured them into the box...just not full cups. It was an opportunity to talk about how we need to fill the measuring cup up all the way to be able to count it as a cup.) We dumped it into our "sensory box" (a Rubbermaid storage box with a lid), and The Boy mixed it all up with his hands.

How was that for him? "Muddy. A little bit slimy. Mostly okay, though. Cornstarch is a funny word."

I helped with the kneading required to get the texture right, and then we started to play. We added some larger rocks ("moon rocks") to the box and a few other toys. The Boy used a "guy" from his toy collection to make "moon footprints" in the sand, and we photographed them. Then, he grabbed a drinking straw from a nearby cup and started taking samples of the moon sand "to take back to Earth to show people." We ended up analyzing the samples in our "lab" on the lid of the box, using plastic silverware to pick through them and talk about the things we found. ("Moon poop" was the most prevalent element discovered.)

There was a great mess by this point, but I was enjoying his glee and the way he kept exclaiming, "Look at the DISCOVERY I just made!" - this made the mess seem more tolerable. It was all going to be sweepable, anyway.

Suddenly, he announced very seriously that we needed to make a flag. He was going to be the first astronaut to put a flag on the moon. "This is very important," he said.

We found some duct tape and stuck it on one of the straws, and he started climbing into the box! I had not been expecting this at all.

"Whoa! What are you doing?" I asked, about to grab him.

"I'm walking on the moon to put up the flag," he said, as if it were completely obvious.

And then, in what might be one of my finer parenting moments, I decided that it was okay for him to do it. The kitchen floor was already wrecked. The babies were waking up - I could hear them starting to fuss, which meant the activity was almost over. He could walk on the sand inside the box, and then I could put him directly into the bathtub and wash off his feet. It was time-limited, he would love it, and the risk was low. I took a deep breath and decided to let it happen.

He stepped into the box, walked on the sand, planted his flag, and said, "Okay, there, I put the flag on there for everyone to watch it on their TV. Pretend you saw me do that on your TV."

I asked him, "Are you Neil Armstrong? Buzz Aldrin?"

"No, " he said, the way you'd speak to someone who didn't quite understand what was going on and needed you to be very, very patient with her. "I'm Astronaut Sam, and that was a big step for me."

Big. Mommy. Grin. Sometimes, he is truly awesome.

I "blasted him off in his space pod" (carried him to the bathtub to wash his feet). Once he was clean, he helped sweep up the floor. That sweeping up thing is going to take some work, but the idea was there...he helped make the mess, so he helped clean it up.

Overall, it was a great activity. Here's the breakdown, for you tired parents who want to know how much work this is actually going to be. On a scale of 1 - 10, with 1 being " hardly any at all" and 10 being "so incredibly much I can hardly stand it":

Messiness factor: 6.5
It is pretty messy, but the cleanup is mostly just sweeping. If you don't have a sweepable surface under your box, just put down a tarp or plastic shower curtain liner that you can shake out when you're done. Then you won't be stressing about the sand that inevitably escapes from the box (which could totally mess up your chance to have fun with your kid!). The mess is potentially more if you let your child mix the ingredients with his hands. It could be disastrous if you let him walk in it and then walk out of it onto your living room carpet, but the way we did it was acceptable to me.

Prep time: 1
You just need to make sure you have the stuff available. The mixing is part of the fun, so there's no real need to put it together ahead of time.

Cleanup time: 2
It's really just sweeping. The box of sand gets stored without the lid so it can dry out. I hear you can just add some water to reconstitute it the next time you want to use it. If you store it with the lid on, it can mold, which would pretty much ruin everything for me.

Learning factor (a.k.a. "what can I work in if I'm feeling motivated to help my kid make connections?"):
  • Math - measuring, counting. 
  • Fine motor - scooping, pouring, raking, crumbling, rolling into balls, taking "samples" with the straw. 
  • Science- talking about the moon, the first astronauts to walk on the moon, what happened when they jumped up and down on the moon (which my son totally did, almost falling out of the box. This was the end of the activity.) 
Use the chance to teach some big words if you want...gravity, astronaut, geologist, excavate...there are lots of possibilities. Your child might surprise you by using them later (maybe even in front of your in-laws or someone else you'd like to impress with your wonderful parenting!).

Ages appropriate: maybe 2 and up. You have to know your kids. If they are going to eat the sand, you might want to pass on this one. There was a 50/50 chance that my astronaut was going to eat the sand...we did discuss ahead of time why this wouldn't be a good idea, and he resisted the temptation. He did lick cornstarch off the floor, though.

How long did it last? He played with it for a full half-hour easily. He could have kept going if he hadn't brought it to a climax with the moonwalk (moon jump) experience.

Would I do this again (was it worth it)? Absolutely. It was easy, and he loved it, and it wasn't hard to clean up.

The Boy's review: "This is very, very, very cool. I think other boys and girls should do this with their moms and dads. Probably not with their babysitter because they might get in trouble. The best part was walking in it. Can we play with it some more now?"