17 Playful Cures for a Toy Overload

toy overload, play without toys,

But there’s nothing to do! (CC by 2.0 Dennis Brekke)

Friends of ours were burdened with a serious toy overload. Their four children had generous weekly allowances and lots of gift-giving relatives. As a result, there were more toys than I’ve ever seen in one home. When the family room was overrun,  their father would use a snow shovel to scoop the floor clean. He dumped the shovelfuls in big plastic bins and hauled them to the basement. After doing this a few times he realized the kids rarely bothered to get out those particular playthings. They didn’t really miss them at all.

I deeply admire the mother I interviewed for The Boy With No Toys although we’ve personally never taken an anti-toy stance in our family. Over the years we’ve happily accumulated dolls, trucks, building sets, art supplies, stuffed animals, as well as lots and lots of books. We emphasize quality, not quantity. It’s one way of sparing our planet the burden of sweatshop-made, eco-unfriendly products.  And more importantly, we think it’s part of raising kids who aren’t oriented toward materialism for their own well-being, both now and in the future.

These days, typical options for childhood amusement include overly structured activities, lots of screen time, and commercial playthings that do the entertaining for them. Unfortunately, kids can become accustomed to someone or something else providing the fun for them. As a result they may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in nature. They may actually have trouble generating their own fun.

Even if you limit screen time and emphasize free play, young children can still be overwhelmed by too many playthings. A recent study  done in Britain found the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys, but mostly plays with 12 favorite items!

Simply reducing a toy overload can help children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some toy overload solutions.


Rotate toys

Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. Take a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. When you do get out a toy or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re putting into hibernation. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while.


Reserve toys for specific situations.

It’s helpful to deem some toys for use only under certain conditions. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or a way to minimize use of passive entertainment toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, waiting in line, at a restaurant, or while you’re on an important call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s car, or on a high shelf for special occasions. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Mama’s-on-a-work-call toy” help keep the boundaries drawn and make it easy to put the toy away for the next time.


Join or set up a toy lending library 

Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service. Find a toy library near you using USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.


Assemble play kits using non-toy items

You can throw together kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. (Of course, these suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too young to use the items safely.) To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between use. They are great to get out when kids have friends over.

Office: Use a briefcase or file box. Tuck in office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, post-it notes, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser—this alone can keep small kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help kids understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.

Doctor: Fill a small suitcase with a stethoscope, tongue depressors, tiny flashlight, notebook for doctor’s notes, band-aids, and plenty of gauze to bind up injuries. Children particularly enjoy using the items to diagnose and treat dolls or stuffed animals.

Costume: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Add cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Don’t worry about actual costumes, just toss in a range of imagination-sparking things. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes, vests, tool belt, badges, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, and plenty of hats.

Building: Fill a large container with heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. Add a roll or two of masking tape, string, clean yogurt cups, egg cartons, popsicle sticks, corks, plus hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. When you can, bring home the largest cardboard box you can wheedle out of an appliance store. Children will find all sorts of ways to use it.

Market:  Save empty clean food packages, reglue boxes shut so they look new, and keep them in a bin along with any toy fruits and vegetables you may already have. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. They may want to swipe a pretend debit card, use homemade money, or barter to cover their transactions. (They can use a similar concept to play Library with their books, Car Repair Shop with their riding toys, and so on.)


Encourage Deconstruction

Grandparents on both sides of our family kept a lookout for broken items our kids could take apart. This is marvelously fun as well as educational. It also requires very close supervision! Kids will need flat head and Phillips screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, safety glasses, wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors, and possibly some child-sized work gloves. Before letting them start, cut off and discard any electric plugs as well as cords on the item. Also check for glass parts or batteries that can cause injury, and make sure the item doesn’t have tubes (as old radios and televisions once did) Be forewarned, kids may encounter sharp bits of metal, coiled springs, and other surprises.

We put small deconstruction items in a shallow box (to catch the pieces) . Normally they’d work at the kitchen table to take apart things like a watch, Dymo labelmaker, motherboard, hand-held mixer, clock, printer, VHS or DVD player,  can opener, camera, radio, household fan, remote control car, and once a Furby (which creepily resumed its ability to talk once it was little more than a Furby skeleton), Large items they’d take apart outside on the driveway, with a big open box where they could put pieces. They took apart a microwave, several different bikes, and a lawn tractor. (This led one of my sons to drag a neighbor’s lawn tractor out of the trash, whereupon he fixed it and used it to make money mowing lawns!)


Permit hideouts

Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Provide sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, space ship, or castle. Once inside a hideout, children are in another entirely necessary world.


Let them play with water

Little kids adore water play. Pull up a stool to the sink and let them wash a few unbreakable dishes or toys with mild soap. They’ll stay busy pouring water from soup ladle to funnel to pitcher to cup. Add to the fun by putting a few ice cubes in the sink, giving them foil to shape into boats, or letting them add food coloring. Encourage them to gather a few water safe objects (perhaps a block, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a ball, a rubber band) and guess which ones will float before putting them in the water.  Or you might let them play in the tub for an hour or more while you sit nearby reading a book or getting some work done on the laptop.

Outdoors there are many more water options. On a hot day, water wiped on the house or driveway with a brush temporarily darkens the surface, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again. You can also give them a bucket and sponge to let them wash a tricycle, a watering can to give the plants a drink, or a sprinkler to run through. Don’t forget the pleasures of water added to dirt. Mud pies are a childhood classic.


Help kids set up obstacle courses

A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder.  Outdoors they can set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. More fun? Setting up obstacle courses on their own.


Bring back legacy games

All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Preschooler’s Busy Book, Great Big Book of Children’s Games, or Team Challenges.  Or dig into the game database offered by Bernie DeKoven at DeepFun. And remember to add those classic hand-clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun, studies show they’re also brain boosters.


Stage treasure hunts

 First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together. Or hide the book you’re been reading aloud so kids can search for the treasure of the next chapter. Once they’re familiar with treasure hunts, children can create them for each other.


Let them help

Even the smallest children want to participate in the real work that makes a household function. They want to tear lettuce for a salad, clean crumbs with a small whisk broom, measure beans and pour them in the coffee grinder, sort socks, carry kindling for the fireplace, water the garden, basically anything they see their elders doing. They benefit in remarkable ways, from greater dexterity to the development of character traits that lead to long-term success. What’s more, they have fun doing it.


Emphasize non-toy gifts for holidays and birthdays

It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or even a day later. You can give things like real tools for working with wood, crafting with fiber, or exploring the outdoors. These tools will be used over and over again as kids build valuable skills. You can give passes to events, subscriptions, and much more. For a listing of over 100 non-toy gifts, check here.


Take advantage of temporary circumstances

A large tree with damage from a lightning strike had to be taken down in our back yard. What was left behind were perfect playthings. There were large slices of wood the kids used as blocks and wheels. There were piles of brush they cut up with small hack saws and used to make forts. There was the stump itself, the best home base ever for games of tag.

One time my husband hauled home a junk car he’d bought for next to nothing so he could cannibalize it for parts. The few days it sat in our driveway were a delight for our five-year-old. We put one of his dad’s old shirts on him, mixed up a whole bucket of thick red tempera paint, and handed him a large paintbrush. He dragged a step stool around and painted the whole car, windows included. When they could, neighborhood kids came over to add second and third coats.

The septic system had to be dug up and fixed at our next house. When the company was done they left a towering pile of dirt. It was there for months until we had the money to rent the equipment necessary to move it. The kids called it their “mountain.” It inspired lots of imaginative play, one day they might be explorers running over the top and the next day they might be sitting in the dirt playing with toy trucks. They were sorry to see it go.

You may never have these particular circumstances, but there’s a good chance you’ll have others. Mother-in-law coming for a visit? Get her to teach your kids something she enjoys doing, maybe knitting or playing chess or Tai Chi. Power disrupted due to a storm? Let the kids play hide and seek or flashlight tag in your suddenly spooky dark house.  Invited to a wedding? Find some instruction on YouTube and practice the dances that are likely to happen at the reception. Nothing like kids who’ve got the moves! Your kids won’t have much trouble finding the most playful options for any circumstances. All you have to do is say “yes.”


Portions of this article were first published in Natural Life Magazine

Kids Can’t Filter Out Advertising

kids don't understand advertisements

Image: Dad Zen CC by 2.0

My son was invited to take part in a market research session when he was eight years old.  The whole idea seemed bizarre to me. We were raising him in a frugal household out of necessity, but also because materialism isn’t great for people (or the planet).

Naturally, my hand-me-down-wearing kid was eager to participate. The program checked out as reputable, the entire process would take less than a half hour, and a parent was welcome to stay. I let him sign up, not only in response to his enthusiasm but also because I thought it might be an interesting experience for him. And yes, I had the smug idea that he might actually  show marketers they can’t sway every child’s opinion.

When we learned he’d be giving his impression of a Huffy bike commercial I knew he’d already established some strong opinions. His older brother, at 14, worked a few hours a week for a local bike shop assembling bicycles for a big box store. Most were inexpensive bikes with low-quality parts, some bent or broken before they’d ever been used. Quite a few were Huffy bikes. Many nights his observations steered our dinner table conversation toward the tactics companies use to maximize profit and how advertisements can dupe prospective buyers.

As we drove to the market research session I explained to my eight-year-old how they might try to influence him. “There’s no way they can convince me Huffys are anything but junk,” he said fervently. “No way.”

We were shown into room with a one-way mirror and a large video screen. I was relegated to a folding chair in the back while my son sat in a comfy seat at a table with a woman who asked him warm-up questions clearly designed to establish rapport. When she asked about bikes and bike riding he explained he’d learned to ride on a older model Murray bike, then graduated to a vintage Schwinn bike (yes, the kind with a  banana seat and high handlebars).  He told the interviewer his (brother-influenced) opinions on how offshore manufacturing affected quality and his (parent-influenced) opinions  about the importance of buying products designed to last for decades. He reiterated in several ways that he would never consider asking for a Huffy bike.

Then she played a 90 second advertisement. It showed a boy hurtling over hills at high speeds and skidding sideways in a triumphant finish as he beat other kids in a race.

In those few seconds he changed his mind.

He wanted nothing more than a Huffy bike, he told the interviewer. He couldn’t explain why. He had no language for the powerful effect of the stirring music, symbolic language, and rapidly flitting images. He just wanted one.

Every year, a 17 billion dollar marketing industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective.

Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes in Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood that psychological and neurological research is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of children. She writes, “The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists – in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.”

These advertising strategies are embedded in websites, video games, television, and movies. They’re designed into packaging and implicit in many toys. They’re built into “advergames” targeted at young children  in free apps and downloads. They’re nearly ubiquitous in schools.

Let’s take a quick glimpse at one aspect of advertising, fast food, to see how well advertising works.

*Twenty percent of commercials on kids’ programs are food-related, and of those, 70 percent advertise sugary food, chips, crackers, and sugar-added beverages, and fast food restaurants.

*Preschoolers surprised researchers when they were able to recognize up to 92% of corporate logos.

*There’s a strong link between fast food branding recognition and obesity in preschoolers.

*One study discovered that familiar food logos stimulate the parts of children’s brains associated with motivation. The researchers noted, “Considering the pervasiveness of advertising, research should further investigate how children respond at the neural level to marketing.”

*A more extensive three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Young people have minimal defenses against advertisers’ tactics. Children under the age of eight may easily recognize advertising, but not understand that they’re being persuaded to buy a product. That means they take in the information as uncritically as they might from a parent or teacher. Older children often fail to see product placement as advertising and typically don’t recognize marketing tactics at work.

network in the brain necessary for many introspective abilities – forming a self-image, understanding the ongoing story of one’s own life, and gaining insight into other people’s behavior – is profoundly weaker in young people. Those brain networks aren’t fully established until adulthood. Just at the stage when selfhood is forming, our children are most vulnerable to the messages of a consumer culture.

My son’s desire for the specific model bike he saw didn’t wane for weeks. He  may have been more easily influenced by that 90 second advertisement because he’d been exposed to very little commercial television. Still, the experience rattled me. I’d believed that a close family and strong values were sufficient insulation from a culture of rabid consumerism.  I was wrong. There’s much more we need to do to protect our kids.

BTW, he never did get a Huffy bike. Although kids weigh in on over one-third of purchase decisions, in the final analysis, parents are the ones who make the spending choices.



 Materialistic attitudes are related to unhappiness, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior, even health problems.

10 Ways to Reclaim Childhood from Corporate Marketers 

Raising Media Aware and Current Events Savvy Kids

Protest corporate marketing in schools.

Avoid screen time for young children.

How the boy without toys is being raised with no commercial playthings at all.

Use It Till It’s Tattered

Porch peace flags still hanging in there.

Porch peace flags still hanging in there.

Erma Bombeck, comedian of all things domestic, once wrote,

My mother won’t admit it, but I’ve always been a disappointment to her. Deep down inside, she’ll never forgive herself for giving birth to a daughter who refuses to launder aluminum foil and use it over again.

My parents used what they had until it couldn’t be used again. Clothes that couldn’t be repaired became rags (although I refused to use my father’s old underwear for a dust cloth). Bread bags were washed and turned inside out to dry. And yes Erma, sometimes foil was reused too.

My kids would surely say I uphold that tradition. It might be frugality, but I think there’s more to it. I have sort of a Velveteen Rabbit feeling about objects worn from use. I like using the same cloth bag to carry library books home. Sure it’s frayed, with straps ever shorter from being sewn back on, but the bag has life left in it. I wear shoes until sunlight shows through, then relegate them to gardening shoes. I save old jeans too, using them for everything from a jeans quilt to trying out my weird idea for jeans-based weed control.

I once wrote a post about the psychological effects of materialism, illustrating it with an image of my toe peeking through a hole in one of our very old blankets. My toe really didn’t appreciate the publicity. Yet here’s that photo again because it really illustrates my point.

Use it till it's tattered.

Who takes pictures of their own toes in a past-its-prime blanket?

We have dear ones over for dinner on a regular basis. Each time, I use trivets that were probably given to my parents as wedding gifts over 50 years ago. The cork covering has degraded pretty badly, but they deflect heat as well as they ever did.

Useful, just unattractive.

Useful, just unattractive.

I also use the best hot pads ever. These were crocheted in tight little stitches by my grandmother sometime in the 1960’s. They still work perfectly even if marred by scorch marks. I’ve tried all sorts of replacements, from thermal fabric to silicone. Nothing is as flexible and washable as these handmade spirals.

In use for decades. Stained but still perfectly functional.

In use for decades. Stained but still perfectly functional.

Our towels are, as you might imagine, pretty tattered. Of course they absorb moisture as well as they did when their side seams were perfect.

Old towels need love too.

Old towels need love too.

Even the kitchen floor is giving up.

No, that's not a giant spider. Not dirt. Just a floor after years of service.

No, that’s not a giant spider. Not dirt. Just a floor after years of service.

We actually do buy new things. I can prove it.

The comforter on our bed had been worn through for years. I repaired it over and over until the fabric got so thin that it simply split. It had also been indelibly stained. I remember the origins of some of those stains. Like the time one of my son’s friends came in our bedroom late at night to seek our counsel on some apparently vital adolescent matter, sitting on the edge of our bed (with bib overalls greasy from working on his car in our garage) while chatting with my husband and me. Those stains wouldn’t launder out.

Bedspread of 20 years.

Bedspread of 20 years.

We used it with peek-a-boo batting for years until we broke down and bought a (severely marked down) bedspread. “A new bedspread? Who are you?” my daughter asked, “It’s like I don’t know you any more.”

Something new. It happens, even here.

Something new. It happens, even here.

There’s a heightened beauty in things we use everyday. I see it in our daily tablecloth, our heirloom dishes, our antique furniture. I like the sense of completion that comes when using something fully.  We’re supposed to use ourselves up too.

While we’re not defined by our things, they do say quite a bit about us. I guess I’ve said this already in a poem.  Nuff said.


Object Lesson  


18 and in love

I heard

Too young.

Won’t last.


Yet each solid thing unwrapped

from fussy wedding paper

made it real.


The cutting board

too thin to last

split into kindling.

Paint chipped off leaky flowerpots,

used until they cracked.


Bath towels, coarse and cheap,

wore down to barn rags.

Bed sheets, gone to tatters, torn

to tie tomato plants and peonies.


One last gift, a satin-edged coverlet

saved for good till every other blanket

fell to pieces. Pretty but polyester,

it too frayed to shreds.

Nothing temporal

remains inviolate.


All that’s left are

clear glass canisters

holding exactly what we put in them

right here on the counter

for us to see

each day of our long marriage.


Laura Grace Weldon, from Tending


This post is shared from our farm site.

13 Smart Ways To Make Healthy Foods Fun

Fun ways to get kids eating healthy.

Eat outside. It makes an everyday meal more fun. Image: CC by 2.0 Rolands Lakis

You want the little darlings to eat what’s good for them — and like it. You know power plays, bribes, and other control efforts don’t lead to healthful eating habits in the long run. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some gentle yet effective tactics.


Shrink It

Making healthy foods fun for kids.

If you’ve got a kids’ tea set, let em use it!

Kids enjoy scaled down versions of everyday objects. Maybe it lets them feel larger or maybe such things are easier to use. Every now and then, let your children eat from tiny dishes. No need for a tea set; you probably have the perfect sizes in your cupboard. Use the smallest appetizer plate for a dinner plate, a ramekin for soup or cereal, and a shot glass or other tiny vessel for a beverage. Baby forks and spoons are already miniature utensils. Smaller dish sizes automatically scale down portion size, meaning kids might actually have room for tiny second and third helpings. Encourage kids to serve themselves. They can refill glasses using a tiny pitcher, creamer, or even a small measuring cup with a spout. I know teenagers who still think that eating with tiny dishes is a hoot.


Focus on companionship

Making healthy foods fun for kids.

Togetherness is as important as taste. Make that more important! (CC by 2.0,  Mark)

When eating is about companionship, it builds positive associations between healthy food and togetherness. Relaxed conversation also de-emphasizes who eats how much of what. Kids who eat family meals regularly tend to have better dietary behavior as teens. And family discussions also boost brainpower.


Make fruits and vegetables the first course

Put a somewhat different selection of produce on the table while you make dinner. It chases away the hungries.

Put produce on the table while you make dinner. It chases away the hungries in a healthy way.

This is one way to take advantage of hunger to develop lean eating habits. Fruits and vegetables are brimming with nutrients but low in calories, so a first course of produce makes sense. Plus, studies show that snacking this way spurs kids to eat more veggies during the meal as well. Simply put different fruits and vegetables on the table while you’re cooking, after sports practice, or whenever appetite hits. Liven it up on occasion with a variety of kid-friendly dips and spreads.


Make faces

Of course you should play with your food! (Thanks to At Second Street for plate painting instructions.)

Play with your food! (Check At Second Street for plate painting instructions.)

Paint distinctive “face” plates with a simple outline of eyes, nose, and mouth. You can do this at one of those decorate-your-own pottery places or paint them at home as Second Street does. If you’d rather buy them ready-made, purchase a face plate like  Fred and Friends Food Face or one from the ThoughtfulTot Etsy shop.  Face plates let kids arrange a different visage at each meal: maybe spaghetti hair with a green-bean mouth at dinner tonight, then a tortilla beard sporting black-bean lips and salsa eyebrows at lunch tomorrow.



Accept help in the kitchen, garden, and market

Hands on ways to make healthy food fun.

Kids want to get involved. (CC by 2.0 Stephanie Sicore)

Better yet, expect help. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, hands-on responsibilities increase maturity and builds skills they’ll need throughout life. Let your mutual interest in great taste (and a speedy dinner) translate into enjoyable time together.  You know that stage when two-year-olds beg to help with whatever you’re doing? That’s the time to start saying yes. The younger you let kids help, the better. It won’t be long before you’ll have kids who are fully capable of making dinner for YOU.



Eat like a monster 

Healthy food fun for kids.

Or a vampire. Or a zombie. (CC by 2.0  rhobinn)

There’s nothing wrong with pretzel-stick fences over cheese slice sunsets or broccoli trees sprouting from mashed-potato landscapes, as long as the kids are the ones who create and then cheerfully devour the scenery. It’s also fun to chow down adorable meals like those shown in such books as Bean Appetit: Hip and Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food, Tiny Food Party!,  and Funny Food: 365 Fun, Healthy, Silly, Creative Breakfasts.  Remember, you won’t have to say, “What do you mean you’re not eating your dinosaur pancake!” if you make sure kids have had a hand making it. Use books like these as a starting point for inspiration. And don’t forget to make monster noises as you bite the nose off an elephant-shaped sandwich.


Try muffin-tin meals

Muffin tin meals.

Healthy little bites for a fun meal. (CC by 2.0  Melissa)

This worked wonders for my four kids when they were small. We called them Super Snacks. Each child got a six-cup muffin tin. We filled the six openings with different offerings in small amounts. The compartments kept each food item from the sin of touching another food, and the concept was novel enough that my kids were more willing to try something new. Back then, I thought I’d made up the muffin-tin meal concept, but it turns out lots of parents do the same thing. Well, not quite the same; they’re much more clever. Check out Muffin Tin Mondays.


Grow it 

How to make healthy family meals fun.

Gardening grows kids who like fresh food. (CC by 2.0 NCVO London)

If you have the space for garden or there’s nearby community garden, put your child in charge of at least one planting. A child is much more likely to eat a homegrown crop, especially after tucking peas in the ground and watching the seedlings emerge, grow, and flower. And peas, like many freshly harvested plants, are particularly tasty eaten right as they’re plucked from the vine, still warm from the sun. To avoid the misery of weeding, you might want to use a natural weed barrier method to keep them to a minimum.  There are plenty of ways to garden if you don’t have access to a bit of dirt. Start a jar of sprouts on the counter. Try container gardening, such as a pot of peppers on the balcony or a window planter of basil. You might even try an upside-down planter, or geek out by creating a vertical window garden on your own. For more ideas, check out books like Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children and Kids’ Container Gardening: Year-Round Projects for Inside and Out.


Get closer to your food origins

Getting kids to eat healthy.

Make bread as your ancestors did.

Try making cheese, butter, bread, and other staples from scratch. Go to pick-your-own farms. Your kids will be eager to dig into baskets of blueberries and bags of apples for a taste, but they’re just as likely to be eager to try radishes, endive, broccoli, pecans, and other treats they pick themselves. Join a CSA that encourages members to donate time on the farm. Explore your own ethnicity through food by reconnecting with the recipes, stories, and heritage that are part of your background. (Try asking grandparents and great-grandparents for their food memories. And their recipes!) Your enthusiasm can spark the same in your kids.


Make eating new, unusual, or typically kid-scorned foods a privilege

Getting kids to eat well.

Enjoy your food with gusto, but don’t coerce kids into trying a bite.

Rather than family policies such as “Try just three bites” or “Clean your plate,” you avoid the pressure of overt encouragement. You might say, “Would you like to try it?” rather than automatically giving a serving. You might wait until your child asks for a bite of what the adults are eating. I found it powerful to imply that the dish is something the child is more likely to enjoy when older. Any of these tactics puts the emphasis on the pleasure found in unfamiliar foods. You can’t enforce taste.



Look forward to cooking

Fun with healthy food.

Bite right into the heart of a heart-shaped pizza. (CC by 2.0 woodleywonderworks)

Talk about foods you want to try. Watch food shows together. Develop an archive of cooking videos that inspire you. Heck, consider filming your own cooking videos. Page through food magazines together to find recipes you’d both like to try. Regularly use cookbooks aimed at young cooks, such as Mom and Me Cookbook,
Southern Living: Kids Cookbook, and Mollie Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes.


Take it outside

Getting kids to eat well.

Breakfast tastes better on the porch. (CC by 2.0 David Goehring)

A meal or snack is instantly more delightful when you take it outside. Sit on the front steps or under a tree with your plate. Pack an impromptu picnic and take it to the park. Wrap up in snowsuits to drink cocoa out of a thermos. You might even, as my Eastern European friends do, wait until a bright winter day to take a hike and cook dinner over a fire.



Ramp up the entertainment value with friends

Yes, it's quite possible your kids will be more adept in the kitchen than you. (CC by 2.0 Coqui the Chef)

Yes, it’s quite possible your kids will be more adept in the kitchen than you. (CC by 2.0 Coqui the Chef)

If your kids are young, offer a simple cooking class for your children and their friends in your own kitchen. If your kids are teens, let them sign up together for a class at a cooking school to learn pastry techniques or the secrets of French cuisine. Encourage kids of any age to start a regular cooking club. It’s a great way for them to socialize while creating menus, and shopping lists, and then cooking the dishes they’ve chosen. Let them build on their interests. They may want to devote one session to making foods mentioned in a favorite movie and the next session to making bento-box lunches.


When your kids regard cooking, baking, and food experimentation as great ways to spend time, they’re well on their way to understanding the allure of good food.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Wired.com

Bits of Joy List

Bits of Joy list, five minutes to happiness,

I was spawned by list makers. My mother made grocery lists, task lists, correspondence lists, and gratitude lists. My father, an elementary school teacher, made lists of students who needed individualized attention. He made lists of household chores. He kept lists of conversational topics he wanted to bring up with his kids and, later, lists of things to do with his grandchildren . When he got older he used to write “Hello Earl” at the top of his lists. As he pointed out, lists were a way of talking to his future self so he might as well say “hi.”

I’m convinced we can use out-of-the-ordinary lists to enhance our lives. I have all sorts of suggestions to create Life Lists unique to us and I’m following through on a few goals on my Delights To Cultivate list.

Recently I heard about Bit of Joy lists. These are lists to post somewhere in view. Maybe on the fridge door. Maybe as a screen saver. That way whenever a bit of time opens up we’re prompted to devote it to something we find wonderful rather than whatever has become our default activities (ahem, like checking our phones).

How to consciously savor life’s random free moments? Hmmm. I wrote down some thoughts and asked friends what they’d include. (Friend’s names appear with their suggestions.) As I scribble down these ideas I wonder why oh why don’t I let myself do these things more often? That’s exactly how a Bits of Joy list can be so useful. What would you put on your list?

When You Have Five Minutes

Go outside. Take some deep breaths, look at the sky, notice sounds. Unpleasant weather? Do it anyway.

Balance on one foot, then the other, in an impromptu tree pose.

Hug someone I adore.

Indulge in the reverie kids know as “pretending.”

Donate to a good cause.

Smile at someone for all of the following reasons.

Read just one poem (perhaps “I Confess” by Alison Luterman). This is a very good reason to keep poetry books nearby and to bookmark poetry sites.

Contemplate my blessings.

Make plans to do something with someone dear to me.

Hug a tree.

Sing. Made up lyrics a plus.

Dance, especially to the music stuck in my head.

Click over to Light Weaver for interactive mandalas plus music.

Meditate or (as I practice it, sit quietly and hope this has some meditative effect).

Pray.  Jaylen

Make a good cup of coffee in my favorite mug. Jaylen

Try some laughter yoga with whatever co-workers are in the break room. Jaylen

Water some houseplants and thank them for being part of the family. Margaret

Grab an art book off the shelf and look at beautiful art for a few minutes. Margaret

Watch birds at the feeder.  Yesterday I happened to see Mr. Redbird offer seed, beak to beak, to Mrs. Redbird. That’s as good as it gets. Kim Langley

Daydream for a solid 5 minutes.  Valli Spahn

When You Have A Half Hour

Take a walk, which may be the best problem-solving method around.

Read a book on the porch.

Clean out a drawer. Very small increments of de-cluttering are allegedly fun.

Play the piano (which I never do, but tell myself I will).

Write an actual written-on-paper letter to a friend. Or mail something weirder.

Get out some paints, pastels, markers, or colored pencils; put on some music; then play with colors and shapes and see what happens. Margaret

Let myself get into a cookbook with good pictures. I can practically taste the recipes as I flip through envisioning meals we’ll make and parties we’ll throw. Jayden

Make a batch of cookies or some other treat. Jayden

Watch someone do something in a masterful way.  Creativity exercised often fills me with elation.. I can feel my heart open up in the presence of creativity. Kim Langley

Write a poem. Craig Fawcett

Look at old pictures. Craig Fawcett

Contact someone I’ve been thinking about or need to think about. Craig Fawcett

Sit under a tree. Craig Fawcett

When You Have An Afternoon

Go outside with a notebook and good pen, sit somewhere lovely, and write.

Play a game new to me from Bernie DeKoven’s master list of games.

Do one of the hundreds of projects I’ve saved on Pinterest.

Wander through shops that entice me. I’m not a shopper. I run to the market, grab what we need, and get out. I haven’t been to a mall in over a decade. But there are places that entice me. I know of a dollhouse shop about 40 minutes from here where I’d love to linger. (I’ve nearly convinced my husband to cut a hole in the wall and install a dollhouse-sized door and window, into which I can arrange a miniature scene. This WILL happen.) I love art galleries, import shops, odd niche stores, and of course bookstores.


Go to an art museum. My favorite see-it-in-an-afternoon museum is Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Attend a noontime concert. Many of these are free and hosted in beautiful old churches.

Do errands, repairs, or other small-tokens-of-love acts for my daughters. Craig Fawcett

Head to the beach. Find treasures (rocks, shells, fossils, beach glass) and admire the ever-changing views   Margaret

Get a massage. Jayden

Pack a picnic (or pick up tasties) and eat outdoors, which I love and wonder why I haven’t done it for years. Jayden

Thanks to Kim Langley, Craig Fawcett, Margaret Swift, Valli Spahn, and Jaylen Jacobs for adding their joys. 

The Magic of Fresh Air for Babies & Other Beings

fresh air for kids, outdoors every day, babies sleep better in cold,

CC by 2.0 Abigail Batchelder’s flickr photostream

For centuries it was common wisdom that a few hours of fresh air each day was an absolute necessity. Children from infancy on up were bundled in warm clothes and taken out in all seasons. The practice stemmed from a longstanding belief that time outdoors promoted strength and robust health. It was also believed that it kept various character weaknesses at bay. That is, until the practice was poo-poo’ed as nonsense. Nothing but old wives’ tales.

Fortunately, my parents thought otherwise. My mother knew childish energy is best expended outdoors. It never occurred to her that we required her participation as she sent us out every day. When we were small she told us to stay in the yard, checking every now and then from the window. Soon our range expanded to a few acres of woods behind our house plus pretty much anywhere we could go on our bikes while still making it back in time for dinner.

I learned even more about the importance of being outside from my father. He set a quiet example by paying attention to birds, the weather, the garden. If we went somewhere with him other than a hardware store, it was to go hiking in the Cleveland Metroparks.

It wasn’t until I had my first baby that my father showed me a deeper power of nature, again simply by example. When he held babies he almost always walked outdoors with them, particularly if they were fussy.

“Here’s the sky,” he’d point. “That’s a tree over there, you’ll be running on this grass in no time,” he’d gently tell an infant.

Their eyes would get big and they’d look around, more calm and focused than they were indoors.

I started to follow his example. If I couldn’t figure out my baby’s troubles, I’d go out to lie on the grass during the day, or wrap up warmly to look at the stars in the middle of the night. It nearly always settled a crying baby.

It worked even better for toddlers. They’d get cranky in the house, far crankier in the car. They wanted out in the largest sense possible. They’d stay outdoors as long as I’d let them, on our most glorious days this lasted for hours. When she was a year old my daughter liked to pick up little stones, hold them briefly, then place them in little piles. She’d look at me, shaking her head to remind herself they couldn’t go in her mouth. My little children helped me garden and sweep and rake. They dug in the dirt, made fairy houses out of sticks and leaves, filled their little wagons with the hickory nuts that littered our yard in autumn, stomped in puddles, squatted to watch bugs, climbed on logs, and asked endless questions. All these richly sensory experiences happened simply because we were outdoors. I had no idea at the time that all of this movement helped build essential brainpower.

As Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy explain in the wonderful book, A Moving Child Is a Learning Child,

A young child can learn only what her brain is primed and ready for. And in the early years, that’s everything the body has to teach—the tangible, physical, and sensory qualities of the world around her. It’s no wonder preschool learning rarely happens sitting down.

Influential 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, suggested children should spend four to six hours a day outdoors. She wrote in Home Education,

…every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.

Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood.

In Scandinavian countries, parents believe it’s healthier for babies and children to be outside for a few hours a day in all but the most extreme temperatures (and they mean extreme, as in 0 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a common practice to dress babies warmly and tuck them in a stroller in the yard, balcony, or outside a shop to nap on a snowy day.

In fact, the Finnish Ministry of Labour specifically recommends it (see page 24 under “naps”).  Does it help babies sleep better? One study showed children took longer naps outdoors compared with naps taken indoors.

Pediatrician Harvey Karp points out, in The Happiest Toddler on the Block, how staying indoors is overstimulating while at the same time boring for children.

Our homes are boring because they replace the exciting sensations of nature (the feeling of the wind on their skin, the brilliant sun, the soft grass, etc.) with an immense stillness (flat walls, flat floors, no wind).

Yet at the same time, he writes, being indoors is overstimulating.

It bombards them with jolting experiences that kids in the past never had to deal with: crazy cartoons, slick videos, clanging computer games, noisy toys, and bright colors everywhere…which can make many little children feel stressed.

There are exhaustive studies showing that time outdoors, particularly in nature, benefit us in myriad ways—from better health to peace of mind.  I think there’s something intangible too, something to do with keeping alive the awe and wonder that is our birthright. That’s something the youngest children can help us relearn.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

fresh air benefits, outdoors every day, cold air good for sleep, babies sleep better outside,

CC by 2.0 pixydust8605’s flickr photostream

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

act of Christmas kindness, heartwarming Christmas, poor helping poor on Christmas, lesson of giving,

Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

100+ Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers to Teens

What do we really want when we offer gifts to our kids? I’m guessing excitement, happiness, hopefully some lasting joy. It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or two later. The antidote? Fewer presents of better quality, as well as an emphasis on experiences. According to science, these are the gifts that result in real pleasure.

Real Tools for Real Work

Young kids beg to help out.  When we let them, they’re learning skills as well as the satisfaction of taking on responsibilities. Rather than toy versions of tools, get them appropriately sized real tools (to use with supervision). You can get plenty of useful, not-too-large tools at your local hardware and home goods store. As kids get older, invest in adult-sized tools they can use for a lifetime.

Starting at four years old we got our own kids woodworking tools and gave them access to scrap wood. We also kept a stool handy for little kids to help at the kitchen counter, and whenever possible let them pour their own drinks from a tiny pitcher into a tiny cup during mealtimes—-cultivating coordination as well as a sense of involvement. When our oldest was three and loved to turn machines on and off, we got him a hand vac as a gift. He used it for years, immediately on the scene to vacuum up crumbs like a man on a mission. Saying yes when a child offers to help is more important than we might imagine.

Woodworking tools: Rubber mallet, vintage manual hand drill ,work gloves, level, sandpaper, safety glasses, tool belt, battery-powered drill, cordless screwdriver, measuring tape, wood glue, tool box, and low sturdy work bench. Consider books such as Builder Boards: How to Build the Take-Apart Playhouse14 Woodworking Projects For Parents and Kids To Build Togetherand The Kids’ Building Workshop. For teens, more complex project books as well as power tools, adult-sized hand tools, a sturdy workbench, and the freedom to work on their own.

Kitchen-y enticements: Apron, egg slicer, small rolling pin, small pitcher, rotary egg beater, small mixing bowls, tongs, whisk, wooden spoon, cutting board, Doodle by Stitch apron, safe Curious Chef knives, a step stool or adjustable kitchen helper stoolEngaging cookbooks like The Do It Myself Kids’ CookbookTwist It Up, and Kids’ First Cookbook. For teens, a high quality kitchen utensil of their own (a good chef’s knife is a classic gift) along with cookbooks they’ll be eager to test out such as Cooking for GeeksThe Everything College Cookbook, or a cookbook aimed at particular tastes.

Gardening tools: Seeds, small gloves, trowel, bucket, watering can, small rake and shovel, (there are lots of child-sized tools at For Small Hands), containers to start indoor plants (like starting plants from sweet potato pieces and avocado pits), a kit to grow sprouts for salads and stir fries, books such as Gardening Lab for Kids and Gardening Projects for Kids.Teens with horticultural interests will appreciate adult-sized tools, gift certificates for seed companies, and specialty books.

Handwork tools:  Lucet is a medieval era wooden tool to help make braided cords and necklaces, knitting needles and yarn along with My First Knitting Book, or Kids Knitting: Projects for Kids of all Ages
First Knitter is a device to help small hands learn to knit., Embroidery hoop and embroidery thread. Fabric scraps and a sewing box with some essentials like needles, thread, thimble, and scissors. Needle felting kit and wool roving.  Try a small weaving loom, a larger loom, or make one out of a sturdy picture frame.

Outdoor exploration tools: magnifying glass, collapsible cup
or collapsible water bottle , water bottle sling, spork, sleeping bag, flashlight, hand-warmers, Stick-Lets, field guides, vest with lots of pockets for gear, binoculars, telescope, raincoat or rain parka, headlamp, compass, lantern, multi-tool.  (Thanks to Gillian for these suggestions.)

Interest-Based Classes 

Favorite lessons for one of my kids were surprisingly affordable bagpiping lessons with a gentleman who’d once been Pipe Major for Scotland’s Black Watch. One-time or ongoing classes can expand on nearly every interest or create new ones. For teens, one-on-one mentoring in an area of passionate interest is even better.  Here are some ways you can connect teens to experts in all sorts of fields. Class ideas?



horseback riding






rock climbing





glass blowing


Membership or Season Passes

My oldest son was the youngest member of a model railroad club and almost never missed their regular meetings. Consider a membership to an organization that fits your child’s quirky passions. You get them membership to a local historical society, rock collector’s group, chess club, amateur archaeology organization, herpetology society, magician’s guild, whatever builds on a young person’s fascination. Be sure to read newsletters, attend classes, and otherwise enjoy member benefits. Other possibilities include:

hacker space



botanical garden

wildlife area

Maker programs

amusement park

recreation center


One Time Passes

Make this an adult-child activity for young children, for older kids buy two or more passes so they can go with friends.

ski slopes

challenge courses

paintball range

climbing gym

skating rink

go-kart track

bowling alley

Event Tickets

These are special occasions, ones that’ll stay in their memories. Don’t forget to take pictures when you arrive.

live theater


sporting event


Maker Faire 

escape room adventure

Out-of-the-Ordinary Things to do Together 

These ideas are great coming from a parent, they may be even more thrilling coming from relatives who want to spend some one-on-one time with younger members of the family. Simply give materials, instructions, or brochures for something you’ll be doing together.  When you give the gift, make sure to set a date!

Print out a recipe you’ve never tried, include ingredients, and set a date to make it together.

Go on a train ride.

Make a fairy garden together. Gift a few supplies for the project, like a tiny watering can fairies might use.

Give a bunch of boxes along with the inspiration of Welcome to Your Awesome Robot or find even bigger boxes to throw a kids BYOB party (bring-your-own-box).

Give fabric markers and white or light-colored plain pillowcases (well-worn ones from thrift stores are perfect for this) to decorate one’s dreams with drawings, quotes, or wishes.

Take a road trip, maybe aiming to see oddball attractions in your state.

Give some beanbags and learn to juggle together.

Go on a hike. Give hike-related gear and maybe a book like My Nature Book or any of Jane Kirland’s books in the Take a Walk series

Go on a more challenging hike with teens, maybe take along a book like Wreck This Journal Everywhere.

Enjoy plein air art experiences together. You might want to give the youngest child a special tote bag to bring art supplies to the park, zoo, or local wildlife spot to draw or paint. For older youth, consider gifting a small sketchbook along with a  compact set of watercolorsoil pastels,  sketch pencilsor charcoal.

Try stand up paddle boarding together.

Take kayaking lessons together.

Give a roll of quarters to play at a place that still has arcade games.

Try geocaching. This modern-day treasure hunt is made possible with a GPS.  Learn more at geocaching.com or navicache.com

Participate in a mud run scheduled in your area.

Construct an insect hotel together. You might give a related book like Insectigations. Teens may enjoy creating larger-scale insect habitat.

Build a clay oven together. Test it out by baking homemade pizza.

Give a bird feeder or binoculars, and sign up together to log bird sightings at eBird or participate together in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Give rubber stamps and a logbook to go letterboxing together.  Learn more at letterboxing.org and atlasquest.com

Go cloud watching. Consult The Cloud Collector’s Handbook as you “collect” different cloud types. Post photos to the online gallery of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Make treats for  birds and animals including pinecones rolled in peanut butter and birdseed, popcorn strings, and cranberry garlands. Then go outside to hang them on a tree together.

Mark cardboard squares with Scrabble letters for a giant game to be played outside.

Set aside open-ended project time together. Get inspiration from books such as RoboticsTinkerlab, and Unbored.


Magazines are often the only things kids receive in the mail. (Although you can change this with strange and interesting ways to send snail mail.)

For babies there’s Babybug, toddler to preschool ages consider Ladybug, National Geographic Little Kids, Click, and Ranger Rick Jr..

For elementary-age kids, New Moon Girls, MuseFaces, and OWL.

Boomerang subscriptions are one of the best things ever and a favorite with my kids. We saved every one we got. It’s like a radio show wrapped up in an audio magazine, covered with a delicious layer of smart. Perfect to save for a long trip, great to pass along to younger siblings.

For teens, find a publication that meets their interests, whether hip hop or high fashion. Look for indie magazines if you can’t find something that’s just right.

Come up with your own version of a subscription box. Send a themed box every month or every season with projects, snacks, or other small surprises.


Quality Musical Instruments 

Real instruments, scaled for a child’s size, sound great and inspire interest. Even very young children can pluck along to sheet music tucked under the strings of a lap harp. For impromptu playing at my house we leave out a number of instruments including a wooden flute,  set of panpipes, ukulele, small pentatonic scale harp, and a small accordion. And one of the best gifts we gave one of our sons was a used electric guitar when he turned 13. You might want to start with something affordable, such as a harmonica or ocarina. (Thanks to Silvia for suggesting instruments as gifts.)  Here are some sources for child-sized instruments.

HearthSong lap harp and extra sheet music

Schylling accordian or Woodstock accordion

For Small Hands percussion instruments such as shakers and drums

Harps of Lorien child-sized or larger lyre

ocarinas and harmonicas

Woodstock chimes and children’s hand bells

Hohner guitars, variable sizes

Bella Luna pentatonic flute

Zither Heaven bowed psaltery or a Roosebeck psaltery

Parent-Made Gifts

There’s something special about gifts you make. A snuggly fleece blanket, a second-hand riding toy with a custom paint job, a refinished child-sized rocking chair. You can find plenty of ideas online, but don’t forget these old standbys.

Homemade coupons they can “spend.”

  • Get-out-of-one chore.
  • Kid’s choice movie night.
  • Stay up an hour past bedtime.
  • Solo time with mom or dad all Saturday, kid’s choice of activities.
  • Sleep-over party.
  • After dark walk.
  • Scary storytelling around a fire.
  • A “yes” to any one project on Instructibles.com.

A dress-up trunk with lengths of fabric for capes, interesting hats, strange shirts and skirts, badges, belts, purses, jewelry, masks, and more.

Memorabilia to celebrate a teen’s birthday. This is easier than ever with eBay. Find a newspaper issued on the day of his or her birth. You can add a magazine from the month of his or her birth, music popular that year, a political button, a piece of vintage clothing, etc.

A collection of family-favorite recipes. This is particularly useful for older teens and young adults. Just scan them and print out, or use one of the many services that prints hardbound books with your content.

A legacy present. If you’re lucky enough to have things from earlier generations, pass them on. Give grandpa’s fountain pen to your daughter, explaining that he loved to write as much as she does. Give a great uncle’s watch to a teen who shares his wanderlust. Give the funky afghan your aunt made to the kid who is as offbeat as she was. Tell them some stories about these relatives when you give such gifts!

What A Cow Taught Us About Free Range Learning

Isabelle. (Photo by Claire Weldon)

Isabelle. (Photo by Claire Weldon)

Look closely at any one thing long enough and you start to see how much more there is to know, stretching your mind (and often your heart) well beyond the supposed “right” answers. You also may notice the way this one thing interconnects with everything else. A cow helped us see that.

Years ago we were only raising chickens and honeybees on our small farm. My daughter researched, did the numbers, and convinced us that keeping a cow would not only provide an amazing learning experience but would be an excellent way to supply our own milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese. That’s why Isabelle, a gentle Guernsey, entered our lives. And every single day since my daughter has worked hard to care for her, without fail.

Isabelle taught us more than we could have imagined about thinking for ourselves, about tenderly raising animals, and much more. When it was time for college, my daughter wrote her entrance essay about this and was awarded an amazing scholarship.

Today Isabelle is 16 years old. She continues to teach us, our vet, and a community of people who participate in a family cow forum. To celebrate her birthday, I’ll be bringing her extra carrots and apples. I invite you to celebrate too by reading about Isabelle’s life on our farm

family cow, homestead dairy,

Isabelle (Photos by Claire Weldon)

On Being A Frugal Geek

cheap geek, materialism, frugal living, cheap interests, cheap homeschooling, There are plenty of assumptions about what geeks do. We own the most advanced technology. We see the latest movies, watch the newest series on subscription channels, play the most recently released video games. wouldn’t miss Maker Faire. If we collect anything, it’s probably awesomely obscure and sure to gain in value. All these things cost money.

I tend to geek out over less expensive interests. Outsider art, foreign films, poetry, recent neuroscience findings, nonviolence, mindfulness practices, the new acquisition section of the library—that sort of thing.

Still, stark economic realities have made penny pinching essential. Long ago I assumed I could afford more geeky indulgences once I got past pricey milestones like college, marriage, and new babies. Didn’t happen. Turns out sick kids, unemployment, and falling down houses are also expensive.

Instead, I’ve geeked out on frugality itself. I garden, preserve food, make homemade cheese, sew, repurpose, and concoct herbal remedies that look so vile my household prefers to stay healthy. I’ve advanced my career with little more than a not-so-new computer, a love of research, and library privileges. My kids have been dragged to every free concert and science program available, and know area nature preserves like their own backyard. They’ve become Makers almost entirely out of necessity, turning junk and other dirt cheap materials into marvels. Because every one of us goes deep into passions like forensics, turbocharger modifications, bagpipe playing, arachnid study, and advanced plasma welding techniques our dinner table conversations are strangely fascinating. We’re geeks all right, just frugal geeks. Maybe you are too. Mainstream assumptions about geeks don’t define us. GeekMom, where I’m a senior editor, agrees. As explained on the “about” page:

Being a geek is a state of mind, and that state of mind leads us to intensely explore our interests and approach the world with endless curiosity. When we want to get involved in something cool, we get really involved. In other words, we get geeky about it.

I know the research shows that frugal living benefits kids while materialism doesn’t. And I believe that living simply is good for the planet. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like a few geek frills, some day. More movies, newer gadgets, and the bucks to finally get to Maker Faire. While I’m dreaming, I’d like an invisible bike helmet too.

How does living frugally affect your geeky or not-so-geeky passions?