14 DIY Projects to Get Your Kids Outside

A generation ago, it was common for American kids to play outside for hours at a time, coming in only when the streetlights came on or when it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, playing outside is no longer the norm. Today, children between the ages of 8 and 18 instead consume an average of 7 hours of indoor screen media daily. It can be a real struggle for parents to get them to put down their devices and go outside, but it’s not impossible. We’ve found some creative DIY projects that will have your youngsters running out the backdoor – and you running with them – to go have fun and play.

6 Benefits of Playing Outside

Being out of doors offers many benefits for children, both physical and emotional. Spending time playing outside:

  1. Improves physical health: Though it may seem to parents like their children never stop moving, kids today are much more sedentary than in past generations. Excessive screen time has been linked to obesity, anxiety, and depression. Playing outside in the fresh air and sun increases vitamin D levels in children, strengthening their bones and helping to prevent heart disease.
  2. Improves vision: Increasing the amount of time kids spend out of doors has been shown to reduce the risk for nearsightedness. Convincing children to be out and about is an easy way to keep them from needing glasses.
  3. Fosters independence: By and large, playing outside  typically comes with fewer rules than indoor play. Parents aren’t always within earshot, so kids sometimes have to settle disputes among themselves. They also have more freedom to run, climb, throw, explore, and be active in ways that might have landed them in trouble indoors. Free play encourages creativity and offers children a chance to make up their own minds about what they want to be doing.Boy runs with kite outside
  4. Lengthens attention span: Studies suggest that “green time” spent in natural environments may reduce Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children. Sunlight, trees, plants, and the sounds of birds and insects can have a grounding and calming effect on children.
  5. Improves social skills: Taking part in unstructured play with other children teaches your child a lot about social skills and how to relate to others. For example, not everyone can have a turn on the swing at the same time. Outdoor play teaches kids how important it is to share in order to have fun with others.
  6. Reduces stress levels: Most people can agree that spending time out of doors, away from constructed environments, is relaxing. People often take vacations to national parks, beaches, wilderness resorts, and other natural environments to relax and relieve stress. Some people even take “forest baths,” which were found to lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Kids Playing Soccer Outside in the backyard

14 DIY Backyard Projects

Kids who enjoy video games or electronic toys might be surprised to find that there are do-it-yourself outdoor projects that offer high-level challenges and rewards. Some of the activities below are competitive and require strategy. Others will appeal to kids who like adventure games or making music. Also: how cool is it that instead of growing virtual plants in a game, kids can do it in real life in their own backyard. Here are 14 fun DIY backyard games and projects that kids of all ages can enjoy with family and friends:

  1. Make a music wall: Hang musical instruments (think pots and pans, spoons, and old pieces of metal) for your kids to play with on one of the walls of your house or on a fence bordering your backyard. The children can choose what they want to play and – depending on how close the neighbors are – volume might not be as much of an issue out of doors. If the neighbors are close, consider inviting them over to join the symphony orchestra!
  2. Build a fire pit – Gathering around a campfire is a great way to encourage conversation and family bonding. To build a fire pit, just pick a spot a safe distance from the house, dig a hole, and line it with rocks or bricks. Working together will help make it a special place for telling stories and roasting marshmallows, but be sure to supervise children at all times.
  3. Plant a garden: Planting a vegetable garden is a great way to get messy with your kids outside, as well as teaching children patience. Digging into the dirt represents sensory play which is so important for brain development. Kids get to watch the fruits of their own labor grow, and after the harvest, they get to enjoy eating what they’ve grown. Kids are also more likely to try vegetables they’ve grown themselves.
  4. Create a Ninja Warrior-inspired obstacle course: A backyard ninja obstacle course is a great way to get your kids outside and keep them active. No longer will they have to sit and watch people on television dominating obstacle courses – they get to compete themselves! There are dozens of different obstacles you can create and include, from ramps and rock-climbing walls to teeter-totters, cargo nets, balance beams, and monkey bars. To help you get started, here are DIY backyard obstacle course instructions.Children playing with all sorts of things in the backyard
  5. Make an old-fashioned tire swing: All kids love a good tire swing. If you have any old tires lying around, or access to one, a tire swing is a DIY project that will engage kids for a long time.
  6. Make a reading nook: Providing a fun place for your kids to read outside not only gets them out into the fresh air, but also encourages them to open the pages of a book rather than stare at a screen. The possibilities for your reading nook are endless. Each one can be designed to fit your child’s personality and interests. Here’s a cute one with toadstools.
  7. Create a sand and water table: Using some simple materials, you can create a sand and water table that will occupy kids for hours and can be used to teach impromptu science lessons. With PVC piping, funnels, and water, you and your children can create an intricate pipe design that is fun to play with. When you’re not using the table for water play, fill it with sand for a raised sandbox – perfect for making sand castles, digging, and other fun activities.
  8. DIY passing practice wall: Do your kids love sports? Are you looking for ways to strengthen your kids’ gross and fine motor skills? If so, build your own passing practice wall with targets of various shapes and sizes for kids to practice their aim.  Here is an easy model to follow.
  9. Giant Connect Four: A friendly game of Connect Four becomes even more fun when you play it outside on a massive board with giant pieces. It is the perfect way to load up on some Vitamin D and learn strategy, too. Check out these instructions for making your own.
  10. DIY cornhole: Both little kids and big kids enjoy the game of cornhole – an outdoor version of bean bag toss made with large wooden boards. If your kids are older, this is a fun DIY project as they can design and paint the cornhole boards to match their interests. Here are instructions from the DIY Network.
  11. Outdoor movie theater – You can give an old sheet or painter’s tarp new life and recreate the magic of drive-in movie theaters with this awesome outdoor movie screen project. Just add popcorn and comfortable seating, and don’t forget to invite the neighbors!
  12. Pallet daybed – You can make your backyard even cozier with a DIY pallet daybed. Kids and adults alike will love to read, lounge, nap, and hang out in your new favorite spot. Add wheels to make the daybed mobile, or you can turn it into a swing.
  13. Outdoor chess: For chess-loving families, consider turning part of your backyard into a DIY chessboard. For example, by laying pavers strategically, you can turn a section of your yard into a game board. See DIY Network’s chessboard patio instructions.
  14. DIY outdoor Yahtzee: The game of Yahtzee involves only dice, a score pad, and a pencil. Using large wooden blocks and a permanent marker, you can easily make your own set of dice for backyard Yahtzee. Here are simple DIY instructions.

Unstructured Play

It’s hard to overstate how important it is for children to spend time playing outside. When they look back on their childhood later in life, your kids probably won’t remember passing a particular level of a video game. But they will reflect fondly on adventures, discoveries, and unstructured time spent playing in the backyard.

Little Girl does handstand in backyard

Depending on how adventurous and physically active your children are, they might get some bumps and bruises while climbing trees, swinging, or navigating obstacle courses. It’s always a good idea to establish safety rules and to have a basic first aid kit on hand for minor emergencies. But actually, the benefits of playing out of doors can’t help but make kids more physically fit, more independent, and provide an outlet for stress. Whether you use the ideas here or brainstorm your own, backyard projects are sure to provide you and your children with hours of creativity, togetherness, and fun.

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Getting Silly With Kids has Proven Benefits

A recent study suggests that parents just getting silly with their kids can prevent problem behaviors like ADHD and aggression. Children, as it turns out, love it when their parents get silly with them. That could mean anything from using funny voices for characters in a storybook, or tapping the child’s nose when reading the word “nose.” And it seems that the benefits of getting silly with kids aren’t exclusive to story time. Any time you are playful with your children, you’re helping to shape their social and emotional development and behavior in a most positive way.

The study, Reading Aloud, Play and Social-Emotional Development (Pediatrics, February 2018), offered a special invention called the Video Interaction Project (VIP) to 225 families with children aged newborn to five years. In the VIP intervention, a program dating back to 1998, a parenting coach spends time with parents discussing their developmental goals for their children during a regular visit to the pediatrician. Parents are given age-appropriate educational toys and books to take home for their children. Then parents are directed to read to and play with their children and the session is captured on videotape. The parenting coach then has the parents watch the videotape, pointing out how children respond to the different thing parents do as they spend time with their children.

“They get to see themselves on videotape and it can be very eye-opening how their child reacts to them when they do different things,” said Adriana Weisleder, a co-author of the study, speaking to the New York Times. “We try to highlight the positive things in that interaction—maybe they feel a little silly, and then we show them on the tape how much their kid loves it when they do these things, how fun it is—it can be very motivating,” concludes Weisleider, who serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University.

Mother reads to two laughing girls
Getting silly during story time is a good thing.

As it turns out, the Video Interaction Project had already proven its worth before this most study took place. An earlier study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had better behavior than those in the control group. They were far less likely to be hyperactive or aggressive than the children who received no intervention at all.

What the new study did was look at those same children a year and a half later, as the children neared the age of school entry. Were those early improvements in behavior still there? Did it really make that much of a difference in a child’s behavior when the playfulness of a parent/child interaction was pointed out to parents? The answer turns out to be yes, absolutely. The children whose families took part in those early interventions had better behavior. They didn’t have attention difficulties, weren’t hyperactive, showed less aggression. And these are the behaviors that can get in the way of a schoolchild’s learning.

The new study also had older children (3-5 years) receive a second intervention. The positive benefits of intervention were all the stronger for the extra “dose” the children received. After all, the intervention pushes positive parenting and the more of that, the better. Fact.

Little Girl touches smiling mothers nose as mom reads storybook
Getting silly during story time is as easy as letting your child “honk” the horn during story time. Your nose, of course, is the horn.

This is important because the children who take part in the VIP intervention are from low-income families. These children are at greater risk for ADHD and other behavior problems. Children who come to school with behavior issues are less likely to do well in school and get ahead.

What parents should learn from all this is that even if you have no money to spend on clothes for your children or fancy private schools, you can read to, play with, and get silly with your child and it will have a huge positive impact on your child’s emotional and social development, and his or her academic success, too. Dr. Weisleder explains that when parents read to and play with their children, they confront challenges that are outside their everyday experiences. Adults can help children think about how they can deal with these situations.

It could be simpler than that, of course. Getting silly with your kids means bonding with them, having a good time together. “Maybe engaging in more reading and play both directly reduces kids’ behavior problems because they’re happier and also makes parents enjoy their child more and view that relationship more positively,” says Weisleder.

Mother Reads to Daughter in tent with both holding flashlights and smiling
Getting silly can be all about location, location, location. Plus flashlights.

10 Suggestions for Getting Silly

We absolutely agree. And maybe we don’t need to analyze this so closely, but make sure instead to spend lots of time both reading to our children and getting silly with them. To that end, we offer 10 suggestions for getting silly with your kids (feel free to add to our list!):

  1. Hand-washing Fun. Sing “Happy Birthday” twice every time your child washes her hands (you too!). This is the amount of time needed to rinse off those germs with hot sudsy water. But a song makes washing fun and there’s just something ridiculous about singing happy birthday out of context.
  2. Dance Out Your Emotions. Put on some music and dance it out together with your child! Or call out emotions like “Happy” or “Sad” to your child and have her dance the different feelings as you name them.
  3. Tell A Silly Story Together. Take turns telling a story, breaking off at random with one of you taking up the narrative where the other leaves off (and so forth).
  4. Have a water balloon fight! Fill a bucket with tiny water balloons (water bombs). Then go to the nearest sports field and have at it. See who can throw the farthest. Getting wet is all part of the fun.
  5. Turn Getting Dressed Into a Game. For a toddler who hates getting dressed, turn it into a game. “Here comes the Zipper Monster” you can say as you pull up that zipper and make your child squeal with happy surprise. Or tease, “Where’s your head? Where are your arms?? Oh my, I can’t find them at all!” as you pull your child’s sweater over her head and arms.
  6. Use Funny Voices During Story Time. Use different voices for the characters (including animal characters!) in your child’s bedtime story to make the story come alive for her.
  7. Make a Silly Shadow Show. After you turn out the overhead lights leaving only the night light, make an awesome animal shadow show with your child on her bedroom wall. Make those shadows talk to each other, bump into each other, and fake yell at each other.
  1. Compose a Silly Family Symphony. At the dinner table, nod at each member of the family to add a phrase of made-up music or percussion. As each person joins in, you’ll have a crazy music round that sounds like a broken symphony! Keep it going until you all crack up laughing, then begin again, with new sounds and melodies.
  2. Speak Pig Latin. Teach your child Pig Latin and then have an entire conversation in that language!
  3. Make Silly Orange Wedge Smiles. Cut an orange into wedges. Eat the fruit, leaving the rind intact. Put the peels in your mouths over your closed teeth. Orange you glad you smiled? For a variation on this theme, top fingers with raspberry “caps” for instant “manicures.”Man getting silly with orange wedge smile

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Homemade Playdough Recipe (Old-School, Anti-Tech!)

Homemade playdough may be just the ticket to get your kids away from their screens. It’s easy to make and gives kids hours of fun. You probably already have the ingredients on hand in your pantry.

When freshly made, the playdough is warm and feel so good on the hands. This particular recipe, while not tasty, is edible, and is certainly non-toxic. It’s just as good as the store-bought brand, but you can tailor-make your color palette. With this in mind, make several batches so kids have lots of different colors to work with. They will love you for the extra effort!

Get kids’ imaginations going by putting out various kitchen utensils for them to use with the homemade playdough. Give them dull butter knives, rolling pins, a garlic press, a melon baller, or anything else you can think of that isn’t sharp and can be used to make amazing shapes and textures in the dough. When children’s attention flags, you can assign them themes or contests to awaken their interest.

child rolls out homemade playdough with miniature plastic rolling pin

Homemade Playdough Activities

Making tiny replicas of birds’ nests containing tiny eggs is so much fun! So is layering rolled-out pieces of dough, rolling them into cylinders, and pulling out the “petals” to make roses. If you play along with your children, or there are other children or siblings around, create a homemade playdough contest using these examples to get you started:

  • Most creative homemade playdough item
  • Prettiest rose
  • Scariest homemade playdough monster
  • Longest “snake”

Don’t be surprised if “older” children can’t help themselves and must get in on the sensory fun. Even adults like to play with this colorful stuff, though it may embarrass them to admit this fact (hint: think of adult coloring books and give yourself permission to play).

A penguin and a fantasy creature
(artwork by Asher Epstein, photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Homemade Playdough: Vacation Solution

Homemade playdough is a good solution for the long summer vacation or for snow days. It’s an any-weather solution. And it’s the complete opposite of tech. The sight of homemade playdough will have your kids running away from their computer screens to stick their hands in the colorful dough: there’s just something about the stuff.

Best of all, you can give yourself a pat on the back when you make homemade playdough. It’s not rocket-science. It’s so easy to whip up a batch. And it makes you the greatest parent in the world to your child at the moment you show them what you’ve made for them.

Not to mention, did we say it takes kids away from their screens? Old-school homemade playdough. It’s the anti-tech!

Viking ship
(artwork by Asher Epstein, photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Colorful Homemade Playdough


  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 2 teaspoons food coloring
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water


  1. Combine flour, salt, and cream of tartar in medium saucepan
  2. Add water, food coloring, and oil
  3. Stir over medium heat with wooden spoon for 3-5 minutes until dough leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball
  4. Remove from heat, allow dough to cool in pan
  5. Turn dough out onto counter and knead until smooth
  6. Store in refrigerator in airtight container or Ziploc freezer bag

Note: This modeling clay lasts 6 months thanks to the addition of cream of tartar.

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Top 10 Educational and Enriching Things to Do With Kids This Summer

School is out, or it will be within a few short weeks. Your children might be anticipating long, lazy days of watching Netflix and playing video games. You might be checking your calendar, not knowing what to do to get the kids off of their electronics and out doing something productive and fun. It can be hard to keep kids entertained all summer, which is why we’ve put together a list of the top 10 educational and enriching activities to inspire you and your children!

little girl enjoys summer library fun with books on head

#1 Go to the Library

Children often lose some of their reading skills over the summer, which sets them back when school starts up again in August or September. Visiting the library on a weekly or biweekly basis gives kids the chance to keep up their skills by reading books of their choosing. Encourage them to choose books that roughly correlate with their reading level, but don’t worry if they enjoy books that are easier to read. Any reading will help them stay on track.

daughter rides father's shoulders as they tour their toqn

#2 Explore Your Town

There are likely fun, educational places in your own city or town that you have never taken your children to. If you were going to host family members with children the same ages as your kids, where would you think about taking them? Play tourist in your own town and explore the nearby attractions.

mother daughter cooking lesson

#3 Teach Them to Cook

During the school year, it can be hectic to get meals made and on the table in time to get the kids off to soccer practice and leave time to get homework done. During the summer, however, you might have more time. Teach your children how to make your family favorites and explore some new recipes together, too.

#4 Learn How to Take Photographs

Do you ever see a beautiful bird, a stunning sunset, or even an interesting insect? All of these are worth pointing out to your kids. If you have a camera (or even a smartphone!), you can also teach them how to take good photographs. Take a photography class together if you’re interested in making it into a hobby; check in with your local community centers to see if this type of class is available.

children on parents' shoulders at concert

#5 Attend Music Events

Does your city or town sponsor free music gatherings on summer evenings? Many areas do; it might be held on a town green, near the city hall, or at a park. These types of events can consist of hired bands or simply members of the community getting together to play instruments, sing, and dance. These are great opportunities to introduce your children to music and to help them become part of the community. Pack a picnic dinner and encourage them to dance and enjoy the music.

animation of welcoming exchange student


#6 Host an Exchange Student

There are organizations that bring teenagers from other countries to the United States for a few weeks or a month during the summer to learn a bit about American culture and to practice their English. This is a great way to learn more about another culture while extending hospitality to another young person. If you enjoy the experience, you might even consider hosting a student who is here for the academic year!

mother daughter art lesson

#7 Make Time for Art

Letting kids do art projects can be messy and inconvenient, but it’s so important to let them express their creativity. Stock up on art supplies like paper, crayons, paint, colored pencils, glue, kid-size scissors, googly eyes, feathers, beads, and anything else you can think of. Use a plastic cover on your table or set the kids up in the backyard on a nice day, and let them experiment.

popcorn and family movie time

#8 Introduce Them to Old Movies

While you might be trying to minimize time spent in front of the television, watching old movies with a parent or grandparent can be a great way to spend time together indoors on a rainy day. Choose flicks you enjoyed as a child. One caveat: If it’s been decades since you have last seen a childhood favorite, check out the rating on a site like Common Sense Media. More than a few parents have been surprised by some of the content in movies they enjoyed as children.

family camping trip

#9 Go Summer Camping

“There is perhaps nothing that says childhood summer quite like camping,” says Angela Stringfellow, senior editor at Family Living Today. You can make it a week-long trip in an RV, find a camp that has air-conditioned cabins, or just pitch a tent in your backyard. Whatever type of camping appeals to you, be sure to roast marshmallows, catch fireflies, and sing around a campfire for memories that will last your child well into adulthood.

mother and two daughters volunteer at soup kitchen

#10 Volunteer Together

Making a difference in your community is a wonderful way to round out the summer and add some enrichment to your child’s life. Volunteering can include playing with kitties or puppies at the animal shelter, handing out groceries to food pantry patrons, or helping an elderly shut-in with chores around the house. Working together to serve the less fortunate will be a habit that your child can practice for a lifetime.

What are your best ideas for keeping kids busy, engaged, and learning this summer?

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Recipes Kids Can Make and Eat

Recipes easy enough for kids to prepare are a wonderful thing find for any parent looking for a stress-free way for children to have productive fun. The following recipes are not only easy and delicious for children and adults alike, but provide quality time for parents and children in the hours after school. You’ll not only have fun together preparing these sweet treats, but enjoy eating them together.

Recipes and Clean-Up

After preparing any of these three recipes, use clean-up time to teach children not only how to clean, but that clean-up comes with every project, be it preparing recipes, doing arts and crafts, or simply playing with toys. Clean-up should be fun, of course! Sing silly songs as you work. Put a drop of soap and warm water in the blender after making the berry smoothie and watch it foam up at the flip of a switch!

Tutti Frutti Fruit Skewers with Vanilla-Honey Yogurt Dip

Makes 20 skewers


  • 10 wooden skewers
  • Assorted fruit, peeled, stemmed, cored, as necessary
  • 2 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Styrofoam block (or Styrofoam ball sliced across the bottom to sit flat on table)


  1. To make the dip, stir together yogurt, vanilla extract, honey, and cinnamon, in a medium-sized bowl
  2. Thread fruit onto skewers, alternating types of fruit
  3. Stick skewers into Styrofoam to stand
  4. Serve skewers with yogurt dip

Chocolate-Dipped Apricots

Makes 24 apricots


  • 24 dried apricots
  • 11-ounce bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • Parchment paper


  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Place chocolate and coconut oil in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for one minute. Let sit for one minute, then stir.
  3. Microwave chocolate for 15 seconds, stir, then repeat, microwaving chocolate in 15-second intervals, until chocolate is almost completely melted. Stir chocolate until melted and smooth.
  4. Dip each apricot into the chocolate to half-way coat the fruit, setting each dipped apricot on the paper-lined baking sheet. Place the tray in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to help set the chocolate coating.
  5. Store dipped apricots in the refrigerator, or at room temperature, according to preference.

Berry Good Smoothie

Makes 4 8-ounce smoothies


  • 2 handfuls, ready-to-eat baby spinach leaves
  • 2 cups frozen berries (use whatever type you have on hand, or an assortment)
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon honey


  1. Place all ingredients in a blender.
  2. Blend until smooth.
  3. If you like your smoothie thinner, add more coconut milk, a little bit at a time, until it’s just the way you like it.
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Sensory Play: It’s Summer!

Sensory play is about playing games that stimulate the senses. Children use their senses to understand the world they live in. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste offer different ways for children to experience their surroundings.

Sensory play is also important for developing the senses themselves. As children use their senses, they learn how to make sense of the various stimuli that come at them from different directions. A child who plays sensory games that involve sense of smell, for instance, will develop his sense of smell. The child will learn that some smells are pleasing (flowers, fruit) while other smells may signal danger (cooking gas). The child will also sharpen his senses so that eventually, he can tell the difference between grape and lemon scents.

That’s just sense of smell, but the same is true of all the senses. If you think of a baby who puts everything in her mouth, you understand this immediately. The child must be given things that are safe to put in the mouth, because at that stage, everything is going to end up in her mouth. You wouldn’t, for instance, put a baby of that age in the sandbox, because she’s going to put sand in her mouth. This is how, at this age, she learns about her environment. She learns, for instance, that some things don’t taste very good!

Using the senses, develops the senses. This is true for all children. Some children, however, have issues with sensory integration. These children may have autism or sensory integration dysfunction disorder. The disorders may make it difficult for children to understand and organize the stimuli that come at them by way of the five senses. Think of how some people can’t stand the sensation of a wool sweater against their skin. Children with sensory integration difficulties may need labels cut out of their clothing, and may only be able to tolerate certain fabrics.

Sensory Play Offers Extra Practice

That’s just a single example of a sensory issue relating to sense of touch. A child may find certain sounds too stimulating and may need to wear earphones to block out the background noise in his environment. For these children, too, sensory play offers extra practice in sorting out the senses.

During the summer, children can lose ground in their learning. This is a good time to offer them sensory play time. Sensory play doesn’t feel like learning. It feels like fun. It is fun.

Meantime, sensory play can help build your child’s vocabulary by adding words like sour, salty, bitter, and sweet. Water can be cold, hot, wet, frozen, blue, still, or move in waves. A tree’s bark may be smooth or rough.

Sensory play can also help your child develop fine motor skills. Playing with sand, clay, or a bowl of noodles can help develop these senses as kids pinch clay, pour sand, or pick up a noodle, for instance. This sort of play readies a child for tasks like writing, tying shoes, zipping zippers, and buttoning buttons.

Sensory Play Helps Calm

Sensory play also has a calming effect on children. This is the reason your child is calmer after a bath, or after hard outdoor play, or jumping on his bed. Working the senses is known to help children cope with the discomfort of fatigue, restlessness or boredom, for instance.

Create An Edible Sensory Experience

Here is a recipe for Edible Sensory Playballs, from Emma and Trish over at the Mud Kitchen. These playballs are awesome because they stimulate all five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. Most of all, kids have a blast learning while they play.

Prepare the playballs a day before you plan to use them, as they need time to set.

You’ll need:

  • Jello in assorted flavors
  • Ice ball molds in two different sizes
  • A large tray or tub
  • Bowls (for half spheres)

Mix jello in separate batches to keep colors and flavors separated, and using slightly less water than called for for a firmer consistency. Pour the jello mixture into ice ball molds and/or bowls.

When jello is set, empty the molds and bowls onto a large tray and let the kids at ’em. They are irresistible. In fact, you’ll want to get in on the fun along with them, and so will all the other adults in your home!

There will be all these awesome fruity smells and colors and textures. Kids will dive right in to smash the balls flat or squish them between their fingers. They’ll want to do a taste-test, too, which is all part of the fun.

Note that jello also makes funny, delightful sounds as you mess with it on the tray.

Small Grant for TADA! Because Every Child Deserves a Stage

Small Grant for TADA! Because Every Child Deserves a Stage
TADA!’s Resident Youth Ensemble Program has won the nation’s highest distinction, the Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. TADA! co-founder and Executive and Artistic Director Janine (Nina) Trevens holding the award. (courtesy)

A very special children’s theater school called TADA! just became the recipient of a small grant from Kars4Kids. We wanted to help TADA! because Kars4Kids is a willing partner to anything that helps children grow and blossom as they should. And we already knew that musical theater could do just that.

After all, we’ve twice covered on the blog the benefits of drama and performance for young people.

Yeah. We wanted to be part of that mission. So now we are.

Kars4Kids spoke to Co-Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of TADA! Janine (Nina) Trevens, to find out how she ended up creating this amazing theater for children and to learn about the theater itself. Our hope in sharing this interview is that others will be inspired to start theater companies for children in their own areas. Because doesn’t every child deserve a stage?

Kars4Kids: When did you first have the idea to open a children’s theater school and how long did it take until you were able to open? Tell us a bit about that process.

TADA! Ensemble Cast Member Riya Nagpal

Riya Nagpal is a member of the TADA! Ensemble. She’s 13 years old and has been in TADA! for the past four years. Riya agreed to talk with Kars4Kids about what it’s like to be part of TADA!

Riya Nagpal
Riya Nagpal, TADA! Ensemble cast member (courtesy)


Kars4Kids: How old were you when you auditioned for TADA and how did that come about?

Riya Nagpal: I was ten years old when I auditioned for TADA!. I wasn’t really a social butterfly at that point. I always sat in the back of my classes and I didn’t really talk that much to other kids. I didn’t have that many friends and I was too scared to make any. The only way I would break out of my shell was to listen to music and dance and sing and read. So, to break me out of my shell, my mom was looking online to find places to help me talk more when she came across an ad about the TADA! auditions. My mom signed me up, and the story just goes on from there.

Kars4Kids: What does it feel like to be part of TADA? Are the classes difficult? How do you feel about your teachers and classmates at TADA?

Riya Nagpal: It’s like being part of a really close knit family. We have a lot of differences, and we do disagree on things, but in the end, we’re still always there for each other no matter what. All of my teachers and classmates are great. The teachers are always supportive and will offer to go over a routine, a scene, or a song, or whatever you’re struggling with. All of my classmates and friends here are always happy to run through something with you. They will stand behind you no matter what.

Kars4Kids: How many hours a week do you spend on your work with TADA? How do you manage your school work on top of your TADA work? Is that a struggle?

Riya Nagpal: I spend about an average 20 hours a week at TADA!, between rehearsals, events, and volunteering. I’ll be honest; it can be a bit of a struggle to manage homework and TADA!. But I work hard and I try to stay on top of it. I do a lot of my homework at TADA! with help from staff if needed so that when I get home, I only have a little bit left so that I can relax. It’s definitely preparing me for the future.

Kars4Kids: What would your life have been like without TADA? How is your life different as a result of being in TADA?

Riya Nagpal: Now that’s a crazy thing to think about! I mean, TADA!’s done a lot for me, from breaking me out of my shell to giving me a second family, among other things. I mean, I guess I would be even quieter than I was before, barely speaking to anyone. But thanks to them, I have friends, a new family, dozens of new experiences, and thousands of more to come! I’m so grateful to be with them.

Kars4Kids: What do you want to do when you’re finished with school?

Riya Nagpal: I have no idea. I always change my mind. There are lots of options in today’s day and age and there are lots of jobs that I consider important and that I’d like to take up as a career. I always consider the arts as an option, but I think there are a lot of other things that I would like to have as a job.

Kars4Kids:What is the best part of being in musical theater? What does it feel like to be on the stage in front of a gazillion people? How do you feel after a performance?

Riya Nagpal: There are so many great things about being here. One of the best parts of being at TADA! is just having that feeling of being a different person as soon as you step onto that stage. When you take on a character, it’s like you transform into an entirely different person altogether! I mean, it can definitely be nerve-wracking when you’re up on that stage. The first time I did a show, I was terrified! But after you finish, you miss it a lot. When the show’s over, there’s this overall feeling of pride, kind of like when you ride a bike for the first time, or when you ace a test. It’s just so exhilarating, and once it’s over you miss it.

Nina Trevens: I worked as a stage manager in theater for a number of years but I wanted to work with children which was my passion. I saw how that was possible when I ended up working as the production stage manager at The First All Children’s Theater for a number of years but I wanted to direct and that wasn’t a possibility there.

I went back to stage managing adult theater and got a job as a stage manager on a show which was part of a festival. The producer wanted to do all different kinds of theater. My Mom, Francine Trevens, was directing a different show in that festival and she told the producer that I had a children’s theater company which I didn’t at the time. The producer asked me for a proposal—what would my children’s theater be able to do in this festival?

I asked a choreographer friend, Linda Reiff, to partner with me to write the proposal. We went away for the weekend and came up with a dance piece and a new musical that we would be able to do as part of the festival. The producer accepted the proposal and so TADA! began in the summer of 1983.TADA! Camp

We were given the space, equipment, and marketing. Linda and I found contributors and staff and cast the show.  Once that production ended, Linda and I decided we wanted to continue with TADA! so then we went through the process to become a not-for-profit theater company – that took a year – and we continued to produce original musicals and dance pieces performed by kids for family audiences.

Kars4Kids: What was the first musical you performed? How many children were enrolled that first year? Catching Bubbles at TADA!

Nina Trevens: The first musical was The Little House of Cookies and it was done in conjunction with a dance piece entitled, The Odd Ball. The cast was comprised of 15 kids ages 8-17.

Kars4Kids: How many kids are currently enrolled in the regular 8-18 TADA! program?

Nina Trevens: The ensemble is currently comprised of 86 members.

Kars4Kids: Tada! holds musical theater classes for ages 1-2. Now that’s intriguing. The babies must love this! WhatPuppet fun at TADA! exactly do you do with the babies? What is the aim of this class? 

Nina Trevens: Our class for age 1-2 is called Creative Musical Play. It is a chance for moms, dads and caretakers to have a play date with their little ones and their friends. The adults get in on the action while watching their child learn rhythmic coordination, language and storytelling skills through song.

Kars4Kids: You have some pretty big names on your artistic advisory board. Chita Rivera and Leslie Uggams, are for instance, recognizable names. How did you manage to enlist their help? It must take some courage to approach the big names. 

Nina Trevens: Many of the people on the Artistic Advisory Board I had worked with in the past so I just asked them if they would lend their names in support of TADA! and they said yes. I guess it took courage—I’ve been told that I’m a brave person but I just knew what I wanted and I knew how much TADA! meant to me so I asked people to be a part of TADA!.

Kars4Kids: The range of programs you have is quite impressive. It’s hard to know how TADA! manages it all. Have you done a count of all the programs you do? How many full time staffers do you employ? 

Nina Trevens: Thank you. I haven’t actually done a count of all the different specific classes/camps/residencies/shows/ensemble events and ensemble classes we do yearly. I think of TADA! as two main programs—the two main arms of TADA! are The Theater/Ensemble Department and The Education Department. TADA! has 8 full-time staff members, 6 year-round part-time, over 40 Teaching Artists and another 15 -25 people hired on a per production basis.

Kars4Kids: Does the TADA! program, being free, target children from lower income homes? Can you tell us about some of your graduates: what they came from and where they are now? We’d would love to hear about your most successful students. We noted Ricky Lake, for instance.

Nina Trevens: Not at all. The ensemble Program does not actually target children from any specific income bracket. In fact, the goal of the Ensemble Program is to work with youth and teens from different racial, economic and neighborhood backgrounds. Kerry Washington was in a TADA! show when she was a kid and so was Josh Peck (Grandfathered), Jordan Peele (Key & Peele, Life in Pieces), Mizuo Peck (all Night at the Museum movies), Azealia Banks (International Rap Artist), Sasha Allen (national tour of Pippin, The Voice), Christina Vidal (Code Black), Amar Ramasar (New York City Ballet) as well as many other working actors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, moms, dads, and etc.

Kars4Kids: TADA! requires a huge time commitment. Does this tend to cut into school work? We understand that the idea is to build the child so the child performs better in all arenas, including school, but it would seem difficult for a kid to keep up with both. If a child’s grades dip, how is this handled, if at all? Is there ever contact between a child’s school and the TADA! staff?

Nina Trevens: For ensemble members, TADA! can be a huge time commitment at certain times of the year and then not much at other times—it really depends on the member. When any member is actually rehearsing a show—they can be at TADA! 17 hours a week if they are called into every rehearsal but not everyone is called into every rehearsal. Once the show opens then the actors are just there for performances which is generally on the weekends while school is not in session.

When actors arrive at the theater either before rehearsals or performances or classes begin, then they can spend time doing their homework. Most of our Ensemble Members learn time-management skills and find a way to get their homework done as well as rehearse.

Rehearsals are generally only 5-7 weeks and 4-5 days a week after school or on weekends. Most ensemble members do one or two shows a year so it’s not like they have to be here 17 hours every week. TADA!’s ensemble manager and I meet with each ensemble member and a parent at the beginning of each year to devise a plan for them. Each ensemble member’s plan is different based on what else is going on in their life and what they want to do at TADA!.

If a child’s grades in school dip, TADA!’s Ensemble Manager will work with the member and their parents to come up with things that could help such as helping them find homework help, refining their schedule, and finding them a tutor. We do not work with schools directly, we work with the ensemble member and their family.

TADA! Does the Kars4Kids Jingle!

It’s only good manners to teach kids to write thank-you notes. But there are thank-you notes and then there are thank-you notes. The students at TADA! said thank you to Kars4Kids for their small grant in a very big way: they recorded their own version of the Kars4Kids jingle!

Now, how’s that for gratitude?
(We think these kids are just the best!)

Kars4Kids:  We were surprised to note that the suggested age of children taking part in the Banned Broadway Project is from age 13. The subject matter seemed “mature.” We’d be interested in your thoughts on this subject.

Nina Trevens: Banned Broadway was not a production. There is nothing saying every child or even every member (as I said above we meet with each member to devise a plan that is right for them) has to be involved in every production.

Banned Broadway is a TEEN initiative, for high school students, that started last year in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship. We recommended aged 13 and up for our audiences due to the nature of the material which dealt with sex and religion. The material is chosen with input from the teen ensemble members with the staff knowing what they can handle.

I do believe that teens can handle the material we chose to perform. I think people underestimate children and teenagers. Theater allows people to discuss things and maybe think differently than they would have prior to seeing or being in the work. Theater is also subjective—some people might like a work and others won’t—that’s fine.

It’s not about pleasing everyone. TADA!’s mainstage productions are original musicals performed by 8—18 year old ensemble members for family audiences (3 years old and up). The musicals are commissioned specifically for the ensemble from professional theater composers, lyricists and playwrights.

Kars4Kids: The idea of kids getting free tickets to Broadway shows and healthy snacks and so forth, on top of all they learn at TADA! had some of us feeling jealous! What a wonderful thing you do for children. Are you very selective about which kids you accept? Tell us about the selection process. Does a strong family support system factor in? How often do you have to kick kids out of the program?

Nina Trevens: Thank you again. Ensemble members are chosen through an open audition process based on talent. At the initial audition, auditionees learn a song, and some choreography and then perform in small groups. If they are asked to come to a callback, they learn more songs and choreography and also read scenes.

This past year we saw over 300 people and accepted 30 into the ensemble. It is important that TADA! ensemble members come from different boroughs and backgrounds so we also look at who is already in the ensemble and how to round out the group as a whole. We also look at the productions we are doing in the coming season and see what is needed to cast the shows. Putting all that together is how we chose who we accepted into the ensemble.

It takes a lot for us to kick a kid out of the program. We may have to ask someone to leave a show based on unapproved conflicts and/or too many conflicts or for missing a performance. However, that person would not be kicked out of the program. We have policies and procedures that all ensemble members must follow—we also have procedures if a member isn’t following the policies. Someone would be asked to leave the program due to violence, theft or engaging in unprofessional behavior on or off stage.

Kars4Kids: Unfortunately, TADA! only operates in the New York metropolitan area. Do you have any advice for people outside this area who might want to start a similar community theater program? 

Nina Trevens: I can be hired to consult and share TADA!’s best practices.

Blue Orange Games: Taking the Bored Out of Board Games

Blue Orange Games: Taking the Bored Out of Board Games
Friends having a game of Wink (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

Board games, card games, games in general? I love them. My family loves them.

Don’t get me wrong. We adore online computer games every bit as much. Technology is awesome. But there’s just something about sitting around the table and playing a game together as a family, or even with friends. There’s an intimacy to playing real games that you can’t achieve with virtual, screen-based games.

On the other hand, there aren’t that many truly great games. If you think about it, you can probably name all your favorite board games without running out of fingers. Scrabble, Monopoly, chess, checkers, backgammon, Stratego, Sorry, The Game of Life, Go, um. Yeah.

Kids playing KeeKee the Rocking Monkey. (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games), board games
Kids playing KeeKee the Rocking Monkey (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

That’s why chances are, if you yell into your crowded living room at holiday time, “Who wants to play Trivial Pursuit?” you’re going to hear the echo of your own voice and meet a lot of blank stares.

We’re bored with board games.

Meantime, the internet offers us infinite variety to feed our gaming habit and our need for the new. Which is why, even though it’s the holidays, and it’s family time, you probably have at least 6 people sitting in your living room looking at their individual screens.This is not a good thing. It does not bode well for the concept of family togetherness, if you grasp my meaning.

That’s why I was thrilled to come across the Blue Orange Games website. Not only do the people at Blue Orange Games have new board games I’ve never seen before, they actually look like games normal people would like to play. I can totally see my family getting addicted to Blue Orange Games’ flagship game creation, Gobblet.

Gobblet reminds one of a fast-moving corner street game (or is it a magician?) where the hapless patsy invariably chooses the wrong cup (nope, no coin under there) and loses his money. But it’s also a lot like tic tac toe, with a twist. The game is deceptively simple. It’s the kind of game where you’re sure you’re winning when all of the sudden your kid trounces you and you’re left with your mouth hanging open saying, “I lost again?? No way. Play me another round. C’mon. Just one more time?”

Yup. That’s the kind of game it is.

Gobblet gets its name from the way large, cup-like pieces gobble up smaller ones. This game is beautiful to look at and the sleek wooden pieces a pleasure to handle. The manufacturers say that Gobblet is superb for improving visual perception, problem solving, memory, plus focus and attention skills. I like the fact that Gobblet is suitable for ages 7 to adult. It is so rare to find board games that can be played by all ages, which is what we’re all looking for in a family game, especially at holiday time.

Browsing the Blue Orange Games website I found a ton of intriguing board games and other types of games I would like to have or purchase for family members. The website in and of itself is a pleasure to surf. Each game carries a description detailing the appropriate age range for players and the specific skills that will be improved upon play.Moreover, Blue Orange has games that are compact which can keep kids occupied during a long drive or plane trip, for instance. The Blue Orange line called Spot It! consists of flash cards (in a number of disciplines such as languages, shapes, and numbers), memory games, and matching games. There’s even a Spot It! edition that is waterproof, Spot It! Splash, especially made for jaunts to the beach.

Board Game Benefits

We all know that there are benefits to gaming. Playing games can help lower blood pressure, prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and strengthen the immune system, for instance. These are benefits you can get from playing any game, be it a board game or a virtual online computer game.

There are, however, at least four benefits one can only get from playing board games (and other games with physical components such as cards, for instance), that you just can’t get from computer games:

      • Build Family Bonds: Playing games together as a family improves family closeness. It’s a way to get to know each others’ similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses. Building the family means building the individuals of the family to help them stand tall.
      • Improve Social Skills: When friends play games together, it teaches them how to be effective when communicating in words. It also teaches people the kindness of sharing and the patience involved in taking turns. Playing games can reveal important talents and characteristics, showing a side of an acquaintance you may not have noticed before. You’ll know a friend better, after you’ve played a game with that friend.
      • Boost Number Skills: At least one study has shown that children from low-income homes gain a better understanding of numbers and math skills from playing certain board games, such as Chutes and Ladders. These children don’t have board games at home and aren’t getting good counting practice. When children have to count to play these games, it improves their numbers skills. Why Chutes and Ladders? It works best when kids have to count to a specific number, starting from a numbered space within the game, for instance, counting four spaces from the 14th space takes the child to 18. Chutes and Ladders has consecutively numbered, linearly–aligned spaces.
      • Sharpen Fine Motor Skills: Gripping and moving game pieces can help improve a preschooler’s manual dexterity, coordination, and flexibility. Regular game play can help ready a child to grip and use a pencil. Playing games with physical components can also serve as occupational therapy. Board games can help restore muscle and nerve function after an accident or stroke, or improve the condition of those with mental or physical disabilities.

Spot It! games each come in their own small round tins. You can easily pop a few of them into a handbag to keep children occupied while waiting to see the doctor, or pull one out for a child to play with while sick in bed and going out of her mind with boredom. I wouldn’t mind having a whole bunch of them.

(photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)
(photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

Happily, for me, Blue Orange Games products come in a range of prices. Otherwise, my wallet might be in trouble. Because, cautionary note: I wouldn’t call Blue Orange games inexpensive, but they are well-made and sturdy, and prices are in keeping with the quality of the games.

I found, for instance, Crazy Cheese Puzzle, at Amazon, on sale for $6.99 (down from the list price of $10.99). The game is small and very portable, has nine wooden pieces, a travel pouch, illustrated rules, and a solution key. You can find cheaper games for sure. But I don’t think you’ll find anything of this quality for a better price.

Every single game just has something about it; something charming, something nostalgic, that just beckons to you and says, “Come play with me.”

I can’t imagine, for instance, the small child who won’t be immediately enchanted by Zimbbos! with its carved wooden elephant and circus pieces. The game pieces would feel good in the hand—a joy for a young fist to hold and manipulate.

You might be wondering (as I did), what would drive someone to manufacture board games in this age of computer technology. No doubt you’d have to be a game-lover. And maybe, you’d also have to have some nostalgia for the hours spent playing board games with family and friends.

Turns out, you (and I) are not far off. Blue Orange Games was founded by Julien Mayot and Thierry Denoual in 2000, because, they say, they’re, “Driven to spread the timeless pleasure of connecting face to face with family and friends around a great game.”

Face to face. I think they may be on to something.

Mother of All Road Trips

The two “natives of France” decided they’d build games that aren’t too difficult to learn, that build skills, are well-made, and fun for a variety of ages. In coming up with the concept for Gobblet, for instance, Denoual consulted mathematicians and chess makers, and finally hired a wood worker to create a prototype. Denoual brought Mayot in as his partner and the two went on the mother of all road trips, schlepping 1,000 games across 22,000 miles over 3 months’ time, during which, you should know, they sold 10,000 copies of the game.


As for coming up with the name of their company (because that’s what you do after you sell 10,000 copies of your first game), Denoual and Mayot waxed poetic, naming their business after a surrealist poem by Paul Eluard entitled, The Earth is Blue Like an Orange. They wanted the name of their business to reflect their environmentally-friendly ethos.

So how’s business? Blue Orange is doing okay, thank you very much, having sold more than a million copies of Gobblet (just for instance). They’ve actually got a catalogue of more than 40 games by now and these are sold in more than a dozen countries across the world. You’ll find Blue Orange in more than 3,000 game stores in the United States, and that’s not counting the big chains like Toys”R”Us, Barnes and Noble, and Target.

Making a Zimbbos pyramid (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games), board games
Making a Zimbbos pyramid (photo courtesy: Blue Orange Games)

But Denoual and Mayot don’t want to lose touch with their original mission of people getting face to face around a game or even just in general. To that end, they repeat their original road trip all over again each year. But they’ve expanded.

Board Games Games Gurus

Today, the game makers have a team of assistants they call “Game Gurus” and they visit every single retailer carrying Blue Orange Games throughout the United States. In 2013, that came to 2,000 visits in 47 states, while covering 136,000 miles. Why do they do it?

Blue Orange believe in creating strong relationships with its retail partners and customers. It is these face to face talks that lead to product improvement and inspiration for the creation of new games. Blue Orange likes to say it’s bringing “Hot Games to a Cool Planet.”

Thinking about what you can possibly buy your kids this season that they don’t already have? Looking for something durable that will keep them happy and learning and off those screens—perhaps something you can do as a family? You should totally check out the selection at Blue Orange Games and get in some quality family face time. Because connecting face to face?

It’s what the holidays are all about.

What family board games are your favorites? Do you have a Blue Orange board game your family loves to play?

3 Cool Kid-Friendly Treats to Make and Eat

3 Cool Kid-Friendly Treats to Make and EatIt’s summer, the kids are home, and they are BORED STIFF. A month ago you had all these amazing resolutions of all the things you’d do together, the quality time you’d have, the bonding, the learning. And now?

It’s hot. They’re cranky. And you’ve had just about enough of summer.


Summer is completely impervious to the fact that you’re so totally done with “vacation.”

Summer doesn’t care that it’s too hot to move.

Summer is a completely cold heartless WITCH. (Except for the fact that summer is not cold. It is hot.)

Activities? You know how it is, you find a great activity on the web, you buy all the stuff, it keeps them busy for a grand total of one hour if you’re lucky, and then there’s this huge mess to clean up.

Little Girl Chops Vegetables

Also, these crafts never look like they do online. So. Unsatisfying.

Okay, so I’m going to tell you a secret, as a mother of 12, and a veteran of 32 straight, un-air-conditioned summers with children: you are not going to lick this problem nor nip it in the bud.

It will always be there. Every summer.

The only thing you can do is to forget your expectations. Or, not exactly forget them, but see them as something to work towards, but not as something you must attain against all odds.

3 Cool Kid-Friendly Treats to Make and Eat

Because Baby, the odds are stacked against you.

Instead, look over the end of each (inexorably long hot summer’s) day and note what went well and give yourself a mental pat on the back for that. Feel encouraged about that. Be glad about that, and then begin the next day anew.

Small victories is the way to go here.

And now, lecture over.

So Why Kid-Friendly Treats?

Moving right along, I thought I’d pass you a tip on three cool kid-friendly treats to make and eat. Why? Because a little cooking class with the kids goes further than most crafts because after they finish cooking they can then EAT their handiwork, which takes up more of those long empty minutes and hours of summer stretching endlessly forward. *sigh*

That said, I find that kids today like the IDEA of cooking more than they enjoy the cooking process. They watch a guy on the food channel making a sauce béchamel and think, “I could totally do that,” but then you stick them in front of a hunk of bread dough to knead and it’s just too much work and they go, “Nah. I don’t want to do this.”

Besides, have I mentioned it’s HOT. You don’t want to do anything that makes you (and the kids) get all hot and sweaty.

Which is precisely why these three kid-friendly treats are so great. They involve zero stove time, don’t heat up the kitchen, and aren’t particularly labor intensive, which means no one works up a sweat. It’s just good, kid-friendly fun.

You may even find yourself smiling for REAL, watching your kids actually having a good time.

Now stop looking at your watch.

Frozen GrapesFrozen Grapes

Because everything frozen tastes better and seems like actual cooking.

  1. Get out a colander, place it in the sink, put the grapes in the colander, and run water over the grapes, to wash them well.
  2. Place a clean dry towel on the countertop and transfer the grapes to the towel. Pat dry.
  3. Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper and place the washed, dried grapes in a single layer on the waxed paper.
  4. Freeze for 4-5 hours. (Tip: leave out some grapes for the kids to nosh, because they won’t want to wait 4-5 hours to sample their “creation.” Trust me on this.)
  5. Eat and enjoy! You can transfer any leftover grapes to Ziploc bags or freezer-safe air-tight storage containers.

Watermelon and Bulgarian Cheese with MintWatermelon and Bulgarian Cheese Salad or Skewers

This blend of sweet and salty cools and satisfies and looks so pretty, too.

  1. Wash some sprigs of fresh mint in a colander, place on a towel and pat dry. Strip the leaves from the stems, discarding the stems.
  2. Cut a ripe seedless watermelon into cubes.
  3. Cut a hunk of brined white cheese, Bulgarian or Feta cheese, into cubes.
  4. Combine all ingredients in a bowl
  5. Optional: grind on some fresh black pepper for a gourmet touch if your kids don’t think it’s “icky.”

Variation: Place a cube of watermelon and a cube of Bulgarian cheese on a skewer or frilly toothpick. Repeat until all the watermelon and cheese cubes are used up. Put the skewers on a plate and sprinkle with the mint leaves (and optional pepper).

Chocolate Covered Frozen Banana BitesChocolate Covered Banana Bites

Because chocolate. ‘Nuff said.

  1. Slice a ripe, but not too ripe banana into 1-2 inch chunks.
  2. Skewer each chunk of banana with a wooden party fork or pick.
  3. Place on waxed paper lined cookie sheet and freeze for at least one hour.
  4. Put 1/2 cup of chocolate chips in a microwave-safe drinking glass. Microwave at half power for about one minute (or until melted), stopping to stir the chocolate chips every ten seconds.
  5. Dip and swirl each frozen, skewered banana chunk into the melted chocolate, placing each chocolate-coated banana chunk back onto the waxed paper to catch any drips.
  6. Eat immediately, or refreeze.


Camp Memories: What Do You Remember?


What reminds you of camp? What camp memories are most poignant? Was it your bunk, your counselors, or friends? What foods do you still remember and relish decades later? Was it the camp songs? Was it the bug juice, camping trips, or the mess hall banquets? Do you want your children to enjoy the same experiences? If you were to send your children to camp, what would you want for them?

For me, my metal mess kit, uncooked barbecue chicken, maple syrup, and pine sol remind me of camp. When I was a camper in 1968, I went with my camp on a camp out. I was six years old, the youngest camper in the entire camp, and away from home for five weeks. My mother, a single working mom at the time, had gotten a scholarship for me to attend a Jewish camp in the Poconos, two hours from Philadelphia. I loved it. I went from being a latch-key child to having lots adults around to watch after and interact with me.

On the camp-out, the counselors set up circus-sized tents. I remember picking the coziest spot I could find to roll out my sleeping bag, setting up my stuffed animals, and hunkering down with the other campers.

The counselors built roaring campfires, and began to grill chicken. We unpacked our canteens and mess kits, played games, and waited with anticipation for dinner. Then a storm rolled in. Not just any storm. The sky seemed to open up and sheets of rain pounded our tests. Pools of rainwater collecting on the tent roof swelled and sprang drippy leaks inside the tent. Huddling together in the tents, we ate under-cooked chicken while lightening bolts lit up the sky.

The chicken was rubbery, pink, cold, and truly tasteless. After a couple hours of waiting out the rain, the counselors aborted the camping trip, loaded us into vans, and returned to camp.

Forty-five years later, I still think of camp whenever I grill chicken. It’s a sweet, sentimental flashback, a reminder of an innocent, intensely personal, familial setting where I felt safe, cared for, and busy.

Bunk challenges and camp banquets forge fond camp memories.
Bunk challenges and camp banquets forge fond camp memories.

I have other great camp memories. I looked forward to bunk challenges in the mess tent. A fork and knife breakfast meant that we could come to breakfast dressed in mismatched shoes, socks, and clothing. Movie nights meant we could camp out in the auditorium/gym in our pajamas and sleeping bags, each with a personal stash of candy and popcorn. Camp is where I learned about daddy long legs, frogs, crickets, fish, deer, and a whole host of wildlife I never saw in our apartment complex in Philadelphia.

Flash forward, I was lucky enough to send most of my children to sleep away camps. Some hated being away from home and recall their fondest memories were coming home. Others made life-long friends and fifteen years later still maintain these friendships. Camp is where I felt my first sense of freedom within the constraints of a safety net, where I was pushed out of my comfort when I learned how to swim, when I canoed on a lake, and when I endured a camping trip in a fierce thunderstorm.

While putting this post together, I surveyed a hundred of my social media friends and asked them–what are your favorite camp foods and camp memories? The answers were fun and most revealing. Many of the most important experiences, sentimental memories we have are away from our parents. And that’s important to note. It is this sense of independence, confidence that comes from being away from home and mastering homesickness, and collecting new competencies, close-knit friendships, and life-long memories that makes overnight camp a powerful developmental tool.

These are some of my favorite responses from former campers.

Under favorite foods–

Toasted marshmallows and s’mores. No need to explain. At least I hope not.

Toasted marshmallows never grow old.
Toasted marshmallows never grow old.

 Rocky Mountain Toast (we call it eggs in baskets in my house). It’s a slice of bread with a whole in the middle. The egg is fried with the slice of bread in a frying pan. Eat with or without maple syrup. Use the bread to wipe up the egg.

 Bug Juice (for a couple years, I thought it really was bug guts). Now I know the truth. Kool Aid!

I loved bug juice at camp because we couldn't have it at home.
I loved bug juice at camp because we couldn’t have it at home.

Beenie Weenie with Chili. Need I say more except keep the Bean-O close by.

Cream of Wheat with butter and sugar. My husband’s favorite although the kids and I eat it with grits.

Foil packets. These rock and any meal can be exciting when you throw a concoction in a foil packet and throw it on the grill. Hamburgers, potato chunks, onions, and tomato sauce, tuna melts, even applies and peaches with oatmeal and brown sugar to make a fruit crisp.

Under Favorite Memories–

Canoeing at the Delaware Water Gap. This is a breathtaking section of the Delaware River, if you’re unfamiliar.

Camp is where I met my husband (not me but one of my respondents).

Midnight hikes along the lake.

Camp outs

Camp banquets

Bunk challenges

The camp canteen

Going to the infirmary (lol)

Swimming in the lake

Have any others that I haven’t mentioned? Post them in the comments section and I may use them in my next camp post.









Educational Television: Is SpongeBob Square Pants The Best We Can Do?



When I was little, I spent weekend mornings watching Bugs Bunny, Wylie Coyote and the Roadrunner, and the Pink Panther episodes. It was a ritual I relished; and at the time, wasn’t considered educational or hazardous. It just was something kids did on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They watched cartoons just like they played outdoors or played “Cowboys and Indians” with cap guns. No one talked about the impact of watching too much television, or the impact of television on cognitive development.

Captain Kangaroo circa 1960

And the only real educational programs at the time were Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. Those of us raised in the 50s, 60s, and 70s watched Captain Kangaroo and fondly thought of the characters as television friends who helped us as we grew up.

With the advent of public television in the 60s and the subsequent technological revolution, and studies that focused on links between television viewing and violence acts committed by children, the subject of watching television, how much television, and the quality of television programming were highlighted. Educational television was good. Saturday morning cartoons were not so good. And parents who plopped their children in front of the television for a couple minute of parenting reprieve or as a convenient babysitter were chastised as relinquishing parental responsibility.

As an educational tool, television is considered a passive medium, one that limits the viewer’s engagement, has an addictive quality, and diminishes creativity. But there are exceptions.

With the flood of digital media, online videos, gaming, social media, and Cartoon Network, it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not. It’s hard to sift through the abundance of literature, reviews, and parenting guidelines. And it’s hard to know precisely how much or how little time is too much television time. Can educational television be beneficial to our children? To what extent? And if so, what are some of the best educational programs? Is SpongeBob Square Pants the best we can do?

Television Guidelines

The following are some guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children younger than 2 should not be exposed to television viewing. While television can be entertaining and mesmerizing for infants, long-term studies show that television has a negative effect on infants younger than 2.

Studies found that language skills in children exposed to television during the 0-2 year window had less interaction with parents. Less interaction means less language and conversation that impacts vocabulary and language development. Television viewing also interferes with play. Play in infants is shown to be crucial in cognitive development and emotional health. Also, television viewing at night is complicit with sleep disruptions. Poor sleep patterns in infants has been linked to mood, behavior, and learning.

For preschoolers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of television viewing, even educational television. In this age group, television viewing can enhance social skills such as sharing, manners, diversity, and cultural awareness. But pediatricians recommend that parents monitor shows for educational value, information content, and violence. Parents should also watch television with children. Watching with your child encourages parent/child interaction. It can also be a launching point for conversations, a way for a parent to mitigate concepts that might be confusing or scary for young children. And for increased language benefit, parents should read to preschoolers, not only as a way to reinforce vocabulary used in the television shows. They should read books about themes discussed in the television shows to help young children understand the world around them.

For older children and adolescents, pediatricians caution parents to be vigilant. Television viewing should be educational, of a higher quality and screened to limit gratuitous violence, suggestive material, drug orientation, and programs that skew healthy body image. If you plan to discuss a provocative subject with your child, television programming can be a good launching point, a segue to a more serious conversation with your child.

Educational Television and Its Benefits

Educational television, unlike the mass programming available around the clock, can be a powerful educational resource. In one study, “The Recontact Study,” Daniel R. Anderson found that preschoolers who watched Sesame Street had larger vocabularies in high school compared to children who watched other programming or no television at all. The results were especially apparent in children from lower income neighborhoods. Anderson also found that these same children were better prepared for school than their peers, had higher grades in science and English, had higher total GPA, read more books, placed more value on achievement, and were rated as more creative, compared with their peers.

As preschoolers develop language skills, television can reinforce storytelling skills such as plot, sequence, character development, and theme.

Some educational television programs to consider00

Sesame Street: This program exposes kids to cultural and ethnic diversity and real-life concepts. Its focus on language skills, reading, context, conversation, and social skills has been shown, with decades of research, to improve educational outcomes for kids, especially kids from lower socioeconomic communities. And it’s adult spin on timeless favorites engages older kids and adults into the television-watching experience.

Mr. Rogers: Filmed in Pittsburgh, PA, Mr. Rogers has special meaning for many of us raised in his neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, a minister and social worker, felt it important to teach children about peaceful interactions, about acknowledging feelings and learning how to communicate them to others, about working with others, learning, and other common themes that young children might encounter. What’s special and lasting about this show is the narrative, the soothing nature of Mr. Rodgers himself, processes he feels important for young children to understand, and the importance of community and relationships. For those of us who interacted with him in Pittsburgh, he treated each of us the way he treated his television characters–with respect, kindness, and validation.

Super Why: Super Why reinforces reading, syntax, contextual clues in reading, analysis. This show also teachers basic literacy skills like alphabets and phonetics, and engages the viewers in the storyline.

WordWorld: This show takes letters and words and superimposes it on real life so that children begin to associate words with their meanings. Children learn site words through recognition and context.

Sid the Science Kid: This is science explored on a playground, early childhood level. Sid, the main character asks questions and explores subjects the way a child might.  It goes over scientific method, shows its application, and reinforces critical learning and analytical reasoning.

Reading Rainbow: Reading Rainbow brings books alive and spark an interest in reading. Narrated by Lavar Burton, it also draws in curiosity from those of us who knew Lavar Burton as Geordie in Star Trek: The Next Generation and want to see him again. The show engages young readers but explores story themes more in-depth. For example, some books discussed discuss slavery and its relationship to U.S. history, the intersection of people of different cultures living and interacting in an urban setting, moving away and the feelings young children go through, anger and methods to cope, and so on.

New Electric Company: (Kindergarten age): Based on the 1970s version of PBS’ The Electric Company, this show continues to teach phonics, grammar, and spelling. It creates skits with lively narratives and engages kids with humor and silliness.

Between the Lions: A play on words (Between the lines), this show covers early literacy skills, reading, but teaches analytical skills. How to figure out words in context? How to glean the meaning of a reading passage? What is the plot?

Magic School Bus: A narrative-based show, this show explains processes and the workings of the world kids are most tuned into. It also takes kids into the fray, allows them to imagine what it might be like to be intricately involved in a process and that engages the imagination and creativity of a child.

Cyberchase: Cyberchase blends adventure and learning, with the characters finding out things about real-life skills (like map reading) as they work to protect the land of “Cyberspace.” Because it deals with computers and digital media, it has particular relevance in today’s world.

Nova: For older school-aged children and adolescents, Nova covers topics that span science, culture, history, music, and many subjects kids might be interested in but on a more complex level. Most topics covered by Nova are set up with a narrative and chronology that helps viewers see a process in its entirety.