Happy 2013!

After some very fun (though too short) jaunts to NYC and NH this vacation week (we saw 45 of 50 US  license plates on the road, if you count seeing Hawaii in the movie Ponyo),  I loved coming home to these cheery faces and well wishes covering our message board (yes, I strategically displaced a lot of crap from the kitchen and mudroom for this shot).

holiday card wall

This year, I’ve heard and read more debate than ever questioning whether today’s holiday cards simply serve as annual branding and bragging opportunities for families. Technology has allowed us to design our own cards with photos and fonts, colors and rounded corners — even glitter. Cards today are more personal, and at the same time, less personal, one photo after another of a smiling-pretty-for the camera family captured in 5 by 7, with modern greetings jazzed by trendy design on luxe paper.

Close Up

The bragging doesn’t bother me. As an Ivy-league educated communication major turned real estate lawyer turned mom of two gorgeous and brilliant boys and happy wife of one adorable Harvard businessman, I can tell you that people have misused written communications by bragging since the beginning of time.

Holiday cards, though, have a purpose beyond the bragging. It’s a chance to think of your friends and family for a moment (actually two moments – when you send and when you receive a card) and wish them a happy, healthy and safe year ahead. Christmas or Hanukah, New Years or Everything, handwritten or letterpress, glossy or matte, the intention of good wishes is there (except in the few cases it isn’t, in which case, you already know the true colors of your narcissistic cousin/boss/neighbor).

Perhaps this season, more than most, with the families of Sandy Hook forever on my mind, I am glad we take the time, expense and environmental burden to share some sweetness with each other.

Holiday Card Front

Last year, I took thousands of photos between my digital SLR and my cell phone.  The few images I choose for our card are going to be among the shiniest moments of the year – the biggest smile, the sweetest embrace, the silliest laugh or the goofiest outfit.  I’ve done them all. Do I want recipients to believe that every one of our moments is as shiny and sweet? No way.  You must know how we arrive at kindergarten just as the second bell rings, that my kids often have yogurt or chocolate on their faces, that there are tears and tantrums now and then.  I don’t need reminders of runny noses and pee pee accidents.  I’ve got visions aplenty of those.

For our holiday cards, we put our best foot forward. Our temple clothes, our Sunday best.  Fresh haircuts, new button down shirts from the Gap and clear crisp photos, thanks to Amy Trahant at Take Aim Photography.

Holiday Card Back

This year, we started a new tradition.  My mother in law gave me this giant scrapbook.

scrapbook

We sorted through our shoebox of holiday cards from the past few years and designated a page for each of our friends and families.

The kids helped tape the cards in and voila — watched families multiply – from two kids to three, bigger, then four!  Especially fun with neighbors we see all the time and hardly remember this little.

scrapbook sacks

It’s nice for kids to see how families like ours come together, from bride and groom, to baby to toddler.

scrapbook titlows

Signing off for 2012. I’ve got plenty of new goals for 2013, but a big thank you to my readers for helping me reach my writing and creating goals this year.   Your comments, shares, likes and pins are tremendous support for my endeavors here.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and safe 2013.

glasses

About Friday

BO9A1983

Friday morning was cool and clear as Ryan and I walked to his school just a quarter mile away from our house.  We heard the first bell ring and picked up our pace, knowing we might be late.

“Let’s go to the fifth grade door.” Ryan suggested,”Because the kindergarten doors might be locked by the time we walk all the way around.”

A few days earlier, we’d slipped in the kindergarten entrance just as the school custodian was making his rounds to lock the school doors.  Smiling, Mr. Rocco waved us in the building with a jingle of his keys.

“Why does Rocco lock the doors anyway?”

“I guess to keep the bogeymen out,” I answered.  I wondered right away if I’d said too much. It was more hint of scary things than I usually provided (like when he asks why we have an alarm system at home).  I was breezy about it though and Ryan didn’t miss a beat.

“And so the late people have to get late passes in the office, right?”

Right.

I could never have imagined the likes of the bogeyman that was about to enter the locked entrances of a school much like Ryan’s just 45 miles south of us.  The many innocent lives he would take and the innocence he would take from still so many  more lives.

I don’t know how to stop thinking of the children who should have been at birthday parties this weekend like we were, who should have lit the Hanukah candles as we did, who should have hugged their grandparents as my kids did yesterday.  It is hard to breathe when I think of their parents, their teachers, their principal, their siblings and friends and those first responders and investigators covering the shooting.

I don’t know how we find normal again.  I only know my happiest moments these last few days were when I shut our TVs and internet and just connected with my kids and my husband.  We’ve done a lot of puzzles and books and legos and magna-tiles. A silly movie (Mr. Popper’s Penguins) helped us find laughter on Friday night and we are still honking at each other like penguins and walking into walls like the penguin nabbed Nimrod in the movie.

I think I only let go of Ryan at drop-off Monday morning because I knew I’d be back to volunteer at 9:30 in the classroom.  I buzzed in at the front door, checked in at the office and stepped through the quiet hallways. Past the nurses’ office, alongside bulletin boards highlighting students’ drawings and word clouds.  It was all too easy to imagine what happened there, what could happen here, but in seconds, I was in the classroom, working on patterns with Ryan and his classmates: peppermint, hot chocolate, candy cane, peppermint, hot chocolate, candy cane, peppermint.  The important work of kindergarteners.  Smiles and smart boards and snack time and art smocks.

I left the classroom, alongside busy children heading to art class.  They walked quietly along the wall, in a line, their teacher reminded, to make their principal proud.  I exiting the building to a full but quiet parking lot. At home, I skipped the laundry, the dishes, this blog post, exercise.  I climbed under a blanket on the couch, and slept until it was time to pick up my younger son from preschool.  It was the most peaceful rest I’ve had since Friday.

I am sad, anxious and terrified.   I am reading more than I want to about gun control and mental illness and trying to figure out what I feel strongly about.  I am ever aware of the responsibility we have to each as parents to keep the dialogue going about our children as they grow — the troubles beyond potty training and sleep issues and lisps. Without judgment, but with support and with a willingness to say “I’m worried. What is going on at home? How can we help?”

In the meantime, I will be grateful each and every time those school doors swing open at pick-up time and my son finds me and his brother waiting to take him home.  In the meantime, I know what is working to give me solace: being with my kids, laughing, being in the classroom, and when its possible, a good long nap.

Ryan doesn’t know what happened on Friday.  I’m hoping to shield him, though I know its not likely.  I am as ready as I can be for questions, thanks to the thoughtful guidance and caring words of his school principal and to sites like this one.

CNN has posted ways we can help Sandy Hook here, and Huffington Post provides a thorough list here.

Ann Curry of NBC News inspired a lovely movement, by encouraging her twitter followers to do 20 (which became 26 in honor of each victim at Sandy Hook) acts of kindness in support of Newtown.  Let’s start counting.

The Holidays So Far

December reminds me of my Grandpa Andy.

How he loved a lit up night.  New York. Atlantic City. Vegas.  And Fort Lauderdale at Christmas-time.

We’d cruise the streets after dinner in his old beige Cadillac, finding one bulbed spectacle after another.  “Faaaaantastic,” he’d yell, or “Holy Crick Crack.”  It was not lost on me as a kid how we’d all left the slush and snow behind in New England to spend a balmy evening seeking the North Pole sleigh team atop terra cotta tiled Florida roofs.

Grandpa Andy’s delight made our Jewish family part of Christmas.  I still like the lights and I take extra long routes home to share the best displays with my kids.  I love Starbucks’ Christmas Blend.  We stopped in not once, but twice, to admire the entries in our town’s Gingerbread House Contest. We even decorated this Home Depot version alongside baking a Shabbat challah last Friday.

Still, it can be hard to be Chanukah during Christmas.  Just like when you are trying to conceive and pregnant women seem to be everywhere, Christmas seems to envelop us.  We’ve made a few recent purchases that entitled us to free Christmas toys and ornaments.  My supermarket even has butter shaped like Christmas trees. There are a lot of candy canes and wreathes and elves on shelves.  Even my Jewish mother got confused and bought this for my son for Hanukah:

There’s plenty to make a Jewish child wonder why Santa doesn’t come to our house and his parent wonder how to manage the relatively small holiday of Hanukah against the wondrous giant of Christmas.  Gratefully, I live in a place where Chanukah is widely known and publicly celebrated, making it considerably easier to create a meaningful holiday for my children that goes beyond wish lists and presents.

Last week, we attended a Chanukah event at a local temple.  We helped pick and press olives to make olive oil, the oil that in the story of Chanukah miraculously burned for eight nights when it should have only lasted one.

A centrifuge split the pressed olives into three parts (what I understood to be the juice, the pulp and the oil).  We watched as that small bit of oil lit the menorah – a lovely chance to witness my children believing in the story of Hanukah and a moment hard to replicate, even among presents and parties.

That same evening, we met my parents for our town’s holiday stroll, an event that would have thrilled my Grandpa Andy – with lights and music and crowds and popcorn. We love it too, from the fire trucks lit up with extended ladder to the a cappella carolers, festive store windows and rich Mexican hot chocolate and churros. We didn’t wait in line for Santa, but enjoyed a night all about community (in a very Gilmore Girls sort of way) and believing.

On Sunday night, we returned to the same crowded square – this time for the lighting of a five-foot ice sculpted menorah for the second night of Hanukah.  After the blessing, the orthodox Rabbis erupted into traditional song.  Our holiday couldn’t have shone brighter or more beautifully.

Feeding Your Big Blue Bins

It’s America Recycles Day.

It doesn’t matter who you voted for last week. We’ve got just one planet to live on. The least we can do is do a better job taking care of it.

I’m a pretty good recycler. I could be so much better.

I just took a pledge to recycle more next month.

Here’s my plan:

  • Add a recycling bin upstairs for TP rolls, magazines, paper and shampoo containers and give the boys the job of emptying it.
  • Clean MORE plastic containers (yogurt, cream cheese, even peanut butter jars), instead of trashing them in haste.
  • Designate an area to collect plastic bags (grocery, dry cleaning, produce, newspaper, bread & ziploc) and case wrap (plastic wrap on paper towels, TP, beverages, etc.) and bring them to the grocery store periodically for recycling.

Compared to the challenge of reaching other goals like losing weight or say, organizing your photo cache, committing to recycling more is pretty simple — even easier than using less products.

I’m frighteningly curious to see how we’d fare at home with this lesson from my son’s preschool class. They visually charted materials used for table washing after lunch to see how many paper towels they used: without rags, 27 paper towels; with rags, none!

In the spirit of this holy day o’ recycling, here is the first (and likely the greenest) installation of my holiday gift selections:

Start by skipping a toy purchase, and instead pick up a Makedo set. These reusable plastic tools (safe-saw, clip connectors and lock hinges) let kids (5 years and up, and their younger and older assistants) make new creations and toys out of boxes, containers and other materials.

We’ve used the free play kit pictured above, but Makedo also offers a few “guided” kits:

Amazon also sells a set of reusable plastic wheels that can be attached to boxes for play. Just make sure you buy the Rolobox wheels INSTEAD of another gift, not in addition. The kids will have plenty of materials (gift wrap, cereal boxes, cardboard) to use for their creations.

 

A set of Makedo and/or Rolobox and an hour of your time playing and creating would be a perfect gift for almost any kid.

Hoping to make some gifts this year?

Check out LTM’s Clementine Box Doll Bed and Cabinet Knob Jars.

Are We There Yet? Tips for Your Upcoming Family Travels

Spending four hours in the car with my six year old on Saturday reminded me that the season of long car and plane rides has arrived.

Kids acting badly (or loudly) can happen to the best of us. What’s more annoying to me than a baby crying on an airplane? Watching the baby’s parent trying to quiet the baby by shaking the same stuffed toy at them for two hours.  More bothersome than kicking toddlers or whiny eight year olds in the seat behind me? The parents who either endlessly yell at or totally ignore their kids the whole journey.

I find traveling with kids is best when you are relaxed (as relaxed as you can be carrying a stroller and two carseats through security) and prepared — not just with the essentials — but ready to be your child’s chief entertainment for the duration.  Hopefully, you will be so prepared that you won’t actually have to entertain them the whole trip, but let’s just assume you aren’t going to get too far in your new book on your upcoming flight or catch up on phone calls to old friends on your road trip.

RELAX: The adventure begins well before you reach your destination.

I usually check out the airports we are traveling through to see if they have a kids’ play area, art exhibit or fun restaurants.  Might as well start the trip with some playtime, rather than just waiting to get where you are going.  Act impatient, annoyed or stressed, and your kids will follow suit. Your vacation begins when you leave your house: enjoy it — or fake it!

Ryan, then age 1, at Philly’s airport installation of the”Please Touch” children’s museum.

Who needs a play area when there is so much to explore?

Ditto the road trips. Since this Saturday “errands” (two long stories that aren’t important right now) stretched us across Connecticut from New York to Rhode Island, I had a few potential pit stops in mind – a kid’s museum and aquarium (tabled for another trip), a landmark pizza joint (Ryan chose a bagel instead) and a candy factory just minutes off the highway.

I kept the PEZ factory a secret, though Ryan and I played 20 questions to see if he could figure out where we were going.  Since he probably never thought about where his beloved PEZ come from, it is no wonder he couldn’t guess it.  He did offer to trade me “a ticket” if I would tell him where we were headed, which brings me to my second tool in my traveling fanny pack…

PREPARE: Surprises, rewards and goodies, oh my!

Over the summer, I tested out some printable travel “tickets” from the blog Mom’s Minivan. For our frequent 3 hour rides to New Hampshire, I gave each of my boys six or seven tickets, one redeemable every thirty minutes (or thirty miles) for a surprise of my choosing (a snack, a movie, a book read aloud).  The tickets kept everyone busy and happy and helped the kids track our journey.  They are still floating around my car and the boys continue to try to use them as currency for a snack or – as Ryan did this weekend – to get the mystery destination out of me.

To give my kids a bit more decision-making power for our upcoming travels, I made our own set of Travel Tickets, which include most of the categories of activities I can think of for keeping my kids busy while seated.

Here’s what I am envisioning:

  • Screen Time:  An easy favorite but worth limiting the movies, games and books on our various digital devices.
  • Story Time: We will bring along a few new/used books and some old favorites.  Also will be ready to tell stories, make up some new ones and build-a-story with each of us adding on bits of silliness.
  • Snack Time: Fruit, trail mix with chocolate chips, plus a few treats they don’t see a lot (Oreos, Apple Jacks, fruit snacks).
  • Tunes Time: A good time to upload some new songs on digital devices, print out some lyrics of fun songs and be ready for a sing-a-long (may be better suited for a road trip). My oldest loves the Kidz Bop tracks (and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire); they both like singing the SpongeBob theme song.
  • Meal Time: Pack ahead or be flexible!
  • Rest Time: I may hold onto these and distribute them when I deem necessary.
  • Mystery Time: Dollar store toys, switching seats, jokes, whatever else you can think of.
  • Art Time: See my Spring Break Post on art in the friendly skies. Make a travel journal, bring a roll of aluminum foil for sculpture. Play “police sketch artist” by having one person describe a person and the other draw/color it.
  • Game Time:  If you’re desperate, you can use the screen – presumably the vacation ahead will likely have much less screen-time. Or try 20 questions, I Spy, charades, cards and more.  I picked up a few school-like workbooks (mazes, phonics, math) recently and my kids have loved working through them. Rest stop news stands now have some pretty good selections, much improved from the Invisible Ink of my childhood.

Both my kids LOVE these sticker puzzle books – also available in Marvel Heroes, Disney Princesses and Cars. Available at Amazon.

These Flip and Click books make it easy to play Hangman, Memory and Bingo on the go.

  • Memory Time: While you’ve got time, share some stories of other trips you’ve taken, of the people you are traveling with or visiting (extra points for silly or gross stories).

You can print these tickets (and some blank tickets) here: LTM Travel Ticket Set.

How do you keep your kids busy while traveling? Let me know!

Know someone who could use some tips traveling with their family? Share this article by clicking on the pinterest or Facebook links below.

Dishing on My New Dishes

I love all things IKEA.

I have even loved IKEA’s super-durable kid tableware.

Ikea’s Kalas Collection – Photo by Hopper Tots

They are BPA-free and quite the right size for kid hands. They are inexpensive and have held up to daily dishwasher use.

But I’ve come to hate looking at them everyday. Are my kids eating or playing with bath toys? You have never seen a morsel of food photographed on their IKEA plates because no food looks remotely appetizing on brightly colored plastic. Maybe that’s why they hardly eat anything these days?

I love my kids to use real ceramic dishes and they often do, but unbreakable plastic just makes so much sense for quick meals, snacks, picnics and play-dates.

In March, I thought I solved the problem and I couldn’t wait to share it with you. My friends, I nearly steered you SO wrong. I found an adorable set of modern plastic plates from Target (the set on the left) and bought a whole set for $30.

I loved how they looked on my counter, in my kitchen drawer, even in my dishwasher. I used them proudly for a playdate, enjoying a few immediate compliments. One mom asked if they could go in the microwave. I shrugged. Out of habit, except when I’m in a real rush, I don’t microwave plastic.

It didn’t much matter to me if my Target plates were microwave safe, but I checked later out of curiosity. Made of Melamine. Melamine always sounds so nice and smooth to me, like my sister’s name Melanie. And the prints on melamine are usually so cute and sweet. They are everywhere – from Pottery Barn Kids to Anthropologie. When they are used correctly, melamine plates are probably not terribly toxic to our children, but most do contain formaldehyde, which at any level, I do not wish to serve to my children several times a day. You can read more about melamine at Healthy Child.

I had saved my sales receipt, but the Target associate was less than thrilled to return the plates without their original stickers (they had been in use for a week or so), and she was not moved by my discussion on melamine. I definitely have a strike in my file there. At least I won’t be the first in my family to be banned from returning things to Target (that was Melanie).

It’s taken me six months to find a proper alternative, and I found it in my local, smartly-stocked-for suburban-Main-Street but no frills hardware shop.

Made by Now Designs, the Ecologie dinnerware is made from a plastic-like material made of crushed bamboo and rice husks. It is advertised as food safe, containing no harmful chemicals. They are top-rack dishwasher safe and not intended for microwave use. Unlike other similar collections, these have a smooth matte finish that I like.

We’ve used a handful of plates and bowls for a month and they have shown no signs of wear, though I found this FAQ on the company’s website:

Your catalog says that Ecologie dinnerware is biodegradable. Will it biodegrade while I use it?

No. Ecologie Dinnereware is made from bamboo fiber and rice husks, a waste by-product of rice harvesting. It will only biodegrade under certain conditions: in a landfill, exposed to water, air, earth and bacteria. It will not biodegrade in your cupboards or in your dishwasher. It should last for years. That said, it is not an appropriate substitute for everyday ceramic dinnerware. The material does scratch if you use a serrated knife and it will show wear and tear if used every day. It is best suited to occasional use, especially outdoor dining.

The plates come in a variety of colors, including, a natural color (not pictured) and are available at Amazon.com.

Last week’s sweet potato quesadilla. Almost appetizing.

What do you use for kid-friendly or outdoor dining at your house?

Looking for a kid-friendly snack?

Don’t miss Love U Madly’s Baked Pumpkin Donut Holes which my family is currently devouring.

Good Morning Helicopter Mom

Greetings upon returning to my kitchen after dropping both boys off at school one day last week:

Totally expected remains of the day: crumbs of pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, a few spoonfuls of Ciobani, crackers left behind by the cheese. The boys are pretty good about bringing dirty dishes to the sink, but our morning rush is short and well, rushed.  No sweat.

Except…what is that striped thing?

Pirate sash.  Which Ryan selected to bring in for Pattern Day in kindergarten. And then left behind on the counter to stare at me, begging me to bring it to school.

I could be back at school in a minute, just slip it in his locker. It would take just a few minutes. I probably could do it totally undetected.

The urge was crazy, I knew it.

Years ago, I laughed at a parenting talk with Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B-Minus, when she described college kids calling home from the line in the dining hall, asking mom if they like Chicken Cordon Bleu.  I found it ridiculous that college professors today receive e-mailed versions of final papers from students with Mom’s edits visible because the “track changes” view had been accidentally left on), and an annoying waste of resources that The Peace Corps had to add additional staff to deal with endless calls from parents that their children stationed in remote locations couldn’t be reached by text, e-mail or cell.

It’s one thing to be a helicopter mom with a toddler, helping them navigate playdate squabbles and packing their preschool bags each day.  It’s a different story when your school aged child’s “homework” is staring at you.  I couldn’t believe how much I wanted to fix this problem for Ryan.

Of course, I wanted both of us to make a good impression on his teacher. Maybe I could e-mail her to explain? Just imagine.

Dear Mrs. G.,

We were SO ready for Pattern Day.  We read your adorable bright orange handout together days ago and knew Ryan had to (1) wear something with a pattern on it and (2) bring a second patterned item in to share.  We went through Ryan’s closet: he nixed the plaid button downs and striped polo shirts, but brilliantly thought of making a shirt to wear (his idea!!), using a bleach pen a la our army alphabet shirts (which of course, I washed and dried on Pattern Day Eve).  For his patterned item, he settled on a somewhat complicated pattern on his pillowcase.  

Fast forward to this morning, Ryan dressed in his newly patterned t-shirt and packed his backpack by himself.  I did remind him to grab the pillowcase from upstairs. He reacted as if I suggested he climb the Empire State Building. Instead, he decided to find something patterned in the toy room.  He quickly settled on the sash, then ran in the kitchen to eat a little more breakfast. That’s when he forgot his sash.

I thought about bringing it to school, but I want to teach Ryan that his homework is his responsiblity.  Just wanted to let you know. I didn’t want you to think I forgot or didn’t read your note about Pattern Day.

Yours,

Ryan’s Mom

Nonsense, I knew it. This might be the first time, but surely not the last I’ll have to overrule my motherly instinct and instead let my baby squirm, let him be a little uncomfortable.  Pirate sash left on the counter, where (as expected), it remains a few days later.

How did Ryan fare?  Well, he hasn’t been kicked out of kindergarten yet.  At pick up on Friday, he brought up the forgotten sash right away. He volunteered that you could either wear something patterned OR bring something patterned; you didn’t have to do both. It was not entirely believable, but I’ll never know. My first taste of MYOB.  So much homework and library book days ahead of me…I mean, ahead of them.

On Making Money

Me? Make money?

Now, that I’ve got at least my husband’s attention…no business announcements yet (maybe someday), but we did print our own fake money for my three-year old son’s grocery party.

I started with $1 dollar bills with Noah’s mug.

My six year old has been memorizing the Presidents on each bill, and talking a lot about millions and billions so the timing was just right for me to make up a $1 million bill with his face on it.

My kids loved seeing their faces on money.  Ryan asked me to write his lunchbox notes on the back of “his money.”  In a borderline awkward moment (for me), Ryan even gave one of his 1 million dollar bill to our housekeeper.  Which led Noah to run around the house looking for “his money” to give to Christine.  She was honored and tells me she displays the bills proudly on her refrigerator.

Using the free (and, I hope, legal) site Festisite, it took me minutes to print a set for each kiddo at the birthday party (you can also see the magnetic/dry-erase shopping lists we created here).  I thought Noah’s Fresh Market theme was Noah-centric enough, so I used each kid’s face on their own set of dollar bills. I am pretty sure it was a hit because the kids wouldn’t spend their dollars at our pretend market; they only would part with the plastic coins they collected during our egg hunt.

The site amazingly has scanned in currencies from across the world.

So with one click, I could put Ryan’s face on the Israeli Shekel:

the Italian Lire (this is an old one – I think they went Euro):

The Austrian Shilling:

Or our mutual favorite, the Korean Won:

Be prepared for some giggling (you should see Ryan’s Indonesian bill) and to say something parental and proper like “People from other countries or centuries sometimes dress or look differently than us. That’s what makes the world such an interesting place.”

Endless applications for pretend play, math play and cultural explorating. If a bill happens to pique your child’s interest – even if evidenced only by giggling – help him locate the country on a map and do some reading about what its like to grow up in that country. 

We picked up this book and read it before Noah’s birthday and learned about birthday traditions across the world – a very sweet starter topic to spark your child’s cultural interest and awareness.  We figured out our Chinese animal signs and learned about Dutch “crown birthdays.”

I also just picked up this book on my cousin’s recommendation as our nation (and my evening phone lines) gears up for our presidential election.

In case you think we only read culturally important non-fiction books, I also gave in and bought this one after Ryan spent 10 minutes looking at every Captain Underpants book in Barnes & Noble.

Playgroup with A Plan

I found my first playgroup in the Ladies’ Lounge at Nordstrom, after meeting a nice new mom who invited me to a moms’ group that was meeting the next day (thankfully, at a different location).  At less than a month old, Ryan didn’t need a playgroup yet, but I needed a friend and I liked Anne, so I showed up.  That playgroup ended up being nine first-time moms strong, with ten babies born within ten weeks of each other.  We shared sleeping woes, feeding difficulties and our babies’ doctor visits with detail that would bore even the most attentive grandmas. We stopped meeting as a playgroup long ago (another 14 babies have arrived since we met, our first babies are all kindergarteners and first-graders now), but I count some of these moms as forever friends and whenever I run into any of them at the pool club, boot camp, the grocery store or — gasp — for a real planned night out – I cherish the time catching up with the women who have played such a pivotal role in my mothering.

Some “mom friends” in my current playgroup (three of us from the original playgroup).

I know not everyone is lucky enough to make lifelong friends in a department store, nor brave/desperate enough to show up for a playgroup with someone they met while breastfeeding in said department store’s bathroom.  So when I heard that a mom in my community was launching a playgroup matching service for ages  birth to three, I eagerly volunteered to host a trial playgroup.  Matching new parents to playgroups seems like a naturally good idea, and its founder, Meredith Magee Donnelly had an additional twist for Homegrown Friends: using her background in early childhood education (Masters in Education from Bank Street), she suggests age-appropriate playgroup activities for her playgroup members through a weekly e-mail, along with an online community forum for parents.

Playgroup activities?  I was almost too timid to suggest the trial to my current playgroup.  Did we need a playgroup curriculum? Our playgroup worked fine without any real agenda for the kids. Right?  Well, sort of – Noah and I just had different expectations.  Mine: to take a break from play dough and Elmo’s World and talk to the other moms while Noah played.  His: to play with me and the host family’s toys and have lots of muffins.

A few days before my trial playgroup, I received an e-mail from Homegrown Friends, with instructions on how to prepare for and run playgroup.  After my usual playgroup rapid-fire “cleaning” to hide clutter from the toy room and kitchen, I spent a few extra minutes, thinking about how to set up a few different activity stations and activities.  I had most of the materials we’d need in the house already and I kept snacks simple, kid-focused and healthy (cut up fruit, crackers and some Pirate’s booty).

As the weather cooperated, Noah and I set up our activity stations outside. He loved setting up the tables and chairs with me, and spoke excitedly about where his friends would play and have snack.

Guess what? We had a blast. Having a plan for playgroup worked beautifully. This trial customer (and my little entourage) completely sold on the Homegrown Friends curriculum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was nothing fussy about our playgroup activities. The kids were engaged; I felt like the preschool teacher I always wanted to be. I may have lost a few minutes socializing, but since the kids were so busy, the other moms may have actually had more time to enjoy talking.  After our activities, we all cleaned up, then played some music and danced around, followed by snack time, and then a little free play.

Homegrown Friends launches on Monday, August 20th in select cities in Connecticut, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.  Founder Meredith Magee Donnelly answered my biggest questions:

LTM: Aside from age and location, what other factors will you use to match members? 

I remember when my son was a baby how much finding mommy friends felt like dating.  While it was important for our children to be similar ages it was equally important that we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.  Homegrown Friends attempts to take the guess work out of making friends by pre-screening all members.  Parents fill out a form rating a list of topics from very important to not at all important.  Examples of topics include breastfeeding, exercise, book discussions and organic food.  The goal is to match parents with similar interests.

LTM: How will families benefit from Homegrown Friends’ curriculum?

Sharing the joy of parenting is at the heart of the Homegrown Friends’ mission.  In designing the curriculum my goal was to highlight the strengths of each developmental age group.  Children are constantly changing and it is often hard to keep up.  Parenting can feel overwhelming and isolating at times.  Knowing that there are activities that are perfect for your child delivered straight to your inbox each week makes parenting fun.  The curriculum contains weekly activities that explore all areas of your child’s development including the intellectual, emotional and social development as well as nutrition.  Being able to share this curriculum with other parents and children only enhances the experience for all.

LTM: Will parents still have time to chat/socialize or is the whole focus on an educational experience for the kids?

Designing a curriculum with a playgroup in mind is a balancing act.  While the main focus of a Homegrown Friends’ playgroup is the purposeful play of the children, the social experience of the parents is also important.  Parents nurturing and supporting each other makes everyone better at their jobs.  With that said this is definitely not a playgroup model where the parents are sitting in one area and the kids are playing in another.  The goal is for the children to be fully engaged in the prepared activities while the parents oversee the activities.  When children are having fun and are engaged this gives parents the opportunity to socialize and be present at the same time.

LTM: Like traditional playgroups, I imagine that stay at home parents will be the primary users of Homegrown Friends, but it seems ideal for working parents to do together on the weekends as well?

During the initial stages of creating Homegrown Friends I surveyed parents across the country about what they were looking for in a playgroup.  From this survey it became clear that a large percentage of parents who work outside the home were looking for social opportunities on the weekends and were struggling to find them.  Homegrown Friends gives parents the opportunity to create weekend playgroups.  All parents deserve to benefit from a fun, supportive group of parents and children.

LTM: Is it possible for existing playgroups to join Homegrown Friends as a unit so that they can enjoy the curriculum?

During our initial launch on August 20th,  Homegrown Friends will only be offering the curriculum as part of the matching service.  As we grow, it is possible that we may offer the curriculum for purchase on its own.

LTM: Well, I’m going to keep asking you for that one. And for a curriculum for 4 -6 year olds too.

To win a free year’s membership of Homegrown Friends (a $50 value), please share below what you think you would enjoy the most about being part of a Homegrown Friends playgroup. Contest ends Friday, August 24th.

You can check out membership, sample activities and more on the Homegrown Friends website and follow Homegrown Friends on Facebook for some great launch specials.

On Closer Examination

I’ve been leaning towards this announcement for some time. Here goes:

I’m abandoning the 5 days a week posts (inspired by my LITTLE sister’s crazy stamina at Love U Madly) and switching to a posting schedule of Tuesday and Friday, with a sometimes-weekend adventure/craft/cooking wrap up on Mondays (also copying my LITTLE sister on that one).

I love writing this blog. It is rarely a chore. I get to tell stories here. Like the whole story I want to tell; stories that do not get all hacked with the interruptions of my day job as a mom. But the fact is my day job is my most important job, and its hard to do well when I stay up late writing and posting (this has always been a problem – I like the wee hours).

As you know if you’ve been reading long enough, I am indecisive and a hopeless researcher, though I did pick the PERFECT paint color for my house (more on that soon). Just like when I randomly dropped requests for the “perfect gray” into casual conversations for the last six months, I’ve been testing my posting schedule out on a number of advisors. Here’s what they had to say:

My mom: “What does Kim think? If Kim thinks that’s a good idea, you should do it.”

My Sister, Kim: “It’s a good idea. Actually it’s my good idea. I told you to post twice a week six months ago.”

Terry Walters, Author of Best-Selling Books”Clean Food” and “Clean Start” and Cooking Instructor: “It’s simply not sustainable” (to blog late at night, five days a week with little ones at home and ambitions to work/exercise/see my husband and friends/enjoy life).

Our family friend Joy Leavitt, owner of the fabulous Kiddlywinks toy stores in Canton, CT and Longmeadow, MA: “Haven’t you heard the latest term: YOLO. You Only Live Once.”

When I told my six year old the new schedule, his response was right on the money: So you won’t be too tired to get up with us in the mornings? You got it, bud.
When I’m not posting here, I’ll be sharing plenty of our adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, so be sure to sign up to catch me there.
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