Thursday, January 29, 2009

Inexpensive Family Fun

One of the things I quickly learned after relocating to the Midwest is that people who live here have an affinity for the state of Florida. I’ve lived on both coasts, north and south, and have never known so many who make an annual pilgrimage to our orange juice capital.

After giving this some thought, I’ve decided it’s a combination of factors that create this phenomenon: Midwesterners tend to be down-to-earth (St. Barts where?) and frugal (flights cost how much?). Add to these traits the long winters we endlessly endure, and suddenly appeal of driving to Florida becomes clear.

However, even if we drive, we still have to pay for gas, hotels, food, and probably some dreadful theme park. And this is a tough fiscal year—most of us are trying to keep more money in our pockets and give less of it to Shell stations and Holiday Inns.

So if we’re not jaunting off on a big holiday, how can we find fun closer to home? For starters, you can check out the blog of one of our other writers, minnemom. Her blog has tons of tips and ideas for Travel with Children. Because they live in Minnesota, many of her day trips aren’t accessible to those of us in other Midwestern states. But get creative! The ideas are good—put them to use in your own town. If she does an article on taking her kids to a puppet show, for example, and you think, “Hey, I wish we had that here,” do a little research. Maybe you do.

Even if you don’t, there are still plenty of creative, inexpensive ways to have fun with your family. We tend to enjoy three types: inside fun, outside fun, and fun-at-home.

Inside fun away from home

· Peruse books and music and Barnes & Noble. Spring for treats at the end, or make some when you get home.

· Walk in the warmth of an indoor horticulture garden. Pretend you’re far, far away among the palms and coconuts.

· Visit an aquarium. Look for buy one/get one entrance tickets before you go.

· Museums often run weekly specials. Find out which ones offer a discount on certain days or nights & visit them then.

· Play Mario Andretti at an indoor race track. The kids will easily beat you, so don’t take it personally.


· Game Night. The trick here is to change the scenery. Make popcorn, serve cream soda, light the fire—do a few things you usually don’t, to make the night feel special. A few of our favorites: Yahtzee, Rummikub, Life, Blokus, Clue, Monopoly. (Remember, we're currently a Wii-free family.) Sometimes we have to pair our youngest up with one of us for a “team,” but he gets to make the decisions.

· Darts. I have long been fearful of sharp, pointed objects flying around our home. But my younger brother has no such fear. For Christmas, he bought the boys a fancy dart board, complete with aforementioned sharp objects. And guess what? They love it! We love it! Everyone can do it. Sometimes younger brothers are right, I guess.

· Homemade Pictionary and Charades. Not my fave, but the kids love it. Enough said.

· Cooking night: Make homemade pizza together, including the dough. Our kids absolutely love this and can’t wait for these nights. Sometimes we make cookies, too. We're crazy like that.

· Movie night: Every now and then we rent two—one for us to watch with the kids, and one for us to watch after they’re in bed. My husband is a much bigger movie-buff than I am, so he loves these nights.

Outdoor Fun

· Tubing. Look for specials or this won’t be inexpensive. Sometimes the Entertainment book or local magazines have a buy 1 get 1 free for this kind of place. It’s worth looking around.

· Sledding. To make this an adventure, get out of your backyard. We drove 35 minutes, which seemed like an eternity to me, to try out a hill at a state park. It was huge! The kids absolutely loved it & the fact that it was new to us made it an adventure. Whip up a batch of hot cocoa when you get home and you’ve had a lot of fun for a few dollars in gas.

· Ice-skating. Each winter, our downtown creates an outdoor rink at one of the parks. If we bring our own skates, it’s free; or, we can rent them for $2 a pair. Totally fun. Check for something like this in your area. Sometimes the indoor rinks have special rates, too. Ask!

· Winter hike. Hit a nature trail at a park you don’t typically visit. Take time to search for tracks, berries, and other signs of winter life. Watch out for bears!

· Cookout. This sounds crazy, right? We used to live in Wisconsin, and the winters were nearly unbearable, especially for a girl who spent her high school years in North Carolina. But every December, we headed out to the Nicolet National Forest with a group of about 15-20 friends. Somebody brought a grill, we brought burgers and hot dogs, fruit salad, pasta salad, warm beverages in thermoses, and all sorts of games: footballs, Frisbees, etc. The kids loved it and, truly, the parents did too. It’s a bit out of the ordinary, but isn’t that just the right ingredient for creating lasting family memories?

Summer will come again, thank goodness. In the meantime, enjoy creating winter memories with your family!

photo credits: Jenah Crump, LinksmanJD

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

I just forgot...

This seems to be something that is happening to me more & more these days. I wish I that I could say that most of the things I forgot were no big deal...but that is not the case. Here are two examples of the bigger things I have failed to remember already this school year...

#1 Zander has show & tell ONE day every few months where everyone gets to share something. This year they have only had ONE scheduled so far, and I completely forgot what day it was. Normally, I am VERY prepared - we even talk about what he will be doing ahead of time, but that day we (obviously) had not. It was not until after school that I realized that I had forgotten. He could have cared less, but my heart was broken.

#2 Back in November (on her birthday) Ellie had a dentist appointment during school hours. That also meant 2 different sitters because Zander had preschool that day, and my friend that kept Ava does not transport kids. I had made arrangements for them for the day, AND been thinking about Ellie's appt, AND her birthday. What I had not been thinking about was Kaden.

When I picked him up from school, he told me that he had had a field trip that day. Then it all came to me. A field trip, he needed a sack lunch, dress for the weather...OH... MY..GOODNESS! I started blubbering about being SO, SO sorry. I asked him what happened because he had not taken a lunch. He explained that the lunch ladies made him one. I started to cry (again!) and asked him if he had at least remembered his gloves & hat that morning because I knew it was an outside trip. He told me that he had, but asked if I remembered that his coat zipper was not working? Well, the school gave him a coat to wear too! I felt like the WORST possible Mother ever. ever. ever. I kept apologizing, but he assured me that everything was "FINE, MOM! Why are you crying???" I wish I could say that made me feel better, but my guilt was too powerful. I still feel bad talking about it.

I know that there will always be things that I forget to do, but I try VERY hard now to make sure that I have everything planned. I've always followed my calendar closely, but both of those days I was so busy- I just forgot. Now I check the calendar at night too, just in case, because keeping up with four kids schedules has proved to be tougher than I thought!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dancing When It’s Too Cold to Go Outside: Part II

The cold continues it relentless thrashing here, and playing outside is only viable for just short bursts, if at all. As I sat curled up in my snow pants (yes, I’m wearing them inside now, thank you very much; they’re quite warm) on the sofa watching Marine Sgt. Elidio Guillen dance with our First Lady, I fast forwarded in my mind, and thought, “would my sons know how to do the box step if one were ever called to serve our country in this way?” Oh, the pressure.

This contemplation led me to one place: You Tube. There, in glorious full color, complete with British accent, were the step-by-step instructions on many important dance steps: including, the Moon Walk. (Where were these gems when I was in college?)

From there, we jumped to the Box Step:

And then, to the steamy Rumba, which definitely warmed things up.

So, now, at least we have this one important life skill down, I will worry a bit less. Now, if I could just find a you tube video that would take care of their piano lessons and fire their teacher!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What to do when it's TOO COLD to go outside?

In the colder climates, it is essential to find things to do inside with our kids. Winter usually brings at least one longer cold snap with dangerously cold temperatures that keeps us inside together for days on end. Movies work to occupy the kids for a limited time, then what?

In our house we’ve been known to try to beat cabin fever in a variety of ways.

We have an inflatable punching bag that helps release some energy until things get out of hand. We have one of those mini-trampolines that people use for exercising that we’ve brought out for the kids to jump out some of the energy.

Craig has even set up our big inflatable bounce house in our small living room when we’ve gotten especially desperate to exercise the children.

I have made snowballs from old white nylons and polyfil and we’ve had indoor snowball fights. I couldn’t tell you where all those snowballs are in our house now, but I don’t think they’ve melted. Those days that we had those snowball fights? If there had been someone recording us, they would have heard a lot of laughing.

When K was a baby and I needed ways to occupy M, we set up a big plastic box filled with a 50-pound bag of uncooked rice and sand toys. M would sit in that box for a good hour at least and happily pour and scoop the rice.

These are just a few of the things that we have done at our house to occupy the kids when it’s too cold to play (or even go) outdoors.

How do you keep the kids busy when the temps dip dangerously low?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dipping toes in Lake Michigan

One of the great things about living in the Minnesota is that summer is never more than 6 months away. At least that's what I tell myself on days like today. (It's 7 below as I write this.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

There's No Place Like Home?

Because my husband is a real-life farmer, his "busy season" at work lasts from March through November. This makes summer-vacation planning quite difficult. IF it rains a lot and IF he's caught up on things and IF there's nothing on the calendar, he MIGHT consider a last-minute weekend trip somewhere, but actually planning a good-old two-week family vacation is out of the question.

I don't give up easily, however. My sister moved to Ohio three years ago, and with a new baby in her house this spring, we were eager to go visit. Thus, we decided to take our "summer" vacation over Christmas break.

Ohio was our original destination, but once we looked at the map, we realized how close Columbus is to a lot of things on the east coast. (And yes, I realize that "close" is a relative term. Another 8 hours on top of a 17-hour trip to a midwesterner is not such a big deal. 8 hours to someone who lives on the East Coast is much more daunting.)

We went to Columbus, and then continued on to Philadelphia to see all the things that normal families visit on summer vacations. We even went to New York to see the Statue of Liberty since it was "only" another 2 hours away. (Truth be told, though, in true rural-Minnesota-I-don't-like-crowds-or-traffic fashion, we parked on the New Jersey side rather than attempting to drive in New York City.)

We were gone for 17 days and covered 3725 miles, giving us the opportunity to see a lot of the country and meet a lot of new people.

Before we left, we'd hear comments like "My brother used to live in Pennsylvania, but it's just not the same as the Midwest, so he came back here." At the church we visited near Philadelphia, we were told that most of their members hail from the Midwest and return there the first chance they get.

So what is it that makes the Midwest so appealing to one who grew up there? Do people from other parts of the country say the same thing? "I just couldn't wait to move home to Texas," or "The Pacific Northwest is where my heart will always be." Is it just because home is where your heart is, or is there really something special about where we live, with our fields of corn and soybeans, our "Minnesota nice" and wide open spaces with "the Cities" not too far away, our good work ethic and family values and wide-open spaces?

I don't know. We found people all along our journey friendly and helpful, polite and considerate. We saw beautiful countrysides and pieces of history, six-lane highways and winding back roads, just like we have here.

Still, after enjoying the trip and seeing many new things, it was good to be home again.

What do you think? Is there really something special about the Midwest? Or do we just love it because it's what we know the best?

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to travel halfway across the country with a minivan full of kids in the middle of winter, my blog has all the details.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I'll Regret This in the Morning, But for Now: Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

Michigan has had record snowfall this year, racking up as much in December as we generally do for most of the winter.  For my kids, this is a godsend.  NO SCHOOL!  ALREADY!  And I must admit that I enjoy those days off, too.  It’s a nice reprieve from the scheduled mayhem of our usual weekly routine.

Our weekly routine took another break over the holidays when, like many families, we traveled a long way to visit our extended family.  This year, it meant traveling through an ice storm that added 2+ hours to an already barely bearable 10-hour drive.  It also meant shuffling from Pennsylvania to Virginia, then back to Pennsylvania again (where we left our lab with my in-laws) before hauling back to Michigan.  Neither of those places had much snow, none really, and our boys were excited to get back to sledding and skiing and romping in the white stuff.

Alas, it was not to be.  The white stuff has all turned brown.  When the temperature rose, the ice storm we braved simply turned to rain, which melted away a good bit of our fun.  But the rain couldn’t possibly melt the massive amount we’ve had, so we’re left with a thin layer of snow heaped with stones and slush and sludge .  It’s even less enticing than it sounds.  If the temperatures decided to stay higher, of course, we’d celebrate.  Well, maybe not the kids.  But the rest of us would call our friends, mix fun summer drinks and call it balmy at 50°.  But no.  Yesterday morning greeting us at 16°.  Not balmy at all.

And so, when it began to snow in the wee hours this morning, I wasn’t sad at all.  The fresh snowfall blanketed the dirty mess and made it gorgeously pristine again.  The trees sparkled with their new dusting of snowy glitter.  And as I watched, in the deep, dark quiet of the morning, I secretly wished for a snow day.

Maybe next time. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

warming up

from the inside out...

Country Apple Dumplings

2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored
2 (10 ounce) cans refrigerated crescent roll dough
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white sugar (I used part brown sugar last time I made these)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 small can Mountain Dew ™


Preheat the oven to 350
Grease a 9x13 inch baking dish.
Cut each apple into 8 wedges and set aside. Separate the crescent roll dough into triangles. Roll each apple wedge in crescent roll dough starting at the smallest end. Pinch to seal and place in the baking dish. Melt butter in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar and cinnamon. Pour over the apple dumplings. Pour Mountain Dew™ over the dumplings. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

We like them best straight from the oven (sometimes served with vanilla bean ice cream). What is your favorite recipe that "warms you up" this time of year?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Home Fires Burning

Those are tough months for those of us living in the Midwest. The trees show us nothing but brown and gray branches, the grass is yellowish-brown and the air is cold and relentless. The days are shorter -- and that's a good thing, because the sooner the sun sets and I can stop looking at naked trees, the better.

If that's not enough, we're already tired of our Christmas decorations; we no longer even have the twinkling of our Christmas tree to carry us through until Spring.

A vacation in the tropics would help; but with kids in school, is that even realistic? I think not.

This is the time when the true art of mothering can shine. We can pull the berries we picked last summer out of the freezer (or the supermarket) and bake the pie or the cobbler and give our families that reminder of summer. We can bake bread. (Easier than you think with the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook.) We can pull out the scrub brush and add essential oils of orange and geranium to our cleaning water and permeate the house with luscious scents. We can draw ourselves warm baths, and add a few of those oils to the water, and pamper ourselves, so that we'll have reserves to give back to our families.

And yes, we can do the obvious, light the candles and look at our families through the warmth of candlelight; the ultimate way to keep the home fires burning.

With the candles burning, we can pass the time till spring by introducing our kids to the classics: Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies, Danny Kaye, and I Love Lucy, and maybe even Singing in the Rain?

These are tough days; homework will soon come bursting through the door and land on my kitchen table. Maybe, I'll have a tall glass of lemonade waiting to welcome them home.