Friday, September 28, 2012

Stress Free Birthday Parties

I've noticed a trend in the birthday parties my daughter has been invited to lately... scaled back parties with lots of free play. One was held at a local school playground. Kids played and then had some cake and ice cream. Another was an informal gathering at the beach. If you've read this blog for a while, you know I love this shift. All kids want to do, after all, is have fun playing with their friends. Doing that outside, whenever possible, is even better.

Here's a quick recap of the party we recently hosted:

  1. My daughter invited 5 friends. (4 were able to attend).
  2. Invitations asked them to bring their bikes and helmets if it was sunny and dress-up clothes if it was raining. The day started rainy but clearer skies were predicted, so most of the girls came prepared for both. 
  3. They started out playing dress-up. 
  4. They had a light lunch of quesadillas, fruit salad, and veggie sticks.
  5. They played more dress up. 
  6. They had cake and ice cream and opened presents.
  7. They combined their two activities and rode bikes while dressed up.

Doesn't everyone ride bikes in a tu-tu?

Because this party was small- my daughter only invited her closest friends- it was a stress-free party for me to run. The girls arrived and just stated playing. All I had to do was provide lunch and cake and ice cream. Of course, lunch wasn't even necessary- we could have planned this party for after the lunch hour. We just happen to like to cook, so serving lunch was fun for us. If you hate cooking, skip it!

If you like this idea but still aren't convinced, read these earlier posts for suggestions.

Free Play and Birthday Parties Describes a party for a 10 year old boy.
Loose Parts Play, Part 2 Includes my "Top Ten List" for planning this kind of party.
Loose Parts Play, Part 3 Offers specific suggestions for families who don't have a yard or live in a small apartment.

What do you think? Will you embrace this idea? Are there other hurdles you can think of that I didn't address in this or earlier posts?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Take a Break from the Internet

He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.
                                                                                  ~Chinese Proverb

You've heard it all before...we're too connected all the time. We need a mental break. Stop checking Facebook, email, twitter, etc. Stop posting your status.

Of course, I agree this is a good idea for our mental health as well as our relationships. But when traveling, there is an additional benefit. Staying off the internet means you get to really be in the place you're visiting. Think about it. If you're constantly posting status updates, you're not really living in the same place as your body- you're somehow trapped back home-telling all of your friends what you're doing.

When I was an exchange student to the Philippines, email didn't exist. The only way I could communicate with my family and friends was through very expensive phone calls or through snail mail. And boy was it snail mail... letters took 10 days to get there. Packages took 3 months! Now I'm not extolling the virtues of the "good ole days" like some old geezer. But in some ways, I had it easier back then. I had to be present in the place where I was living because I had no choice. If I were a teen exchange student now, I don't know how well I'd do. I'd like to think I'd manage, but the draw of social media is strong. And a year is a long time.

But here's the thing. For most travelers, time away does not last nearly that long. Many of us are lucky if we get two weeks off a year. And all of it isn't usually spent traveling. So when you do get a break-whether your traveling to some far off destination or hanging around your home town relaxing, take a real break. Turn off the computer. Ignore Facebook. Set an "out of office message" on your email.

I'm as much a member of the digital world as the next person, but that's what I did when I was lucky enough to be in Italy for three weeks this past summer. I had scheduled my usual "Wordless Wednesday" posts, plus one guest post for my blog before I left, but other than that I was internet silent. No blogging. No Twitter. No Facebook or Pinterest. I checked email a few of times in the entire three weeks, just in case there was something urgent, but I didn't respond to one email until I returned.

And guess what happened? Nothing. And everything. The world continued on without me and I got to really live in the place my body occupied. I  got to experience all Salina, and Sicilia, and Roma had to offer me uninterrupted by the chatter of life back home. I got to play games with my kids, swim in the Mediterranean, and forge friendships with people I met. I had literally no idea what was happening in the the rest of the world for three full weeks. But my world was rich indeed.

He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.

But that can only happen if you really do leave it all behind when you go.

Take a break. Be there, not here. See what happens.

Have you tried disconnecting while traveling? Now did it go? What was the result?

Travel Tuesdays: Keep A Journal
Travel Tuesdays: The Philippines "Growing Up"
Travel Tuesdays: Exchange Students

Friday, September 21, 2012

Timman Jazar: Rice With Carrots

 by Lamees Ibrahim
I love cooking and eating dishes from other places. Eating foods from other cultures doesn't mean you suddenly have insight to that culture or understand it in some deep way. But food is central to culture. People express themselves through the foods they cook and bond during meals all over the world.

I remember when we returned from India people asked, "What did your kids eat?" My answer was always, "The food." That's not to say they loved everything they ate or never wanted a break from the spiciness, but the flavors were not foreign to them because they had eaten Indian dishes at home and in restaurants.

I know many kids have very real food aversions. I feel for parents who need to work with difficult food needs. This post probably isn't for you. But most children don't have special or medical needs that prevent them from trying new foods. Why not have them try this super easy one pot dish? Even non- cooks will find this easy. If you can chop carrots and onions and brown some ground meat you've got this one covered!

Timman Jazar from The Iraqi Cookbook
serves 8 to 10
Total time to prepare: 40 minutes

2 cups rice (traditionally white but we use brown basmati)
1 pound ground meat (lamb, beef, or turkey can be used)
2 pounds carrots
One large onion
1 tablespoon mixed spices (Use garam masala- found in the international/Asian aisle or the "Natural Food" aisle)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and black pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for cooking

  1. Wash the rice in cold water. Drain.
  2. Chop the onion and carrots into small cubes and set aside.
  3. Cook the ground meat with the mixed spices until slightly brown.
  4. Add the chopped onion, salt, and black pepper. Continue cooking for 5 to 10 min.
  5. Add the chopped carrots and cinnamon. Cook for about 2 min. to soften the carrots slightly. Add about 1/2 cup of water to keep it soft.
  6. Put the rice in the pot and add enough water to cook the rice (about three and half cups). Cover and simmer until rice is ready.
Enjoy it with a little plain yogurt and a salad on the side.

Variation: For a vegetarian version, leave out the meat and use vegetable broth to cook the rice instead of water.

What's your family's favorite food from another culture? If you try this recipe, please come back and let us know what you thought.

Looking for other recipes? Try these:
Timman Queemah: Ground Meat with Chickpeas and Rice (Another Iraqi dish- a staple in our house).
Curried Pumpkin Soup (A "must have" at out Thanksgiving table).
Delicata Squash (Delicata are in season now!)
Shurit Ads: Egyptian Lentil Soup (A bit more involved than some soups- stick blender makes it easy!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: A Sense of Place

I've been thinking a lot about how my sense of place affects me when I travel. When I first arrived in Niamey, Niger, for a few moments, my physical surroundings overwhelmed me. I found myself searching for something familiar-anything similar to something I knew.

Within a short period of time, I found it. I noticed that the buildings had a similar shape and construction to many buildings in the Philippines (where I once lived). Most of the buildings had a cube-shaped, low profile and were made of blocks. In the Philippines, many buildings have a similar shape and are made out of cinder blocks.

We also passed several piles of burning trash along the road. As that smoldering smell reached my nose, I felt myself relax a little more. I know that may sound weird, but to anyone who's lived or traveled in the developing world, roadside piles of burning trash are commonplace. I had lived in the Philippines long enough to make that landscape my own, so while I hated the burning trash when I first arrived in the Philippines, it had become weirdly comforting- a reminder of my second home.

Erg Zhigaga, Morocco

Certainly places that inspire awe in us can make us feel somehow more calm. But not all beautiful scenes do that for me. The giant rolling dunes of the Sahara are certainly beautiful. I know our friend who grew up there feels serene in the desert. But for me, as much as I enjoyed the beauty, I never felt the sense of serenity that I feel in landscapes that are more similar to the one where I grew up.

After leaving those giant sand dunes of Morocco, we headed toward the coast. About 30 minutes before we reached the shore I looked at my husband and said, "Ocean! Did you feel that?" We could literally feel the moisture in the air and knew the ocean wasn't far. Until that moment, I didn't even realize I had that ability.

When we eventually reached Essaouria, I instantly loved the place. I mean, I really loved it. And what made me love it? For starters, the ocean runs right up against the town, just steps from our hotel. The town, which is known for it's blue doors, also employs a major fishing fleet. You can watch them come in at sunset every night.

For someone who grew up in New Bedford Massachusetts, a city that hosts one of the largest fishing fleets in our country, that's a familiar scene. The circles of gulls overhead waiting for scraps. The slightly unpleasant odor of fish being off-loaded or cleaned. While I might call parts of that unpleasant, they're also comfortable and familiar.

Hyderabad, India
But here's what I've also learned. My most transformative travel experiences are those that happened in places where I felt the most uncomfortable, or downright uneasy. I was overwhelmed when I first arrived in the Philippines. I was living in the city of Cebu. I had grown up in the country surrounded by trees and farmland and lakes. But that experience was easily the most transformative of my life.  The city of Hyderabad, India completely overwhelmed me, too. Yet I can barely put into words all that I learned and gained from that one short trip.

For me, overcoming the barriers of culture and language are not as difficult as overcoming my own internal discomfort in places that are so physically different from where I grew up.

How about you and your kids? What kinds of travel are most transformative for you?

You Might Also Like:
Travel Tuesdays: Morocco
Travel Tuesdays: Awakening in a Strange Place
Travel Tuesdays: Pack Your Sense of Humor
Travel Tuesdays: India

Friday, September 14, 2012

New Beginnings

 Swallowtail Caterpillar just before metamorphosis.
September feels like a time for new beginnings to me. From the age of 5 to 22, I was a student. September meant new teachers, new classmates, maybe even a new school. Then I became a teacher and September meant a new set of students, new parents, and maybe a new classroom. Until I became a parent, each September meant a fresh start. There were a couple of Septembers, when my son was an infant/toddler, when I didn't experience "back to school." But every year since he was two has continued to bring a new beginning. For a while, I was an Educational Consultant working in schools and then I became the parent of school-aged children.

I used to love that old Staples back to school add with the soundtrack that played "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I know the commercial was meant as a joke, but as a teacher, September really was my favorite time of year. I LOVED going back to school. Getting out of school in June, not so much. I hated saying good-bye to my students. Each year they became like family to me. Heck, we spent more time together on weekdays than we we spent with our actual families.

But now the tables have turned. I have to send my actual family members (in the form of my children) back to school each fall. I miss them. But you know what? I also see that same glimmer of excitement in their eyes that I had. The glimmer of new beginnings. The chance to make a whole new set of friends, meet new teachers who will take them to new places, and learn things they never knew they'd learn.

I felt all of that in my son's classroom last night during open house as I looked at the barometers and anemometers they had built. He was excited to tell us how they worked and what the readings meant. And that was my fairly tight-lipped son who was talking. The son I call, "the man of few words." He's excited about the science he's learning this year. So am I.

And, so, despite missing my kids as they venture back to school, I'm thankful for the interactions they'll have that I can't provide. I'm thankful for the new friends they'll make. I'm also thankful for the new beginnings I have to look forward to. More time to write. More time to submit my manuscripts to publishers and agents. More time to focus on my career.

What new beginnings are you looking forward to this fall?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Travel Tuesday: Go Beyond Textbooks

"We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” 

I recently stumbled upon this quotation and I love it. It summarizes so much about my outlook on life- the way I travel and muck about and promote more active learning in classrooms. It speaks to my love of field trips and outside investigations. It promotes a more engaged way of living and being in the world. 

Isn't that a great way to live? Engaged. Interested. Always learning.

What can you do to make your journey more glorious?

Related Posts:

Friday, September 7, 2012

Digging a Hole on the Beach

Photo taken by Christine Nielsen
Over Labor Day weekend, we went to the beach with friends. While we were there, my son gave surfing a whirl (He actually got up on his feet!) while my daughter dug a deep hole with our friends' daughter. Eventually my son joined the two girls. They made that hole so deep they needed to get inside it to dig it out. They even built steps in the walls so they could get in and out of it.

And, why did they dig that hole? Just for the fun of it, of course. They had no real plans when they started and they easily abandoned it when we told them it was time to leave. This is  a perfect example of the process being more important than the product. It's also a great example of unstructured, outdoor play. Our kids had never met until that day, yet they easily settled into this project together.

As most of your kids go back to school, I hope you'll remember to allow for unstructured play-time (preferably outdoors) for your kids.  It's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of work and school, and sports, and music lessons, and dance, and...and....

Take a breather. Slow down. Let your kids (and yourself) enjoy a little down time. Everyone's health and well-being will benefit.

When was the last time your kids enjoyed some unstructured, free play-time? How about you?

Related Posts:
Loose Parts Play
Loose Parts Play, Part 2
Loose Parts Play, Part 3
Encourage Free Play and Tinkering

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When Marian Sang

I don't usually write posts about specific books unless one really speaks to me. Yesterday, I read such a book.   I'm not sure how I managed to miss When Marian Sang (2002, Scholastic Press) until now, since I love both Pam Munoz Ryan's and Brian Selznick's work. (They also collaborated on the book Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride).

I'm sure many will cite this non-fiction book as an excellent look at segregation, prejudice and equal rights. And it certainly fits that bill. But that's not the only part that spoke to me. What I love is the way Ryan and Selznick convey musical expression through words and pictures.

Consider this from the opening page: "It was her range of notes that caused all the commotion. With one breath she sounded like rain, sprinkling high notes in the morning sun. And with the next she was thunder, resounding deep in a dark sky."

And later, " ..her voice was distinct- strong and velvety and able to climb more than twenty four notes."

We learn of Marian's devotion to family, the support of her church, and her exclusion from a music school based solely on her race. Lyrics of songs she sang woven throughout the story bring an immediacy to the tale, even though the events happened more than 70 years ago.

My favorite is a huge double-page spread -- a closeup of Marian's face with text along the outside edges. Her eyes are closed as she sings to a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. "Oh, nobody knows the trouble I see. Nobody knows my sorrow..." Through Ryan's words and Selznick's powerful illustration, I could feel her soulful singing, even though I had never heard her voice before I read the book. That page gave me goosebumps. From the text: " ...silence settled on the multitudes." The same silence settled on me as I studied the illustration that reveals such deep emotion and reread the words that convey the same.  Ryan and Selznick masterfully conveyed a deeply musical feeling without music.

Have you read this book? Thoughts? Have you heard Marian Anderson sing?

(I found some clips on the internet and have since listened to Marian sing. I also reserved a copy of her album of spirituals through my library system. I encourage you to do the same when you read this book).