Hounds and History–Dogtown Commons, Gloucester, MA

If you’re anything like us, you usually head to Gloucester for the beaches and galleries, and maybe some great seafood.  Today, we decided to try something different.

We woke up to a morning a bit rainier than originally forecast, a postponed playdate due to a sick friend (get well soon, Em!), outdoor activities and chores partly limited due to my sprained finger, and a dog who was rearing to get out.

A good sentiment before a long hike!

A good sentiment before a long hike!

We figured it was an appropriate day to go to Cape Ann but stay inland for once.  Dogtown Commons is a historically protected wilderness in Gloucester and Rockport.  It’s about 3600 acres (not too different in size to our beloved Middlesex Fells!)

Some beautiful natural sights we saw:


Even the dried grass is interesting to look at, especially as it camouflages our dog quite well!


It has an extraordinarily rich, and sometimes slightly spooky history, which made checking it out on an overcast day appropriately atmospheric.  Telling your kids some of the legends will keep them engaged and interested on a day hike.  There’s a great article here with some history.

A marker of an ill-fated bullfight.

A marker of an ill-fated bullfight.

In short, some of the excitement involves the fact it is suspected the first settlers picked the rocky and hilly area to hide from pirates.  Some of the last settlers were accused of being witches.  And there is no shortage of stories from in between, including one of a very bloody bullfight. (Not the traditional kind you might think of.  Apparently a drunk guy wrestled his pet on dares from friends…and eventually lost.)  Oh, and some think the area is haunted.

Bridget's leaning against a huge boulder, pensive.  Thinking about ghosts?

Bridget’s leaning against a huge boulder, pensive. Thinking about ghosts?

The area is overflowing with glacial boulders, and there many formations to admire and huge erratics to climb.   During the Great Depression, philanthropist Roger Babson hired out-of-work stonecutters to carve inspirational quotes and historical references on the boulders to mark some of the old building foundations and sites.

Bridget found a rock that said "study" and pretended to practice her letters.  The site of an old school?

Bridget found a rock that said “study” and pretended to practice her letters. The site of an old school?

...and Craig proceeded to move her aside and sit on the "Y" to change the meaning.  Probably not the first goofy dad to do that.

…and Craig proceeded to move her aside and sit on the “Y” to change the meaning. Probably not the first goofy dad to do that.


People don’t seem to be exactly sure where the name comes from, but it is suspected to be canine based.  No, it is not a formal dog park, although it is hugely popular with dog walkers who are more than welcome and who are partly inspired and drawn by the name, I’m sure.  It seems the most popular theory, cited in the links above, is that many of the residents were Revolutionary War widows.  Living alone, it was common for them to have dogs for protection.  After they died or moved on, some of the dogs stayed as strays, and it was not rare to see them running around or hear them howling.

We imagine Moxie was so sad to leave she blew us raspberries!

We imagine Moxie was so sad to leave she blew us raspberries!

Gloucester is a gorgeous and quintessential New England town with many things to do.  But one of these times, go visit this lesser known enclave.  It’s only a short hop away for many of our outdoorsy readers–check it out!

Fiona can't wait to come back!

Fiona can’t wait to come back!

Recipes for Disaster

Creating Creativity

I have two very active and creative children. We used to go through a lot of store-bought playdough and paints until I decide they were too expensive. Over the last 5 years I have tried out a lot of recipes for play dough, different kinds of paints, slimes, goops, and lots of other basic craft supplies to give my children the ingredients for their creativity.

I have put together a collection of fifty of the easiest and best craft supply recipes that, for example, made the best playdough or finger paint for the least amount of work. My children have tested all the results for how well they work, whether they stain skin, clothing, or work surfaces, and for how long they are fun.

The Product: 50 Craft Recipes on Waterproof Cards in a cute Box

The recipes for homemade craft supplies are printed on durable, waterproof cards that can be used for years in kitchens at home or schools.  They are packaged in a sturdy recipe box that will also make a good gift.

If you think a set of recipes for playdough, different paints, and a whole lot of other craft supplies would be great to have either at home or school, please pledge now for this kickstarter campaign. You will get one of the first edition sets mailed to you by August. However, the printing and making of recipe boxes only become financially viable if we print 100 sets. So, please pledge today :-D

Why these are so good to have:

“Play to learn” has been the foundation of my child raising philosophy. I like to provide basic ingredients so that my two preschoolers can independently explore textures, colors, and smells. In creating this compilation, my children and I have spent many hours experimenting: measuring liquids, mixing colors, watching chemical reactions,… We have learned to play.

I have hugely enjoyed Jen’s and Alex’ jaw dropping expressions when we made shrinky plastic, extra gooey slime, and bouncy balls. But the biggest reward for me has been their constant stream of questions: How do you make that? Can we make that ourselves? I smell something – is that a chemical? What color do I get when I mix blue and green? Can I paint my belly? Can I paint the dog? Can we go to the supermarket and get more cornstarch? Seriously!

I have learned a lot testing these recipes and even dusted off some long-forgotten chemistry. My children spent many happy hours creating and being curious. We hope you find these recipes useful and inspiring.

Drink your Trees – making maple syrup

I won a maple syrup making kit at a charity auction. AND GOT VERY EXCITED. I had never made maple syrup before, so I was super glad the kit came with these three books (pics link to amazon.com).

The kit I got came with a metal spile, a hook, and an aluminum bucket and lid – like this kit on amazon.com :Maple Sugaring / Syrup Tapping Starter Kit with Metal Buckets. The only other thing you need is a drill to make a hole in the tree. 7/16th drill bits are a bit hard to find, but that’s what the old fashioned metal spiles need.

(Aside: there are lots of different spiles, taps, lines, and collection vessels available on Amazon.com. For two spiles we used sand buckets, for one a plastic drinking jug – just need something to catch the sap)

I used my cordless power drill to drill into the bark. You’re supposed to do it between a big root and the first big branch, because that’s where the sap will flow the strongest. I kinda just drilled in where it was convenient to stand. The hole is supposed to be 1-2 inches and angled slightly upwards. I think I got that more or less.

I cleaned to drill dust out of the hole and was pretty much amazed that sap started leaking out immediately. I guess I got there just at the right time. Stuck the hook over the spile and hammered the whole thing into the hole. Attached the bucket and lid, and then waited.

The sap flowed at different rates over the next few days. A couple of days it filled the whole 2 gallon bucket, on others 1/4 or 1/2 a gallon. The sap flow is super dependent on the air temperature. For the sap to flow well, it needs freezing temperatures at night, and about 40 deg F during the day. There seems to be some wiggle room. I just checked the bucket a couple of times a day (mostly because I was curious about what was going on).

Turning Sap into Syrup

So maple sap only has a slight sweet taste (that’s me drinking it straight from the pot). It looks and tastes like water otherwise. If you collect it in the morning and some of the sap has frozen, that is the BEST! The ice is mostly water, the sweet part gets concentrated in the part that hasn’t frozen.

Then I filtered all the sap through a cheese cloth into a giant pot and boiled it. A lot. It’s a huge reduction and quite steamy.  I’m trying to work out how to do it in the crockpot, so I don’t have the gas stove going so much.

The books say to reduce the sap until it looks like syrup – light brown-ish, slightly sticky. And if you want to get precise, you can use a thermometer and hygrometer. I have a candy thermometer so I used that to heat the syrup to about 215degF. I also took some of it higher to make maple candy – mixed success there, though all was delicious (just some was too soft, and some too hard).

I then poured the boiling hot syrup into clean mason jars and sealed them up. They seem sterile and nothing has grown in the first batch, which has been at room temperature for over a week.

Things I learned: sap is yummy, and there is a lot of it. Maple syrup is much yummier but more precious that platinum. You just need a way to make a hole in a tree and a way to catch the copious amounts of sap.

And here are some photos of me making maple syrup:

MIT Museum

The MIT Museum is another one of the endless superb museums in the Boston area. We went to a free day at the end of February – there is free admission on the last Sunday of each month until June 2014. Otherwise admission in $10 per adult, $5 for kids, free for under 5 years old.

The museum is on Mass Ave, near MIT, and even though the area is busy, I have always found on-street parking nearby. Bring quarters.

The exhibits are not hugely made for younger kids and there are not too many things for the under-5-year-olds to poke. There are lots of buttons to push, but a lot of those move some delicate wire contraptions.

Oddly, my children found the extensive hologram collection totally uninteresting. I hope it’s just that they don’t understand the cool-ness of it, rather than that children are now so jaded by technology and touch screens that that is no longer fascinating for hours on end. Or maybe the hologram thing was only ever me? ;-)

The biggest fun was had by my 4 and 6 year old with a conveyor belt machine that took pictures of small items and projected them onto the conveyor after they were removed. It think that was worth about an hour, and the source of all the high pitched squeals that day.

Downstairs is another large area, that had a bunch of robots and high tech stuff that mostly was beyond even my 6 year old, so I’ll have to come back sometime by myself for a closer look.

Be warned – the MIT museum has a really cool shop with really cool gadgets and toys. And it cannot be avoided.

Einstein’s Workshop in Burlington

Still somewhat catching up on all the awesome places we’ve been to recently: Einstein’s Workshop in Burlington. http://www.einsteinsworkshop.com. This is a space for older kids – definitely for over three year olds up to adults. They have all the construction toys you have ever heard of and then some. There is a laser cutter and 3D printing (which I’m personally drooling over). They do classes in everything and birthday parties.

Einstein’s Workshop is an amazing space for kids to explore the creative side of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Our goal is to expose young children to fun and engaging STEM activities so that they remain interested and engaged in STEM subjects as they progress from elementary school through high school. In addition, we are working particularly hard to inspire both girls and boys by creating classes for electronic fabric art and through a lasercut dollhouse/model home construction and decoration class. We currently offer science project classes, programming classes (Lego NXT, Scratch, etc), engineering classes such as 2D and 3D CAD design, electronics and circuit project classes, 3D printer and laser cutter project classes, math classes, and more. We offer classes to kids from kindergarten through high school and beyond, including training for FLL and JrFLL coaches. Einstein’s Workshop also features a drop-in creative/maker space for kids, where kids can build with various construction toys such as Legos, K’Nex, Anchor Blocks, Kapla Blocks, and where qualified kids can access our CAD lab, electronics workstations, Arduino projects, 3D printers, and 80-watt laser cutter.

You can get discount tickets for Einstein’s Workshop at https://www.livingsocial.com/deals/1026599?rui=4566718 (that’s a referral link if you are in the mood to give something back to the blog ;-) Many libraries also have free passes

Discovery Museums

There is so much to do around Boston that even after 5 years of trying to visit all the museums and playgrounds and beaches and forests and … there is still more to discover. We finally made it to the Discovery Museums in Acton. And LOVED it.

The Discovery Museums is comprised of two buildings on our 4-plus acre campus.   At the Children’s Discovery Museum, younger children (toddlers through early grades) learn while they play.  At the Science Discovery Museum, children and adults of all ages explore scientific concepts and hands-on creativity.

The Discovery Museums offers exciting programs for all ages.  Check our Calendar for upcoming programs and events!

We spent all day. First in the Children’s part in a smaller house – this opened early and we had a thoroughly awesome time in the various rooms. Everything is put together really carefully and with love.

After a quick lunch on a bench, we went up the hill to the Science museum and spent the entire afternoon there. So much to do for every age. Truly superb. And the best bit is that a lot of public libraries have bought into their discount admission passes. We got 50% off admission, so it is definitely worth checking out.


Disneyworld Playgrounds–Orlando, FL

Neither family has been posting as much in the winter.  There are a lot of reasons for this.  We get busy with school, the holidays, illness, and more.  And even really outdoorsy families like us can have trouble making it out and about when the weather gets really erratic like it has been.  Snow and cold are one thing.  Freezing rain or horrendous driving conditions are another.

But part of the reason is we’ve been away–the Beal family went on a Florida vacation!  Now this is not a travel blog.  Nor is it a super personal one.  It tends to have a more local focus.  There is no reason for me to write up an extensive itinerary of our vacation.  But Playground Hunt DOES have a strong playground focus, of course!

And did you know in addition to all the rides and characters and hotels and shows Disneyworld has a good handful of playgrounds?  They have involved movie-set vibes, and the kids seem to find them as exciting as the more high-tech attractions.  Many people use them as “layovers” of a sort–to kill time before a meal reservation, or while grown-ups are going on a really wild ride, or as a meeting place.  But they are fun and well-done enough that they are destinations on their own even with so many distractions–Bridget and Fiona wanted to head back to each one several times.


Animal Kingdom has one called The Boneyard.  It’s set up to be like an archaeological dig site with tunnels and crates and an old Jeep replica to climb on and fossils to unearth and brush off like at the similar (but much smaller) Stone Zoo feature.

IMG_0461IMG_0458 IMG_0464IMG_0485


Hollywood Studios has a Honey I Shrunk The Kids play area.  The movie may be an older classic now but the playground doesn’t feel dated.  It’s as if you and your kids are shrunk down to ant-size and plopped in a suburban yard and you get to run around in the towering blades of grass and spider webs and abandoned toys.


Those two play areas are most appropriate for the 5-12 crew, but Laughin’ Place under Splash Mountain in the Magic Kingdom is a toddler sized replica of Brer Rabbit’s house.  And The Seas with Nemo and Friends at Epcot is a smaller scale play area, but some kids might be nervous about the fact it is shark themed–mine weren’t fazed, though!

Anyway, this is slightly off topic in the sense it isn’t greater Boston or New England based, but our interest in exciting new playgrounds made this short post on the subject seem worthwhile–just in time for February vacation if any of you are heading down!  Have a great week whether you will be near or far.



Groundhog Day is underappreciated!

We think Groundhog Day can tend to be a bit forgotten and neglected as far as holidays go.  And it involves the types of things we at Playground Hunt are very into:  the outdoors, animals, seasons, weather, and more…


Here are some ideas on ways to acknowledge it this year:

This is the official website for the holiday.  It has links to a great Weather Discovery Center, information on history, tourism, lesson plans, and more.

Here is a Punxsutawney based souvenir shop where you can pick up everything from mugs and hats to slippers and golf balls.  And, er, bags of chocolate posing as groundhog poop!

There are actually dozens of great Groundhog Day books out there for kids. Ask your local librarian!  But one of our favorites is The Groundhog Day Book of Facts and Fun by Wendie Old, which is just a nice overview of the holiday and the animal in a kid-friendly format.  Gretchen Groundhog, It’s Your Day by Abby Levine is another favorite, in which she bucks convention and saves the day.

Take some time to learn about groundhogs themselves (also known as woodchucks) and include some other North American wildlife in your studies while you’re at it.  The National Weather Service website has a special section for kids, to learn more about weather and the seasons.

If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can invite some friends over for some celebrations!

–If your kids are old enough, play the Groundhog Day movie.  Once will probably do.  But then you can play this really awesome song called I Hog the Ground by Steven Drozd from the Flaming Lips and Stephen Burns from Blues Clues.

–Make Porcupine Balls (yes, I know they are called porcupine balls but they kind of look like curled up groundhogs) or make Dirt Worm Cups or just serve any hearty mid-winter comfort food.  Decorate cookies and give half a winter theme and half a spring theme and guests can choose their favorite and make bets on what the groundhog will predict.

If it is sunny, go outside and play shadow tag.  If not, stay inside and play “Pin the Shadow on the Groundhog”.

We have lots of fun in the snow–but let’s face it–by the end of winter, many people are missing spring.  If you are all starting to get a bit tired of it all, make a pinata representing winter (like a snowman shaped one, for example, but be creative) and beat the stuffing (well, candy) out if it to release your frustrations and get some treats!

Bridget as a baby, dreaming of spring.

Bridget as a baby, dreaming of spring.

We used to host an adult version but admittedly never adapted it for kids, but we’re not ruling that out!  While it did break up the cabin fever, we remembered there are other party excuses this month to break up the tedium as well–Mardi Gras, Superbowl, Chinese New Year…so while we are always sure to do well acknowledging Groundhog Day, we might pick yet another “forgotten” holiday to throw a bash around.   April Fool’s?  Daylight Savings Time? May Day? Flag Day? The solstices?  What would you pick?  Let’s hear your ideas!


Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art–Amherst, MA

You know that giggle?  That super cute giggle?

With my girls, it is kind of a rat-a-tat-tat.  It’s a bit like mine but it sounds cuter coming from them.  It’s one of those noises that gives you a parenting high.  And a grandparent high–they love it because it can be appreciated long distance over the phone or Skype.  It’s the reason you tell silly jokes or why you actually KEEP that colander on your head for several hours after it got used as a hat in a fit of silliness (is that last one just me?).

You know what else makes my girls giggle like that? The Mo Willems Elephant and Piggie books.

On Thanksgiving weekend, a friend and I were looking for playdate ideas.  We were contemplating the Eric Carle Museum but we weren’t sure.  We’d been relatively recently.  Although VERY worthy, did we want to devote time or ticket prices to that, or someplace we’d never tried before?

Two things cinched it for sure–library passes (although admission is very reasonable at just over twenty dollars for a family pass and free for teachers) and the fact the current featured artist is Beal girl favorite Mo Willems.

Western MA is or was home to many extremely acclaimed children’s authors:  Dr. Seuss, Jeanne Birdsall, Leslea Newman, Bill Cosby, Jane Yolen, and more.  I’m guessing this is part of the reason yet another famous  kid’s author and former resident–Eric Carle, still alive and active at 84–decided on the location for his picture book art museum.

Like many museums, original artwork is off limits for photos, but they had this mural print up as a prop.  Notice our friend Moloaa flapping like a pigeon!

Like many museums, original artwork is off limits for photos, but they had this mural print up as a prop. Notice our friend Moloaa flapping like a pigeon!

The museum has several galleries featuring original artwork from authors/illustrators.  Carle seems to always have some of his original collages on display, and other galleries rotate, hence the Mo Willems feature right now.  But let’s face it–adults or older kids are the ones who might be more apt to get a thrill about the fact it is the original art (drafts and notes are often included in the displays as well) which is why it is a good thing there is loads more to do there.

Fiona working on her collage.  She LOVED their laundry starch glue.  Okay, so did we, because it is washable!

Fiona working on her collage. She LOVED their laundry starch glue. Okay, so did we, because it is washable!

Our kids ran straight to the art studio.  That day, they were teaching good old Carle style collages, although they have varying themes on different days.  Tables are set up based on age and skill level, and there are plentiful assistants, supplies, and references.  There are also some toys and mini-exhibits off to the side, in case one of your kids finishes before another.  Studio time is included with every visit, but they also offer more formal classes you can sign your kids up for if you live out that way.

Okay, I  made one, too.

Okay, I made one, too.

They have their own library, with a fantastic Very Hungry Caterpillar wooden play structure outside the entrance.


There is a theatre with both movies and a live-action stage.  Sometimes fun but short informational clips are shown for free, and sometimes major features or productions are put on for an additional fee.  They’ve also got a snack area with vending machines and a very nice gift shop.  They occasionally host various festivals and have rentable event space.


This kid-oriented museum is definitely worth a visit but it is more of a jaunt for our Greater Boston readers. Thankfully there is plenty to do in the area if you decide to make a day, weekend, or vacation out of it.  We ALWAYS stop for cider donuts at Atkin’s Farm right next door.  The Yankee Candle Flagship, Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory, vibrant and walkable downtown Northampton, and lots of hiking are all within 15 minutes or so, with many more kid-friendly options in Springfield, Worcester, and the Berkshires.  We hope  you get a chance to check it out someday!


Winter Play Spaces around Boston

Here is Angelika’s first installment of her list of 1001 things to do around Boston in the Fall and Winter of 2013. This is my list of places to go: museums, public places, commercial indoor playgrounds, and some great organizations that lead events for kids outside in winter. This is along the lines of “They can’t bounce off the walls if you take the walls away”.

Actually, this installment is about Inside Educational Play, so there will be a couple of walls…

A lot of the museums offer activities for children and separate areas for even the youngest. It is possible to get heavily discounted tickets to lot of the museums from local libraries, so check there.

Inside Educational Play

Museum of Science

Huge space with something to discover for everyone. For kids under 5, head to the Discovery Center, all the way past the cafeteria and shop. And try to go before 10am, so there’s room in the attached, covered garage (hint for bad weather). I’ve written about it before here: LINK. For frequent visitors I recommend the premium membership – you get two hours free parking each time and lots of tickets to see the MoS shows.

Boston Children’s Museum

Jen and Alex at the train table in PlayspaceAnother huge space with lots of activities and rooms to get absorbed in. My recommendation is to let the kids lead the way. They’ll stay in the rooms they find fun. There is a room dedicated for the 3 and under set, with what we think is the world’s best train table.  Everything is interactive, and can get messy and wet. I recommend brining at least one complete change of clothing per child.  Parking is a bit farther away in a public garage. I’ve written about it before here: LINK

Wenham Museum

"Look Mama - trains!"Not sure if this is still a “hidden” gem, but this small museum is superb for the under 5 year old set (and anyone into trains and dolls). About half the museum is devoted to a range of model trains with lots of buttons to push for the younger set. Parking is easy, but be warned that they have an excellent gift/toy store attached ;-). I’ve written about it before here: LINK and LINK

Discovery Museums

We haven’t made it here yet, but everyone says these museums are super good. Someone send me a message before you go and maybe if we meet some people there I’ll be motivated enough to drive the half hour from Stoneham.

Einstein’s Workshop

I heard about this place in summer, when the Stoneham library announced they have passes. I (I mean my children) would love to play with lots of Lego, robots, 3D printer,…

Imagine an enormous room filled with toys: LEGOs, K’nex, Zome, magnetic blocks, wooden, stone, and cardboard blocks, electronics kits, puzzles, board games, and computer games. That’s our indoor playspace – an indoor playground where kids and adults come to build and create together.

I’ll report back when we’ve been, but it does seem like it’s aimed at kids over 5 years old. Again, leave a message here or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/PlaygroundHunt) to arrange to meet us there ;-)

New England Aquarium

Alex really getting into the touch tankThe New England Aquarium is really quite spectacular (and spectacularly expensive). Get a library pass to make the entrance fee less painful.  The displays are stunning, and the last time we went, we really enjoyed the new touch tank with all the sting(less)rays. The giant tank in the center is open again, too and we got to see the sea lion training. I’ve written about it before here: LINK

Harvard Museum of Natural History

I think the Harvard Museum of Natural History is amazing. Alex got freaked out by the large number of stuffed animals on display last time we went. So instead we spent a lot of time looking at the large rock collection and the fossils and arthropods. Free to Massachusetts residents every Sunday morning (year-round) from 9:00 am to noon and on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 5:00 pm (September through May), and library passes can be found. This museum is beautiful, but not tremendously hands on, so might be better for kids over 5.

MIT Museum

I have no idea why we haven’t been to this museum that is all about robots, machines, robots, kinetic sculptures, robots, machines, and all things engineering. Is my inner nerd showing?

Museum of Fine Arts

The Museum of Fine Arts is gigantic. The only time I’ve been with my children was when we went to one of the homeschool classes they put on. We got a great, but quick, tour through some of the space, and got to do craft. I can’t talk about art endlessly, especially with children, so I’m inclined to go back as part of another class, so that they will get more out of it than what I feel I can offer. I have written about our last trip at this LINK, where we learned about textile arts.

Institute of Contemporary Art

never been!

Peabody Essex Museum

also never been!!!

American Textile Museum

Ha! We went here :-D This is superb museum, and surprisingly large. It covers all things textile from waaaaay back in history to space (really). Very educational, very hands on. And they have lots of super helpful staff on hand, who were willing to help us sort out various weaving looms.  This museum also and an exceptional “Textile Learning Center”, a very well stocked and staffed play room, where people of all ages can touch, weave, and otherwise play with textile related toys.