deCordova Revisited

 

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We hope you all got some outdoor time on the second beautiful weekend in a row!

One of the places we visited (in addition to the Stone Zoo and the new storybook walk out of Greenwood Park at the Middlesex Fells) was deCordova Sculpture park and museum in Lincoln, MA.  Angelika’s done a post on it before but it has been five years so we figured a quick update wouldn’t be out of line.

Nice to meet you, otter man!  Teach me about art, please!

Nice to meet you! Teach me about art, please!

It was founded in 1950 and is known for its sprawling lawns with large scale sculptures and art installations, as well as a museum with a wider variety of media.  Admittedly, we’ve only taken quick peeks inside the museum because we had so much fun playing outside and need to pay it the attention it deserves someday.  The main indoor exhibit at the moment is on Walden, which is not too far away, although the museum itself is on Flint Pond.

But as Angelika said, the outdoor portion is perfect for small kids.  They can run and play and picnic and the huge and sometimes colorful sculptures are right up their alley.  Dogs are allowed in the outdoor portion as well.

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We made it *right* when the grass was turning green. I swear it was brown in our yard the day before and brightened up that morning. A good day for a picnic!

Another perk to bringing kids is they are free under 12!  Adults are $14 each, but there are all kinds of discounts. We used a combination of library passes and teacher discounts (thanks, Bree!) and there are many more including AAA or Zipcar or biking, to free admission the first Wednesday of the month, and more. Of course it is a worthy institution that I’m happy paying full price to support, and there are membership options as well.

Sneak peaks of some of the new and different things, with more in the works:

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I don’t grow veggies, but I eat them!

Angelika is a good hobby gardener.  I will not be surprised if she updates us at some point about her beautiful flowers and vegetables.  This is on many people’s minds with planting season upon us. Occasionally I’ve had some luck planting tomatoes or herbs (And I’ve kept a houseplant she gave me alive for a year!) but I don’t have much of a green thumb.

But we love eating our vegetables!  Don’t get me wrong.  The kids will sometimes go a week subsisting off of crackers and air, then will turn around and be the most adventurous eaters you’ve ever met the next. I hesitated writing a post on eating our vegetables because while it arguably fits our nature themes, it can come off as “smug mommy-ish”  and preachy and not everything works for everyone.  But many times I’ll get together with friends and it is a frequently mentioned topic so I figured I had enough resources to make it fun and lighthearted.  Some ideas are common, and some are a bit more out of the box.

  • Let kids help cook them, grow them, or pick their own.  We’ve heard if kids feel more ~ownership~ they’ll be more likely to want to devour them.  Try to make it fun or different.  Friends have told us their kids didn’t like certain meals until they prepped them in the Dutch oven while camping.  But inviting them into the kitchen at home can work, too.

    Strawberry picking is a popular spring tradition around these parts!

    Strawberry picking is a popular spring tradition around these parts!

  • Subscribe to a CSA if you have the opportunity and resources.  We get Heaven’s Harvest and the last I knew Angelika was getting Farmer Dave’s.   Kids get WAY more excited about their vegetables if they come in a box they can tear open like a birthday present every single week, believe me!  I’ve actually found the vegetables turn out about twenty percent cheaper than if you buy even the non-organics at the grocery store but the “downsides” are you don’t get to choose what you want (For us this is a perk! We love surprises!) and you’re asked to pre-pay so the farmers can invest early and pay you back later. This can be tough if finances are tight, but more and more are offering payment plans and/or accepting SNAP.
    Plus, you’re apt to get ~different~ things like ground cherries, a kid-friendly tomato relative that some say taste like a combination of strawberries, mangos and pineapples. Or veggies in strange shapes that are deemed too ugly for the store but are actually loads of fun, and might otherwise go to waste. Do you have a CSA you recommend?
  • Alter its form.  Jessica Seinfeld has her Deceptively Delicious books where she suggests things like pureeing cauliflower into your mac and cheese.  These are good additions, but nutritionists are split on the tactic because they love to encourage people to eat veggies for their own sake.  You may not need to hide things that much.  My girls are actually pretty good at eating most things, but avoid leaves, although they’ve been tentatively using Napa cabbage as a gateway.  But one of their favorite foods is pesto, go figure. Of course it  is traditionally made with basil but can be blended up with kale or chard or broccoli or asparagus or pretty much any green.
My nephew figuring out what to do with his first lobster.  If you understandably don't want to splurge on an entire lobster for a toddler, at least let them try a few bites.

My nephew figuring out what to do with his first lobster. If you understandably don’t want to splurge on an entire lobster for a toddler, at least let them try a few bites.

  • Think outside the box with what a “kid food” is.  More than once, I’ve seen a child get offered something like olives or sushi and the parents said, “No, they won’t like it–they’re a picky eater.” only to see the kid eagerly devour it and hear reports they’ve continued to consume it readily at home.  The kid may only have five things they like, but don’t assume brussels sprouts won’t be the sixth, just because of their rep or because you don’t like them!
  • Trade with friends.  Sometimes my kids will balk at a healthy snack I give them, but they inevitably want to try their friends’ snacks and vice versa.  Obviously this is only recommended with good friends  without known allergies but there have been times I called a friend up and said, “Pssst! I’ll pack the bell pepper slices today if you bring the carrots!” and the kids eagerly snatched up what their friend had even if they would’ve ignored their own because they felt like they were getting away with something.
  • Try a cutesy presentation.  We’ve all heard of ants-on-a-log.  My kids have this plate for sanctioned play-with-your-food time.  This is a common suggestion but an oldie but goodie for a reason.
    The "dinosaur jungle" veggie platter at Bridget's third birthday party.

    The “dinosaur jungle” veggie platter at Bridget’s third birthday party.

    Our turkey shaped cheeseball

    Our turkey shaped cheeseball

  • Play around with condiments and sauces.  Toddlers, especially, love dipping their food in all manner of things.  Put out some mini-ramekins filled with a variety of choices and you might find the veggie sticks gone.  Be careful, as many condiments have added sugar, but there are many without and you still might prefer the sweet dips on grape tomatoes versus chips.  And yes, the kids might want to do things that sound odd to you like putting strawberry cream cheese on eggplant or soy sauce on apples.  Let them!  We only cringe because we’re socialized to.  If they are things you’d let them eat in other combinations, don’t stop them!  It probably won’t last forever and it is getting it into them.
    Bridget will choose a pickle the size of her leg over fried stuff at the fair every single time, IF she's allowed to slather it in mustard.

    Bridget will choose a pickle the size of her leg over fried stuff at the fair every single time, IF she’s allowed to slather it in mustard.

    Again, this is not one-size-fits-all, and things can be tricker for individuals with medical reasons for their hesitations or for supertasters.  But it can be fun to share experiences and bounce ideas around.  What are your best tips for getting your kids (or spouses or friends) to eat their vegetables?

    The disappointment surrounding their aunt presenting them with fruit instead of birthday cake disappeared when they discovered it had multiple "arms" and flames shooting out of it.

    The disappointment surrounding their aunt presenting them with fruit instead of birthday cake disappeared when they discovered it had multiple “arms” and flames shooting out of it.

 

Maple Sugaring 2015

I got a fair bit of maple syrup from my trees last year – read the post from then here: Maple Sugaring 2014. Turns out that the first tree I tapped by accident (I drilled a practice hole in the first maple tree I walked to and it started dripping sap immediately so I put in a spile), wasn’t actually a sugar maple. Once summer came around I cautiously identified it as a Black Maple. But, hey! it still produced a whole lot of sap and yummy maple syrup.

So this year I tapped three trees I knew were sugar maples. I got a new kind of spile from Amazon: 5 Maple Syrup Tap Spile Kit 5 Taps + Drop Lines

I just dropped the lines into some clean 1 gallon milk jugs – this is an improvement on the sand buckets we used last year ;-).

A few days later the right temperatures were happening (below freezing at night, above freezing during the day) and the sap started moving, and straight into my bucket and jugs.

In my mind, making maple syrup consists of two phases: 1) reducing water content and 2) caramelising the liquid into syrup.

This year I reduced water content by partially freezing the sap and getting rid of the top ice. The lower liquid has the sugary fraction I want. I also used a deep tray over two burners instead of a single stockpot. This gave me a bigger surface area from which to evaporate the water. Out of necessity I didn’t reduce the sap over a romantic fire outside in the snow. Instead I gave my pan sporadic bursts of bringing the sap to a boil. During the times I had to dash off with children I let the pan sit open and further evaporation would get rid of even more water. Then whenever I came back I would fire up the stove again and heat the sap to boiling. One thing I learned this year is to reduce the pot size to fit the liquid. It’s really hard to get 1/2 cup of syrup out of a big tray :-)

I don’t have a hygrometer to measure water content, but instead just use a thermometer. I’ve noticed that sap will happily boil away at about 210ºF for hours and not go above that temperature. Until the water content becomes low enough. Then it fairly rapidly increases in temperature to 230ºF, which is the required temperature for the caramelization reaction to occur. the most obvious VISUAL change is that the liquid suddenly doesn’t bubble like water any more. Instead there are lot of little bubbles that start to rise out of the pot, unless you add the little bit of butter recommended in the books.

And here to talk about the science of caramelization – from The Science of Cooking:

Caramelization and caramels are not the same.

Yes, it’s a little bit confusing, but you’ll get it in a minute.

Caramels are the chewy candies you are familiar with. They’re made by cooking sugar, cream, corn syrup, and butter to 245° F. Their brown color comes from a reaction between the sugar and the protein in the cream. This reaction is called the Maillard reaction, after the French scientist who discovered it. The rich brown color of toasted nuts and barbecued meats also comes from the Maillard reaction.

Put simply, the Maillard reaction occurs when part of the sugar molecule (the aldehyde group, if you must know) reacts with the nitrogen part of the protein molecule (an amino group). The resulting series of reactions is not well understood even by food scientists, but it leads to the brown color and many flavorful compounds that are yet to be identified.

Caramelization is what happens to pure sugar when it reaches 338° F. A few tablespoons of sugar put in a pan and heated will eventually melt and, at 338° F, start to turn brown. At this temperature, the sugar compounds begin to break down and new compounds form.

As with the Maillard reaction, the details of what happens during caramelization aren’t well understood. But the results are appreciated all the same. For example, caramelized sugar is often used as decoration on fancy desserts. Try caramelizing sugar yourself—it’s easy!

Monkey See

I’ve been doing a bit of cross stitch over the last few months. I started off with a basic kit thing from Michael’s craft store. It took a little while to get used to the back-end mechanics of the thing. Like how do I get the needle over THERE?

After that experiment I started making my own patterns: a honey bee, a cardinal, a chickadee,… Of course it took me a couple of months to complete each cross stitch – they are about 7in across.

I’ve copied photos of the finished products below. I had the chickadee framed, which turned out really well. Alex was apparently so impressed he wanted to do one too. I redesigned the chickadee pattern to be much smaller and simpler. He promised that he would keep working on it even if it took years (it might). Apparently he has to wear a home-made crown while cross stitching.

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I did list these patterns on my super small etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/shop/MothersOfInventions

Climbers

My cunning plan is to have a science-y project ready each day for when the kids get out of school. We have been watching way too much television recently. Today I just looked through a couple of the 1001-fun-things-to-do-with-science type books we have.We talked a bit about how friction helped the shapes to climb up the string. I’ll post the video on Facebook.

Found this in The Usborne Big Book of Science Things to Make and Do:
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I used a cereal box as a thin cardboard and free-handed a couple of shapes: a honey bee and a lady bug. First reaction from Jen was: “That’s nice, Mama”. I didn’t know 5 year olds could sound THAT sarcastic – sheesh.

Alex had some fun finishing the bee.

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And this is what the backside looks like – two 1 inch lengths of straws taped on to run the yarn through, and a coin taped on to give it extra weight.

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For Science

Alex has used the excuse “It’s for science” and “Stand back, I’m going going to make potions” for a while. Here he is doing an actual science experiment: cleaning coins in vinegar.
1/4 cup vinegar with 1 teaspoon salt.

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Belated

I’m back. In case you don’t recognise me, it’s Angelika ;-) .

It has been almost a full year since I have written anything for Playground Hunt. And it has been a year of huge change in my life. Briefly, and without complaining, I got sick last April and spent a week in hospital with kidney issues. I spent the rest of spring on the sofa and in bed recovering, while many of our friends helped looked after Alex and Jen.

I spent most of the summer taking it veeeeery slowly, but taking Alex and Jen to as many fun activities as I could. Luckily my children like playing with each other and they are both now at an age where I don’t need to hold their hands everywhere. I could take them to the playground and sit on a bench, and to the lake and watch them potter around the water edge from our blanket. I did have baby sitters come and help, but at least I could spend time watching my children enjoy themselves and sleep when I needed it.

We did go camping a few times. I posted pictures of these trips on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/PlaygroundHunt), but we went to the yurts on Peddocks Island again (this time with Lindsay and her girls), to Searsport Shores Ocean Campground in Maine where I somehow also spent a week showing campers how to make paints, giant bubbles, playdoughs, bouncy balls, etc. as a follow-on from the Recipes for Disaster Kickstarter *, and to Pawtuckaway Campground in New Hampshire.

Fall and Winter seem to have gone by in a blur. Alex and Jen both enrolled in school because homeschooling became infeasible due to my health (it’s hard to teach when you have to spend so much time resting). It has been a time of reflection on how life will be now that some weeks I sleep 16 hours a day. It has been a time of learning how to parent and have a couple of chronic illnesses (suggestions welcome). I am trying to be at peace with enjoying the present, the calmer, and the smaller things.

One more thing before I go for now… I have joined the Friends of the Fells board in the hopes of getting an outdoor afterschool program started in the Fells. They did a superb summer camp forest Kindergarten last year, and this would hopefully be a natural extension. Check out their website and join the Babes in the Woods hikes – they are hugely popular!

* This project was almost funded when I ended in hospital and couldn’t promote it for the final two weeks to make it become a reality :-(

Furry this February: How are the animals doing?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Playground Hunt slows down in the winter, guilty as charged.  We remain outdoorsy, but school and work can take over.  Do you know who else slows down in the winter?  Some animals. Some hibernate, and some slow down to conserve energy.

Some not so much!  Read on:

Farms

Farmers and their livestock remain busy in the winter.  New England has a surprisingly long grow season, then they plan for next year.  The animals need to be kept safe and warm, and many are getting ready to have adorable little babies in the spring.  Many farms have CSA programs that go through the winter.  Some have bed and breakfasts to help them through the season.  And many that allow visitors continue welcoming them.

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We visited Tall Grass Alpaca Farm in  Whately this season.  They have a great set-up.  Alpacas are very hardy and do well in a wide variety of climates, as you may guess by their wooly coats.  But still, many farms heat the barns and use lots of insulating–and filling!–hay.  They were also playing classical music.  They are very refined alpacas.  This serves a dual purpose.  One, it  makes them feel like they have company, and two, it scares predators away, because the predators also think they have company (in that area, mostly coyotes).  They have a nice set-up for visitors, too. The farmers offered us free hot beverages and cookies, and have a nice store with handcrafted wool gifts to browse through.

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Many other farms and outdoor educational venues stay open in the winter.  Sturbridge Village is having a Chocolate Valentine festival, as well as a child-focused week.  Drumlin has a big to-do for maple syrup season next month, but are open limited hours until then.  Speaking of maple syrup season, check out Angelika’s post from the archives.

Wildlife

It seems most people have mixed feelings about this record-breaking snow.  Epic snow forts!  Sledding! Hot cocoa! Bragging rights! But there are the negatives.  Thankfully true tragedies have been minimal but missed work and school is taking its toll, and there is worry about the future too (flooding, etc).

It is also tricky for the wildlife.  Research what you can do to help them.  The Humane Society and the National Wildlife Federation seem to have some good articles here and here.  The main tips involve shelter and food.  Leaving shrubs untrimmed or even a leaf pile out in the fall makes more great burrowing spaces.  It’s recommended only to feed the birds, if that, but leaving out freshwater is said to be fine. Change it frequently before it freezes, when you can.

It is also an ideal set-up to look for animal tracks in the snow.  Track-spotting remains pretty great with all the mud in the spring, but they are even easier to see on the flat white surface.  Have you seen anything cool?

Pets

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How are your pets doing?  Okay, indoor fish probably have no idea what is going on. And I’ve heard most cats are loving watching the snow.  Dogs seem to love it or hate it.  It can be tricky taking them for walks with unshoveled sidewalks and slick streets. Dog parks are buried or unsafe to drive to or empty.  Thankfully our dog Moxie loves it, and she’s having a great time prancing about and digging tunnels.  Her best friend Lupo lives next door and his dad snowblowed some trails and they’ve been having a ball chasing each other around, so she’s doing pretty well but some are not so lucky.  What do your pets think of the storms?

From the fun parts to the frustrating parts to the photos, this winter will be memorable to us.  Animals likely don’t have the same context.  But it is still fascinating to learn and observe the different ways they are experiencing it, and how we work together and help each other.

 

Anthem Kids’ Fitness Festival–Manchester, NH

We went to the Kids’ Fitness Festival put on by the Anthem Manchester City Marathon on the first of November.  It was an appropriate day for something physical.  While we aren’t one of those families who have their children participate in candy buy-backs, it was fun to do something super healthy and active after spending a week acquiring several pounds of candy. (Speaking of which, check out this archive post about alternate uses for your treats!)

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This marathon has been going on since 2007.  There are also a half marathon and relay options. They generally get about 1500 runners but had a big boost after the New York Marathon was cancelled post-Sandy!  300 volunteers make it happen every year, and they have raised over $100,000 for various charities, with a focus on health and wellness.

 

There was a lot to do! It didn’t take too long to get there.  Manchester is across the NH state line, but just barely; it took us about 45 minutes.  Upon arrival, the kids got their own race number.  If you knew an adult running, there was a station to make a cheerleading sign.  If you didn’t, the option was healthy meal collages.

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There were plenty of ways to focus on active kids!  The YMCA and the Girl Scouts came and were helping with everything from obstacle course type games to more organized yoga, zumba, and “boot camp” classes.  If the kids made it around to all the stations, they won a prize.

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There was an adult sports and fitness expo going on in the same building, and they made sure to place the child oriented exhibitors near all the fun stuff.  The dance school had a lot of stuff to play with, the local cross-fit gym was teaching some kid-friendly moves, and the grocery store was giving out healthy samples and playing kiddie nutrition games.  We wandered around a bit, and my kids were intrigued by the adult booths as well!

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The purpose of this write-up isn’t simply to talk up the Manchester City Marathon kids’ event, which we highly recommend but won’t happen again for another year, but the concept in general.  Many adult races will have something similar.  For some, it will be a one mile kids’ “fun run”, others will be more summer camp style, and some will be like this.  This kids’ event is free, and even when there is a fee many races are for charity.

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We’re hikers and playground experts, not runners.  But occasionally we can handle a 5K or so, especially for a good cause. (And as with hiking, you’d be surprised what your little one can take on.  If I was concerned with my own time, it might be another issue, but Bridget and some of her little friends usually have no struggles with 5Ks or less).

Having a fun event like this added on makes it an even bigger draw, since we’re all about getting children outside and moving.  What does your family do to stay active when you’re not at a playground?  Do you prefer to run, walk, hike, bike, swim, dance, or go to a gym? Or maybe try one of the winter sports that will be starting up before we know it!

SMILE Playground, Haskell Field–Sudbury, MA

I’m good at applying that “you only live once” philosophy to trips overseas, trying unusual foods, and when deciding whether I’m too old to hop on that pogo stick.  I’m usually up for anything. I’ve got to remember to apply it on simple afternoon trips to the playground.  We admittedly sometimes think twice if someone suggest a playground a half hour away or more.

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It does take a bit more planning.   When my friend said, “Come on!  A big group of us are going and it is a REALLY cool one!” I knew I had to check it out, and she was right–it was worth the jaunt.

SMILE Playground is a Boundless Playground in Sudbury, MA.  These playgrounds are set to higher accessibility standards, so a higher percentage of kids with varying abilities can enjoy more of them.  In fact, Sudbury mom Lotte Diomede found re-building this playground in 2010 for her child with multiple disabilities so rewarding, she and her friend Susan Brown founded SMILE Mass,  an organization focused on improving accessibility to recreation, travel, and learning opportunities to families with members with disabilities.

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It’s set at Haskell Recreation Area and some other amenities include soccer fields and a skate park.  The playground itself is mostly enclosed; there is no gate, but only a small opening.   In fact, the playground was so large with the fence close enough that it was tough to get full pictures of the structures–I apologize!  Restrooms and a snack bar are attached.

There were three large  playground structures, in addition to a “mobius strip” climber, a large sandbox, swings, multiple bouncers, and covered picnic tables.  There were signs with toddler vs school-age recommendations, but all the structures were very big.  This is probably for accessibility reasons, but everyone benefits.  Another fun stand-out characteristic were the different animal footprint shapes on the ramps.

All sorts of climbing!

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It was nearly a half hour from Stoneham, but as long as 95 isn’t backed up, it is a very easy drive, and I say this as someone who generally prefers to walk or bike!  Given the size and amenities, it is definitely worth grabbing some friends and making of a day trip out of it. 

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