Category Archives: Outdoor Fun

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.

 

Granola Strolla Solar Charger Review

Have you ever wanted to head to the playground or out on a hike or to the beach but waited because your phone was about to die and you were expecting a really important phone call?  This charger looks like it’d make it a lot easier to recharge while YOU recharge.

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The Granola Strolla family enjoying the outdoors–just for the sake of it, and to take advantage of their solar charger!

If we sponsored and shared every worthy Kickstarter we stumbled across, we’d have to rename ourselves The Stoneham Review of Interesting, Worthy, and Potentially Very Lucrative Brainstorms and Beyond because there are a lot of brilliant and innovative ideas out there. But this one for the portable Granola Strolla solar charger caught our eyes.  Why?  It shares our mission on multiple levels:

  • most practical when getting outdoors, enjoying nature
  • environmentally friendly
  • while it isn’t geared towards use by small kids, it is more kid-friendly/kid-safe than many solar chargers out there (more on this later)
  • calls on our love of all that is science geeky
  • it is a small family business with local ties

 

 

Here’s the link to the actual Kickstarter to support it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/granolastrolla/granola-strolla-portable-solar-usb-charger

When I first heard about this, I thought, “Well, it is a nice concept, but there are other portable solar charges on the market.  How is this one different?”  Not that any idea is truly unique.  For instance, when I was a kid I thought a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat would be the answer to all the inconveniences of sharing a bathroom with my kid brother.  I was sure I’d be rich and be invited on 3-2-1-Contact or something.  It wasn’t a week later, I saw they were already on the market. Foiled!  So things have got to stand out and be different somehow.  And this one definitely does, in our opinion.  And I daresay it took a lot more thought and engineering than my midnight inspiration.  So I think this one’s got a great shot! How Granola Strolla stands out:

  • they are taking the lead by putting a more eco-friendly Lithium Iron Phosphate battery in it, in addition to a recycled casing.  Their promotional items, rewards, and “swag bags” are natural crafts from local artisans, as well.
  • It’s multi-directional.  This makes it easier to charge with more surface area on multiple sides, and it is also set up to loop easily onto your bag, strollers, or other accessories.  No unfolding or set-up with this one.
  • Its casing makes it more durable and hardier than many solar chargers already on the market.  And it is water-resistant!
  • It is more lightweight than some.  This is especially important when carting around the kids and all their stuff.  Or for backpacking!
  • It is more affordable than much of the competition and will be manufactured in the U.S. to create jobs.

 

See!  Water (drool?) proof and BPA free!

See! Water (drool?) proof and BPA free!

The sturdiness is a big one for me.  Confession time!  I don’t even have a smartphone yet.   I use mine for calls and texts only.  I can sometimes go five days on one phone charge whereas some of my friends make only five hours. (Less worry with Granola Strolla!) But as most of  you know, we’re running off camping constantly.  Usually there is no electrical source to be found!  It can still be good to have a phone or GPS in case of an emergency, or an e-reader if you read as much as we do.  It sounds like this would be a great addition to our camping checklist.

Irene and Ben reside in the Memphis area with their two little boys and their dog and cat but lived in Boston for a while and still have ties and connections here.  They are crafty, creative, and interested in environmental issues.  You can direct questions to their website and also check out the Facebook feed or Twitter @granolastrolla.  Irene also has a business doing custom sewn and  knit designs at Tea With Frodo Designs (which has a giveaway going on this week!).

Their son Garrett and Bridget when they were small.  Perhaps he's saying, "Ok, let's bring these to the playground.  And mommy can charge her camera on her Granola Strolla and take many adorable pictures of us!"  Sadly, it didn't exist then.  But it does now!

Their son Garrett and Bridget when they were small. Perhaps he’s saying, “Ok, let’s bring these to the playground. And mommy can charge her camera on her Granola Strolla and take many adorable pictures of us!” Sadly, it didn’t exist then. But it does now!

They are off to a great start, and are already 15% to their goal not even three days in. (It was very cute when they rewarded themselves with Toblerone–a Granola Strolla shaped treat–for meeting their first micro-goal.)   I think they’ve got a great chance and  an exciting idea that fills a niche.  Support them, or consider sharing if you’re unable at this time but still intrigued.  It’ll be exciting to see this continue to develop!

Dog Mountain–St. Johnsbury, VT

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Remember when we talked about Dogtown, the local place that sounds like a dog park, but isn’t really a dog park–the name has historical origins–but so many dog lovers are drawn in by the name that in some ways it might as well be?

This shows part of the gorgeous mountaintop view.  The view of Moxie isn't so bad, either ;)

This shows part of the gorgeous mountaintop view. The view of Moxie isn’t so bad, either ;)

Well, Dog Mountain, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, has an equally convoluted description.  It DOES define itself as a dog park.  But it has so much more to offer, from miles of hiking trails, to an art gallery and shop, a chapel, and multiple local festivals–so much so that dozens of non-dog owners visit every year as well, and everyone is equally welcome.

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Folk artist Stephen Huneck (raised in Sudbury, MA) and his wife Gwen were inspired to open the place on their Vermont property in the mid-90s.  The chapel was an integral part of the original idea.  Everyone is welcome to leave a memorial note for their pets, and it is wallpapered in them.  Even the most stoic will find it difficult to leave with dry eyes.  Sadly, the memorial has wider implications now, because after a lifetime struggle with physical and mental illness, Huneck took his own life in 2010 and his wife later followed.  But they’ve left a beautiful legacy, and and supporters claim to want to keep it open and free, and donations (either direct or through the online store) and volunteers are always welcome.

Up the hill...

Up the hill…

...and down.

…and down.

Last week we were on Craig’s family’s annual camping trip and decided to check it out.  The entire property is off leash if you desire, and dogs are allowed in the buildings as well.  Huneck’s sculptures adorn the property, the area is full of wildflowers, and there seem to be water bowls set around.  There is a doggie play structure and a pond where swimming is welcome–if you have four legs.

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The St. Johnsbury area is pretty kid-friendly otherwise, as well.  There is a lot of stuff to do mentioned in our more general write up from last year.  In that article, I neglected to mention it is also near the home base for Circus Smirkus.  Although you don’t have to go to Vermont to see them; they are in Waltham next weekend!

Moxie on the porch of the gallery and shop.

Moxie on the porch of the gallery and shop.

Despite the bittersweet history, this is a happy, peaceful place where community and common interests come together.  We love traveling New England and finding places where art, nature, play, and kid-friendly stuff come together and Dog Mountain is a great one.

 

 

 

 

Wolf Hollow–Ipswich, MA

“What do you think is in this bucket?” asked Z Soffron, Assistant Director of Wolf Hollow, as he emerged through the pack with a large orange pail.  “Raw meat?”

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He dumped it on the ground and we saw large red dripping chunks, which the wolves excitedly started lapping at.  Nope, it was homemade apple and watermelon “popsicles” (just fruit pieces frozen in water, an appropriate summer snack for your canines, as well).

While verbally reminding us that they are wild keystone predators, by serving what is basically a healthy version of the snowcones featured at the festival’s entrance, they made these creatures  instantly relatable as well.

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And that seems to be the point of Wolf Hollow’s Free Family Fun Fest.  Wolf Hollow is a non-profit wolf education center, and an affordable day trip any season ($7.50 adults, $5.00 children and seniors).  But once a year they open their gates for free so newcomers can check out what there is to learn, and old fans and new friends can enjoy the celebratory atmosphere.

It was very crowded–not overly so or in a bad way–but one could see how taking in these fascinating animals in their multi-acre sanctuary like atmosphere would take on a whole different tone on a quieter day, and I’m sure many first-time visitors (like us!) are now eager to have that experience as well.

But the Family Fun Festival is a good way to do it once a  year, too.  The usual hour long presentation was cut in half.  While it was well done and made me curious about what else there is to learn, the shorter time is great for the younger children.  As were the games and activities, including a coloring contest, puppet making, tye-dying, Pin the Nose on the Wolf, and more.  There were food and drink vendors, and if you saw the post I made on the Facebook feed, the free Ipswich Ale Brewery samples for the adults did not disappoint!  I recommend the summer ale!

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The rest of the year they have hour presentations on weekend days (going down to Sundays only during the thick of winter) at 1:30pm.  They are occasionally cancelled due to bad weather or special events so it is good to call first.  Groups of 20 or larger, like school field trips or camp groups, can schedule presentations by appointment on weekdays.

Wolf Hollow supports its wolves and their habitat through their modest admission fees, gift shop sales, private donations, special fundraisers, and their Adopt a Wolf program so if you go and enjoy it, support them!

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When I ask a small child what their favorite animal is, I find I often get one of several answers: dinosaurs (a lot to learn but sadly extinct), unicorns (imaginary, but many great creative myths) or wolves.  With the latter, you’re in luck.  Two local non-profits aim to feature them and educate us about them.  There are the Mexican Grey Wolves at Stone Zoo and the the British Colombian Timber Wolves at Wolf Hollow.  We’ve got easy access to these popular but occasionally misunderstood animals, so take advantage of it!

 

Danvers-Wenham SwampWalk

“Hey, mommy!  We’re bringing you to the swamp today!”

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Some mothers might hear those words Mother’s Day morning and wonder if the kids were exacting revenge for having been subjected to that celery-parsnip soup last week:  “You want green sludge! We’ll show you green sludge!” At the very least they might wonder if they are allowing one too many screenings of The Princess Bride.

Yeah, I essentially got to view a skunk cabbage bouquet for Mother's Day--but liked it!

Yeah, I essentially got to view a skunk cabbage bouquet for Mother’s Day–but liked it!

But no, my kids know they have a nature geek mommy and that I’d be genuinely pleased and excited to hear those words as part of their Mother’s Day plans for me.

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We’d been wanting to check out the Danvers-Wenham SwampWalk for a while, so we met up there with some friends, who had originally recommended it: Daryl, Emmaline and Gideon.  Sadly their mom Meghan had to miss it due to her obligations as an emergency services pediatrician.  I figured she could rescue the kids who were already sick, while we’d work on her kids’ base immunity by smearing them around in some dirt.

The swampwalk is a loop off the Danvers Rail Trail, and a great place to see some of our local wetland plants and animals.  If you do decide to tour it as part of your bike trip, you’ve got to park the bike at the entrance to the boardwalk section, but they’ve got bike racks set up there.  It’s also accessible by foot, just a short ways in from a parking area.  It’s dog-friendly (on leash, of course), so we brought Moxie and our friends’ dog Scout.

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At about a mile and a quarter, it is a relatively short doable walk for kids, and our 2-year-olds walked the whole thing without struggle. That said, much of it is an elevated boardwalk, so gauge whether you think your little one will be careful when it comes to staying on it when you are deciding between babywearing and toddling.  Because the water is shallow and we’re not in alligator country, risks are probably more  unintended mucky mudbath related than immediate danger related, but you might want to read up on some safety practices first anyway.

Okay, okay, so they did get rests and shoulder rides near the end…

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There are several beaver lodges along the walk, and the 4-year-olds thought they spotted one bobbing along but it was too far away to get a definitive sighting.

We saw probably about a dozen common brown water snakes, both on land and swimming, so if you’ve got ophidiophobia, you might want to sit this one out.  I love snakes, but would not want to go on a goose-ridden hike, so I understand.  They greatly interested the kids, and thankfully did not interest the dogs one bit.  They get quite large and thick; we saw ones at least three feet, and they can get to nearly twice that.  They are non-venemous and avoid you when crossing paths, but are quick to bite when handled, so be cautious that way.

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Check out the big guy in front of that large tuft. Sometimes we look for letter shapes in nature. It’s easy to spot Ys, but Ss can be a bit tougher. This friend helped us with that! Thanks!

It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we were a bit surprised we didn’t see any turtles out basking.  The pre-schoolers are both little chatterboxes, which is sometimes not conducive to spotting wildlife, but is thankfully very conducive to engaging them deeply and educationally on wildlife when we do see it, so it evens out.  But apparently turtles don’t have great hearing, especially when it comes to high pitched noises like 4-year-old voices, so it was probably just co-incidence.  We also didn’t see (or feel) excessive bugs, surprisingly, but we put on our repellant and sunscreen ahead of time just to be safe.

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We DID see a wide variety of birds, and you bird watchers among us will lament that we are not great at identifying them.  I’ll have to be sure to bring along my trusty Audubon Guide to New England next time.

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We were excited to get another great local outdoor destination off our bucket lists. Any requests for a future write-up?

 

 

Sap in Making-Do Collector

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:

Outside

I want Alex and Jen to WANT to go outside. I’ve taken them to hikes with Babes in the Woods (Friends of the Fells), classes at Mass Audubon Ipswich and at Drumlin Farm. I take them for walks, kayaking, and to plenty of playgrounds. Each has been fun and mostly rewarding, but depending on the day, each activity meets with some resistance: too cold; too hot; don’t feel like walking.  But then…

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BoatCampLogoThen I enrolled Alex and Jen in Forest Kindergarten at Boat Camp Nature School. I have never seen my children so happy and at peace with the universe. When I pick them up after 3 hours in the forest, they are happy, calm, and dirty. And full of stories of pirate ships, and chipmunks, and poison ivy, and Ducky Debbie. The other teacher, Andrew, doesn’t seem to have a camp name yet.

The Forest Kindergarten is for children 4-6 years old and the entire three hour session is spent outdoors at a property they own with a diverse scenery. You sign up for the school-year, though they (weirdly) have a couple of spots left in Forest Kindergarten.

Outdoor classrooms naturally create endless learning opportunities for our children to nurture their own curiosity, perhaps by following animal tracks and sign, making wild crafts with leaves and treasures found on the forest floor, or using fallen logs as balance beams. Adult mentors assist in the learning, rather than lead the teachings. This is different from a “nature preschool,” which infuses lessons with nature-inspired themes and balances indoor time with outdoor time, as we will be outside the ENTIRE time in all but extreme weather conditions. Proper dress and an adventurous, curious spirit is essential… and we know that’s what kids do best!

Each day we’ll embrace the weather, the forest, and our friends with songs and greetings of thanks. Then we will embark on our time together with natural hands-on learning, storytelling, and exploring the world around us. This is a great opportunity for children to spend quality kid-time enjoying freedom outside and connecting with our natural world, their own self and each other.

The rather lovely people at Boat Camp don’t know I’m writing this post. But, since they do such a great job at providing the most wonderful outdoor experience for my 4 and 5 year olds, I thought they deserved a gigantic public thanks. Also, the several hundred followers of this blog seem to be fairly outdoorsy and might want to check out the classes and summer-camps they offer. :-)

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I won’t re-hash all the arguments for why children should spend time outside. Many people write blogs and books on the topic.  If you think your child would like to spend some super quality time outside, check out Boat Camp Nature School. And if you are keen to find out more, grab a copy of Last Child in the Woods.

 

Reading MA Recreation

We live in Stoneham, MA, which abuts Reading and it turns out Reading has a very active recreation department and a bunch of great activities and playgrounds. Woot! Stoneham doesn’t have a Rec Department (sob :’-( ), but please post in comments if your town has one and where to find their events and resources.

This from Jenna Fiorente, the Reading Recreation Program Coordinator

Dear Playground Hunt Families,

Reading Recreation is a self-supporting Division of the Department of Public Works. The mission of Reading Recreation is to provide the community with year round recreational activities. The Division believes programs should be broad based to meet the recreational needs of all segments of the population.

We have several programs, workshops, and free events throughout the year. For the little ones, we have just started Super Soccer Stars and Babies & Books. We hope to grow our toddler programs based on feedback from our parents.

We have several parks and playgrounds here in Reading as well. For information on all of our programs, events, and facilities, please check out our website at www.readingrec.com . Please also feel free to call us at 781-942-9075.

 

Reading Recreation Department Links:

 

Playground Hunt Treasure Hunt

Printable Fall Treasure Hunt

Someone requested a fall treasure hunt (after some prodding on Facebook). So here it is: my first printable treasure hunt for roughly 3 to 5 year old preschoolers for FALL STROLLS. Please let me know what you think and what other kind of treasure hunt I could make. They take a couple of hours to get pictures, resize, make look pretty, etc. So I don’t want to make them just willy-nilly. FallTreasureHunt – links to pdf file

Enjoy! And let me know what you think – and join us on Facebook if you haven’t already – thanks!

FallTreasureHunt FallTreasureHunt – links to pdf file

Explorer Kit Give-Away

I’ve been playing with the Explorer Kit, and thought you might like to as well. Enter the raffle below and spread the word – you even get 5 entries for signing up to help on our Build Day on August 24 to rebuild A.P. Rounds Playground.

Explorer Kit

 

This is a big kit filled with a bug hotel, magnifying glass, books, ball, flying disc, playing cards, bubbles, crayons, sand shovel, glowsticks, and carrying bag.

a Rafflecopter giveaway