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:


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…


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. :-)


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:


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

Camping in Maine

We (Alex, Jen, Mama Angelika, and Bella the dog) went for a 7 day camping trip to Maine. This post is a cross between telling the stories, writing down the suggestions for making it work as a resource, and memos to myself for what to do different for the next time.


Google said it would take just under 4 hours to get from our house to the campground. It took 5 1/2 with pee stop, snack stop, pee stop, ice-cream stop, pee stop. That’s a long time for two active kids to sit, so I had prepped heavily with a lap table, picture books, coloring books, treasure hunt, and audio books.

The car tables I got were the Star Kids Snack and Play Travel Tray - which just sits on their lap and buckles around the back of the car seat. I loaded up the pockets on either side with drink bottle, snacks, crayons, and small coloring book.

The audio books I had with me were Bad Jelly The WitchandMagic Tree House Collection: Books 1-8on CD on loan from the Library. Alex in particular was very interested by the Tree House books and listened to the whole lot over the week.

Hint: I also found lots of audio books that could be borrowed for 2 weeks through the online loan system that lets you download files to your media player.

The drive went really quite well. The trickiest part was getting everyone to agree they had everything packed. Bella the dog had the front passenger seat and tried to lie down – often pushing the gear stick from D to N. I initiated a pit-stop every time they got restless, which is a change from other travels where I tried to make it to a certain place before stopping. Here I just figured that the main goal was to keep everyone happy – even if it took us an hour longer.


Several friends had recommended Searsport Shores Ocean Campground as a child-friendly, fun place to take young children. The more I read on their website, the more excited I got – they were writing about their goats, organic gardens, resident artists, and activities on the beach.

Wobbly bridges at the playground

Wobbly bridges at the playground

And it was even better than I had hoped for. There was a huge playground they had built themselves, and which was therefore interesting. There was a really nice play room with a cozy book corner (if you can call that many shelves a corner) with good books, a fireplace, and a shop for ice-cream (and various fiber arts and camping supplies).

The bathrooms were spotless, there were free hot showers, and even a handicapped stall, which is good for wrestling kids into the shower. There are also lots of washing machines and dryers. Turns out this is very useful if your theoretically potty-trained 3 year old has an accident and pees in her sleeping bag. Sigh.

The campground also has lots of gardens full of interesting plants for eating and dyeing. There are lots of sculptures, wood carvings, and little treasures to discover in the forests. And an amazing art studio occupied by a rotating cast of artists-in-residence.


I chose a campsite where we could also park. The campground has sites where you have to walk a couple of hundred feet from car to campsite, but this seemed like a lot of hassle with little kids. Our campsite was shaded and all round really lovely. It had several trees where we built Fairy Houses, a fire pit (wood for sale at office), and a water faucet 10 yards away. The toilets ended up being a little bit too far for us. Next time we’ll get a closer site, and with electricity so I can recharge my phone.

Good things I brought for the campsite:

  • potty – even though both Alex and Jen are totally potty trained, sometimes we still get the “I have to go potty NOOOOWWWWWW!” and then it was good to have only a couple of feet to go. I have the Kalencom 2-in-1 Potette Plus, Blue with disposable inserts.
  • 10 different flashlights – variety is the spice of life here, apparently
  • 100 glow sticks – each kid got 4-6 glow sticks each night as a night light
  • wet wipes for when the kids refused to get washed in the shower
  • bikes – Alex tore up the campground riding back and forth and we managed to get to places (bathroom) without spending 30 minutes trying to drag dragging feet.


Turns out the Searsport Shores Ocean Campground has artists that stay there for a whole week and provide activities for the whole family in the custom Studio.

Check out the schedule for this year:

Week of: Artist in Residence Activities
June 23-29 Tom Cote Wood carving and whittling
June 30-July 6 TBA Ocean learning adventures
July 7-13 Barbara Andrus Weaving a Shorefront structure from twigs and driftwood
July 14-20 Blake Henderickson Wood Block Buffet
July 21-27 Susan Tobey White & Jeannie Painting, drawing and seeing
July 28- Aug 3 Ellen Mason Playing with Dyes and Yarn and Fabric
Aug 4-10 Steven Scheurer Chain Maille, Macramé & Caricatures
Aug 11-17 Maryly Mathewman Seaside Quilting and Color play for all ages
Aug 18-24 TBA
Aug 25-31 TBA
September 1-8 Fiber College 4 days of amazing fiber classes, demos, vendors and happiness

Pretty awesome!!!

Dyeing with EllenWe got there halfway through Ellen Mason‘s week, but she had us promptly dyeing, stitching, cutting, etc, although she also does a lot of knitting and designs patterns. She was super fun and engaging and both kids looked forward to going back to the studio – sometimes we went twice a day :-)

Next artist-in-residence was Steven Scheurer, a.k.a. Santa. He looks like Santa, and does a lot of volunteer work and charity stuff as Santa, and as an all-round nice guy taught us how to make survival bracelets and chain mail. This was a bit above Alex and Jen, but I (and all the older kids) had a great time making bracelets and dog collars.


The campground has it’s own private beach, and they ran several activities during our time there: seining – catching little fish with a net for the kids to look at and crab hunting  (for an invasive species) were the ones we made it to. They put a lot of emphasis on conservation and the ecology of the beach and made it fun and education for all.

Tide pools

Tide pools

It’s a rocky beach with a pretty big tide difference. That meant that at low tide we could find lots of different shells, look at the rock pools, wade around looking for green crabs, and chase the occasional little fish in clear cold water. It’s not a sandy swimming beach and Alex and Jen asked for one of those a couple of times before they got used to the rocks and being interested in the animals there.

Another blog post will follow about what the camping experience meant to us personally, but meanwhile here are some pictures:

Figment Boston 2013

Do you want to mix your outside time up with some art and culture? Art museums are fantastic, but are they sometimes too hands-off and enclosed? Is, um, er, Burning Man too far away, pricey, and not quite kid-friendly enough?

Check out the Figment Project!  It’s a yearly FREE art festival on the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the whole point is for artists to come up with art projects and installations that are participatory and interactive.  Wonderful for kids, but many adults go on their own every year.  It’s affordable and kid-friendly, but the art is serious enough to satisfy adults.

Figment is in nine international cities around the world so far and we were actually introduced by our friend Ashley who lives just outside New York City.   New York hosts theirs on another great urban green space, Governor’s Island.  So check dates if you’ll be state hopping or globetrotting, but it is a regular annual event, so you can just watch for Figment Boston 2014.  Better yet, volunteer or, if you’re an artist, submit an idea.  (The link is actually for last year’s, but I’m assuming they’ll be reopening it there in late winter, as usual, so start brainstorming already!)

But, ironically, it had never worked out timing wise (what with summer so full of travel and barbecues and whatever else) to make it to the one in our very own city.  Well, this year it lined up perfectly, and we’re glad it did.  We had a great time.

Here’s Bridget enjoying the Hedgecone ring toss!  She made a ringer, and won a lollipop from inside one of the safety cones.


Fiona’s vocabulary is still burgeoning.  But, charmingly, one of her favorite words is love.  She and Craig are a bit squirmy so it was hard to line ourselves up correctly in the thought bubble booth, but we thought this was appropriate:


Bridget made me a crown we later hung from the Sustainabilitree (made completely from found objects) behind me:


Some of the projects were edgy and some of them were sweet, and some, like the armpit-smelling booth called Bring a Pheromone and this farting dog sculpture called Amelia’s Angry Stomach involved enough bodily function humor to make grandma tut-tut.  But going with kids of a certain age and phase?  There’s a market for that!


Bridget’s favorite was Lend Me a Sound.  We don’t have any photos of the booth because it was basically just a woman sitting at a computer, but she’d take sound samples from passers-by and make songs out of them.  Bridget’s squeaky “hello!”, her duck noise (in honor of Fiona’s favorite animal) and her pretty trill went quite nicely with the other participant’s meows, yodels, and twangs.

Fiona’s favorite was String Theory.  Relatively simple in concept (unlike the theoretical physics string theory) it was basically just hundreds of yellow strings suspended from a frame in a 28′ wide circle, increasing in density and length near the middle.  It was indeed fun to run through (Imagine running through a hundred beaded door curtains from the 70s in a row!  And odd but accurate description.)  and it was quite gorgeous.  IMG_9132


And finally, the girls hula hooping with the Boston Hoop Troop in front of the famous Os Gemeos mural in Dewey Square:


We hope you enjoyed us sharing our day.   Our favorite part of Figment, which also has a Facebook page?  Just like Outside the Box, last week’s brand new and highly acclaimed new arts festival on the Common, Figment Boston is  incredibly creative community use of park space!  Inspired?  Come help us finish rebuilding Rounds Playground and park space in Stoneham August 24th.  See if we can pretty it up even more and attract some fun cultural events there.  See you there!

Sign up here!


Thank you!

Camping Books for Kids 3-5

Here is a list of seven books to take along camping and outdoor adventures. Be prepared and make sure even the smallest campers stay happy campers…

Just Me and My Dad

A very cute book about a Dad and Child going camping – good for 2-5 year olds and as beginning reader for older kids. The father lets the child participate as much as possible, although things don’t always work out. The story introduces activities with just Dad and child and would be a great humorous intro for some parental bonding. The pictures are bright and have an extra cute sub-story of some little critters that follow along.

Curious George goes Camping

Our favorite monkey goes camping. George and the Man with the Yellow Hat set up a campsite and George learns about camp fires, interacting with other campers, fetching water, and SKUNKS. I had to field a lot of questions about the tomato sauce bath George gets at the end…

 Olivia goes Camping

Simple writing introduces Olivia’s friend who does not want to go camping. Olivia’s friend is worried that she will get dirty and not know what to do on her first camping trip, so this is a good introduction for younger preschoolers for their first camping trip.

Amelia Bedelia goes Camping

Amelia goes on her first camping trip. Amelia Bedelia has never been camping in the great outdoors before. She’s trying her best to do exactly as she’s told, but pitching a tent is not the same as throwing it into the bushes, and catching a fish with your bare hands isn’t easy. As usual, the mixed-up housekeeper makes this camping trip one hugely entertaining adventure.

101 Family Vacation Games

The book includes games to play at the beach, camping, in the car, on the plane, at picnics, at vacation homes, and at birthday parties. Some sample games: Word Tennis, Treasure Hunt, Pebble Pictures, Storytelling Starters.

Age level is 4 and up.

Kids Camp!: Activities for the Backyard or Wilderness

Lots of activities to get kids 5 and over interested and invested in the outdoors while camping and in the back yard.

Go Out and Play!: Favorite Outdoor Games from KaBOOM!

Comprehensive collection of all the outdoor games we played as kids – and have forgotten the rules to. Rediscover favorites and learn new games from around the world. A lot of the games are for 5+ year olds, but can be adapted to younger children in all sorts of settings.

Camping on Boston Islands

We just came back from a pretty special overnight trip to the Boston Harbor Islands. We stayed one night in one of the new yurts, which were installed this spring.

Getting to Boston Harbor Islands

After much internet surfing, I finally discovered THE best way to get to the Boston Harbor Islands. The wharf at Hingham offers free overnight parking passes and there are no transfers. I had envisioned parking at a T stop, taking the Orange Line, then the Blue line, then walking, then the boat to George’s Island, then transferring to Peddocks. It sounded like work with two children. Instead we drove to Hingham in our somewhat air conditioned car, parked, used the restrooms, and got on the boat. Easy-peasy.

We paid for the tickets on board and thoroughly enjoyed the 30 minute ride straight to Peddocks Island. Everyone was very helpful with getting all the stuff and children on and off the boat. Note – the boat’s restrooms are out-of-order, so plan accordingly.

Getting to the Campsite/Yurt

Peddocks Island has a very pleasant air conditioned visitor center with running water, flush toilets, a bit of historical information, and a remarkable amount of activities for children (fishing, exploring the shore for creatures,…). They also have wheelbarrows you can borrow to take all your stuff and children up the hill to the campsite.

It’s about a 10 minute walk up a gentle slope. That being said, it can be a long 10 minutes if one child or another goes on strike in the heat ;-) The road is first sealed, the gravel.

The Yurts

…are beautiful, and I want one! They are large, clean, and super comfortable. There are two double beds, and two single bunks, one on top of each double. There is a large table and two benches inside. Surprisingly, there is electricity and we had two outlets and a floor lamp. Outside has a picnic table and there is one shared composting toilet, and several drinking water faucets.

Yurts on Peddocks Island

Yurts on Peddocks Island

You have to bring your own sheets or sleeping bags, pillows, plates, cutlery, pots, stove or charcoal. No wood allowed because of those invasive beetles, but each yurt and campsite does have it’s own grill thing. But you can plug in your phone to recharge.

Stuff to Do

We brought one of our Explorer Kits and made heavy use of the coloring book, bubbles, crayons, and the Curious George book. It was too hot to do much running around with the flying disc or ball.

Otherwise, we

  • saw fireflies
  • build rock walls
  • made rock art
  • collected feathers and shells
  • played pirate ship on the bunk beds
  • climbed around the yurt furniture
  • watched boats
  • explored the old houses of the Fort
  • learned a whole lot of seashore stuff from a Ranger
  • went on an extended boat trip to the other islands