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 ūüôā

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 210¬ļF for hours and not go above that temperature. Until the water content becomes low enough. Then it fairly rapidly increases in temperature to 230¬ļF, 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‚Äôre made by cooking sugar, cream, corn syrup, and butter to 245¬į 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¬į F. A few tablespoons of sugar put in a pan and heated will eventually melt and, at 338¬į 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‚Äôt 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‚ÄĒit‚Äôs 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.





I did list these patterns on my super small etsy store:


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:


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.



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.


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.





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

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 (, 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 ūüôĀ

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:


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.


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.



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.


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?



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!)


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.


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.



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!


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.


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.


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.


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!



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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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.


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:

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!

Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve–Greenland, NH


My family has been renting a cottage for a week every summer in York, ME, for 12 years! ¬† It has been a great tradition. ¬†And we have smaller traditions we enjoy each year we go–lobster night, long beach days, rare date nights, and so on.

But what amazes me is how every single year we are always able to discover something new and exciting in that area as well. ¬†We had a wonderful time at Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (often shortened to GBNERR for obvious reasons) and as outdoorsy as we are I’m surprised it took us over a decade to discover this place!

We know we've mentioned several bog walks this year, but Bridget loves things with "bridges" due to her name ;).

We know we’ve mentioned several bog walks this year, but Bridget loves things with “bridges” due to her name ;).

It’s a short jaunt south of York, and also only an hour from Boston (45 minutes from the North Shore, where many of our readers reside) so it makes a great day trip from home, as well.

You can look for actual animal tracks, or try to spot the replicas painted on the boardwalk.

You can look for actual animal tracks, or try to spot the replicas painted on the boardwalk.

To put it simply, an estuary is where the river meets the sea.  At Great Bay, it is the Piscataqua River.  GBNERR covers about 10,000 acres, with about 7000 of them being open water and bogs.  There are many access points, but the main one has a Discovery Center, a Conservation Center, a 1700-foot boardwalk, climbing structures, a replica Native American camp, and more.  Bird watching is famously excellent at estuaries, and the boardwalk makes this one wheelchair accessible.

There were a couple of boat replica play areas--education and adventure!--watch out grandma!

There were a couple of boat replica play areas–education and adventure!–watch out grandma!

...and a wigwam

…and a wigwam

The Discovery Center is open seasonally (generally May-Sept/Oct, Wednesday to Sunday, but check the site for changes) but the grounds are open year round.  Check out their calendar for a bunch of family friendly events.



The grounds near the Discovery Center are covered with gorgeous gardens full of local plants. ¬†If you don’t consider this too much of an oxymoron, I’d consider them both kid-friendly–playhouses, tunnels, pint-sized Adirondack chairs–and animal friendly, with plants chosen to attract beneficial local insects and birds.


For more attractions near York, including their amazing playground, check out our post from last year.  This attraction also abuts Portsmouth, NH, a vibrant small city with lots to do. Whether you are staying at the northern beaches or taking a day trip from the Greater Boston area, we recommend checking out Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.