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:

Groundhog Day is underappreciated!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget as a baby, dreaming of spring.

Bridget as a baby, dreaming of spring.

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


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

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:

Camping Activities for 3-5 year old Kids

More camping preparation is underway and here is the list of activities I will be bringing along. We’ve done several of these before, but some are new to us, so I’ll report back to what worked.

My philosophy is to be prepared with a large arsenal of games, since my children often deem the lovingly prepared activities as not very exciting ;-) So here is my first stab at keeping them busy and happy. I’m also adding pins to my camping board at http://pinterest.com/angelikapaul/camping/

  1. Scavenger Hunt (use these bingo cards? http://www.makingfriends.com/scouts/camping_bingo1.htm
  2. Fairy Houses (collect nuts, leaves, rocks, twigs to entice a fairy to live in your house) – check out this book for inspiration! Fairy Houses Book
  3. Fort (build a people-sized shelter against a tree or rock)
  4. Obstacle Course ( round the table, three jumping jacks, across the log, sing a song,…)
  5. Follow bugs
  6. Charades (what animal am I,…)
  7. Make flower jewelry (crowns or bracelets)
  8. Coloring books
  9. Ball Games (Soccer, throwing, baseball with a random stick?,…)
  10. Frisbee (a current favorite)
  11. make up stories (my kids love stories about themselves ;-) )
  12. shadow puppet show (at night in tent)
  13. Bean bag toss (ziplock bags with a scoop of dirt, throw onto plates or dig out hollows in sand)
  14. Collect treasures (special rocks, leaves,…)
  15. build a mud/sand castle
  16. make rock cairns
  17. make rock, leaf, or twig art
  18. blow bubbles
  19. nature rubbings (leaves, bark,..)
  20. card games
  21. I-spy
  22. dam building
  23. ???


  • magnifying glass
  • binoculars
  • ball
  • frisbee
  • coloring books
  • crayons
  • markers
  • paper
  • string
  • scissors/pocket knife
  • balloons
  • books
  • flashlights
  • little shovels/beach toys
  • tupperware container (bug house or treasure box)
  • deck of cards

That should do it, right?

Endicott Park

We joined a Meetup.com meetup at Endicott Park in Danvers. We’d never been, but it is only 15 minutes from our home in Stoneham, and it was great fun. It’s run by the town of Danvers: http://www.endicottpark.com/

Located in northeast Massachusetts, in the Town of Danvers, Endicott Park encompasses 165 acres, and is home to some of the most unique and varied recreational land on the North Shore.

The park’s varied landscape includes pastoral views, historic farm buildings, orchards, woodlands, and marshes, with a network of trails and gravel roads for stress free and stroller friendly exploration of the park.

Entrance fee to the park is $1 for residents and $3 for non-residents during the weekend. Free during the week, but they are looking for donations to purchase a new climbing rock for the playground. And I always support people who want to improve a playground ;-) (For my playground project see http://RebuildingRounds.org)

Anyway, the playground area is fully fenced, has lots of benches, lots of shade trees, and lots of space with grass. There are two areas, one for the 2-5 year old set, one for the 5-12 year old set. Both are well designed, usable, and FUN! There are lots of swings, thought the ones with the infant seats and the big kid seats are at opposite sides of the playground. There are NO TRASH BARRELS since this is a carry in – carry out facility. Bring a plastic bag.

There are restrooms, some farm animals, some strolling trails, and lots of meadows and trees for frolicking.

Kayaking on Spot Pond

We did a spontaneous kayaking expedition in June – here are some pictures and info, because it was so easy, simple, enjoyable and a huge success for us.

One afternoon we just drove over to Spot Pond Boating (website here) and asked to rent a kayak. No booking required. They fitted us with lifejackets and had us in a double kayak in about 15 minutes. It was $20 for an hour on the lake and the staff were super helpful, safety conscious, and friendly.


Came back from our first overnight camping trip in one piece!

We joined the Mass Audubon Family Campout on Saturday, which included a canoe trip on the Ipswich river, a WHOLE LOT of s’mores and more wildlife than we could shake sticks at. It was also the first time I had taken Alex and Jen camping. They had a great time! – hurray – and didn’t want to leave. It was a really good trial camping actually, because Angela and Cheri from Mass Audubon had plenty of activities.

I suspect that’s the secret to a good camping trip with preschoolers

Also, no cooking was required. I’m a bit nervous about breaking out the old hiking stove and actually cooking a dinner when we go for a longer trip. Anyway, no cooking, just snacks and Angela and Cheri put on a nice breakfast with several pots of coffee – bliss.

So we set up our tent and played with the roughly 3 bazillion dragonflies before heading down the path to the Ipswich River. Jen got the cutest little life jacket, and both Jen’s and Alex’ Elmos got to help with the paddling by holding onto the paddle. Next time we apparently have to bring lifejackets for the Elmos. Angela did most of the work in the canoe, and since she was the front leader, we got see see a lot of wildlife (before we scared it away for the others). White birds, blue birds, geese, ducks, logs, cardinal flowers – and I didn’t bring my camera because I don’t have a water-proof bag.

While canoeing:

Alex “Mama, this is the most beautiful place on the WHOLE earth. I love all the birds and dragonflies and beaver lodges.”


Alex (two minutes later): “Mama, I’m bored. Can we go back?”

Mama: SIGH ;-)

We got back to land just as the sun set and I carried Jen all the way up the hill to the farm buildings, Alex bravely ran through the bugs. And I have to say that those big black flies that take big chunks out of your skin really HURT! I used a whole bottle of mosquito repellent on us during the night – the mosquitoes were definitely out in force.

But so were the marshmallows. :-)

Jen passed out mid-sentence sprawled across the tent at about 11pm. Alex finally put down his tremendously fascinating glow-stick about midnight. And then both woke up screaming about 5:30am. Sorry camping neighbors! That’s how my kids deal :-S Angela and Cheri put on that aforementioned excellent breakfast, we stayed and played on the grass until about 9am. At 9:03am both children were passed out in the car on the way home.



Playground Summer Challenge

What happened to playgrounds as neighborhood hubs? – a guest post by Jean Oram

HomeAs the national nonprofit KaBOOM! kicks off its 2012 Summer Playground Challenge — which challenges families to explore as many playgrounds as you can this summer and offers prizes for your playground visits —  playground lover Jean Oram shares how people can revitalize playgrounds and bring them back as neighborhood hubs.

Playgrounds used to be a social hub for neighbourhoods, particularly in the summer, but are less so nowadays. However, you could argue that playgrounds are even more important now when it comes to building healthy, playful neighbourhoods. With tall backyard fences and attached garages, neighbours are less likely to meet each other or their kids. Do your neighbours look out for your kids? For your house when you are away? Are they someone you know well enough to call on in an emergency? Playgrounds can serve as a way for neighbours to meet each other, unwind, and socialize. Not to mention all the great benefits to the kids playing in them! Below are some ideas for ways to revitalize playgrounds as neighbourhood hubs:

How Can We Revitalize Playgrounds and Bring Them Back as Neighbourhood Hubs?

  • By visiting playgrounds with our kids this summer we can make others feel safer about sending their kids out to play (safety in numbers). This relates to Lenore Skenazy’s, author of “Free Range Kids”, idea of reseeding playgrounds with kids.

  • Use KaBOOM’s free Playgrounds and Tag! apps, and the Map of Play to find local playgrounds wherever you are and keep your kids  playing all summer. You can also use these tools to set up playground playdates, and even rate playgrounds.

  • Spend time at playgrounds to show your local town or city that they are valued spaces worthy of maintaining. It also reduces the chance of vandalism and deters people from using them for reasons other than play.

  • KaBOOM!’s Summer Playground Challenge is a great way to motivate and inspire your kids to visit as many playgrounds as possible during the summer and win some cool prizes. Maybe you could even start a friendly neighbourhood competition!

  • We can show our kids that we value outdoor play and that we, as citizens, can take action and responsibility for our playgrounds by doing as Angelika Paul of Playground Hunt did – revitalizing, updating, and fixing up a local playground. Your kids will feel an accomplished sense of ownership for the playspace like you wouldn’t believe! My daughter asked the city for a garbage can at her local playground and feels pride and ownership in keeping it clean. It’s also one of the least vandalized playgrounds in town!

But the biggest thing we can do for playgrounds and our kids is to use local playgrounds this summer. So, let’s get out there! I’m the one inventing playground fun such as Under Whales (Under Ducks on the swings, only more swooshy). Come say hi. I’m always looking to meet other moms and dads.

Jean Oram is a mom, writer, skier, hiker, and playground lover. Her daughter loves the more challenging playgrounds while her son is most content in the baby swing. You can find her playing on her blog at www.itsallkidsplay.ca as well as pinning fun and games (literally) on Pinterest, sharing fun stuff on Twitter as @KidsPlay, and on Facebook. Let’s play! Get motivated to visit more playgrounds with your kids this summer by joining the 2012 Playground Challenge! The three top Challengers will win a trip for two to DC and all participants can win great prizes throughout the summer.