September 17, 2014

Camping With Kids: Tips From Our Season


With overnight temperatures threatening a frost, I think it's safe to call our camping season finished for 2014. We worked to fit in a good number of camping trips this summer, and I can't say enough about how great these excursions have been for our family. I don't know another way that our troupe of four could have traveled, explored the outdoors, filled our bellies with good food fireside, and just relaxed together on an incredibly tight budget. James and I have both always loved sleeping under the stars, and it brings me such  joy to hear our son now get excited whenever we start to assemble our gear. He's caught the bug, and we're crossing our fingers that baby Roo follows suit. 


I hope that we will continue to push ourselves to be more adventurous in the coming years, but for now, we stick with the ease and convenience of car camping (meaning we can drive pretty close to our campsite rather than hiking in).  We aren't experts, but after a bunch of camping with babies/ toddlers/ kids, I wanted to share some tips on what has worked well for us so far. I'd love to hear what has worked for you too, we're always eager to improve!

  • Invest In Good Equipment: You are going to end up saving money by choosing to camp in the long run, so when it comes to buying key items (like a tent!) do not scrimp. Those ginormous tents that are under a hundred dollars are seductive, but they won't last for years, probably won't keep you all dry in a rain storm, and are a huge pain to set up and take down. You can't put a price on staying dry and warm, so we splurged on the tent, sleeping bags, rain gear, thermals, etc. for our whole family. A few of our favorites are listed here
  • Let Go: You're outside, so it just makes sense to let a whole lot slide. Sticks and leaves are going to get eaten, bumps and bruises might happen, and there will be mud. Mud on everything. Even that pricey gear that you just splurged on... but that is the whole point- right?
  • Plan and Prep: Yes it is important to 'let go' and improvise, but at least for us, being prepared makes for a much less stressful trip. It's just so easy to forget something critical. Have a master list of what you want to bring, and leave your gear organized and packed between trips. We have a crate full of lanterns and safety items, a crate full of cooking supplies, etc. all ready to load in the car without much thought. This means you won't be roaming around, hitting up the camping neighbors for matches or a can opener at 6AM.
  • High Chair: All I can say is, if you have a baby or toddler, bring a high chair! This might seem like an unnecessary extravagance, but having a spot where you can keep a wild crawler or toddler safe and secure while you set up camp, prepare meals, etc... it is the key to success. This year we brought this inexpensive Ikea chair and is was a-mazing. Previously we used this model, also good but you pretty much have to keep it anchored to the picnic table, so no fireside meals for baby. 
  • Fire Safety: The biggest hazard on the campsite for a toddler is probably the firepit. We found that drawing a few rings or 'warning lines' in the dirt around the fire helped communicate the idea of the boundary. Little Smith really understood that he couldn't cross those lines at about 18 months, you can see it in practice here.
  • Projects and Snacks: When a chaotic moment arises, it's helpful to have a few projects planned for the kids. We like to bring a box for collecting leaves and bugs for Little Smith, along with some guide books that include pictures of animals. Chores are also a great project for children; filling water bottles, drying and packing away dishes, and collecting kindling are some of our favorite three-year-old jobs. For the baby or toddler, snacks seem to be key, so have them at the ready. Nothing will buy you time to get a few things done like a bowl of berries or a box of raisins. 
  • Strategize: Who is going to set up the tent? Who will organize all the sleeping pads and bags and pillows, who is going to cook dinner and who will tend the fire and occupy the kids? All these questions can obviously be handled on the fly, but we found that we settled into a rhythm after a few trips this season. Once we established our own 'jobs' on the campsite, everything went waaay more smoothly and we had more time for relaxation and fun (and just maybe a little less bickering... ahem).
    • Sleeping Comforts: This is where we run the risk of sounding like we are 'glamping'... it's a little indulgent, but a battery operated sound machine has done wonders for our shared tent slumber. It just creates enough noise for us adults to chill by the fire and zip and unzip the tent without waking the kids... plus you feel like you are sleeping next to a babbling brook (really weird when you actually are sleeping next to a quieter real-life babbling brook... sorry to our neighboring campers!). I also like to bring lavender oil along with favorite stuffed animals to encourage as much sleep as we can get.
    • Camp Near the Fun: Getting in the car is such a hassle, it makes a huge difference to have activities that are walkable from your campsite; a beach, a hike, a waterfall... the more you can fill your day without buckling up, the better.

    There is no doubt that camping with children is a lot of work. I do remember one moment this summer when James just looked at me through heavy eyes and said, 'It's a lot'... and I couldn't disagree. But it can also be incredibly relaxing, letting the kids wear themselves out exploring nature,  then tucking them into bed, and enjoying a beer by the fire... these are my favorite memories from our summer. I can't wait to make more in 2015!

    September 14, 2014

    35/52 Bittersweet September

    35/52

    This week he: had his first day back to preschool with zero tears. he did quietly say that his favorite part was when I picked him up, but I'm thinking he will warm right up to it / rode his scooter all over town, I kept thinking he was going to need a break and start whining, but he just kept keeping on / had a lot of trouble sharing with his sister, everything she picks up suddenly looks twice as intriguing. we have never really done time-outs, but we do need to establish some consequences (no fun!) / told me everyday that I look beautiful, he won't say who put him up to it... but it's working for me ;)

    This week she: was sooo sad to have her big brother leave her a few mornings for school. it's hilarious that he doesn't cry anymore, but she wails as I drag her away / got a cradle for her babies and loves rocking and feeding them / started sticking her fingers up her nose (it's so gross, why? and how to get her to stop? I think she is going to hurt herself) / keeps waking up too early, I'm just assuming it's going to last until she reaches an age of reason :( / started to learn how to be 'gentle' with the kitty. we are trying cat, honest. 

    +++++++++++++++++++

    The start of this school year has been a big shift for us. When Little Smith was a baby, I loved that unlike everyone else, our August rolled seamlessly right into September. True, the mornings were cooler and the sun sets crept earlier, but our days were still filled with sandals and freedom. Now that Little Smith is in preschool three mornings a week, has speech therapy the other two week days, and I am teaching two evenings a week (with lots more prep involved), all of those old familiar September sentiments have returned. I'm feeling anxious, sad to have less time with my boy and more structure to our days, overwhelmed by my own workload, excited to have some one-on-one time with my baby, challenged by a bigger commitment to teaching and some small design projects, proud of how our little guy is growing and becoming more independent... so yeah, I'm doing a lot of feeling.

    It's been so funny to see baby Roo try to navigate a few mornings without her constant sidekick. Having been an only child myself, I often watch my little girl and marvel at how much influence having a big brother has already had on her personality. She is just heartbroken to say goodbye to him, and walks around looking for him in all his usual hideouts when we're home. She also does relish having a little free reign over his trains, you can not imagine her glee. 

    All this change does feel good, but it's a bit the way that drinking wheatgrass feels good... it's the right thing for us, it's healthy, these are positive and natural steps... it just doesn't taste all that sweet to me. But I'm getting there, and I figure I still have the second half of September to warm up to the month. 

    September 11, 2014

    DIY: Alphabet Rocks


    While I certainly strive to expose my children to a rich sampling of experiences, lessons, and information, when it comes to the basics, I have to admit that we are somewhat behind. Little Smith is only a few months away from his fourth birthday, and he can't write any letters, can only recognize a couple, can't write or recognize numbers, all skills that I know many children his age have mastered. I have to accept most of the responsibility, I really haven't stressed all the fundamental targets. But whenever I have attempted to tackle letters or writing, he also hasn't expressed much interest. 

    His preschool program, which is based on the Reggio Emilia approach, is very much child-driven... meaning all kinds of projects are available to him, but they work to develop the areas in which he is naturally motivated. He loves building, he spends hours constructing elaborate tracks and tunnels and towers. He makes the most exquisite free and fluid watercolors. He studies birds and trees, assembles marble mazes, rides the pretend bus with his friends. Basically, I'm saying he's awesome! But so far his attention for drawing specific shapes or learning his abc's is very limited. 


    Armed with back-to-school energy, I decided to take inspiration from something I had seen on Pinterest (finally, I almost never follow-through on all those 'pins') and use Little Smith's interest in nature and collecting as the launching point for some alphabet exposure. We started with a lengthy rock collecting expedition through our neighborhood. I tried to steer him towards smaller rocks, but once you've developed a relationship with a rock, it can be tough to cast it aside. I was grateful we brought the stroller and could store our treasures in the basket, because this was a heavy load. 

    Next I actually put the rocks through the dishwasher. I wouldn't have bothered if we lived in a more rural area, but a lot of these came from driveways, roadsides, and streams of questionable water quality. I just wanted a fresh start for their new life. Little Smith helped me sort, and we studied the shapes of each letter and tried to find a rock that seemed like a good soul-mate. We talked a little about color, and then I took over. 


    Since he isn't yet up to drawing or painting letters, he set his paints free on the cast-off rocks while I lettered our alphabet. I used acrylic paint, and tried to go for lighter shades (I added white to each one) just so the coverage would be better and the letters would be more visible. 


    And here is the cool part, he is taking an interest; arranging the stones in a basket and pulling out a handful at a time, asking questions, and learning some of those letters! I'm actually comfortable with giving him the space to let all of these skills come at his own pace, but I also feel excited that I was able to reposition an idea and stir some new inquiry. I think the physicality of the rocks is helpful to the way that he thinks. It was a fun little project, give it a try!

    September 9, 2014

    34/52

    34/52

    Last week he: hiked all the way down a huge gorge and back up again on his own two feet / was such an amazing camper, and stayed quietly in the tent at night despite lots of dance music and noise all around / loved his freedom at grandma's, running through the garden and even 'going around front', all on his own / felt like a very grown up boy to me... is four easier than three? i don't want o jinx it, but it feels like we are hitting a sweet spot.

    Last week she: impressed everyone with her camping skills... rain? no problem for this littlest sport / said 'baaaa' to every animal in sight; sheep=baaa, cow=baaa, dog=baaa / learned how to high-five from 'uncle dan', it's insanely cute / started stalking the cat. poor kitty, we just keep producing these kids to torture her!

    September 8, 2014

    In Defense of Clutter


    Simplify, edit, less mess, less clutter, clean, purge, organize... these are some of the repeated themes that cycle through my anxious brain in those far too many hours spent staring at the ceiling, begging my eyes to close. I can't stand the piles of papers and books that accumulate on every available horizontal surface, I'm defeated by the unstoppable weeds that overtake our tidy raised garden beds, and the never ending laundry is just depressing. Each time I try to innovate a new system for storing toys or jam another sweater into my tiny closet, I want to get rid of half of our stuff and discover a lighter and simpler way of living. 

    After weeks of being way too busy, and then fleeing our house half-packed for a camping trip in a manic frenzy, we landed at my mom's for a few days. My childhood home, where collections of rocks and shells mingle with potted plants and talismans from every imaginable religion. There's peeling paint and lots of imperfections, piles of books that exceed my own, and a jumble of cast-off toys for the children.

    The gardens are no more orderly, but no less delightful; flowers interspersed with herbs and lettuces, pumpkin vines snaking through the whole plot. It's a place that verges on messy, but somehow my mother's magic steers it towards effortless instead, and we all feel at ease whenever we're there. 


    While I was sitting barefoot on the cracked back stoop, watching my boy dart through his own secret overgrown garden paths to count his pumpkins and munch on wild chives... I had the thought that this whole objective of 'simplifying' is a load of crap. The real art is in knowing how to let things be free without overtaking, not in constantly trying to sort and shape and whittle everything down until it all fits neatly into its container...

    ... Then I got home and picked right back up with my frustrations at all of our stuff and dreams of greater order. But I do feel less stressed about it. Because those piles of books and papers really are okay. I've got way better stuff to keep me up at night.

    August 28, 2014

    The Hustle

    always rainbows boy's pickin's finding trouble preparation big baby kitchen window  busy mid-day little clothes serious play

    I'd like to say that we are soaking in these final lazy days of summer, and there is the occassional moment where that's the truth. The greater reality though is a tailspin of neglected deadlines, evening classes, sleep struggles, work demands, backlogged laundry, and preparations for a big camping trip this weekend that feels anything but relaxing. 

    I'm exhausted and cranky. James is exhausted and cranky. The baby is exhausted and cranky. Little Smith is sleeping eleven hours a night, taking a proper two to three hour nap daily, and doing just swell, thank you. I've been attempting to reward him for his good nature with a decent helping of summer adventure, but every trip to the pond or visit to our favorite farm just lands us deeper in the hole; nap schedules shattered, deadlines sliding further from reach, and that laundry pile swallowing our bedroom floor.

    It's been one of those weeks. But somehow come morning, we'll get the cars packed (yes both cars, don't ask), drive way further than is sensible, and ultimately enjoy a couple days of carefree camping with some dear friends that we don't see nearly often enough. Those blasted teeth will give Roo a rest, and her sweet baby ways will return. Everyone will sleep. Everyone will be less cranky. Little Smith will probably seize the opportunity to take a break from angel and channel his inner devil, but I'll take it...

    ...Because it's either that or we are insane and have decided to torture ourselves by following up a really rough week with a seven hour car ride and several nights of shared-tent-sleep. Cross your fingers for us, your guess is as good as mine!

    August 24, 2014

    33/52

    33/52

    Last week he: officially graduated to 'potty trained', it's still evolving but feels amazing to have this massive parenting challenge on its way to the finish line / sat at the barber shop eating a lolly and watching dad get his hair cut (he still wants mama to cut his... a request I'm finding increasingly challenging!) / got sad when he learned his favorite teacher won't be in his class this fall :( / was so sweet with his baby sister, he hugs her and tickles her, encourages her to try all of his favorite foods... he just becomes a better big brother constantly.

    Last week she: walked walked walked!, she is more confident every day / cut more new teeth, I think she has three on bottom and three on top with one stubborn front-top-tooth causing lots of aggravation / ate two dozen eggs (I know we probably shouldn't let her have so many eggs, but she is in love) / started bursting into tears when we tell her she can't do something, 'nah-ah roo, no climbing the slide'... followed by the most pitiful look and massive rolling tears. this one is going to get her way. a lot!