community · DIY · el cheapo · family fun · Kids

Day 176: Putting the Crowd into Crowdsourcing

It’s been hard for K, being at the cottage. As much as she loves going off to her “secret” perch between the woods and the rocky shore, she hasn’t had any swings or her trampoline; and I think we all know that no swings and no trampoline make K go crazy.

We had resolved not to venture into the world outside the cottage until after the long weekend (who needs the crowds?) so today was the earliest we were willing to go out and find some swings for K. Last night saw me googling “playgrounds near me,” which led me to discover something really cool. In a handful of words: there’s an app for that.

The app is called “Playground Buddy,” and it’s free. When I opened it up it immediately found my location on a map, and then up popped the little green symbols — each one indicating a separate playground. As it turned out, there is a playground only six minutes’ drive from our cottage, and it was that one where K spent almost an hour swinging, the usual blissful expression on her face.

Playground Buddy - Helping Families Find Playgrounds

While the kids played I explored the app a bit more. It relies on crowdsourcing to fill in the details of each playground, so I took a bit of time to add a couple of photos and to check off the appropriate amenities for the park where we were. I did a little more scrolling around the map and found that most of the playgrounds lack even basic information, such as their names. Maybe the app is very new, or maybe most of its users are in a completely different part of the world. Either way, I felt good about my little contribution to the effort; so I looked for other playgrounds that I knew well enough to describe (actually, it asks for very little. Any detail you can add is great.)

Later on, I introduced the kids to the concept of crowdsourcing. “It’s really neat,” I said, “by sending in their own observations, people can create a treasure trove of helpful information for others.” I don’t think they needed the explanation as enticement — my phone is enticement enough — but my kids passed the phone around between them, trying to find parks they knew. R filled in details of the park near her former school, N updated the playground stats for the playground at the local public school, and E clicked “yes” or “no” for each amenity at our neighbourhood park as I read them aloud. All in all, we updated the information on seven playgrounds.

I wouldn’t have thought of updating this kind of app as “community service,” but maybe it is, in a way. We take a few minutes out of our day to share information with anyone who wants it. If I tried to list the number of things I learned about for free, on the internet, from material that was posted by ordinary people who just wanted to inform or share, I’d be here all night. Anytime I stop to think about it, I’m blown away by the generosity of spirit I’ve found on the internet; the many tutorials, patterns, instructions, and ideas that people share freely, even when there’s no compensation for their efforts.

Will the Playground Buddy app catch on? I don’t know — I have zero connection to it except as a user — but I hope so. It’s a great resource for tourists with kids and families that have just relocated. And if it really takes off, I may never have to google “playgrounds near me” again.

education · family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 175: So long, Sluggy. We hardly knew ye.

For those of you who were wondering: N did a great job on breakfast and lunch yesterday. Dinner, however, was another story. He flat-out refused to do his job, choosing instead to run into his bedroom and hide under his blanket. No amount of pep talk, stern lecturing, or cajoling could get him to come out. Eventually E and I took over N’s job and got dinner on the table in about ten minutes.

When they were all sitting around the table, I opened up the discussion: “What do you guys think is a fair consequence for someone not doing their kitchen job?” When that failed to elicit thoughtful responses I changed tack: “Can someone tell me what harm is done when someone doesn’t do their job?” Eventually we all agreed that shirking one’s duty is annoying and disrespectful to everyone else, and that the penalty should be no swimming or boating for the entire next day.

Kids are creative, though, so today K found a way around having to do all the work herself. She “traded” with me, Mr. December, and R: she’d cook one meal on each of our days in exchange for us cleaning up for her today. Even with that concession, she managed to find things to be grumpy about; and when K ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Today was a weird day. It was very windy and overcast and the water was rough. Thunderstorms had been forecast for today, so as soon as the rain started falling I pulled the girls out of the lake. We spent most of the day inside watching “How It’s Made” videos, reading, and snacking out of boredom. We started to watch a movie and then stopped when nobody liked it. K’s moodiness just added furstration to our boredom, and we were all on edge.

After dinner I went down to the fire pit to start a campfire, but the kindling was all wet and nothing would catch. Some lighter fluid, a lot of fanning, and one hour later we finally had a roaring fire. I pulled out the guitar and started to sing. The first few songs were fine, but R was still off in a corner reading her book and K was still being a bit obnoxious. Then Mr. December requested the “Corner Grocery Store” song, and our day did a 180-degree turn.

The kids went from “I’m-just-here-for-the-marshmallows-and-I-don’t-want-to-be-nice-to-anyone” to “pleeeeease sing that again!” I sang verses based on their suggestions, rhyming “mango” with “fandango” (because the mango is tired of dancing the tango); we sang about marshmallows hugging all their fellows; and how the trees ate up the cheese, which was crawling on its knees. By the time the song was over, everyone was giggling and singing along.

As we moved on to other songs, K turned over a rock and found a slug. She showed the rest of us and E immediately ran to get her tweezers, bug net, and petri dish so we could examine it up close. The kids clamoured to hold the dish and look at “Sluggy” while E insisted that we take him back to the house so we could find him in her bug book (for the record, he was a banana slug.) The kids then sprinkled Sluggy with salt and took pictures with him before unceremoniously flinging his remains back into the woods.

That’s how our day ended: with songs, giggling, sibling cooperation, and a well-salted slug; and to think that only a few short hours ago I had thought the only good thing about this day was that it would eventually end. As Mr. December pointed out, you never really know what will grab the kids’ interest and get them all excited and working together. I guess the important thing is to notice and enjoy it when they do.

education · family fun · Independence · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · well *I* think it's funny... · what's cookin'

Day 174: KP

After our frustration with our children’s unwillingness to be helpful here, Mr. December and I decided to implement a better system than the one we have at home. No arguing about which chore belongs to whom: one person is on KP (Kitchen Patrol) for an entire day, and is responsible for preparing, serving, and cleaning up breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Halfway through day one of this new system, it’s working well in that I haven’t had to do much. N took his turn today because the menu consisted mostly of things he already knows how to make: oatmeal for breakfast, grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch, and chicken fajitas — which he doesn’t know how to make but is about to learn — for dinner.

Since it’s his first full day on KP, N has a few things to learn: you have to start cooking a meal for six people at least half an hour before you want to serve it; you have to unload the clean dishwasher before you can load the dirty dishes; and you have to set up and clean up while everyone else is out having fun. He tried griping about that last one, but I looked at him and deadpanned: “I have no idea what that must feel like.”


We brought a lot of food up with us. Mr. December has remarked several times that we have way too much and won’t finish it before the end of the month. He clearly doesn’t cook for the family very often; if he did, he’d know that it takes a whole loaf of sliced bread and two packages of cheese to make grilled cheese for the family. We brought six dozen eggs, which he thought was ridiculous. I broke it down like this: a dozen eggs is a single breakfast for the family (along with a whole loaf of bread for toast), or two batches of challah dough (we’re here for four shabbat dinners as well as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which means we could probably get by on three batches of dough.) I know there are people who buy those little half-dozen cartons of eggs, but we’re not them.

“Okay!” He says, with his hands up in a gesture of innocence, “But look how many different kinds of bread there are! There’s so much of it!” And then I tick them off on my hands: pita, one dinner (with falafel and salads); naan, two bags will take us through two dinners of tandoori chicken; those six bags of flour tortillas will go quickly when we use them for PB&B wraps, quesadillas, and fajitas. I give it two weeks before we’re down to our last bag of bread.


K has just come outside. “I’m hungry,” she announces to me.

I check the time. “Well, we can tell N that it’s time to start getting dinner ready.”

“But I’m hungry now!” she whines, “and I can’t go in the hot tub as a distraction because the water is a weird colour because you guys didn’t add chemicals to it last night. Can you do something about one of those problems?”

I sure can, I think. Tomorrow I’m instituting a new daily job: Hot Tub Attendant. And since K seems to know what’s needed, I’m nominating her.

blogging · family fun · Keepin' it real · parenting · whine and cheese

Day 173: Moonrise

I’ve never watched the moon rise before, but here I am: sitting on the deck with the moon, big and orange, in the distance and reflected in the lake. A mere few feet away K is soaking in the hot tub with the coloured light feature on. If you don’t count the music wafting over from a few cottages down or the rumble of the hot tub jets, it’s very peaceful.

Finally.

Mr. December and I were a bit frustrated by the time evening rolled around. The kids had been pretty unhelpful yesterday and today, and we were both tired of whining and complaining. Mr. December gave the kids the responsibility of building the campfire, hoping that the promise of s’mores would encourage them to do it quickly and well.

It didn’t.

Mr. December and I sat there, biting our tongues and (mostly) sitting on our hands, while the kids tried lighting the same pile of sticks over and over again.

“Maybe you should rebuild it,” I offered.

“You need more dry stuff that will catch right away,” Mr. December pointed out. “Everybody go look for some.” Ellie walked around and found plenty of twigs. The other three did nothing. Eventually Mr. December rummaged around in the cottage and came up with a bottle of gel fuel for fondue pots. It worked like a charm, and our fire burned big and bright.

We saw fireworks, and then realized how many stars we could see, so we went down to the dock to watch. By this point it was well past bedtime, and the kids were feeling silly. Unfortunately, silly also means loud.

“Everybody, try to be quiet and look for a constellation you know,” I instructed.

“I don’t know any constellations!” R shouted.

“Then make them up!” I snapped. “Look, there’s Billy the cowboy, and there’s Paco, the… other cowboy. And there’s one-dimensional Pete.”

Still, they were hung up on the “real” constellations.

“Eema, where is the Big Dipper?”

“Where’s the North Star?”

“Where’s Cassiopea?”

“Where’s Orion?”

“WHERE’S THE MUTE BUTTON?!?!!?” I snapped. I’m not at my best with kids who are out-of-control silly.

We only lasted a few minutes longer, and then I ushered them all inside. K pulled me aside and begged me to let her sit in the hot tub. Since I still had to write this post, I agreed. Now she’s getting out, the moon has risen, and the post is as written as it’s going to get. Good night, everyone.

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 172: I DID IT!!!!

Well, I packed the car this morning, with everyone looking at the assortment of crates and bags and saying, “it’s not gonna fit.” Boy, were they ever wrong. Behold the photographic evidence:

Above: The trunk of our Honda Odyssey, stuffed to the gills. Yes, there was still room for the six of us. Mr. December even got the entire passenger footwell to himself.

I decided that seeing this is really not as impressive as seeing how it all was put together in the first place, so I’m posting photos as each new column of stuff was revealed.

So once we removed the guitar, sand toys, a milk crate full of canned goods, and a few bags of groceries, you see the next set of stuff: Our cooler (by “ours” I mean “stolen from my parents with their well wishes,) a stack of my magical black crates, another milk crate of nonperishables, and some assorted groceries. You might also notice the shoes and rainboots stuffed into every crevice and cavity.

Over on the left you can see a bag that says “The Green Scene”. It’s in the area above what would have been an armrest for the back row, and it fits nicely into the window space. The clear containers next to it are full of our activities and materials; the stack of black crates is all of our clothing. To the right of those is a plastic container holding a monitor (Mr. December will be working from the cottage half the time.)

With the piles of crates gone, you can see the things we stuffed into the area between the seat backs and our crates: life jackets, packing cubes full of my clothes, toiletry bags, and six-packs of applesauce.

I was pretty proud of myself — possibly even prouder than I was when I managed to fit three carseats across the back seat of my Yaris. I danced my way over to Mr. December and said, “Who’s the master of Tetris and packing up the car? THIS GAL!” He had to agree. Wouldn’t you?

bikes planes and automobiles · DIY · el cheapo · family fun

Day 171: Be Careful What You Say

Okay, so my post about how I’m the one who’s really good at stacking and packing? I shouldn’t have written it. Or published it. Whatever. All I know is that today it seems like I’m the only person who knows how to pack.

“Eema! I laid out all my clothes, will you pack them?”

“Eema! I put my clothes in the crate but they don’t all fit! And they’re all on the packing list, so I neeeeed them!”

And Mr. December:

“Honey, I know you love packing stuff up really efficiently, so I left my stuff on our bed for you to pack. ThanksIloveyoubye.”

I actually started my day with one of my favourite outings, a bike ride to Lowe’s through the beltline path. I had to buy a concrete deck block to anchor the corner post of the sukkah and some more bolts to finish securing its ceiling beams. I can now proudly say that the sukkah frame is complete and ready for walls and decorations as soon as we get back.

Then off to the supermarket, where I phoned a friend and talked to her while waiting for my Click and Collect order to be brought out to my car.

R informed me last night that she has no running shoes that fit. Seriously? Now she tells me? I can’t be too annoyed because the truth is that she hasn’t needed to wear running shoes since school closed in March. Given that R has grown a lot over the spring and summer I guess it’s only right that she’d need shoes now. I feel like I scored big, though: there was one pair of sparkly sneakers in her size on the clearance rack (always the first place I look) and they fit well. When we got to the cash my jaw almost hit the floor when the cashier announced, “That will be $14.51, please.” Looks like I had a coupon on my account there. Who knew?

Then I got even luckier.

I’ve been scouring Value Village for the last couple of weeks in search of the perfect pair of cottage sweatpants: men’s vintage Roots sweatpants with a drawstring at the waist and elastic at the ankles. Today they were just waiting for me, and I let out a whoop of elation when I found them. I don’t usually believe that stuff about how you have to ask the universe for what you want, but it seems to have worked this time! (Hey, universe? How about some cheesecake?)

The rest of the day is a blur of folding, rolling, and smushing everyone’s clothes into my magic crates. I don’t even remember packing my own, but just now when I trudged up the stairs to pack my clothes I was met by a crate neatly packed with everything I needed. It was like a gift from my past self. (Thank you, past self!)

There are crates, boxes, and bins all over the front hall and the upstairs landing. My typical can-do attitude is telling me that everything will fit just perfectly; a more rational part of my brain doesn’t know what we’ll do when we discover that it doesn’t all fit. (Is it illegal to strap a kid to the roof of the car? Yes? Okay, how about my husband?)

I do know one thing: when we get to the cottage, I’m going to go sit on the dock and let Mr. December and the kids unload the car. I’ve done more than my share; as of 3 p.m. tomorrow, I’m on strike vacation.

family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · lists · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 170: Two More Sleeps

I’m not sure, but I might be drowning in lists.

There’s the meal plan and grocery list, with which I sat down and ordered all the non-perishables and a week’s worth of the perishables we’ll need. I’m baffled by the fact that the website didn’t have baskets of Ontario peaches (only the most delectable in-season fruit that exists.) I may have to just dash into a Sobey’s to get some.

I’ve got separate lists of things we’ll need for the High Holidays; materials for experiments and activities; books of experiments and activities; books for reading; board games; and art supplies.

Then there’s the clothing list, which I printed out six times to be used as a checklist by each member of the family. N seems to think that instead of a checklist, it’s a “scratch it out with bold pencil strokes so you can’t see what it said in the first place” list.

I repacked our first aid kit and confirmed that we have everything on our first aid inventory list, as well as the list of medications we take along. I’m practically a walking pharmacy (and is it weird that in addition to a thermometer, I’m taking a pulse oximeter, a peak flow meter, and a stethescope? For those of you just joining us here, I’m not a physician or a nurse, just a mom with an MD from Google University.)

I’m constantly checking in on my lists on Trello to make sure that I haven’t missed any important to-do items. Still firmly in the “not even started yet” column are: respond to the plans the landscaper sent us, test the new alarm system, choose our day trips, and make sure everyone has the necessary clothes and shoes. (Maybe I should have taken care of that last one before our last day at home.)

And then there’s my favourite: the list of lists and boxes. This is the checklist we run through before we get into the car to leave. First we check that all the other checklists are complete. Then we check off each crate, bin, box, or case that we’ve packed into the car. I love the list of lists for a couple of reasons: first, it’s the end of lists for the trip, and second, it’s the list that makes me feel uber-organized, super-prepared, and very, very smug.

That smugness will last right up until I realize that there was no checklist of children who should be in the car. I’ll do a panicked head count and then a roll call, and double-check with Mr. December that we only have four children and there isn’t a fifth back at the house about to enact Home Alone.

And then… vacation. I can’t wait. Just two more sleeps.

bikes planes and automobiles · Homeschool · Kids · parenting · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 169: Chatterboxes

Sometimes my kids just won’t stop talking.

We’ll be reading a book aloud when N’s eyes suddenly light up. Then he’ll start explaining how what we just read reminds him of this other thing, and this other thing is so fascinating because… and he’s off and running wherever his hyperactive mind takes him.

One the one hand, it’s adorable. I can practically see the neurons firing and the connections being made. And I know it’s great that he’s truly listening to what I’m reading and digesting it. But if left unchecked, his rhapsodies will go on and on for ten minutes or more, which is not appreciated when I’m reading to him and any (or all) of his siblings. R and K are not generally kind about it, and although I’ve tried to eliminate the phrase “shut up” from all our vocabularies, it tends to pop out when N digresses.

It’s usually K’s voice we hear: “Ugh! N! Shut up! We want to hear what Eema’s reading!”

Fast forward to our car, tonight. Mr. December had just finished telling N that since tomorrow is our last day of homeschool before a month’s vacation, he has to get up early and work hard (he’s been slacking off the last few days.) Apparently this triggered something for K, because she launched into a rant:

“Don’t you hate how they always do that at school? They advance so slowly at the beginning of the year, and then they slow down halfway through, and right at the end of the year they pile on the work!”

“Um, no,” Mr. December said, “I’ve never noticed that.”

“They totally do!” She continued, barely drawing breath, “It’s like, the first day of school you’re just sitting there doing a stupid word search and meeting the other kids in the class, even though you already know them because it’s the same kids every year, and why can’t they just get down to the hard work right away? It’s so annoying! It’s like they forgot that they wanted to get all this work in and so they have to cram it into the last month of school and it’s so hard and then there’s too much work and it’s crazy because they should have spread out the work all through the year instead of saving it up to make us miserable in June and –”

“Hey, K?” I interrupted, “You know how sometimes you get annoyed at N for going on and on about the same thing without saying anything new?”

“Yeah…” She nodded emphatically.

I waited. In three, two, one…

“Oh.” She said.

And there was silence. Blessed, blessed silence.

el cheapo · family fun · lists

Day 168: Stacking & Packing

I have a thing for packing. I don’t know if it was all my Tetris playing as a child and teenager, but I’m one of those people who gets twitchy watching other people pack or load things. If someone else has loaded the dishwasher, I’ll reload it because my way just fits so many more dishes. When we go on road trips, I pack the car. I have this map in my head of what fits best where, and since it’s painful to watch Mr. December do it his way (which is to say, lots of dead space), I do it myself.

Funny story about that: Mum came over the morning we left for our road trip last summer. She watched me carrying, lifting, and stacking everything and asked, “Why isn’t Mr. December doing this? Or at least helping?” I’m sure she thought that he was being lazy and I was picking up the slack.

“Because he can’t do it as well as I can,” I explained. “I’m really good at this.”

We’re going to ignore the signs of the perfectionism that probably exacerbates my exhaustion, okay? The point is I like packing, and I take pride in using my (clearly superior) spatial skills to pack as efficiently as possible. And because I take pride in it, I’m going to share with you my secret packing weapon:

Plastic crates I got for free from No Frills. Oh, and some stackable containers that I actually had to buy.

I hate trying to get luggage to stack. It’s always just slightly too rounded, or the sizes are a little too irregular, for me to stack them any higher than two — and the top layer usually slides around a lot. And then there’s the lack of visibility: if you can’t see what’s in them, you might end up having to open every bag to find the one thing you’re looking for.

With crates and bins (but especially with crates), they’re designed to stack on each other; the crates from the grocery store are designed to stay locked together in a moving truck. When you’re packing food, clothing, and recreational stuff for six people, you really have to use all the vertical space you can get, which is where the beauty of my crates and bins really lies.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. A stack of bins with flip-lids (so they can’t get lost!): These bins are packed with things for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, art supplies, books, outdoor activity equipment, and board games. They’ll stack nicely in one column in the van and in the cottage, which will be a real space-saver.
  2. My blue grocery bins. I’m using these for canned goods, because they’re sturdy and they nest inside each other. I clearly can’t fill these bins to the top with cans if I want to be able to carry them, but I can pack a single row of cans in one bin, then put the next bin right on top of the cans, and so on. It’s a different type of stack, I guess. When we get to the cottage I’ll unpack and then be able to nest them until they’re needed.
  3. My black plastic crates. Many years ago I plucked these from the “free boxes” area at No Frills; I think they held bags of peas or something. On this trip they’re holding our life jackets, beach towels, board games, and probably some of our clothes — assigning each person one crate (and one crate only!) seems like a fair way to avoid overpacking.
  4. Milk crates. Yes, I know what they say on the sides: “Illegal use prohibited” (Thanks, I had no idea what “illegal” meant!) or “For use by authorized owner only.” It’s not like I pinched these from a pile in the supermarket; they both came with our house and they look to be maybe forty years old. Someone else stole them long before my time. It’s my gain, because they’re sturdy, they stack solidly, and they’re just about the right size to hold all our rain gear.

I have a spreadsheet for packing (of course I do: Mr. December has rubbed off on me) that I’m slowly working my way through. At this point I think it’s just clothes and food that still need to be done, and I’ll have the pleasure of walking past my perfectly packed provisions while I pack some more.

See? Aren’t they beautiful? And organized? Isn’t it soothing just looking at them?

*crickets*

I guess some people will never know this joy… sigh…

family fun · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Kids · parenting · waxing philosophical

Day 167: Forest Children

There is way too much Roblox being played in my house. Granted, it’s a way for the kids to play with their friends, which is why I haven’t been too strict about the screen time, but it’s still way too much time sitting in front of a screen. As I’ve told my kids many times, that’s what wintertime is for. Right now the weather is perfect and it would be a shame if we missed out on it because of a computer game, which is why I announced this morning that we were going to explore the forest in a nearby ravine.

I was a bit surprised at how quickly the kids jumped up and ran to join me. They knew these woods, because last fall they attended an afterschool outdoor school in that park, and they were eager to show me all sorts of hidden places that they had discovered with their groups. They took turns leading me all over the park, down the steep bank to the creek, across the stones, and to the “sumac path” to pick sumac (which is apparently not ripe yet.)

E, who complained that she was tired when we walked along the paved ravine path, suddenly sprinted ahead to climb and jump as soon as we stepped onto a forest trail. I watched in awe as the kids — even N, who is often the least active of my crew — climbed, balanced, hopped, and ran in ways they wouldn’t in a playground. During our ninety minutes in the forest, I came to realize a few things:

First, the phrase “familiarity breeds acceptance” is worth bearing in mind when planning activities with children. They weren’t especially eager to attend the outdoor school lat fall, but it grew on them — and so did the ravine. Today’s enthusiasm was, at least partly, because we weren’t going to just any forest, but to their forest. I’m not sure that an unfamiliar park would have been met with the same excitement.

Second, that the children love a physical challenge. To their minds, it’s always better to go the most difficult way: over the rocks instead of around them, or along a fallen log instead of on the path. While there are playgrounds for swinging and climbing, they can’t possibly match the forest for variety, difficulty, and unpredictability.

The third thing I realized was that becoming the kind of person I want to be is as easy, and as hard, as just doing what that kind of person would do. I wanted to be the kind of family who biked together for transportation; we became one when I biked the kids to school for the first time. I got to call myself a homeschooler (something I have long wanted to be) the moment I withdrew my kids from school and started educating them at home. Today I can say that I’m a parent who takes her kids to play in the woods — because I’ve gone and done it.

I don’t believe in any way that today’s romp in the forest will lead to spontaneous outdoor play and a decrease in screen time. Tomorrow the kids will be back at the computer, whining, “But I should still have time!” and I’ll go back to spouting such wisdom as, “You should have logged off when the computer gave you the two-minute shutdown warning.” At least now I can console myself with the knowledge that my kids enjoy navigating the terrain of our local woodland… if they have no screen time left. It’s a start, though. I’ll take it.