Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rock Climbing

I'll admit it. Frequently we make our decisions about what we want to learn based solely on the awesomeness factor. What does rock climbing teach you? Lots of great stuff, actually, but I'd be lying if I said that was the initial attraction. If I'm honest, the kids were inspired to try it by watching an episode of Knight Rider on Netflix. That said, as the kids of a woman who spent pretty much all of PE class coming up with fake illnesses in an attempt to be sent to the nurses office or the library, the fact that we are interested in something physical fitness oriented both surprises and delights me. I remember having a conversation with a gym teacher that went something like this.

Him (accusingly): Why are you always reading books?
Me: Are you allowed to ask me that? You're a teacher.
Him: You know, intelligence isn't everything. Your body can live without higher brain function, but your brain can't live without your body. What if you get in a car accident and can't think anymore?
Me: Hopefully I'd die.
Him: How do you know being a vegetable isn't the greatest thing ever?
Me: I'll have to take your word for it.

In retrospect I appreciate that said gym teacher did not send my mouthy, sarcastic teenage butt to the principals office. I probably would have, and as much as it pains me to admit it, he was right in his basic assumption that it is important to take care of both your body and your mind.

When we started homeschooling PE was the subject I was the least interested in, but the kids have found some fun avenues for physical fitness like karate, Japanese dance, swimming, biking and canoeing. It's something that's helped me to see physical activity in a different light.

In the deepest recesses of my brain, exercise has long been associated with feeling awkward and embarassed. In my head it stinks of sweaty, ill-fitting gym clothes and inadequacy. Like pretty much every other woman in America, I have come to find out, I grew up hating my body and as such was not especially interested in taking care of it. Now in my 30s I have found myself feeling differently. My body has made five people. Awesome people.

People who scale walls and dance and paddle and run. The more I watch them from the sidelines, the less I want to watch and the more I want to participate. Now that I am no longer legally required to play dodgeball, physical fitness is beginning to look less like something that should be banned by the Geneva Convention and more

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Roadtripping with Kids-Part 3: Good Cheap Fun Continued

Part three of my series on Roadtripping with children.

Public Transportation

Public transportation veries widely from place to place in the United States. Here in Minneapolis it is less than ideal, to say the least, but in areas with decent public transportation, using it as a means of getting around can connect you to the city in a way that driving in a car cannot.

In San Diego we took the train from my mom's house in Oceanside to Old Town San Diego. In both directions we started conversations with other passengers, getting tips on places to visit and stories of their lives growing up in the area. By the time we reached our destination, we had made new friends and learned more about the city we were visiting.

The views were spectacular and everyone got to enjoy them. No one had to fuss about which exit we needed to take or where we were going to park. It's a good way to travel.

Talk to the Locals

The cousins at the base of Sandia Peak, Albuquerque, NM

This is easier to do, of course, if you are visiting the locals, but striking up conversations with people can lead to some interesting experiences. The flavour of a place is in the people who live there. Getting to know them helps you to understand the heart of what makes a location tick. It also gives you ideas for places to go and things to do that you woudn't have thought of before.

The tram up to Sandia Peak in Albuquerque. I had never heard of it until my cousins suggested it. Absolutely amazing.

Keep America Weird

Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum, Rawlins, WY

The Carbon County Museum, Rawlins, WY. The main attraction at this museum is shoes made from the skin of a murderer, Big Nose George.

The United States is full of  weirdos, and I mean that with all love and respect. We are a creative bunch, that is for sure, and along any given road in this beautiful country there are gems like these; mystery spots, fiji mermaids, The World's Largest Ball of Twine (made by one man), Carhenge, a waterslide through a shark tank. I love this country. Roadside America is a good resource for finding these oddball treasures and many of them are cheap or free. 

Photo project: Bathrooms of America

Before we headed out on our trip one of the most common subject of discussion about roadtripping with four small children was how often we were going to stop to go to the bathroom. A friend of Zach's suggested that we make it into a photo project. Our Tour of the Bathrooms of America. I loved it. What a way to take something potentially irritating and turn it into something fun. The kids had fun picking out the best bathrooms to photograph. We are planning to make a photo wall in our downstairs bathroom of the photos we took for this project.

Any theme would work for this, like restaurants you've visited, city or state welcome signs, state capitals or public artwork. It's a fun way of remembering the trip when you are done and it's good, cheap fun.

Road Tripping with Kids- Part 2: Good Cheap Fun

Cost was a really big factor for us on our recent 6 week roadtrip. We saved for it over the summer when Zach was working, but we knew we were going to have to work the budget to make it happen and we don't use credit cards, so we needed to be prudent with our spending in case of emergencies. Luckily, contrary to popular belief, kids are cheap. My kids are, anyway. They are just as happy with a day at the beach as a day at Disneyland.

Plan Ahead

Have an idea of where you want to spend your money and then fill in the blanks. As I mentioned above, we skipped Disneyland. It wasn't worth the money when half of our kids were too young to appreciate it and I was pregnant enough at the time to make that much walking a chore. We used to live in Los Angeles, so we had people to visit while we were there, and we know we'll be back someday when all the kids are older.

We saved our bigger spending for Las Vegas (visiting my Grandparents), San Diego (visiting my mom), The Grand Canyon and Albuquerque (visiting my cousins).

So what to do in the spaces between?

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

As homeschoolers I have found museum memberships to be a great investment, but even more so this year than in the past. Many science and history museums have reciprocal benefits with other museums all over the country, giving you free access to some very interesting attractions. For the cost of our $90 Science Museum of Minnesota membership we were able to get free access to The Madison Children's Museum, The Indiana State Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the Omaha Children's Museum, and those were just the museums we had time for. 

Experience Gifts

San Diego Zoo

Our trip took place over Christmas, so in lieu of physical gifts, each of my parents gave the kids an experience gift. Mom paid for Dad and all of their kids and grandkids to go to the San Diego Zoo. Dad paid for us to go to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Experience gifts have always been highly prized in my family and space was tight in the van, so the fact that we didn't have to cart home Christmas gifts was a bonus.  

Letterboxing/Scavenger Hunts/ Adventure Races

I've said this before and I'll say it again, but the key to entertaining children (and easily distracted adults like myself) is novelty. Fortunately, it's a big and interesting world out there and novelty is not in short supply if you are willing to look for it. Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective.

Letterboxing is one of our favourite hobbies both at home and on the road. Similar to geocaching without the fancy equipment, letterboxing is a fantastic way to get off the beaten path and really explore. It adds a sense of mystery and purpose to an otherwise everyday walk in the park. There's something exciting about knowing that there is a "treasure" hidden in plain sight. It's like being part of a secret club. Everyday people walk past these spots, some of them on busy city streets, some down barely visible paths in the woods, and nobody knows what lays there if only they knew where to look.

Scavenger Hunts and Adventure Races (think Amazing Race) are another way of adding a sense of purpose, and even a bit of learning, to your adventures. I once had a friend who liked to travel alone on bicycle in Europe. To amuse himself, he liked to pretend he was a spy. He'd give himself little missions and then try to complete them without anyone seeing him. Yes, it's eccentric, but you have to admit it's kind of fun.

There are a few ways of doing this. If you have time, I think it's fun to head out and plant clues for the kids in various locations. Print up a letter and place it by their toothbrush in the bathroom. "Your mission, if you choose to accept it..." or something along those lines. Give them their first task, which will lead them to their first clue.

If possible, it's fun to involve other people. When you head out for your morning coffee, explain what you are doing to the barista. Tell her the kids will have a secret password for her. Something goofy. Then give her a letter with a clue to the next task. "At Main St and Grand there is a small coffee shop called Java Hut. There is an agent there named Rachel masquerading as a barista. Go to her and order a small hot chocolate with two pumps of vanilla and whipped cream. When she hands you your drink, whisper the password. Female Aardvark. She will give you your next set of instructions." In my experience, unless they are really busy, people enjoy being part of the mystery.

If it's not possible to plant clues ahead of time, you can do an information gathering scavenger hunt. "On the lawn of the capital building there is a statue of the first governor of the state. Find his name. This is the name of the street where you will find your next assignment. Show me the street on your map to recieve the next clue." These kinds of facts are easily attainable online, so you can plan these even from home.

Get outside

This one doesn't need a whole lot of explanation. Kids are easy. A trip to the beach or a hike in the woods are the cheapest fun out there. The world is a beautiful place. Get out and enjoy it. Some of my longest lasting memories of travel aren't the days I spent at Sea World or Six Flags. They're the moment I rounded the bend on a windy mountain road in the Canadian Rockies and was suddenly sure I was in heaven, or the way the moss grew, sad and lonely on the weatherworn tombstones of goldminers on a remote road in Southern Alaska, or watching the sun set directly over an island, like a crown on a head submerged in the sea in Manzanillo. It's amazing how many memories are made in these simple moments.

Up Next: Roadtripping with Kids-Part 3: Good Cheap Fun Continued.

Road Tripping with Kids- Part 1: Survival and Sanity on the Road

Thanksgiving to New Years Eve of last year was the first of (hopefully) many extended family roadtrips for the Griffith family. So many of my best childhood memories are of roadtrips, from small ones like a week spent at Mackinac Island Michigan, to the epic RV trip I took to remote corners of Alaska when I was 10, to a summer mom-and-daughter adventure to Texas with my freshly minted drivers permit at 15. We've taken many smaller roadtrips with our kids, working our way up to this. We still have daydreams of someday taking our clan on the road for a couple of months or more.
This year was our maiden run. For the better part of 6 weeks, with a few days stopover at home between the Indianapolis leg of the trip and the Western leg of the trip, we traveled across 15 different states visiting family and friends and having many amazing adventures.

I love to travel and I'll take it any way I can, but the beauty of roadtrips is in learning to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. For that reason, and it was a controversial decision amongst family and friends, we chose not to buy the in-car DVD player contraption and I really don't regret that.

Preparing for the trip I was about 75% out-of-my-mind excited and 25% sure we were completely insane to be traveling that long and that far, pregnant and with four little kids in tow. Crazy like a fox. The trip went astoundingly well. Having bested that challenge, I feel qualified to offer a few tips for anyone attempting such a feat, including what I would do differently in the future.

Tip #1: Halfway through a long drive, get out and do something.

Something active. Something where both you and the kids can just get out and run. Childrens museums, parks, beaches. When you are researching your trip try to come up with a couple of spots along the way that you can stop if the troops are getting restless. In my opinion, 70% of success in doing anything with kids involves finding the balance between rest and activity. Add 10% for adequate nutrition and you are 80% of the way there. The other 20% involves forces I do not understand; probably equal parts alignment of the stars, particle physics and Divine Providence. Kids start out the day excited about travel. By the middle of the day the novelty has worn off. Getting out and doing something awesome refreshes the novelty, rewards their patience and wears them out. There is no downside. It helps small children to nap and older children to focus on quiet activities for the latter part of the drive.

Tip #2 Quiet Time

This is the Yin to #1's Yang. Whether you are in the car, or out sightseeing, down time is essential. Travel is exciting, but it's also tiring. Downtime gives kids (and adults) rest for their bodies and a chance for their brains to process all of the cool things they've seen and done. I have found that when we don't get enough down time we get something I call Sensory Overload. Believe me, that is something you want to avoid if at all possible. Audiobooks are a good way of inviting the kids into quiet time. We downloaded two or three books at a time for free from Librivox to listen to in the afternoons and as we settled in for bed at night. It was so successful that we have continued to use classic audiobooks for our afternoon quiet time even after we arrived back at home.

Tip #3 Family T-shirts

This is a tip I learned when I worked at a preschool. Groups of people, and that includes families, are easier to keep track of if they match. We bought a bunch of red t-shirts in various sizes and had the kids decorate them with fabric markers. Instead of writing the kids' names on the shirt, which is not recommended for safety purposes, we had the kids number them like sports jerseys. #1 for Cheyenne, #2 for Bella, #3 for James and #4 for Travis. The older kids drew pictures on the shirts and I wrote our cell phone number on the hem.

One thing I would do differently in the future is to keep the back of the shirt empty and bring a fabric marker with us. Then as we traveled, we would ask all of our newly-made friends to autograph our shirts. It would be a great way of remembering what, to me, is one of the coolest parts of traveling; the people you meet.

Chinese guys who wanted to take a picture of a big American family. Lovely, lovely people.

Tip #4 On big travel days, spring for the hotel with the pool

You won't be sorry. Enough said.

Tip #5 Plan ahead, but be flexible

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered. G.K. Chesterton

That is our family motto. Planning is good. Know ahead of time what attractions are on your chosen route and get some ideas of good places to eat. It's even good to have a Plan B in case the kids get squirrelly earlier than expected, but also know that some things just cannot be planned for. Keep your sense of humour and remember that many things that look like disasters in the moment make some of the best stories.

On a long ago visit to Fillmore, Utah I arrived, exhausted and overheated, past the cows grazing by the Welcome to Fillmore sign, to a tiny motel. In the all-but empty parking lot a 12 year old kid rode in circles around tumbleweeds. Noticing me, he ran inside to man the reservation desk he was tending for his mother. I walked into the lobby, ready for a good night's rest, only to find a 5 foot long iguana between me and the reservation desk. I screamed and ran outside. The kid ran after me, irritated at my girly fear of man-eating lizards, and assured me that Godzilla was his pet and it was harmless. He coaxed me back inside, past the scaly beast, only to tell me that they had lost my reservation. Suddenly I had a second wind. If they kept man-eating lizards in the lobby I wasn't in the mood to find out what they kept in the rooms. I made it to Mesquite, NV that night. It was a pain in the hind end at the time, but it amused me enough in the retelling that I bothered to snap this picture eight years later as I drove through for a second time. Keep your sense of perspective.

Up Next: Roadtripping with Kids: Good Cheap Fun

Friday, May 25, 2012

Summer Writing

In preparation for summer I have been stocking up on fresh school supplies. 

There are very few things as satisfying in life as fresh school supplies. Everytime I tell someone that we are planning to have school-time over the summer I feel a little like the Grinch, but it's not as bad as it sounds. A little summer reading, a vegetable gardening project, some woodworking, some cooking, some rock climbing, some dabbling with art projects and some creative writing. Swap out shuffleboard for the rock climbing and it begins to sound more like retirement than summer school. There are still the Latin and Greek lessons and a smattering of math, but they like that stuff, I swear they do.

One of our projects for the summer is our creative writing group. So far we only have family members, but we want to eventually open it to friends as well. The idea is to exercise our creative muscles a bit.

We meet outdoors with our Creative Writing Kit and a big pitcher of lemonade and have at it. Sometimes we do creative writing exercises, sometimes we just write. There are no right or wrong ways of doing it, whatever strikes your mood. You can write it in crayon, you can write it in pencil. You can even write it in window markers on the patio door.

We're trying to establish the practice of creativity as a habit, something that is worthy of setting aside time for. It's far too easy in life to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget to give yourself space to dream and play. It's easier, of course, for kids, but I think the practice is still a valuable one. The more ingrained it becomes for them to give themselves that time and space the more likely they will be to continue it as they get older and the "real world" (I hate that phrase) increases its demands.

I also hope that now, while their inner critic is still relatively quiet and the world is still a place of wonder and possibility, that the practice of giving themselves permission to just do and create and make will give them the ammunition they need to fight that critic and bring their gifts to the world.

 Mostly, though, it's just for fun. I have been participating too. My creative muscles have atrophied a bit over the winter and it's good cheap fun to let my imagination come out and play for a while.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Breakfast Popsicles

Half of the people in this family are morning people, the other half, not so much.

Morning people, I have found, can be divided into two categories. There are morning people who wake up energized and ready to tackle the day head on. These people have accomplished more by 9AM than most people accomplish all day. The other kind of morning person is the type who likes to wake up in the morning, fix themselves a lovely cup of coffee, grab a croissant and sit around in their robe on the patio listening to the birds sing. That is the kind of morning people we are. You can imagine how easy that is to accomplish with five small children.

Enter the Breakfast Popsicle.

Originally concieved as a way to use up leftover smoothies, yogurt and juice, the breakfast popsicle has become a summer tradition for us. They are easy to make ahead, healthy, easy to serve and loved by all. They aren't even as messy as you might imagine, but then one of the rules of summer breakfast is that unless the weather is inclement, it must be eaten outside. Then, with children happily occupied eating popsicles for breakfast and playing in the sandbox, their mother is free to fix herself a cup of coffee, grab a croissant and sit around in her robe listening to the birds sing, for a few minutes anyway.

The recipe is simple. Throw stuff in a blender and freeze it in a popsicle maker. I believe the popsicle above was a combination of strawberries, kiwi and cranberry juice. My current favourite is strawberries with mango nectar from Costco. You can use pretty much anything you want. Yogurt, fruits, veggies (think green smoothies), iced tea, lemonade, even pudding, if that's how you roll. I have been toying with the idea of caffeinated popsicles for the adults. Kind of a frappucino in popsicle form. It has potential.

Some combos we have liked:

Strawberry Mango
Strawberry kiwi
Mixed berry
Raspberry pineapple
Raspberry Mango
Mango pineapple
Strawberry banana
Strawberry yogurt
Creamsicle (Vanilla yogurt with orange juice concentrate)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coolest Mom Ever

That is my new title, according to my big girls. Yesterday was the official last day of 1st and 2nd grade, so Zach and I wanted to do something to celebrate. It's been a pretty crazy spring, what with Daddy graduating, Grandpa graduating his seminary program, a remodeling project in the family room and, of course, the arrival of baby #5 all in a 10 day period.

Crazy doesn't even cover it. I've never been on a roller coaster. I am terrified of them. I frequently tell people I'd rather give birth, which Zach thinks is cheap because I don't mind giving birth, but he asked me while I was in labour and it's true. Anyway, I'd imagine that this spring has been somewhat like the big scary loop on the roller coaster, hanging on for dear life, pretty sure you aren't really going to crash, but not as sure as you were while you were waiting in line.

The girls have been a huge help through that period of insanity and I really don't know what I would have done without them. I have been extraordinarily proud of the way they stepped up to the plate. I am pretty sure I was nowhere near as responsible and well behaved when I was their age. Last night we decided it was time to say thank-you to them for all of their help.

We put them to bed at their normal hour and waited. About an hour later we woke them up and told them to get their shoes on.

They had no idea what we were doing or where we were going, but they were up past their bedtime and leaving the house, so they were game. As we stopped at the bank to get cash and at the coffee shop for Mom to get caffeinated they ruminated about where we were going. Their guesses ranged from a restaurant to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center (which I'm sure is open at 9PM on a random Tuesday, right?) and every turn we made they'd say, "It's a clue! We've been down this road before!" or "I have no idea where we are right now."

Finally, we arrived at the movie theater and Cheyenne immediately knew what we were doing. "I see that poster with the giant letter A! You are taking us to see the Avengers!" Cheyenne is obsessed with Iron Man. She has an alter-ego named Jewels Stark who is also known as Iron Girl. For a full three days in March she barely spoke to me because I forbid her to marry Tony Stark when she turns nine, ruining her life forever and causing a very expensive robotic wedding dress, designed by Cheyenne herself, to be sent to the scrapyard for smelting. See. It's been a tough spring for all of us.

I am now forgiven because not only did I take them to see the Avengers, after bedtime on a Tuesday (because Tuesdays are the cheap day at the local theater, but don't tell them that), I took them to see it in 3D.

And I bought them popcorn and Sprite. And that is how I have come by my new title, Coolest Mom Ever. We'll see how long it lasts.