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December 22, 2011

Classic toys never go out of style.  They are the toys that our parents played with, our grandparents played with, and our children love, too.  So many classics are found in wooden toys, from the rocking horse to building blocks.  Classic toys tend to stand the test of time, being loved and cherished by generations- and they can stand up to being played with.  So many toys today are expensive and flashy, but don’t hold up well and require endless batteries and repairs.  In time, your child may become bored with his or her pricey and much touted educational toy- and how much are they really getting out of it while it sits gathering dust?

In today’s economy, you have to consider how and where to spend your money.  Investing in classic, well made toys that will stand up to a child’s play (and in most cases, be able to be handed down to the next sibling or cousin, perhaps even longer) is a wise choice that will provide your child or children with endless hours of playtime.
A play kitchen costs about as much as the latest gaming system – but you won’t need to buy a new system or update it in a year.  It’s compatible with everything, and works well with other brands of toys.  If grandma buys a different brand of play food?  Your toy kitchen will not reject it!  The same just can’t be said for most modern toys, especially electronics.  A teddy bear, a tea set, a train – you just can’t go wrong with the classics.

Not to mention the wonderful fact that most wooden toys have less or even no exposure to chemicals and toxins, making then a healthy and safer option.  Toys should be safe for kids, and also safe for the planet.  You can find eco-friendly toys, great wooden gifts harvested from a renewable resource rather than plastic, which can wear out, crack, and break – and fill up landfills.  Why not find products that use formaldehyde-free glue, nontoxic paints and lacquers, or use packaging made from recyclable paper and water or soy based inks?   A healthy, simple, and classic wooden toy will give a child hours of meaningful play without overstimulating them.  A child can be creative and learn (more easily, sometimes!) without all the noise and flashing lights.

Since traditional wooden toys are natural, simply designed and continually appealing to children, they will never go out of style, so these toys will be lovely for now and for the next generation as well. Experience the joy of creating your own family heirlooms, and handing down your child’s rocking horse to your grandchild.

10 Unusual Holiday Gift Ideas

December 19, 2011

Santa drawingThat cozy, festive and fun time of year is here again! The holidays are always memorable but the preparation for them can be energetically and financially draining. Those endless shopping trips and mounds of questionable gifts can be a downer, not to mention an anti-lesson on the joy of giving. What kind of lesson does it teach our kids to see us rushing around and combing the stores for objects that clearly hold so little intrinsic value? Groan. Is it possible to give meaningful gifts and teach your kids that gift-giving doesn’t have to be expensive and stressful? Here’s some ideas from a mom on a budget who wants to get creative.

  1. Handprint/footprint ornaments

Throw together flour, water and salt and you have homemade clay, ready for rolling and molding.  Ready-made kits are available but for a fraction of the price, you can whip clay up in your kitchen!  Use your cookie cutters or just make them free-form.  Don’t forget to make a hole for the yarn/ribbon to turn the baked and finished piece into an ornament.

  1. Photo calendar

Here’s a great idea for you shutterbugs who have tons of great pictures with too few admirers.  It’s never been easier to put together a personalized calendar with your choice of photos from the past year.  If your home computer doesn’t have this program, one of the many on-line photo sites (Shutterfly, Zazzle, etc) will have this feature.

  1. Kid-designed cloth shopping bags

Encourage your loved ones to carry reusable shopping bags to the store with a one-of-a-kind cloth shopping bag.  Go to your local craft store and purchase fabric paints, decals or patches and let your creative juices flow.  Perhaps you have a child who would love this project, which lets you off the hook completely!

Vegetables in shopping bag

  1. Kid-painted picture frames

Do you have any old funky frames in the closet that are too ugly to use? Buy some acrylic paint (and glitter if you’re really feeling fancy) and let your inner artist out.  Another great project for the budding artists in the family.

  1. New Year seed kit and planter

It’s always a pleasure to see a new life growing. You and the kids can make these New Year seed kits to give to family and friends. Consider purchasing coffee mugs as planters for a two-in-one gift.

  1. “Mixed Tape”

Do you too still have those old mixed tapes from the 80’s? They’re precious little collections of songs and fortunately the practice of putting together a mix of special songs doesn’t have to be relegated to 80’s romance. It’s never been easier with a CD burner to make a musical gift that will last a lifetime.


  1. Donation to a charity

Don’t know what to get for the brother (or sister) who already has everything? In this so-called season of giving, why not give to those truly in need.  Search for an organization that is aligned with the gift recipient’s ideological beliefs or else be prepared to weather an awkward moment or two!

  1. Gift certificate for housecleaning

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just my personal fantasy. Get a recommendation for a trusted local housecleaner in your area, pay up front and make your own personalized gift certificate. This could be a magical post-Christmas experience for a busy family.

  1. A tree planted in honor of… someone

There are so many places that need the life-giving presence of a beautiful green tree.  When you make a contribution of $25 or more to TreePeople, they will plant a tree and send a beautiful card to the family or person that you designate.  When you contribute $100 or more, TreePeople will plant a grove of five trees and send a certificate to your designee. For an additional $25, the certificate will be placed in a handsome wooden frame made from recycled and reclaimed materials.


  1. Homemade Spa Snuggler

Ahh, nothing like a warm heat pack over those aching shoulders to take the chill off a cold and hectic day!  Buy a pack of colorful cotton socks, add long grain rice, a few drops of essential oil (lavender is a good one for relaxation) and tie the ends with ribbon or yarn (recipe from It is recommended that when heating your spa sock that you also set a cup of water in your microwave to prevent fire.

Whatever your holiday traditions, we hope you have a joyous and relaxing season with your loved ones!

Free Activities for Kids: Beyond Summer

December 15, 2011

With older kids in school, the little ones are left behind without the company of big brother or sister, and looking to you for some action!  It can be difficult to cope without the structure of school, and without scheduled activities for kids.  However, just because you want to stay busy and active does not mean your wallet has to stay empty.  There are plenty of activities with kids in mind that won’t cost you a dime.

Books and More Books

The local library is always a good place to start when looking for things to do in summer and afterwards.  Not only are there plenty of books and movies to keep you and your children entertained (and keep your children’s mind’s active, engaged, and reading!) but most libraries offer many programs, from summer reading, to movie nights, story time, arts and crafts, and much more.

Our library even had a Lego evening, where we were able to build cities together with a Lego Master Builder!  You can also gauge your child’s interest, and see what kind of activities to pursue from there.  Books are always a great jumping off point for exploring new interests!

Play Outside with a Purpose

Nature walks are fantastic, fun, and free!  Reconnect with nature, unplug for a while, and spend the day in the sun or among the autumn leaves.  Remember to keep hydrated, of course, and don’t forget the sun protection.  There is so much for a child to discover – trees, plants, animals, and never underestimate the power of bugs!  Bring along a magnifying glass, binoculars, whatever will help your little explorer feel more adventurous.

My son loves to bring along his special canteen, and his bug magnifying jar to check out the little critters before setting them back where he found them.  Take along one of the library books you found on bugs, nature, trees – whatever is your child’s preference.  You can spark your junior biologist’s imagination by identifying and classifying the local flora and fauna (shh!  don’t tell them they are learning while they are having fun and getting some exercise!).

Create Art from Family Life

Make a collage of found objects from your nature walk, or if you are more of a city walker, a collage of objects from your home and magazines.  What did you see on your walk?  Cut, paste, color, glitter- whatever your heart desires!  You can always do some pencil or crayon rubbings on leaves, as well, and talk about the differences you can see.  If you are making a collage from magazines and household objects, the same ideas apply.  Have fun with it!  Maybe you can make artwork to show off your last vacation, or the one you are soon to take.  Document your child’s last school year or birthday party – anything you like.  Get creative and have fun.

Channel Julia Child

Cooking shows are as varied and available as are food choices; we all have our favorites.  Create your own show, right in your own kitchen!  Find a recipe you like, and can reproduce with your child.  Keep it safe, and keep your child’s age and any limitations (height, dexterity, etc.) in mind.  Then, roll film!  You can either record it or not – either way, your child will have great fun “playing chef” with you.   Make sure you serve the dish to everyone when they return home that night, and let the little cook bask in his or her glow of praise for a job well done.  Read on for more ideas for bringing your kids into the kitchen!

Challenge Yourself: Spend Nothing for One Week

See if you can come up with four or five days’ worth of activities for your preschooler that don’t require any additional outlay of cash.  Need more ideas?  Most areas have local magazines and websites where they will list a calendar of events, and you can see what is offered in your vicinity.  Don’t limit yourself due to budget constraints, or feel the need to spend a fortune to have a good time.  Make the most out of your free time – the deepest part of winter will be here before you know it, and your little ones won’t be little for long.

Enjoy what really matters – your family!

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Travel Toys for Kids: How to Keep Your (and Their) Sanity

December 12, 2011

The holiday travel season is right around the corner.  Add the uncertainty that inclement weather brings, and you can be sure you’ll be stuck somewhere, sometime!  When it comes to travel, entertainment while in transit is a major consideration when children are along.  Whether you’re taking a road trip or traveling by plane, travel toys for kids are a must have for any parent who would like to maintain their sanity – and that of their kids and fellow travelers.

Keep ’em Occupied

If your children are old enough, there are some fantastic travel games to be found, from adorable educational toys like a Magnetic Board (fewer lost parts!) to classic games like Connect Four.  Educational games for travel are stimulating for your child, and will keep them both busy and learning while you get where you are going.

Some parents feel they need to resort to hand held video games and portable DVD players for even very small children when traveling, and while they can come in handy, it’s great to have other options available to you.  Your child can be entertained with a more classic style of toy that won’t need a battery every other hour, and won’t make a lot of background noise you have to hear while driving (or other passengers have to hear while flying).  Coloring supplies, easy-to-carry playsets, and small toys that can be collected in a small backpack work just as well.  Your child will feel that he or she is a “big kid” if they are allowed to carry their own small piece of luggage – a carry on or a backpack.

I like to keep a stash of small toys, books, snacks and surprises in my own bag.  Then when the inevitable happens and my child is tired of everything in the backpack, I can reach into the bag of tricks for something fresh.  These can even be old favorites from home that haven’t been used for awhile, the idea is that it’s different from the stuff she chose to bring.  Use these sparingly – only when necessary – so you won’t run out before the end of the trip!

Share Books

If you’re traveling by car or train, try reading aloud from a classic family book, like Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, or one of our holiday favorites, The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry.  Choose something appropriate for the youngest children, but still engaging for the older ones.  Take turns reading aloud, use lots of energy and imagination in your voice, and the time will fly!  You’ll also be helping to turn your kids into enthusiastic readers.  This is one of our absolute favorite ways to enjoy a road trip and we’ve read some amazing books as the kids grew.

Pack Plenty of Provisions

Don’t forget the snacks and drinks!  You want to make sure that your child won’t get hungry or thirsty, since we all know how children react and behave when the hungry-monster arrives!  For airplane trips, it is best to check with your airline carrier for regulations, rules, and restrictions.  If you are traveling by car, the world is your oyster!  Snack cups are great, because they can be refilled, and snacks changed as desired with no waste gathering up and messing your car.  Choose ones that are mess-resistant or mess free to minimize the shrapnel that may fly.

Plan Ahead when Potty Training

If you are traveling by car with a potty training or newly potty trained child, consider bringing along a small potty and some sanitizing wipes (keep them accessible!) for times you may not make it to the nearest rest stop.  Keep a change of clothes at the ready.  Nothing is worse than traveling with a wet, dirty child and a wet, dirty car seat, with your washing machine and bathtub miles away!

You’ll be Happier, Too!

When you travel as a family, keep your child occupied, entertained, fed, and stimulated, and a more enjoyable experience will be had by all.  Yes, it takes some planning and it’s way more work for you than plugging them into a DVD player.  But trying to travel with a tired, bored, and hungry child will get you all frustrated fast, and will quickly put a damper on the trip.  Anticipate needs ahead of time, prepare, and remember that you will be at your destination soon.  One day, you will laugh about all of this!

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3 Gift-Buying Mistakes Parents Make

December 6, 2011

So the holiday gift-buying season is definitely here, and with it comes the question:  What, and how much, should I get my child?  In my experience (as both a kid and a parent) I’ve had occasions where the gift was a great success, and also times when it just fell flat and rarely (if ever) was played with.  And while we can’t completely avoid the latter, or guarantee the former, here are a few mistakes I’ve made over the years that you might be happy to avoid!

1.  Jumping on the “This Year’s Hottest Toy” Bandwagon  This has got to be my personal favorite thing to NOT do.  These toys are rarely worth the time and energy it takes to locate them.  They are – almost by definition – a flash in the pan, a fad, someone’s idea to make a quick buck at Christmas.  They may have a TV show or movie character theme that immediately dates them.  And they are usually cheaply made with no intention of lasting longer than a few weeks or months, if you’re lucky.  Just say no!

2.  Misunderstanding Age Recommendations   Age recommendations on toys are based primarily on safety considerations and developmental stages.  While safety issues should never be ignored, the developmental stage of your child can easily fall outside the “norms” that the recommendations use.  You should have a pretty good idea of what your child can and can’t do, and if she likes to be challenged or prefers simplicity.  I usually recommend getting a toy that will gently challenge a child (absent any developmental difficulties or other limitations) since this should hold her interest for longer and help develop skills that maybe haven’t been introduced yet.  If you’re buying for a child you don’t know very well, ask the parents a few questions to get a current take on how he’s playing.

3. Too Much, Too Soon   Does your baby really need eight or ten (or more) gifts to open on Christmas morning?  For our teenagers, we like to keep it to just a couple of small fun things, maybe a book, and one more expensive gift that they’ve requested.  When they were little, so many Christmas mornings were just an orgy of unwrapping, followed by them promptly forgetting what was in the pile of stuff.  We started paring down the pile by saving some gifts for opening during the days following Christmas.  Or once they were opened, we’d put them away to bring out in a month or two.  Very young children can be so happy with just a small selection of things – and remember, you’re setting a precedent for next year!  You’ll have to work harder to avoid disappointment if you overdo it when they’re little.  So choose gifts carefully, manage expectations, and cultivate gratitude in yourself and your children for the gifts that are under your tree and in your hearts.

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Preschool Education: Essential Activities and Toys for your Home

November 28, 2011

You can hardly believe that your toddler is now a full-fledged preschooler! What are the most advantageous activities and toys for your growing child?  Kindergarten isn’t far off and you want your children to be prepared but still enjoy being a kid.

The good news is that preschool education doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive. With so many flashing, beeping, electronic toys available, we believe that the classics still take the cake. Whether your child is in a preschool program or you’re doing preschool education at home, here are four overlapping developmental categories to consider and what we feel are the best toys and activities to promote growth in each domain.

Fine Motor Skills

Help your kiddos continue working on hand-eye coordination. This quiet and focused activity is calming and fun.

  • Try puzzles, large bead stringing, artwork, cutouts with child-safe scissors, and modeling clay.
  • Toy Recommendations: Large or small wooden blocks are great for building, sorting and more.  Also check out puzzles of 25 pieces or less.  Geometric stackers and other manipulatives encourage development of many skills: stacking, sorting, matching, relationships, and spatial learning.

Emerging Literacy Skills

Start them loving books early and soon they’ll be teaching us new factoids! They already have taught us so much about love and patience but the lessons will only go on from here.

  • Read books, especially high-interest subjects for your child, alphabet/number preparation, and flashcards. Talk with your kids as often as you can – give them a play-by-play as you navigate the grocery store, sing songs with them in the car, play “I Spy” while you’re waiting in line – to help develop their language and conversation skills.
  • Toy Recommendation: The durable and attractive Teach and Play Tiles are a fun and informative way to learn letters and words.  We also recommend every family have at least one set of alphabet puzzles and number puzzles in the house.  Children gain familiarity with the shapes, names, and sounds of the letters before they even think about reading, so when the time comes to start “officially” learning to read, it seems easy!

Gross Motor Skills

Wow, are our kids really energetic or are we just getting old?  Maybe both!  We find that our child needs at least two concentrated energy-burning sessions per day to sleep well at night.  Build a positive relationship to exercise early in life!

  • Climbing, running, jumping, dancing, gymnastics, obstacle course, imitation games (Red Light-Green Light, Freeze Frame).
  • Toy Recommendations: Try the fun and easily changeable Scoot 2 Skate or help your child learn to pedal on the Classic Red Tricycle.

Concepts and Themes

Major cognitive shifts occur for preschoolers between ages 3 and 4. At this age, they begin to use symbolic thought, the ability to mentally or symbolically represent concrete objects, actions, and events (Piaget, 1952). Make-believe and role-play here we come!

  • Learn about familiar themes such as transportation, family, weather, and construction. Compare and contrast. Visit the zoo and the museum.  Provide a well-stocked dress-up box with role-playing costumes and castoffs from your closet.
  • Toy Recommendations: Let your kiddos cook you dinner using the Swing Door Kitchen and an assortment of play food.  Encourage imagination (and get ready for Halloween) with the multifaceted 3-in-1 Costume SetDollhouses and play vehicles allow further exploration of family and community life – the world preschoolers know best!

Your preschooler is growing and learning every day through play and interaction with you.  With a few carefully chosen toys and a little understanding of how children learn, you can enhance your own child’s early education in a fun and positive way!

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Eco Friendly Gifts: 9 Ideas for Families

November 1, 2011

Girl opening Christmas giftsThe holidays always seem like a time of wonderful excess – lots of food, love, gifts, hospitality and good cheer.  But when my kids were little, I found that they can also be full of lots of stuff that seemed contrary to our attempts to live a greener, more eco-friendly life.  Wrapping paper, anyone?  So over the years, we’ve had lots of chances to examine our holiday gift-giving traditions and see what we wanted to keep, jettison, or modify to better align with our green efforts.  Here are 9 of our best ideas that you might like!

1. No Wrapping Paper  Several years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to buy any more wrapping paper.  I’d use what I had in my closet, and after it was all gone, I’d figure out another way to wrap gifts that wasn’t so obviously wasteful.  Well, I still have lots of that old wrapping paper left because we’ve had so much fun coming up with other ways to wrap! See our previous post with our favorite ideas for wrapping paper alternatives.

2. Give Experiences, not Things      We realized that if we felt like we had too much “stuff” then our friends and family probably did too.  Think about concert or theater tickets, dinner parties, a day at the zoo or beach, tennis or art lessons.  What do your friends like to do?  What could you do together?

3. Give a Global Education  Send a Kiva gift card (or choose your favorite micro-lender), then your friends can select a recipient for the donation and follow the progress of someone in need in a distant part of the world.  Children can learn so much about macro- and micro-economics, politics, family life and their own life through programs like these, it’s something you should do for yourselves too!  You can start with as little as $25.

4. Give One Instead of Many  Give a family gift instead of a separate present for each member.  You might give a family game, event tickets, a scrapbook of a vacation you took together, or a jigsaw puzzle of a favorite place or theme.

5. Give Something Really Useful    An emergency kit, membership in the AAA, a solar charger for a cell phone, first aid kit for the car, something we all maybe should have, but don’t!

6. Give of Yourself   Give homemade jam, home-baked treats, meals for people who need help – new baby, recent surgery, an elderly relative or neighbor – or your time to help with errands or household chores.

7. Give a Garden   Do you garden?  Offer your time and expertise to help another family start a small vegetable or herb garden.  If you’re not close by, or don’t have the time to help personally, put together a starter kit for them with basic tools, gloves, seeds, and a reference book to get them going on one of the best family projects around!

8. Give Fewer, but Better Gifts Choose high quality, well-made gifts for children.  After the cheap junky toys have broken or lost their appeal, a great play kitchen or a solid set of wooden blocks will still be generating ideas for hours of imaginative play.  When your child outgrows them, just pass them along to a cousin or friend – no additional packaging, shipping, or manufacturing needed.

9. Don’t Give   A few years ago, we agreed that our generation (our siblings and all the spouses) just wouldn’t exchange birthday or holiday gifts.  We do buy gifts for our parents, and all the children, but it’s so much easier this way and allows us to spend a little more on the kids.

So get creative and see how much you can give with the smallest footprint!

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