Friday, September 30, 2011

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen Might Not Be So Bad

Recently, I've re-embraced baking. We're crazy about sweets in this house, and would love to indulge in them every day. So I bought a "healthy" cookbook which features baked goods with fewer calories, less sugar and less fat than their [decidedly more delicious] counterparts. It seems like a pretty decent way to compromise.

Since I've been baking something almost every week, there seem to be enough opportunities for trial and error and for learning. Now that my kids are a little older, baking with them has become somewhat more tolerable. The key, I've discovered, is to not strive for perfection. As long as I remember that most any homemade baked treat tastes good, I become much more at ease with the imperfect measurements, the puffs of powdered ingredients that spill onto the table instead of into the bowl and the not-ready-for-prime-time presentation. I've also chillaxed a bit about tasting the process.

The other day I saw Fifi sneak a pinch of flour she intended to eat. I stopped her and told her that was gross. But then I realized that I only knew it was gross because somewhere along the line I probably tasted it myself. We use all our senses to learn about the world around us, I reminded myself. So then I let her eat the flour. And she said it was gross. And now she knows. She--as well as Vance--also now knows that the dry ingredients are really dry and taste yucky. But that brown sugar beat with butter (or butter-like product, as the case may be) is delicious and sweet.

The two of them know some other things as well, now that I relaxed my standards and upped the value of the experience. They now know that the trigger on the hand mixer is a bit temperamental and that if you push it too hard, the mixer will suddenly whir very fast and very loudly. Additionally, they know that if you put a mixer into the dry ingredients, you will create a wicked dust storm. They know that the symbol "one dash two" means half and that you can fill the half cup two times if you want a full cup. They know that flour is powdery and that sugar, while the same color, is more like sand in texture. They also know that cocoa is worthless without sugar, despite looking awfully tempting.

Baking with the kids is starting to actually be fun. I stand firm that their hands must be clean and that anything that enters their mouths is no longer suitable for cooking. Otherwise, I'm getting better at relaxing and letting them run the show a little more. The kids have fun and we all get a sweet treat in the end. Seems like a pretty good deal.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Couple of Rah-Rahs

My kids were recently spectators at a low-key tournament. To help them play the part, we made pom-poms. They were fast and easy--but did leave a few more scraps about the house than I'd prefer.

I removed the staples from a couple of toy catalogs and then the kids slid the whole pages, lengthwise, through the paper shredder. I laid the shreds out as careful as fresh linguini. When there were enough, I grabbed them in the center and wrapped a rubber band tightly around the newly formed handle. For dramatic effect (and for fun), the kids scrunched up the pom-pom wisps.

Go Team!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Left to Their Own Devices

When we made the scarecrows the other day, I focused on picking fabrics that looked autumnal and adhering the straw just the right way so you couldn't see the tape and how do we make him look happy? and will he fit in the window?....Meanwhile, do you know what my kids did? They took extra fabric scraps and went off to play with them.

And for over a week now, those silly scraps have provided endless entertainment. Picnic blankets, baby wraps, head coverings, stage curtains, napkins, wrapping paper, the list goes on and on. It's cliche that the more you spend on a toy, the less the kids play with it. But it's true. The simplest toys are usually the best.

Similarly, they found ropes hanging off the clothesline in the backyard. The ropes took a soaking on a recent camping trip and so I hung them in the sun. The kids didn't question why they were there. They just immediately got to work fishing and capturing animals, creating booby traps and swinging. Yes, there happened to be a small danger of strangulation, but that probably just added to the excitement.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

If I Only Had a Brain, or At Least an Eye for Design

Now that it's September, our Fourth of July stars are starting to look a bit passe. I told my kids it was time we made some new front door decorations. Fifi immediately suggested we make a scarecrow and, days later, a scarecrow we made.

I'm not terribly proud of our scarecrow. It's a little too country, not enough rock 'n' roll for me. But that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for my children.

Luckily, he was super easy to make. We used old fabric scraps and an old shirt of my husband's for a hat, head, shirt and pants. Buttons, felt and yarn made a face and brown paper bags joyfully passed through a shredder by the little ones gave us faux straw. The entire thing is held together with fabric glue and packing tape.

And in a couple of months, he'll step aside and make way for something Matisse-inspired, I'm sure.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Two Games That Aren't Annoying

We're a big game-playing family. But there are so many kids' games that, perhaps while fun and educational for kids, are excruciating for parents. Chutes and Ladders makes me want to chute myself, for example. But really, I think I've only played it once. If my kids ask to play it, I can usually succeed in talking them out of it. Or I bribe them.

But we do own two games that are not at all annoying. In fact, I often volunteer to play them. And I might even be caught playing them myself after the children are in bed.

The first is Busytown, a game every family I know personally owns. (Because if they didn't already own it, I gifted it to them.) A few things that make this game great are its reliance on teamwork and its simplicity. But what really sells the game are the Goldbugs. Goldbugs rock. If you spin a Goldbug (or, while your kids are distracted, you subtly move the spinner arrow to the Goldbug section of the spinner and then excitedly call out "Goldbug!" making everyone so elated they don't even have a chance to think about whether or not you just cheated), everyone scours the six-foot long board with mini faux magnifying glasses in search of the object in question. If you're familiar with Richard Scarry's illustrations, you could imagine how fun it is to pore through his pictures in search of banana peels. This game calls for a little bit of braininess, but mostly it's just fun. For everyone.

Now while I was kidding that I might play Busytown without my kids, I'm serious when it comes to AnimaLogic. This is one of those games that could have an age range from 2 to 102. ('Cause, let's face it, once you hit 103, you're just not as sharp as you once were.) It mostly works for so many ages because you can choose from a range of difficulty levels. The premise is simple: move animals by matching their shape or color. But it can tie your brain in knots! I am amazed to watch Fifi strategize through a long series of moves before deciding her first step. It calls for a lot of braininess, but that's why it's enjoyable for adults. (Well, smart adults anyway.) And bonus, the kids like it, too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Donuts for Sale!

For as long as we had the book The Donut Chef on loan from the library, my kids were enthralled with it. Bob Staake's illustrations are fun, colorful and wildly geometric. The rhyme scheme is clever and unexpected (he manages to rhyme "calamari" while describing donuts!). And, well, the book is about donuts. How could kids not love it?

In the book, two donut chefs set up competing marketplaces on one city street. In an effort to outdo one another, they create the wackiest baked goods you could imagine (see calamari reference above).

This book was the inspiration I needed to finally make use of the two giant cardboard boxes I poached from a curb a while back. The kids made signs for their respective donut shops and used Play-Doh to create sweet culinary delights. Eventually, they added cash registers and sales offers. (Fifi finally reduced her price from $18, eventually giving her donuts away for free, or even paying customers to take her product!)

We had lessons in economics, architecture, marketing and cooking, as well as all sorts of reading comprehension skills. Meanwhile, the kids simply thought they were playing.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Long-Term Letter Book (Take 2)

(Blogger really doesn't like the photos in this post and keeps messing with them. I'm trying to work it out. My apologies for the poor layout.)

We took our time with this project. Over the course of a few weeks, we did some work on it some days, let it sit on the shelf some other days. Sometimes we talked about what else we could do to complete it. Sometimes we ignored it completely. And then, one day, it was done. And it was quite beautiful.

The kids each made letter books, twenty-six pages long, fastened with binder rings. About halfway through the project I asked myself why on earth I wasn't having them make ONE book altogether. But the truth of the matter is this was a project to get Vance really familiar with the alphabet. And I didn't want to leave Fifi out.

Believe it or not, across the 52 letters, we used over 30 different media. This was a very tactile project, sometimes stretching the little ones' fine motor skills to the limits. It also got them analyzing letters in terms of curves and straight lines. You could make an M out of dried spaghetti, but not a D, for example.

It was a perfect project for rainy days. I love the inspiration the kids found in the most random of household objects. And I love the keepsake books they can hold onto forever.

Here's a list of some of the materials we used:
popcorn kernels
dried beans
glitter glue
bubble wrap
tin foil
popsicle sticks
tissue paper
pipe cleaners
drinking straws