Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Emperor's New Face Paint

One of my biggest goals as a mother--right up there with teaching my kids how to fetch things for me and getting them to leave me alone when I'm using the bathroom--is to help my kids develop robust imaginations. Speaking seriously, I feel that a working imagination is any person's greatest asset. It can help a person solve problems, resolve conflicts, be more efficient, more completely enjoy life, and perchance, be a big hit at parties.

One day I also happened to stumble on some lesser-celebrated side effects of great imaginations: they can get a kid to stop whining and can give a mom some new ways of saying "No." We were driving in the car and Fifi had been whiiiiiiiining about how hungry she was. There was not a single crumb of food left in the entire car, we were at least 30 minutes from home and we were stuck in a violence-inducing bit of traffic on the Schuylkill. I said to her (and, okay, it's possible this didn't originate from a particularly kind place within me...), "Would you like an ice cream cone? I happen to have one right here."

She looked back at me in valid disbelief. I extended my loosely-fisted hand and said, "Here. It's chocolate. You like chocolate, right?"

She smiled and asked for sprinkles. So I gave her some imaginary sprinkles. After she gobbled it up, she asked for some cookies. When I easily acquiesced--with the biggest, sweetest cookies ever made--she then asked for milk and french fries and pizza with chocolate chips and blueberries and cherries but with no sauce. I couldn't even believe it. I had so much fun fulfilling her outlandish custom orders, providing napkins and making suggestions. She loved being the inventor and the customer, and making melodramatic eating sounds. The lines of static cars ahead began to move and we eventually made it home, without violence.

Ever since then, I have regularly used pretending to my advantage without compunction. And the kids, imaginative creatures they are, have learned to cash in on its benefits as well. Face painting, in particular, has been quite popular with the help of pretend paint. And so easy to clean.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

You Will Not Have Any Fun Until These Mittens Are On, Do You Hear Me?!

Trying to get two year-old hands into mittens is like trying to plug spaghetti into an electrical outlet or load a worm into the barrel of a gun or shove play-dough in the nostril of a child. Oh, wait. That last one is a bad example.

I've got the mitten wrapped around the tips of his fingers and push with all my gentle maternal might. I command, "push!" and he stares blankly, maybe wiggles his hand a little bit or something. There is zero resistance there. Zero! Well, there is his resistance towards getting dressed at all. But there is nothing for me to push against. I turn him around so his back is to me and then try to pull the mitten on. Same difference.

There was a point in time when I would actually try to get him to put his thumb in the thumb hole. Ha ha ha! So naive. Ninety-nine percent of animals do not have opposable digits. And they survive. Granted, they do not attempt to make snowmen. But my son will be fine for 15 minutes of snow play with all his fingers crammed into one comically oversized mitten if he would just (grunt) let me (gasp) get it (pant) on him!

So, half an hour later, we're finally ready to head out the door when Fifi makes the fairly obvious observation: "We forgot our snow pants!" Oy.

At last, we go outside and, would you believe, it was actually worth it? Playing in the snow is usually 80% effort, 20% fun. But today, the fun factor was sky-high. It could be because it was not cold or windy. And because all the kids from the whole neighborhood--and then some--were out.

We're lucky to live on a small quiet street. Instead of feeling frustrated that plows never visit, car owners just seem to accept they won't be driving until spring and let the street become a free-for-all snow party extravaganza. We make snow slides for sledding on and snow forts for hiding in. There are squeals of laughter and dainty toddler snowball fights. Parents pull sleds full of howling children through the street, and lovingly scoop up whichever kid has found himself stuck supine in the snow.

I watch the kids have the time of their lives and I realize these are lifelong memories in the making. They won't remember the mittens being shoved on or the pants that chafe. They'll remember the fun. And just when I start to get swept away in precious thoughts of my children's future nostalgia, the sweet peace of young friends enjoying winter fun comes to an abrupt halt as my daughter screams bloody murder for the snow that's entered her boot and all but gangrened her foot. Alas, it was good while it lasted.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Shave the Children"

It didn't take long for me to make the leap from shaving cream as art to actually shaving my children. Well, Fifi's mustache was starting to show again, anyway.

When I stopped to think about it, I realized that my family does have a rather odd fascination with facial hair (or "man hair" as my kids call it). In real life, my husband changes his facial hair as often as some men change their underwear. One week it's a goatee, next week a soul patch; maybe some mutton chops in the fall and most definitely a full beard in the winter.

The rest of us, perhaps out of envy, have also been known to sport some scruff from time to time. You know, when we want to look our best or really make a statement. Sometimes at the bowling alley, or at the park, or just when we're hanging out in the comfort of our own home.

So, let's shave the kids!

The only place in our house that has a mirror in front of which the children can sit, is my bedroom. (Gasp!) Now, it's not like my bedroom is some sacrosanct part of the house, or that it's even particularly clean or anything. But, as a general rule, my husband and I tend to not spray shaving cream in our room....

But, line the floor with towels, get a big ol' bowl of water and a couple of Mach 4 popsicle sticks, and a fairly neat and tidy shaving party is underway.

The kids loved it! Vance giggled uproariously when I applied the foam. Fifi sang all sorts of shaving songs. And in the end, their faces were kissably soft!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Construction Paper Jungle

I'm reluctant to post something new because it would mean my last post goes further down the page and then my readers are even less likely to notice that I got a comment from one of my mom blog idols: Lydia from Rants from Mommyland!

But hopefully more posts will mean more comments--from all sorts of great people.

Now, back to this post...

A long time ago I was inspired by this paper city I saw on another blog. Rather than do that beautiful creation justice by studying it and carefully planning my own version, I instead kept the vague idea of it squirreled away in the back of my head and with my kids, threw together a slapdash version when I had run out of other ideas of how to keep them entertained one long, long, painfully long afternoon. Ours was cute, kind of, but did not have the staying power it could have. I'm going to put this inferior city of ours away and reintroduce the concept when we're all refreshed and ready to do it well.

However, coincidentally, we recently did another project that involved cut-paper buildings glued on to paper that did work. I was antsy to use shaving cream as a medium, but wanted a project that focused on something a little more than just the shaving cream. (Although, now that I write that, I am suddenly struck with two new shaving-cream-as-medium ideas: pictures of a man actually shaving [and we could use popsicle sticks to shave him!]; or a bakery full of cream pies! Oh, there is about to be so much more shaving cream art in our house....)

Our completed artwork now feels so lame compared to my fresh, new, even better ideas. But, at the time, they seemed a'ight.

We made little city neighborhoods and then had a blizzard strike. It was neat to watch the kids paint a snowfall just as one happens in nature. They started with a few apprehensive flakes, slowly picked up momentum and eventually completely deluged the scene.

(And, just in case you're wondering, Fifi is wearing her version of a babushka in these photos. A while ago, she was inspired to ask me to make one for her because of Patricia Polacco's The Keeping Quilt. Every once in a while it comes back into play for no apparent reason.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Song Sung Blue

If you know me personally, you probably know how I feel about the sound of children singing. I would actually prefer to hear a dentist's drill. Or even have my teeth drilled. Maybe even without Novocain.

Luckily, there are a few exceptions. My own children singing is mostly tolerable. And just about any kid mindlessly singing a made-up song while deeply concentrating on some other task at hand is kitty-cat adorable. It's when kids try to sing that my ears really bleed. Or, perhaps worst of all, are kids who are actually good at singing. The 8 year-old who was singing the National Anthem when her mic cut out and the crowd picked up and finished the song for her? Let's just say, that's one hockey game I wouldn't have minded attending.

But when I got it in my head that I wanted my kids to learn the days of the week, I actually sought help from a group of singing children. (The sacrifices a mother will make for her kids!) We have this CD--actually, it's a three-disc set if you must know--of children singing nursery rhymes and children's classics, and a handful of learny songs sung to the rhythms of those same children's classics. The music was a gift, and the kids kind of like it and I have somehow learned to tune it out, so we play it a bit.

When it was lesson time, I played the "Days of the Week" song. Then we played a game which, suffice it to say, involved the song, the written names of the days of the week and a healthy scoop of kinesthetics-based edutainment. There was also a calendar involved and some cutting and gluing, but that was all well within my comfort zone and therefore, not worthy of much print space since it contradicts the spirit of the "sacrifices a mother makes" tone I'm going for.

Would you believe my two year-old now knows his days of the week? It is quite bizarre. I mean, he can't necessarily name every one of them in order every time. But if you tell him it's Tuesday and ask him what comes next, he will tell you with confidence it's Wednesday. He may even keep listing the days until Saturday. Amazing.

This morning I thought it would be a fun reinforcement to play another song with the days of the week in it. I went with "Friday I'm in Love" by a lesser-renowned children's music band: The Cure. Sadly, the kids were not impressed. But I was. I wound up playing the whole album. Take that you melodic children!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

We Blinded Ourselves with Science

I'm sort of a science-phobe. The fact I referenced Thomas Dolby in my title rather than, say, Newton or Mendel, should have been a clue. It was always a vicious cycle of me not liking it, therefore not trying, therefore not getting good grades and therefore, further not liking.

I want it to be different for my kids. I don't want them predisposed to my academic weaknesses. (They're already victims of my fashion weaknesses and tone-deafness.) So, I try to do science with my kids. When I remember, anyway.

The bulk of my do-it-yourself science instruction is inspired by a book I found in the 25-cent bin at the library called Kitchen Science. Our most recent experiment involved the relationship between salt and ice. Apparently, they don't get along very well.

Since I didn't have the ice cube the experiment called for, I modified it a tad. I gave the kids cupfuls of icy snow and shakers of salt. I figured the salt would melt the ice. But when those results didn't come as quickly as I expected, my science phobia welled back up and I panicked. I brought out the faux rock salt we use on our sidewalks. (It says "safe for pets," so I figured safe for kids. Right?) That melted the ice somewhat, but I felt like we needed a bigger bang. So, I gave them each a spoonful of ice and a capful of the ice melter and smiled when the ice was obliterated in seconds.

I then got all teachery and made them follow the scientific method for the second part of our experiment: seeing which freezes faster, regular water or salt water. Since my children are geniuses, their hypotheses were dead on. Unfortunately, knowing they were right was not satisfying enough and they insisted on tasting their experiment, which proved rather unpleasant with regards to the slower freezing cup of water. Also, it made me question my own "my children are geniuses" hypothesis.

And for the record, the table salt did melt the ice. It just took a little longer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Gloom of Dollar Bin Toys

It's amazing how children's imaginations are truly boundless. Give them one simple prop, and they have a new focus for days of play. (Or, they fiddle with it for a minute and then abandon it. I guess it depends on the prop. The more expensive and designed for play, the less play time there seems to be.) In this case, a simple toy mailbox bred letter writers and mail carriers. When the letters written evolved into birthday cards, the mailbox was then the centerpiece of a birthday party. The next day, the mailbox transported sea creatures and was a peek-a-boo castle for a little doll.

When Fifi first saw the mailbox, she was concerned about its size. I assured her she could write letters small enough to fit.

"I know!" she jumped up excitedly, "I'll measure the mailbox and make cards just the right size." She rushed off to retrieve her doctor's kit, in which she keeps the paper tape measure her doctor gave her. I was rather astounded to see her use the thing fairly accurately.

Mail was made, delivered and received. And then, a chip off the old block, there were complaints of bills and how much paper is wasted on junk mail.

Friday, January 14, 2011

I Fought Elmo and Elmo Won

Several months ago, I entered a crafty mom contest with this tissue-paper craft. There was one other window art entry in the mix: the elaborately titled "Puffy Paint Elmo." Beyond the routine existential questions the mesmerizing piece of artwork provoked me to ask, I wondered, "Really? You just drew Elmo on your window with puffy paint and that's your craft?"

Forgive me if you are the artist behind "Puffy Paint Elmo," or if your artistic sensibilities align with billowy reproductions of Sesame Street characters. We can't all be van Goghs, I know.

Nonetheless, each time I saw "Puffy Paint Elmo" in the line-up, I cringed. I know we're just talking crafts here. But some of the reasons I make crafts with my kids are to evoke their creativity, to enlighten their senses by letting them experiment with materials, to get them to see things in new ways. Perhaps it was a new way to see Elmo. But probably it was a mom just copying a picture of the puppet onto her window. With puffy paint. But I digress.

The way the contest was set up, a panel of judges would pick one grand prize winner as well as a bunch of semi-finalists. The semi-finalists' crafts would then be displayed on a website to be voted on by viewers.

The day the semi-finalists were announced, I went on the website and was a tiny bit disappointed my craft wasn't there. The rejection would not have made any lasting impression on me, except that you will never guess who was there. Or, of course, you already have guessed. "Puffy Paint Elmo" was a finalist! With all his puffiness and paintedness and third-person self-references. "Puffy Paint Elmo" out-crafted me!

Bitter? Perhaps. But I continue on. Our tissue-paper window art has evolved with the seasons. I've no doubt "Puffy Paint Elmo" has evolved as well. Perhaps he is currently wearing puffy ear muffs and a puffy scarf. In a few months he might even don puffy sunglasses.

I find some consolation in knowing "Puffy Paint Elmo" did not win the final prize, nor had it even garnered any viewer votes the last time I checked. There will be more crafts and more contests. More opportunities for me to learn to be a gracious loser and, perhaps, learn to use puffy paint.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blue Ice (The Edible Kind)

If you Google "blue ice" you will see first a reference to the frozen innards of an airplane toilet bowl and, shortly thereafter, the reusable freezer pack. Luckily, this is neither.

It's snow with blue sugar water poured on top. It is yummy. And blue. And probably one of the most ridiculous things to consume while playing in the snow because it's the coldest possible food--yes, I will call it that--and it's messy. But, it sure is fun to compare blue tongues.

(I was going to link to a recipe for making sugar water, but everything I could find online was so much more complicated than it needs to be. I just heated half a cup of water in the microwave, stirred in half a cup of sugar until it dissolved and then dropped food coloring in.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rice for a Snowy Day

We're bracing for another snow storm here in Philly. I'll admit, snow today makes me as giddy as it did when I was a kid. I still get excited that school may be closed, even though it has no bearing on my life at all at this point. I start thinking about snow pants and snow shovels, bright red cheeks and numb fingers. I warm my brain with thoughts of hot chocolate and cozy indoor activities. And then I get serious and think about how to keep the kids sane throughout the inevitable cabin fever.

We do have one reliable go-to plaything on bad weather days: a big basin full of construction trucks and a generous sprinkling of colored rice. Dying rice (another of many great ideas from my friend) just calls for vinegar and food coloring. But there is extensive drying time, so it's a project that requires some advance planning. Once it's done, though, it's pretty fun.

 I keep the basin up on a shelf (rather awkwardly, I must say; it's kind of big). It only comes out on rainy or snowy days, which helps it maintain its charm. I insist the kids play with it on the rug so that clean-up is as simple as using a vacuum or Dust-Buster. And I also limit their time with this particular plaything. They're good for 15 or 20 minutes. But as soon as one of them decides to throw the rice or put their face in it, it's time to put it away.

Once the big basin o' rice has fully lost its magic, I will reuse the rice for other craft activities. We've already made "I Spy" jars, which I thought were pretty darn cool, but which did not impress my kids very much. The kids helped gather small items such as toy farm animals, buttons, paper clips, pennies, etc. They put them in old jelly jars and then used funnels to add rice. I made labels for the lids, listing the hidden objects. And then I spent some time trying to find each object while my kids went off, preferring to play with things not trapped in a jar.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Whoooo's Eating Today?

If there's one thing that drives me nuts about my kids (oh, if only there was just one thing!) it's their eating habits. Calling them picky eaters isn't quite fair to the countless true picky eaters who are loyal to their chicken nuggets and mac 'n' cheese. A more appropriate name would be inconsistent eaters. One day pizza is their favorite food in the world; the next week it repulses them. I am about as qualified to predict what they'll eat as what the weather will be or the future "must have" Christmas toys.

For the most part, as much as it pains me, I've learned to stop focusing on their eating habits. To stop working hard at feeding them well. To stop encouraging them or praising them or rewarding them about what they eat. What I do most days is put healthy food in front of them and then wash their plates when they're done. I simply can no longer tolerate the stress and anxiety that used to accompany every meal and snack time when I invested so much of myself in trying to develop healthy eaters.

Nonetheless, I am human. Every once in a while I relapse into past desires of having kids who eat well. On occasion I still make the mistake of asking them what they'd like for dinner, or speaking the words, "Here, try this." And on some days, like today, I might, in a moment of weakness, go ahead and make a fancy presentation of their food.

Of the hundred or so relapses I've had over the past four years, I would say maybe twenty have not ended with me seeking rehab. Today, I am proud to say was one such time.

The tofu owls were well received. Vance "whoooed" throughout his entire meal. Fifi narrated the gentle deconstruction of her winged friend. At the end of the meal, I merely rinsed some tofu crumbs before putting the plates in the dishwasher.

Arrogantly, I began to envision what other food creatures could be created with sliced-olive eyes. But before I could go too far down the path of self-destruction Fifi brought me back to reality with her reliable statement, "I will not drink my milk."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Future Convicts

We're pretty wild about fingerprint art these days. Since I imagine my kids will one day get arrested,  I think getting them comfortable with rolling their fingers over inkpads is a good life skill.

Of course they would just be arrested for standing up for their beliefs.

And of course I'm just kidding. They'll be arrested for matricide.

But enough about my children's future criminal records. These days they're making Thank You cards.

Fifi insists on calling the one on the left an "Indian" even
though I am really encouraging "Native American." I haven't a
clue where she got that from.
A good friend of mine (who has yet to give me full permission to name her on the blog, or is still trying to decide what alias she'd like me to use) gave Fifi a great gift including an Ed Emberley fingerprint art book and some stamp pads.

Following the super easy instructions is not always so super easy for a woman trying to control her desire to control things. Generally, I'm really good about lowering--I mean loosening--my standards when it comes to kids' artwork. It's supposed to be messy. It's supposed to be only barely recognizable. It's about the process and the exploration and the fun.

Problem is, when said children are making very small pieces of artwork that are designed to be recognizable, there's a little less room for exploration. For example, I not-so-subtly informed my husband that the fingerprint art required a super fine black marker and should not be done again using regular old markers with their tips all mutilated. Such details are kind of important. Toddler fingerprints are pretty darn small.

But after much practice, Fifi really has the hang of it. She still likes me to help place her inked-up fingers to make the shapes. But the illustrating is all her. Vance, on the other hand, still needs help in both departments. And I am happy to control--I mean help.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Knight in Shining Horror

I, for one, am mostly glad the holidays are over. As convenient as it is to have such a monumental theme around which to design a multitude of craft activities, it can get a bit overwhelming. It's nice to have a clear calendar in front of us to start thinking of other crafty and educational ways to pass the days with the kids.

But, based on the end results of our first official post-holiday day, I'm either rusty, or really overcompensating.

The day started out great. First Sundays of the month are pay-what-you-wish at the Philadelphia Museum of Art--in other words, our family can actually afford to go there 12 days of the year. Spending a morning at an art museum is probably educational and wholesome enough. I should have stopped there. Instead, I kicked it into over-achiever mode and tried to force a little extra learning down my kids' throats.

Actually, they were really into sketching at the museum. I just suggested bringing the notebook. It was Fifi who asked me for it several times throughout the day.

They were also entirely excited to look at the armor. It was when I suggested we make our own armor, that I probably went too far.

Armor had been on our minds lately. Fifi and I had just been reading Shrek by William Steig, and we all sat down for another reading of Peasant Pig and the Terrible Dragon by Richard Scarry in the afternoon. The latter book especially is heavy on knights and armor. So it just seemed logical that my kids would want helmets of their own. Right? I mean, who wouldn't want a faux metal helmet from which you could barely see or breathe or exist at all comfortably?

It turns out, in case you're wondering, that fake armored helmets are not all that easy to make. And Fifi (who chose to skip a nap today despite my prodding and pleading) was not too keen on the dozen or so fittings I requested of her. I wouldn't take her subtle hints however, and instead exhausted myself trying to coax or trick her into putting on the poster board-and-staples hat just one more time. I then thought--in my still zealous belief that all children should be given the chance to don chain-mail and other protective accessories--that the kids would really enjoy encasing the helmet in aluminum foil themselves. But alas, aluminum foil is not all that easy to work with. And yours truly was left making the entire things myself.

All told, the parent-labor to child-enjoyment ratio was painfully unbalanced. The preparation to play ratio also resembled a half-loaded see-saw. Seeing Vance peek his little head out from under the pivoting face-cover? Yeah, that was pretty cute. But possibly not cute enough to counterbalance how creepy he was peering out through eye slits.