Archive for Outdoor Activities


Using New Words: Fun Family Literacy Activities

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If you want a quick reminder about down-time activities for kids that can pick up the energy and create good feeling, check out the suggestions on Andrea Patten’s “What Kids Need to Succeed” blog.

It’s an activity I created for the Way to Go! Family Learning Journal series—something simple and definitely not new, but something you might have forgotten about.

Basically, it’s a vocabulary enrichment, search-your-brain, activity: think of synonyms for common words and use them with your kids, encouraging them to do the same.

Simple. Easy. Undemanding. Straightforward. Trouble-free. Effortless. Uncomplicated. (I had help: I used my Word thesaurus to come up with those synonyms as I wrote this. But aren’t they enriching words!)

Try it. Have fun!

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Family Activities: Family Reunions

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Are family reunions good activities for kids? Based on my experience, I say, Yes! Go for it!

Last weekend I took two children, ages 5 and 7, to a large family reunion. By myself. Meaning their parents weren’t along because of a schedule conflict. It was just grandma—me—in charge.

Why did I take them? Because I think there are subtle, powerful benefits when kids know about their roots, their heritage. They learn that they are part of a long, unique, amazing story. They experience the host of people to whom they have birthright connections. They get family information that becomes part of their conscious identity, their personal narrative. They have a history-platform to stand on in the world.

So, the weekend event was a reunion of descendants of their great-great-great-grandparents, six generations ago. Wow! (That would be my great-grandparents.)

About 80 cousins—first, second, third, and fourth—and aunts and uncles and spouses were there, only a fraction of the number of possible relatives on that side of the family, according to a book that lists them all. The oldest attendee was 91: beautiful, blond great-great Aunt Anne.

We traveled to this family reunion via a five-hour car ride to beautiful Paso Robles, CA. I’d checked out 20+ children’s books from the library and stocked up on drawing paper and markers. (No digital games for this trip: we were going back to the past.) The kids rode in car seats in the back; Cousin Yvonne was driver; I supervised from the passenger side.

Trip highlights began early, when we exited Los Angeles over the famous I-5 Grapevine pass into the San Joaquin valley. There’s lots of history just in that section of the drive. Cousin Yvonne talked about wagon trains going over the pass, and the zigzag of the old routes, long before modern highways.

Then we sped past miles and miles of flat agricultural land on a road lined with huge electrical pylons.

Finally we made the Paso Robles hotel: Rose and Calvin loved our room. For just a bit I allowed jumping on the fluffy queen-sized hotel bed—not long enough to damage the mattress, but enough to satisfy the need of a 5-year-old boy to expend a little energy and feel ‘whee!’

Then over the next two days, there were family presentations in a large conference room. I was blown away/ delighted/ relieved/ and grateful by how cooperative the kids were. For hours, Calvin quietly drew pictures and drove his miniature big-wheel along the carpet.

A five-year-old's entertainment during a long meeting

A five-year-old's entertainment during a long meeting

Rose, already a voracious reader, tuned out the presenters’ voices and read Junie B. Jones books. The promise of time in the hotel pool made the meetings bearable.

Then there was the adventure of driving into the country to see the house and farm their great-great grandfather built. It’s now transformed into an expensive B & B, surrounded by vineyards. But it’s where a devout Mennonite family with ten children lived and worked through about six decades of the 20th century.

The house great-great grandfather built

The house great-great grandfather built

And there was a stop at the tiny graveyard where ancestors are buried and engravings are in German. What caught Rose and Calvin’s attention most was a tiny grave with a stone that indicated the baby buried there had lived only one day. “Oh, that’s so sad,” they said repeatedly to one another and to me.

Next was a drive on a dirt road, deep into the ravines of the county, past bone-dry hillocks and dense oak groves, to an old ranch house still occupied by Cousin Gene. The kids were amazed at the deer skulls on the fence, and the mounted heads of a cougar, a big-horned sheet, a coyote—wild native animals shot long ago.


Finally, they had the very best part of the whole trip: about an hour on a round tire-swing on a swivel joint in the park where we had a barbeque. Rose and Calvin laughed wildly and sweated profusely as they spun each other around. “I want a swing like that for my birthday,” Rose declared.


The memories these kids will talk about most, I expect, are the hotel bed and pool, the tire-swing in the park, the tiny baby’s grave, and the mounted animal heads.

But somewhere deep in their memories will also be the knowledge that they had a great-great-great-grandpa and grandma, and that they know where to find them.

That’s what I really was after for them.

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Traveling with Kids in Your Home Town

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Yep, most kids can have the experience of “traveling” to far away places right in their hometowns.

Here’s how I discovered that, serendipitously, this week:

Rose, 7, and Calvin, 4, are spending an overnight with me. After breakfast, they wonder aloud what we are going to do for the day, and I do, too.

“Well, we can certainly go to the park,” I say. That pleases them. We clean up the dishes, read a few books aloud, Rose works on creating a collage—our pace is leisurely for the day is already hot. Then we climb into the car for the park several miles away.

But lo and behold, at the park entrance, bright plastic orange cones bar the driveway…apparently it is closed to visitors today.

Hmm. Now what? We head back home.

We turn on Phillips Street and see an unusual house—a large bungalow that has been turned into a Buddhist temple of sorts. And there’s a parking space in the shade right in front of it. Perfect for a brief stop that’ll kill some time, I think.

The kids stand on the ledge to look over the fence. I become teacherly: “That’s a Buddha statue right there in front, and notice the two kneeling female statues beside it. They are probably his disciples…”

Unexpectedly, the front door behind the Buddha opens. Oh.

A radiant young nun, head shaven, dressed in a gray cotton tunic and pants, walks toward us, holding aloft a small bowl with three golden Asian pears in it. She comes to the fence and offers them to us. Her smile is broad, her teeth perfect; her English, limited but understandable.

Rose and Calvin, mouths open in surprise, each take a piece of fruit and say thank you; I indicate I’ll share theirs. The nun burbles about Buddha; we ask her name and she simply says, Nun.

Then she invites us inside the compound. I snatch my camera from the car and we go down the driveway to the left of the house. It opens into a huge back yard, ringed with fruit and shade trees and several building. There is a stage with elaborate fabric backdrop, a covered eating area with tables, and scattered about, many more statues of Buddha and his disciples. Though the day is almost unbearably hot, here it is cool and serene. Our nun disappears for an instant, and returns with a small conical hat on her head.

We ask for permission to take photos, and as we walk around from one cluster of statues to another, we pose and she eagerly participates in picture-taking. Repeatedly she tells us that there are services on Sunday morning at 10:00, and that children come.

Our Buddhist nun and kids on the temple grounds in Southern California

Our Buddhist nun and kids on the temple grounds in Southern California

Then she guides us to the best display on the far side of the building: a huge artificial molded mountain with cracks and crevices and waterfalls. She flips a switch and water flows down the mountain and into the streams. You must look closely here, for on the tiny ledges and ridges, there are ceramic, wood, and plastic knick-knacks—a tiger, a farmer with hat, a bridge with someone about to cross it, small intricate pagodas, birds, a water buffalo, small cross-legged buddhas—the longer you look, the more you see.

In the moat at the foot of the mountain, koi, goldfish, and transparent minnows swim lazily. The nun finds the fish food container and hands each child a capfull to toss into the pond.

Rose and Calvin are charmed; I am, too. What fun someone had making this!

Finally our nun friend guides us into the carpeted meditation room or sanctuary. We take off our shoes before we enter. In the front of the room are three large gold Buddhas. The nun explains they are from Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. On the left wall, there are several hundred small, framed portrait photos. Those are pictures of community members who have died, she explains.

Then she turns. A short middle-aged man dressed in a saffron robe steps into the sanctuary. There’s something about him that conveys he isn’t pleased to see us, though his words are welcoming. “This is my master,” says our nun, arm extended to greet him. And in a second, she disappears through a door that I had not noticed.

That was the last we saw of our nun. The gentleman spoke with is briefly. He gave Calvin a plastic bottle of water, with a curt “Say, Thank you” before Calvin even had a chance to come up with that on his own. We exited the room, put on our shoes, took a last look at the mountain and fish moat, and then left the premises.

On the way out, passing a window that I thought might lead to the room where the nun might have been, I called out, Thank you! Who knows whether she heard me. But I wanted her to know what a lovely contribution she’d made to our day and to our knowledge of other religions and cultures.

Doesn’t just about every town in America these days have some immigrant or refugee community, for example, from Asia—Vietnam, China, India, Cambodia, Pakistan; or from Central and South America—Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Columbia; or from Africa—Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia? And don’t those immigrant communities often have small shops that sell goods from far away places, and small centers of worship.

What great opportunities these immigrant communities provide us as parents and grandparents to PLUS IT! with our kids, to use ordinary summer days to extend their knowledge (and our knowledge) of other cultures. Such an easy way to experience adventure and travel.

Do let me know if you’ve made such an excursion with kids.

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“Keep Your Eyes on the Ball, Grandma”

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A four-year-old boy and a grandmother can play some mighty fine softball, I can testify. (I’m the GM.)

Yesterday I had several hours with Calvin (not his real name) on my own. We started off reading a couple books together; then he leapt off the couch and jumped around on the tile of the living room floor, gazing at me. It was clear some physical activity would be appreciated. “Let’s go out to the back yard,” I say.

There’s a narrow cement strip between the garage and the lemon trees. That will have to do as our diamond. Calvin picks up the blue plastic bat lying nearby and gently kicks a small blue ball toward me. I’m to pitch for the first round; he’ll bat.

To watch him as batter is a treat. He does a brief leg-crossing kick-jump routine first as he get the bat up to his shoulder. Then he takes one hand and brushes his ears and shakes his head, as if there were gnats about. (There aren’t. I think he has an allergy and there’s itching inside his ears.) Then he curls his tongue in that little U shape that it seems only people with certain genes can do.

“You ready?” I ask.

“Yep.” He leans forward.

I pitch. He hits the ball. I pitch again. He hits again. Ten out of ten. I’m impressed.

“Okay, now it’s my turn to bat,” I say. (Fair’s fair, and besides, he needs to learn to pitch, too.)

I take up the plastic bat. From previous experience, I know it has a split in it somewhere, and it makes a great crack! sound—like it’s surely a home-run—when you connect with full force, though the ball travels hardly 10 yards. I want to make that kind of connection.

Calvin pitches. I swing and miss. He pitches. I foul the ball. He pitches again. I miss. Hmm. I used to be a pretty good softball player. Well, next time, I’ll surely connect and get that impressive crack! I say to myself. He pitches. I miss. How did that happen?

“Grandma,” he advises with authority, “you got to keep your eyes on the ball.”


Categories : Outdoor Activities
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Walking and Wondering…

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Yesterday walking home from a park with two scooter-riding kids, age 7 and 4, I used a Plus It! idea.

Scooter-riding kids

At a street corner, I said, “Let’s guess how many cement squares there are in the sidewalk between the beginning and end of this next block.”

I started the guessing and said 25 cement squares. Rose, age 7 and a first grader, said 31. Calvin, age 4, said 100.  We started to count loudly.

In just a few squares, Rose declared, “I’m no good at estimating,” and changed her guess to 21, which was closer to what mine was.

“Don’t say that,” I said, impressed that she knew the word for the activity but a bit alarmed at her self-doubt.

Immediately she explained that in school she had guessed there were 60 somethings when the correct answer had been 100. And she repeated her conclusion that she wasn’t good at estimating, though she was clearly enjoying this activity.

I thought, Gee, how quickly children draw conclusions about what they can or can’t do well. My admonition to her not to say ‘I’m no good at…’ to herself was ignored.

I wondered what I could do or say that would open up the possibility that she could reconsider her conclusion. Hmm….

For it turned out that there were 49 cement squares in that block. Rose would have won the ‘contest’ if she’d stayed with her first answer.

Categories : Outdoor Activities
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