Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Building Kids' Furniture

I think you can probably relate when I tell you I wanted my baby son to have everything. At home with him each day, there was always something I could picture adding to the house that would facilitate his play. I liked to imagine him sitting at a little table, playing in a sandbox, cooking up a storm in a play kitchen, eating a snack with little buddies at a picnic table, hammering his heart out on a tool bench. But everywhere I looked in the stores I found expensive plastic items or really really really expensive wooden items.

Enter Ana White. Browsing one night for DIY ideas, I found this site . Soon I had collected an electric screwdriver, a measuring tape, a selection of nails and screws, and a t-square. I found out Home Depot would cut my boards for me to the right size, and soon I embarked on my first big project, the sandbox with fold-out seats. It was so doable, and turned out so nicely, that I decided to build a work bench and set up a little shop in the garage. I had a new hobby to pursue when my son was napping. Next, I wanted to build a little table and chairs, so I picked up a pocket hole jig that was not too expensive and my very first circular saw. After watching a half dozen safety videos on how to use a circular saw, and inviting a friend over to help me learn how to make pocket holes, I figured out how to safely cut my first boards. Over the next months, I built my son the Clara Table, the stackable chairs, the preschool picnic table, the toy workbench, the storage step, and the play sink and stove.

I now look forward to happy hours in the shop, and have even gotten enough confidence to try crafting some plans of my own. I will be able to make a toddler bed when the time comes and maybe even a playhouse. Learning to build furniture was a great move for me, and if you're at all interested in trying it yourself, I would check out Ana White!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Toys vs. Life

If there's one thing I've learned about toys, it's that they're really for parents in the first eighteen months of life. And I have no problem with that.

N would rather march about with a canoe paddle over his shoulder than put shapes on his felt board. He prefers putting candles in their holders to putting multi-colored rings on a dowel. He's more likely to swoon over a beach full of rocks than his sandbox.

So does that mean I've stopped buying toys? Stopped arranging invitations to play on toy tables and furniture throughout the house? Stopped thinking of Melissa and Doug as best friends of mine?

Not so much.

Toys are there for me. When we're in the car. When I'm trying to get lunch ready. When I can't think of another way to rearrange the furniture for climbing and jumping and cruising.

But I'm also aware that they are a (pleasant) sideshow to the main event - real life, real world. So N and I get out in it as much as we can. We wade in the lake. We wander safe green spaces. We examine butterflies and see if sticks fit into sewer grates.

Will I continue to make green jello sensory tables and line little horses up on his table while he is asleep? Yes. And I'm hoping these things will become more and more fun.

There are all kinds of play, and for a toddler, the whole world is a playground. What toys offer is some on-location fun and the chance of a little break from the search for everything in the world, for, you guessed it, the parents, whose needs still really are relevant.

Many people have mentioned to me that kids have too many toys. That the best push for creativity is to have less, not more. None of these people were new parents of new toddlers. And I'm not necessarily disagreeing with them. But the bottom line is, toys help. And every now and then, the magic moment comes when your tiny one finds a thrill in the playtime you've created, and you can both rest in that magic for half an hour.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Isn't he too young for a museum?

Turns out, N is just the right age for museums. Children's museums, that is. And I am the right age for them too, because some days it is just time for a new space in which to be together. I read some advice once that a good strategy for spending time with very young children is to bring them into a space that you enjoy and let them be there with you. We have followed that advice - visiting college campuses and libraries, beaches and mountains. But obviously, not every place that I enjoy is just right for my toddling babe. Paris, for example.

Children's museums, like these other places, walk the line between a space for me and a space for N.

Sure, he's a little young to truly take in the CA Science Center's floor-to-ceiling photo montages and video screens, but boy did he love playing on the stairs in the Ecosystem Discovery Room. And yes, the herb garden at Kidspace might be more up my alley than his, but washing fruit in the water tables? Man! Awesome!

We suggested a membership to a local children's museum as a lovely holiday gift his grandparents could give him, and we now go about once a week. It is a nice change for both of us. Plus, it came with a reciprocal membership to museums across the country.

We've also visited (with the same membership) a children's museum in L.A. called The Zimmer (five huge stars) where N got to make mini-meals in a cafe, jump off a life raft into an ocean of blue balls, push a shopping cart on a shopping car track and climb into a special treehouse built around a real tree, indoors. We could live there for a quite a while, ordering in food and falling asleep smiling and exhausted every night.

We even discovered a museum in my parents' hometown in Minnesota with a massive loft full of toddler delights where our (California) membership brought our whole family in for free. We all played with the magnetic wall and the airstream, and helped N climb the toy bridge, plant vegetables in the cloth garden, and eat a tart in the Medieval room. My mom made a complex train track on the train table, and I took my shoes off and climbed into the fossil pit with my brush, ready for action.

I mightn't have thought I'd already have taken my toddler to a museum dozens of times before his second birthday, but that's because before he was born, I'd never been to a children's museum. Now I'm tempted to plan our family vacations around them. I keep hearing about this place called the Exploratorium...

Friday, May 31, 2013

Reading in the first eighteen months... what and when?

From the beginning, N and I have spent time with books. He has held them, chewed them, tried to swim across his quilt toward them, laid propped up on our laps before he could lift his head and looked at them. 

When he began to turn the pages himself, I could hardly believe it. The first time he anticipated a coming page, the last in Goodnight Gorilla, by saying "zzzzzzz" for the sleeping gorilla, my heart did a happy dance. 

N has had pronounced taste in books from a very young age. He loved our black and white baby animals book in his first few months, and would transfer his affections from animal to animal, loving the baby dog one day, the baby otter another. 

Later, he loved Clifford. He would stare at the pages for long periods, and showed a pronounced interest for the one where Clifford and Emily Elizabeth have a tea party. 

He went through a long, long period where he loved to see baby's faces. I was a little surprised at the lack of such books at the library, but eventually found many wonderful ones through interlibrary lone. Baby Talk, Baby Faces, and Baby Faces Peekaboo were all huge hits for us. I would line the books up along the wall and he would point to the one he wanted to read next. 

After faces came touch-and-feel books. We read the whole Usborne line after finding "That's Not My Teddy Bear" at the library. We read That's Not My Penguin, That's Not My Dinosaur, and so many more. 

Next N loved books with pictures of things he was seeing every day. Books with pictures of fruits and vegetables, like I Like Fruit and I Like Vegetables and Eating the Alphabet were all big favorites. We read them many times over. 

These days I try to follow N's interests. Right now he is into dogs, and we have read "Good Dog, Carl" a dozen times this week. He also loves to eat berries, and we have fun looking for all the berries in Bruce Degen's lovely book, Jamberry. 

We tend to read right after breakfast every day. Sometimes N sits down with me to read, but more often he plays as I read, and comes over to see the pages every once in a while. Of course, before he could walk, he was a captive audience, but he usually seemed like a happy one. We would read before anyone else go up, laying on our backs on his quilt in the living room, four of five books on deck beside us. It was a peaceful and happy time. I always knew just what to do after he woke up in the morning, and it started our day off in a pleasant and reliable routine. 

We also like to read in the car. If my husband is driving and I am sitting with N, we read Eric Carle's Have you Seen My Cat or another board book. Sometimes N holds them, sometimes I do. It's a simple pleasure for us both. 

We also read before his nap and before bed. For a long time, I thought it was ideal to have a regular book so he would relax into the routine. Then one day as he tried to leap from my lap, I realized he might be getting bored! And indeed, after I started changing it up, he relaxed again. We like Llama Llama Nighty Night, Where Should I Sleep, Goodnight Moon and Guess How Much I Love You. I also often read N a board book I designed for him with pictures of our family in it. I titled it "We Love Nate" and each page shows someone who loves him holding him, with the words "__(name)___ loves Nate." I made it at My Custom Story after a lot of searching for a place to make a custom board book. N likes it a lot, and it is especially nice to be able to read if his dad is on a work trip or he has just had to say goodbye to his grandparents. It's a short book and usually the last one we read before he falls asleep.

N always has books around him - displayed on shelves or along the table or fireplace, tucked into the backseat pockets of the car, sitting beside our rocking chair in his room. He sees them all the time, and we read them every day. For me, as a new parent, reading has been a rock even when I didn't know what else to do. When the whole world was still dark and we were the only ones awake, our blanket and books were always there for us as the sun slowly lit up the living room. I hope books will always be a joy and a rock for N too.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Making our own Alphabet Book

When we saw an idea posted online to make our own alphabet book and got an e-mail a little later from Shutterfly offering a FREE photo book, we had to try it. Here's what we came up with. N loves it, even though he doesn't need to be learning any letters just yet at 17 months. We just like looking at all the photos of people and places he loves. It was pretty easy to make, and fun to use my creativity on something new. If you are a member of Shutterfly, watch for their deals on books, they come thick and fast.

Shutterfly photo books offer a wide range of artful designs and embellishments to choose from.

Parks can be boring...

N doesn't really like parks. The playground part of them, that is. Sure, he likes to climb the steps a few times, maybe go on the swing for thirty seconds. Kind of the way he likes to play with toys for a few minutes.

What he really likes is the world. And the world's obstacles. When I look for places to play now, I am looking for hills, interesting low architectural elements, stairs, tree roots, ramps. I am looking for flowers and walls, sculptures and platforms. I walk N in his stroller until I see a likely looking place. Our favorite at the moment is a campus center at a nearby college - in the square quarter mile where we play, there are three different ramps, a half dozen staircases, a climbable newspaper rack, a fountain, a series of little cement paths making a pattern in the grass, and a steep hill with cement benches inset onto it. This area is pretty much paradise, and destroys any park equipment we've yet found for its joy-inducing power.

Occasionally we have taken N to an incredible outdoor pirate ship playground thirty minutes away in Pasadena. It's pretty amazing, and yet do we spend much time on the tipping boat, canon ball climber, crazy steppers and bridges and slides? Not really, we generally end up on the hills of grass above and below the playground, or a little ways off jumping across the picnic table benches.

Redefining what makes a great place to play has really given us a lot of fun days. We still go to the park sometimes, but most days we are to be found wandering in the wider world, in search of likely looking ramps and challenging hills.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Taking Photos of your Toddler

Sometimes having a camera out can make a seemingly ordinary morning or outing seem extra fun. Especially, in my opinion, if you mainly take candids and don't spend the time waving at your baby and trying to get him to stop what he is doing and smile. Don't get me wrong, I've definitely blown raspberries and sung songs and danced around for a smile, but I don't do it every time, and if I did, N sure would be bored with it. I take a lot of pictures of him, and have fun doing it. Here are some ideas that have made fun photos for us...

Take a picture from behind. See what they see. 

Introduce a prop. Like Norman, here, who is having tummy time alongside his pal N.  

Capture the unusual near your baby. Blowing bubbles? Running through sprinklers? Chasing butterflies? Walking amidst tractors? Sitting in a ball pit? All these unusual surroundings make for fun photo backgrounds for your little one. 


Framing is fun. Seriously. Suddenly the whole world seems to be a frame once you start to look. A hole in a block, a window at the playground, a trellis he is peeking through.  

Try taking a picture from above. Whether he is drawing, climbing, splashing, cooking. Take a picture from the perspective that you probably often have - looking toward his exciting activities from adult height.  

 Go somewhere pretty. This is at a meadow an hour hike from our house. N loved it, and didn't seem to mind my following him around and taking pictures. Especially since he was mid-cracker. 

Capture local looks. Here we are on a trip to Mexico. We got a lot of fun beach photos but this is one of my very favorites, of N checking out a statue in a stairwell where we were staying. The dramatic red walls and gorgeous statue cried out for a picture, and he wanted to be boosted up to see it anyway. On your trips, see what's unusual in the area. Is the town mascot a giant moose just inviting your toddler to climb on? Is there a series of multi-colored hoops waiting for bikes to be locked to them or toddlers to walk through all smiles? Is there a clock tower in the plaza that your child stares up at in wonder where you could get a good perspective shot? 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Table Play

The right moment for a kid-sized table for N came this month. The same month when he started climbing onto every outdoor bench, outdoor cafe dining chair and living room recliner. His eighteenth month to be exact. He was ready for the big leagues. I mightn't have guessed it if he hadn't made it so clear. 

So I made him a table. Ana White's Clara Table to be exact. And boy, sitting at it is a revelation. He likes to move his blocks around it. Move his bugs around it. Move his toy cookies around it. Move his banana around it. Read on it. Drum on it. 

Sit at it. The way we do at ours, just a few feet away. And when I think of all there is to look forward to with this table, I can't help but grin. Play-doh. Coloring. Finger painting. The perfect base for block towers that soar to the sky. Picnics with his toy lamb and little toy lamb and toy sheep who all say ba. Did I mention N says ba for them now? How I do love it.

 I hope this table will be the kids' table for family Thanksgivings with his cousins. And a center of fun at playgroup. And a great place to put the little treehouse I'm making him. 

I like to put out different boxes of things on different days. You never know what you might find on a table. Especially if it has orange chairs...

Of course kids' tables are to be had in many places - rummage sales, IKEA, thrift stores, Amazon. But I really had fun making him his and letting him pick "Ripe Persimmon" from the paint samples at the store. I have loved dabbling in furniture building since N was born, and you just might too. Ana White makes it a lot easier than I thought it could be. I even circular saw now (and I only watched five safety videos first). A lot of new roles come with motherhood, and carpenter seems to be one of mine. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

On stocking the play kitchen...

I love having something for N to do in all the rooms of the house. Whether it's the bathroom or the kitchen or his playroom, if we're going to be in there for even the briefest period, it helps a lot if he has something to look forward to there. And we spend a lot of time in the kitchen! So N's kitchen area really matters. Our DIY play stove was a great beginning, but the way we've figured out to stock it has really helped keep the area fun.

There sure are a lot of baby kitchen products out there. Miniature pots and pans, mixing bowls, spoons, popcorn cartons, tin cans, ice cream cones, and everything else you can imagine. Even plastic baguettes and matzoh. If it exists in the adult world, it exists in tiny plastic imitation. But the thing is, N likes the real thing. He likes our raisin containers, milk jugs, parmesan tupperwares, Mac-n-Cheese boxes and Fuji water bottles. He likes our sauce pans, butter boxes and measuring cups. He likes the cream of tartar. He LOVES the sprinkles.

And the thing is, we already have all those things.

I get excited now when we are about to finish a plastic syrup bottle or a peanut butter jar. It could be said that I stalk that last bit of baking powder and final brick of baking chocolate, just waiting for them to disappear so I can add the container to N's pantry. We have a small set of realistic foods (tomato, banana, cheese, etc.) from Lakeshore Learning and a few food-themed coasters to complete the set, but mainly our kitchen play area was free, and we probably play with it more than anything else in the house.

In seventeen months, we've never had to put child locks on any of the other cupboards. As soon as he opens another door, I just ask him if he will please close it and if he wants his cupboard opened. Voila. Play ensues. We make cinnamon raisin broccoli oatmeal or peanut butter sprinkles eggs. You never know what will go in, but I help to stir and take enthusiastic tastes of all of our dishes. If play appears to be petering out, I head for the cupboard and invite further exploration.

"Do you think it needs some gatorade powder? Maybe some soy milk?" Generally my invitation is accepted, and the cooking goes on. It is elaborate and imaginative and I love to participate.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Creating an Outdoor Space for Play

Before I had N I had never heard of loose parts play, sensory play, stump circles or water tables. I didn't know you could make your own tree blocks, create playgrounds out of rocks and logs, create outdoor kitchens and make your own sandbox with little or no experience building. 

Then my son learned to walk but still only had a four minute attention span for his toys, and I found myself wondering, what will we do? What kind of space can I create so that my son will be happy and safe at home for at least some hours of every day? 

So I began to read during naptime. I checked out what Modern Parents Messy Kids had to say on the subject. I perused the thoughts of Teacher Tom. I hopped into the wide world of Pinterest and pinned photos of inspiring backyards onto my board

Then I found some stumps and lucked into some big rocks. I made a path for N to climb on across the yard with some of the rocks and stumps and scattered some stumps around as tables. I built two water tables. I built Ana White's Fold-Out Bench Sandbox and it was just not that hard. I scattered some buckets and shovels around. I made some tree blocks like Counting Coconuts

Now we play in the backyard every day. Pouring water, stacking blocks, making potions, seeing if this and that will float or sink. And when other kids come over, look out. It's a wild ride. Today we had four one and a half year olds out there and it was wet and sandy and great.