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DIY: Lavender Distillation and Home-Cleaning Products

This post is generously sponsored by Benjamin Franklin Plumbing Bay Area. Benjamin Franklin Plumbing Bay Area specializes in all residential plumbing work,  from installations to maintenance and repairs. They have been serving the San Francisco Bay Area for over 25 years.

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Lovely-smelling lavender has been prized around the globe for centuries, for the soothing quality of its distinct scent. The ancient Egyptians used it in cosmetics. The ancient Greeks and Romans employed it for perfume and for healing practically everything, from stomach and kidney ailments to dropsy, jaundice, migraines and insect bites. In late medieval times, doctors carried walking sticks with lavender and other herbs tucked into their tops. Queen Victoria is credited with bringing lavender into the home for scenting and cleaning, where it remains popular today. Learn more about the history of lavender.

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Luckily it’s easy to create your own gentle yet effective lavender cleaner for bathroom and kitchen counters, and other areas throughout the house. Pour distilled white vinegar into a spray bottle and add 10-40 drops of lavender essential oil (available at many markets and online sources), depending on the size of the bottle and your taste for the scent. This simple formula offers a natural way to clean and sanitize bathroom and kitchen counter tops, bathtubs and toilets.

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Why is lavender so effective for cleaning? The herb is an antifungal and an antimicrobial. While it works hard, it smells lovely. Learn about other DIY cleansers to make with lavender and other herbal cleansers you can make yourself.

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I’d long wanted to take part in a lavender distillation, the process by which lavender is separated into essential oil and hydrosol, which is the byproduct of oil creation. I was thrilled to take part in a lavender distillation led by Cheryl Fromholzer of Gathering Thyme, a woman-owned herb store and education center in San Rafael, CA.

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We began by separating lavender buds from stalks and packing them pretty tightly into the column of the traditional copper still, or alembic.

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The column was placed onto water-filled urn and sealed so no steam would escape during the distillation.

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Cheryl attached the pipes, which led to a small condenser.

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Then tubing was added from the condenser, and the columned pot was brought to a boil. When the water heated and boiled, the steam from that process caused the lavender to release its oils, which collected at the top of the alembic. The oils then traveled to the condenser, where they cooled, and out through tubing to be collected in jars.

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The lavender essential oil floats to the top and can be separated by skimming it off or by using an essencier. The remaining liquid is lavender hydrosol, which can be used much the same way as essential oil, though it is much less potent. (It takes 30 pounds of lavender to make a 15 Ml bottle of  essential oil!)

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You don’t need an alembic still to create oils and hydosols at home. Hydrosols make wonderful and calming sprays for rooms, face and body, in addition to other uses.

Best yet, lavender is easy to grow, even in a small or container garden, with decent sun, moderate water, and an alkaline soil with good drainage.

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Our distillation process took a few hours, so we enjoyed the San Geronimo Community Garden and explored the medicinal properties of the plants there, many of which would also make terrific hydrosols and oils.

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More herbal classes and resources, including a Lavender Distillation workshop on July 10, can be found at Gathering Thyme.

More lavender and herbal crafts and activities can be found in Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ more fun family activities.

Thank you again to sponsor Benjamin Franklin Plumbing. The views expressed are my own.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman  (Top photo courtesy of Cheryl Fromholzer)

 

 

7 Ways to Celebrate the 2016 Olympics with Your Family

If you’re like my family and many around the world, you’ll be glued to the TV at all hours, watching the 2016 Olympics from Rio de Janeiro, which start Friday, August 5, and run for 17 sports-filled days. The Olympic Games have been fascinating us since 776 B.C. in Ancient Greece, where they were a one-day event featuring running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, equestrian sports, and a martial art called pankration. Five city-states (think Athens and Sparta) competed for the prize, a crown made of olive leaves.

In addition to watching them, there are many ways to celebrate and enjoy the Olympics right from your own home.

Learn Something about Another Country

With 206 countries competing in the 2016 Olympics, from Afghanistan to Zimbabawe, there are plenty of countries and cultures to become acquainted with. (Kosovo and South Sudan will be participating for the first time.) Try finding some of the more obscure ones on a map or globe. Or try one of these Olympic Map Activities from Creative Family Fun.

I’ve long been fascinated with the flags of other countries, and I bet many others are, too. Make a fun flag handprint wreath, using these wonderful flag printables from Activity Village.

There is also no shortage of interesting food you can make from every corner of the globe. This list of food from around the world will certainly get you started. Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Indian and Japanese food always sound good to me and my family, but we can be convinced to branch out even further, especially during the Olympics. For additional inspiration, see what school lunch looks like in 20 other countries. (Below, Ghana and Japan.)

Explore Rio de Janeiro and Brazil

Did you know that Brazil was home to inhabitants 32,000 years ago? Learn about Brazil‘s geography, nature, economy and more from National Geographic Kids. Learn about Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, a yearly celebration that features more than 200 samba schools and dates from 1723.

The Olympics offers a terrific excuse to try some Brazilian recipes, such as Pão de Queijo, a yummy cheese bread from The Kitchn  or other  recipes from Brazil, such as this Molten Brigadeiro Cake from Latin Kitchen.

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Get Inspired to Achieve Your Dreams and to Be a Good Sport

Most people can’t help but be inspired by watching Olympic athletes — indeed, that’s a large part of the fascination of the games. Just about every Olympic athlete sacrificed something to get to the top of his or her sport. While all great athletes show tremendous dedication, discipline and ability, some have overcome more setbacks than others. These 10 inspiring Olympic athletes have endured such hardships as debilitating injuries, abuse, and growing up during wartime.

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U.S. Boxer Queen Underwood

The Olympics can inspire you to be active and healthy, and also to achieve your dreams. While urging you to do your best in any endeavor, they can also teach good sportsmanship – as they invariably demonstrate that achievement often comes with disappointment. Sometimes, no matter what your training and background, it’s not your day to win. The best athletes know how to lose with grace, too. These are a few great Olympic sportsmanship moments. “The most important thing is .. not to win but to take part” reads part of the Olympic Creed.

Get Active with a Backyard Olympics

So you don’t have a balance beam or a javelin handy? You can still create your own version of the Games with a Backyard Olympics. Ucreate offers lots of ideas for Olympic-inspired games and activities that are fun and easy to pull off. Don’t forget your homemade Olympic torch from Hoosier Homemade. (See more craft ideas for your Backyard Olympics, below.)

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Explore an Olympic Sport

You may find yourself so inspired by one of the 34 Olympic sports, from archery to wrestling, that you want to get involved in a local club. Learn more about each Olympic sport from NBC’s Gold Map.

Make Olympic Crafts

These ribbon wands from Sunhats and Wellie Boots will make anyone feel like a rhythmic gymnast or, at the very least, an enthusiastic celebrant.

You can also make these cute and clever DIY Olympic gold medals using clay, courtesy of Cindy Hopper from Alphamom.


 

No Time for Flashcards offers more easy Olympic crafts for kids. Because I love alphabet-bead projects (and have some in my book), I’m partial to these fun Go Team Go beaded bracelets.

And, for those who want to get in touch with their inner Ancient Greek, this is a fun laurel crown and toga project from Creekside Learning.

Make Olympic-Themed Food

Yes, we’ve circled back to food. The Olympics offer lots of great opportunities for fun themed food to go with your celebration or viewing.

From Sweetology 101 comes these super-cute Olympic Torch cupcakes.

Or you might want to let the Olympic rings inspire these colorful Olympic ring cookies from The Decorated Cookie.

Cheers to a wonderful, fun-filled 2016 Olympic Games!

Photos: About.com, Activity Village, whatsforschoollunch.blogspot.com, oprah.com/food/School-Lunches-Around-the-World-Gallery-Steven-Stern/6, Latin Kitchen/Kate Sears, Bleacher Report, Fiskars, Sunhats and Wellie Boots, AlphaMom, No Time for Flashcards, Creekside Learning, The Decorated Cookie

Have Some Shadowy Fun on Groundhog Day

Update: Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow today, which predicts an early spring.

Groundhog Day, February 2, has basically everything going for it that I love in a holiday – It marks a point in a season; it’s full of folklore and wisdom, superstition, ceremony, civic charm, science, mystery, agrarian history, and weather – and it was featured in perhaps my all-time favorite movie of the same name, which itself is a study in acceptance and inner calm while being outright hilarious in nearly every frame.

Altogether now: It’s Groundhog Day!

In an early morning ceremony, groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will rise from his heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob, PA, as he has for 128 years, and signal to his handlers whether or not he sees his shadow. No shadow means an early end to winter. And if the groundhog does see his shadow? Six more long weeks of the season. Over the past years that the ceremony has taken place, Phil has seen his shadow 102 times and not seen it only 17. (Records don’t exist for every year.) In 2008, the crowd heartily booed the prospect of “six more weeks of winter”, as I suspect they would do this year, as well, should Phil call for even more chilly weather.

Some have stated that Phil’s “handlers” make the prediction for him. What do we think of that?

History and science of Groundhog Day

According to this excellent Groundhog Day site, German settlers arrived in the 1700s in the area of Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh, which had been previously settled by the Delaware Native Americans. The Germans celebrated Candlemas Day, originally a Medieval Catholic holiday to mark the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The holiday also has roots in Celtic-Gaelic and Pagan cultures, where it is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, and is a time of festivals, feasting, parades, and weather prediction, as well as candles and even bonfires to mark the sun’s return.

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the word “Imbolc” is “in the belly”, and among agrarian people, Imbolc was associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, which would soon give birth to lambs in the spring.

The German settlers of Pennsylvania put candles in their windows and believed that if the weather was fair on Candlemas Day, then the second half of winter would be stormy and cold. While this has always seemed counter-intuitive to me, this site explains the science of Groundhog Day and that cloudy weather is actually more mild than clear and cold. It makes sense, then, that the shadow would portend six more weeks of winter. (A lifelong mystery is solved.)

These are some really weather activities to help kids understand about temperature, air pressure, wind and much more.

Do groundhogs really emerge from their burrows to see their shadows? Yes, and no. Male groundhogs actually emerge in search of females, who have emerged just prior. Once the female is sighted, the male groundhog actually goes back into his underground man-cave to wait out the cold weather, confident that a female is near.

The English and Scottish had wonderful sayings to mark this occasion:

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

— Scottish saying
(Note the serpent instead of the groundhog.)

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

— English saying

Punxsutawney’s first Groundhog Day celebration was in 1886, and though other towns, particularly in the eastern U.S., have Groundhog Day ceremonies – Staten Island Chuck, anyone? – none is nearly as famous as Punxsutawney’s. Some of this may lie with the groundhog’s official name, “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary”. Still more popularity, and tourists, have come as a result of the movie Groundhog Day. The first official Groundhog Day prediction in Punxsutawney? No shadow – early Spring.

This site has more information about the groundhog itself and about the filming of the movie.

If you are a Groundhog Day movie obsessive like me, you will enjoy this site that breaks down exactly how long Bill Murray’s character, Phil the Weatherman, experiences Groundhog Day in Gobbler’s Knob.

Groundhog activities and crafts

It’s fun to play with shadows, in honor of Punxsutawney Phil and his. Try making hand shadow puppets, something people have been doing since 2,000 years ago in China, where it was performed by oil-lamp light. Have someone project a flashlight onto a wall or other surface. Hold your hands between the light and the wall in various shapes to create shadow puppets. Here are some classic ones to try:

Rabbit—Make a fist with one hand. Place the other palm over it and make a peace sign (for ears) with two fingers.

Hawk—Link your thumbs together, with your hands facing away from you. Stretch out your fingers and hands and flutter them like wings.

Spider—With palms facing up, cross your hands at the wrist. Press your thumbs together to form the spider’s head. Wiggle your fingers in a climbing motion.

Wolf or dog—Place your palms together, fingers facing outward. Put your thumbs up to form ears. Let your pinkie drop to form a mouth. Bend your index fingers to create a forehead.

Camel—Lift one arm. Hold your hand in a loosely curved position. Hold the pinkie and ring finger together. Hold the other two fingers together, thumb pressed in. Curve both sets of fingers and hold them wide apart to form a mouth. Your arm, from the elbow up, will be the camel’s neck.

There are also a lot of very appealing shadow and groundhog crafts for Groundhog Day, like the one below from Mrs. Ricca’s Kindergarten and a great round-up of others from Motherhood on a Dime.

Shadow or no, here’s wishing you a happy remainder of the winter, a ceremony or two, a dash of lore and wonder, and a fruitful spring.

Images: Aaron Silvers, Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Mrs. Ricca’s Kindergarten, Creative Commons

Shadow puppets adapted from FED UP WITH FRENZY: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ fun family activities.

Happy Chinese New Year: Celebrate the Year of the Monkey with Crafts, Recipes and Fun

Chinese New Year is celebrated on February 8th this year, and marks the beginning of the Chinese year 4714. The Chinese calendar is based on the lunar calendar, with the new year beginning on the darkest day of the month. New years celebrations often go as many as two weeks, until the next full moon. And a celebratory holiday it is, with red decorations, good-luck gifts of oranges and money, parades with dragon dances and firecrackers, and special foods.

Learn about Chinese Lunar New Year parades in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, as well as Chinese New Year activities around the world.

This year is the Year of the Monkey. See a Chinese zodiac calendar.  Try one of these fun Chinese New Year activities:

Fingerprint Monkey Card from Crafty Morning

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Year of the Monkey Papercut Printable from Craft Kids

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Chinese Good Luck Ornament from Sand in My Toes

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Paper dragon from Teach Kids Art

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Paper Plate drums from Crafts and Art for Children

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Kid-friendly Honey Prawns from Kidspot

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Homemade fortune cookies from The Spiffy Cookie

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Felt fortune cookies from Martha Stewart

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Fruit roll-up fortune cookies from Recipe by Photo

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Noisemakers from Slow Family Online

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Make these easy paper lanterns

This is probably the classic Chinese New Year craft. It’s easy and satisfying. I made these as a kid and, of course, with my daughter.

You’ll need:

  1. Construction paper
  2. Scissors
  3. Tape
  4. Glitter or other decorations, as desired.

Fold a piece of paper in half length-wise.

Beginning at the fold, cut out approx. 4 very skinny triangles that go halfway up the folded section of paper.

Unfold the paper and curl together so that the two shortest ends of the paper meet and the cuts run vertically. (The cuts should now each result in a “diamond” shape.)

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The paper lantern activity is adapted from  Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun.

 

Lantern photo: Planetforward.ca

Celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year and other Midwinter Holidays with Kids

Around the world, people who live in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. In countries that use lunar calendars to determine festival days (many of which are in Asia and the Middle East), this signals the beginning of the new year and the first stirrings of spring.

There are lots of ways to honor and celebrate various midwinter traditions that are delightful, educational and bring families together.

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The Chinese Lunar New Year begins on February 8th this year, and marks the beginning of the Chinese year 4714. The Chinese Lunar New Year traditionally begins at the first new moon after January 21st. Each year is said to be represented by one of 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac. This coming year is the Year of the Monkey.

San Francisco is host to the largest Chinese New Year Parade outside Asia and one of the few illuminated nighttime parades in the world. The parade, Feb. 20th this year, dates back to 1860 and features more than 100 groups, including extravagant lion dancers and a 200-foot-long Golden Dragon. San Francisco’s Chinatown offers numerous other free events and activities throughout the two-week New Years celebration, such as lion dance exhibits, and craft activities like making lucky red envelopes, at city libraries.

In New York City, the New York City Chinese New Year Parade and Festival takes place Feb. 14th this year, and winds through the streets of Little Italy and Chinatown. There’s also a Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival on Feb. 10th, with drumming, dancing, and more than 600,000 firecrackers, the noise of which is said to ring out the evil spirits of the old year and ease what many viewed as a vulnerable transition between years. Read more about the tradition of greeting the new year with noise and how to make your own noisemakers.

In Chicago? Attend the Chicago Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade in their vibrant Chinatown and experience marching bands, floats, lion dancers and a dragon dance, on Feb. 14th.

Here are some great photos of Chinese New Year celebrations around the world.

There are many crafts you can make at home to celebrate the Chinese  New Year. Try making a paper dragon, Chinese noisemakers, or Monkey paper cutouts, or baking your own fortune cookies. (If you’re in San Francisco, be sure to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, to see how the pros bake and fold the famous cookies.)

Here are more Chinese New Year crafts and recipes.

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The Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, which occurs in mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere (sundown, January 24th, this year) is known as the New Year of the Trees and, in some circles, the Jewish Earth Day. Its date coincides with the earliest blooming trees in Israel and it is celebrated by planting trees and plants and by eating tree fruits and nuts. For our family, celebrating Tu B’Shevat represents a way to honor the turning of the year, welcome the promise of spring and new life, and recommit to caring for the nature around us.

Looking for a meaningful way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat? Consider planting a tree or seeds, or choosing a natural area to steward by weeding or picking up trash. Take a nature walk and observe what you see, or make a homemade bird feeder, so you can help the birds at a point in winter when much of their food supply has diminished.

Here are lots more traditions, blessings and activities to celebrate the New Year of the Trees.

Groundhog

In the U.S., Groundhog Day, February 2nd, is a well-known midwinter holiday, in which it is said that a groundhog rises from his underground burrow to predict a long or short winter, based on whether or not he produces a shadow. The holiday has its roots in Candlemas Day, originally a Medieval Catholic holiday to mark the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. (The Celtic-Gaelic St. Brigid’s Day, a time of festivals, feasting and parades, which is still celebrated widely in Ireland, is another precursor to Groundhog Day. As is Imbolc, which means “in the belly”, and is associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, which would give birth in the spring.)

Pennsylvania’s German settlers believed that if the weather was fair on Candlemas Day (causing the groundhog to see his shadow), then the second half of winter would be stormy and cold, producing “six more weeks of winter.” This site explains the science of Groundhog Day and the fact that cloudy weather is actually milder than clear, cold weather. Groundhog Day was first celebrated in the U.S. in 1886 and featured a groundhog named “Punxsutawney Phil”, the same name of the groundhog that makes predictions today.

To celebrate Groundhog Day, try making hand shadow puppets, having a friend trace your shadow, or enjoying one of these shadow-themed activities or weather experiments.

Here is a lot more science, lore, activities and fun for Groundhog Day.

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Japanese people celebrate Setsubun (Feb. 3rd this year), traditionally the beginning of spring, with a bean-throwing ceremony called Mame-maki. Beans are thrown indoors and then outside, as people shout, Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Out with the devil! In with fortune!”), to drive away the evil spirits, a tradition that is a carry-over from mame-maki’s origins as a New Year’s ritual. Sometimes fathers dress up as the oni (devil). It’s considered good luck to eat the number of beans as your age.

You may want to do some Setsubun crafts.

Enjoy your celebration of midwinter. Hopefully it won’t feel like too long a wait until spring.

Photos: Wikimedia (Chinese New Year Parade in Melbourne, Setsubun celebration in Kobe), Susan Sachs Lipman, Creative Commons (Groundhog)

Host a Kid-Friendly Oscar Party

Planning to watch the 87th annual Academy Awards? Turn your evening into a fun family event, or even an Oscar party, by serving easy finger foods, such as mini hot dogs; golden food, like easy yellow cupcakes, star-shaped sugar cookies with gold sprinkles, or chocolate coins; and sparkly drinks like champagne, sparkling wine (these are good budget sparkling wines ) or sparkling apple cider. You will want to make some of this wonderful old-fashioned popcorn from Simply Recipes.

If you’re feeling ambitious, Food52 offers some wonderful Oscar-themed menus based on this year’s movie nominations. Make food and drinks extra special by digging out any gold or silver platters and champagne flutes (plastic versions of these are available at party stores), or serving food on doilies.

Make copies of this printable Oscar ballot and have everyone vote for their favorites. The winner can receive a big box of movie candy, a certificate for a local movie theater, or a homemade voucher for a movie excursion.

Before the show starts, have kids dress up and walk the red carpet (roll out a piece of red fabric or a vinyl or fabric tablecloth, or denote a section of floor with tape) and take pictures. Make a gold star out of yellow construction paper (or cardboard, spray painted gold) and tape it to a door or wall to create an instant star’s dressing room.

Everyone likes to make acceptance speeches. Make an Oscar statuette by spray painting an old Barbie or Ken-sized doll gold. The ones below come from Ellie and Blair, who set theirs on stands. In a pinch, spray paint a paper-towel roll to denote the Oscar, or have children hold a bouquet of flowers.

Be sure they thank all the little people who helped make their success possible!

Who me?

Enjoy the show!

Photos: USA Today, Ellie & Blair, Us Magazine

 

 

Valentines Day for Kids, Nature Lovers, Vintage Collectors and More

Since Roman times, people have celebrated a mid-February festival — once called Lupercalia and celebrating fertility, the holiday was changed by Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. into a Christian feast day in honor of the Roman martyr Saint Valentine (who refused to forsake Christianity while in prison and sent love letters signed “from your Valentine” to the jailer’s daughter.)  As for the Romans, they were said to sacrifice goats and frolick in goatskin loincloths, the men striking the young women with goatskin thongs. (Some things are better off staying in Ancient Rome.)

Early famous senders of valentines include Charles, Duke of Orleans (like St. Valentine, also in prison) and King Henry V. Geoffrey Chaucer and the poets of the Medieval era linked valentine symbolism to birds, and specifically lovebirds, whom they observed beginning their mating rituals in early spring. Today, 25% of all cards sent in the U.S. per year are valentines.

I love this holiday of love and offer a collection of the Slow Family Valentines posts over the last few years. There’s something here for every celebrant, from parents and teachers seeking easy Valentine crafts to historians and collectors of vintage and rare valentines, to those interested in nature and animals and the ways in which they mate, feed and otherwise display their wonders during mid-winter and throughout the year.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

How to Make Fun and Easy Homemade Valentines

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Vintage Valentines, Part 1: Wordplay, Western, Food and Kitchen

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Vintage Valentines, Part 2: Space Age, Transportation, Winter, Music and More

Spaceman_ValentineThe Best and Worst Candy Heart Sayings of All Time

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Host a Valentine Tea Party

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Make a Quick and Easy Valentine Feeder for the Birds

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Love in Nature and History

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Hearts in Nature: A Valentine’s Scavenger Hunt

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Enjoy this annual celebration of love!

Have Some Shadowy Fun on Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day, February 2, has basically everything going for it that I love in a holiday — It marks a point in a season; it’s full of folklore and wisdom, superstition, ceremony, civic charm, science, mystery, agrarian history, and weather — and it was featured in perhaps my all-time favorite movie of the same name, which itself is a study in acceptance and inner calm while being outright hilarious in nearly every frame.

Altogether now: It’s Groundhog Day!

In an early morning ceremony, groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will rise from his heated burrow at Gobbler’s Knob, PA, as he has for 127 years, and signal to his handlers whether or not he sees his shadow. No shadow means an early end to winter. And if the groundhog does see his shadow? Six more long weeks of the season. Over the years that the ceremony has taken place, Phil has seen his shadow 101 times and not seen it only 17. (Records don’t exist for every year.) In 2008, the crowd heartily booed the prospect of “six more weeks of winter”, as I suspect they would do this year, as well, should Phil call for even more chilly weather.

Some have stated that Phil’s “handlers” make the prediction for him. What do we think of that?

History and science of Groundhog Day

According to this excellent Groundhog Day site, German settlers arrived in the 1700s in the area of Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh, which had been previously settled by the Delaware Native Americans. The Germans celebrated Candlemas Day, originally a Medieval Catholic holiday to mark the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The holiday also has roots in Celtic-Gaelic and Pagan cultures, where it is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day and Imbolc, and is a time of festivals, feasting, parades, and weather prediction, as well as candles and even bonfires to mark the sun’s return.

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the word “Imbolc” is “in the belly”, and among agrarian people, Imbolc was associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, which would soon give birth to lambs in the spring.

The German settlers of Pennsylvania put candles in their windows and believed that if the weather was fair on Candlemas Day, then the second half of winter would be stormy and cold. While this has always seemed counter-intuitive to me, this site explains the science of Groundhog Day and that cloudy weather is actually more mild than clear and cold. It makes sense, then, that the shadow would portend six more weeks of winter. (A lifelong mystery is solved.)

The English and Scottish had wonderful sayings to mark this occasion:

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

— Scottish saying
(Note the serpent instead of the groundhog.)

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

— English saying

Punxsutawney’s first Groundhog Day celebration was in 1886, and though other towns, particularly in the eastern U.S., have Groundhog Day ceremonies — Staten Island Chuck, anyone? — none is nearly as famous as Punxsutawney’s. Some of this may lie with the groundhog’s official name, “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary”. Still more popularity, and tourists, have come as a result of the movie Groundhog Day. The first official Groundhog Day prediction in Punxsutawney? No shadow – early Spring.

This site has more information about the groundhog itself and about the filming of the movie.

If you are a Groundhog Day movie obsessive like me, you will enjoy this site that breaks down exactly how long Bill Murray’s character, Phil the Weatherman, experiences Groundhog Day in Gobbler’s Knob.

Groundhog activities and crafts

It’s fun to play with shadows, in honor of Punxsutawney Phil and his. Try making hand shadow puppets, something people have been doing since 2,000 years ago in China, where it was performed by oil-lamp light. Have someone project a flashlight onto a wall or other surface. Hold your hands between the light and the wall in various shapes to create shadow puppets. Here are some classic ones to try:

Rabbit—Make a fist with one hand. Place the other palm over it and make a peace sign (for ears) with two fingers.

Hawk—Link your thumbs together, with your hands facing away from you. Stretch out your fingers and hands and flutter them like wings.

Spider—With palms facing up, cross your hands at the wrist. Press your thumbs together to form the spider’s head. Wiggle your fingers in a climbing motion.

Wolf or dog—Place your palms together, fingers facing outward. Put your thumbs up to form ears. Let your pinkie drop to form a mouth. Bend your index fingers to create a forehead.

Camel—Lift one arm. Hold your hand in a loosely curved position. Hold the pinkie and ring finger together. Hold the other two fingers together, thumb pressed in. Curve both sets of fingers and hold them wide apart to form a mouth. Your arm, from the elbow up, will be the camel’s neck.

There are also a lot of very appealing shadow and groundhog crafts for Groundhog Day, like the one below from Mrs. Ricca’s Kindergarten and a great round-up of others from Motherhood on a Dime.

Shadow or no, here’s wishing you a happy remainder of the winter, a ceremony or two, a dash of lore and wonder, and a fruitful spring.

Images: Aaron Silvers, Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Mrs. Ricca’s Kindergarten, Creative Commons

Shadow puppets adapted from FED UP WITH FRENZY: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ fun family activities.

Beyond Thanksgiving: 9 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude in our Families

Thanksgiving presents families with wonderful opportunities to express gratitude. The traditional Thanksgiving meal offers a pause from the everyday and a rare chance to gather with the express purpose of giving thanks. But what happens when Thanksgiving is over? In the U.S., the holiday season officially begins, and with it often comes a great deal of pressure and stress. We mean well, of course. We yearn to create the perfect holiday for our families, complete with a plethora of gifts. But at what price? Gratitude? Meaning? Joy? Much of that is forgotten soon after the turkey has cooled.

How do we cultivate a spirit of gratitude in our families, during the holidays and year-round, and ensure that it is not just something we proclaim during Thanksgiving?

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What is Gratitude and How Does it Benefit Us?

It might help to take a step back to explore gratitude and its benefits. The Greater Good Science Center defines gratitude as having two components. The first is an affirmation of the gifts and benefits we have received. The second is an acknowledgement that the sources of those gifts exist outside of ourselves, that we have benefited from other people—or even higher powers, if that fits your belief system.

That second part is key, say the folks at Greater Good, because its social component heightens meaningful connections with others and stimulates our circuits for pleasure and reward. It also helps with entitlement issues by reinforcing to kids that happiness is a gift from others, rather than an inherent birthright.

People of all ages who practice gratitude consistently report a range of physical, psychological and social benefits, from stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure to more joy, optimism and compassion, and less loneliness. Cultivating gratitude, and the happiness that results, is a skill we can teach our children.

9 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

Keep a gratitude journal

The simple act of recording our gratitude in writing has been linked to benefits such as better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness for both adults and children. Have family members keep individual gratitude journals, or keep a list as a family. Write 3-5 short items weekly, naming the things you are grateful for. One exercise is to imagine what life would be like without those components. According to the Greater Good Science Center, journaling 1-2 times a week is actually more powerful than journaling daily. Focusing gratitude on people is more effective than focusing it on things. You may want to start journals on New Year’s Day and try to write in them throughout the year.

Practice expressing gratitude

Journaling won’t work for your family? Take time before or during meals to share things you are grateful for. The items can be profound or trivial. As with journaling, sharing needn’t occur every day. The important thing is that kids get into the habit of expressing gratitude regularly. Parents can model gratitude by letting other family members know that they are grateful for them and their specific actions.

Mornings and bedtimes also present abundant opportunities to express gratitude. Have young children greet the day by thanking the sun for rising, the air we breathe, the beautiful trees, and their family members, teachers or neighbors. You may wish to sing a thankful “Good Morning” song (see below). Many parents use bedtime as a quiet time for cuddling and asking children to name three things they’re grateful for.

Seeking another way to help kids express gratitude for others? See below for a fun gratitude craft.

Slow down and create family time

Studies show that play time, down time and family time are vital to kids’ and families’ well-being, benefiting every area of physical, psychological and emotional health.  Children who have unstructured time and play are more creative, collaborative, flexible, self-aware and calm. Families who have unstructured time and play are joyful and close. Slowing allows families to savor the positive feelings and events that are a hallmark of gratitude.

At holiday time and throughout the year, try to leave some down time in the schedule. That might mean reducing the number of activities each family member participates in, or turning down the occasional invitation.  It may take practice to put the same value on “down time” that we do on organized, goal-oriented activity. It may be uncomfortable at first to be idle. If you have to schedule this time in a calendar, do so.

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Be a tourist in your town

Have you ever noticed how tourists are usually delighted? Granted, they’re on vacation together and they have come to their destination to have fun. But they also see everything with fresh eyes. Even if you’ve lived somewhere your whole life, there may be new things to see or do if you decide to do so like a tourist. This is a particularly wonderful activity and mindset for school breaks, when kids are home. As a bonus, there are often special holiday events and activities, like decorated store windows and homes, skating rinks, free music performances, and other things that are joyful, without impacting the family budget.

Find adventure in your daily rounds

At any time of year, you can cultivate gratitude and stimulate positive social emotions by helping your kids see daily life as an adventure. Get up early one day and visit local businesses – watch produce and eggs get delivered to markets and restaurants, see bakers bake bagels and decorate cakes. Or take a walk and stop and say hello to neighbors, shopkeepers, mail carriers and others who are on their own daily rounds. Feeling a part of the neighborhood and community are very important to children’s senses of security and feelings of gratitude.

Along with thanks .. giving

Service is a tremendously enriching act, for ourselves and for others. Studies show that people who engage in “pro-social spending” are measurably happier than those who do not.  It’s not difficult to find an agency, event or individual in your area who would welcome your help, whether for one time or on an ongoing basis. Many people especially need our help over the holidays with meal preparation and delivery, toy and book drives, companionship, and other needs. Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers many volunteer opportunities for individuals and families.

Create a culture of giving in your family

Instead of giving traditional gifts, consider gifting in a recipient’s name to a non-profit or other organization. Research organizations as a family and involve your kids in choosing the most worthy and meaningful to them. Have your kids cull their rooms regularly for toys and clothing that can be donated to someone less fortunate, or have kids request that birthday party guests bring new or used toys or books for donation to the charity of his/her choice, and then deliver those items together. Consider setting aside a portion of your children’s allowances or gift money and having them choose a recipient for a donation.

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Get outdoors

At any time of year, and especially in winter, outdoor time tends to be low on many family’s priority lists. It shouldn’t be. Research shows that nature play has been linked to improved imagination, cooperation, academic achievement, and numerous aspects of physical and psychological health. Nature also provides a terrific setting in which to slow our paces and have new and meaningful experiences that can enhance family bonds, as well as the feelings of awe and wonder that lead to increased gratitude and inner peace.

Celebrate the winter solstice

The winter solstice (December 21 this year) provides a special opportunity to slow down, count our blessings, and experience the turning of the seasons during the hectic holiday time. Mark the year’s longest night by taking a walk, preparing a special meal or having a family game night. Celebrate the sun’s return by eating oranges or hollowing out the center of an orange and placing a tealight or candle inside. If you have leftover Hanukkah gelt or other chocolate coins, place them in bags and surprise children with them. Take a family walk on December 22 to greet the return of longer days.

Crafts and Songs

Appreciation “recipe” for a special person

This craft helps kids convey a special relationship and feelings in a fun, creative way. Help your child create a recipe for a “marvelous mom” or a “delightful dad” or a “fabulous friend” or any other combination using an adjective and the person’s name or role.

You’ll need:
• Piece of construction paper or poster board
• Markers and crayons or colored pencils
• Ruler

Think about the attributes of the recipient that make him or her special.

Write a heading on the paper: Recipe for a (fabulous friend or other).

Using a ruler, draw six or more lines on which to write your various ingredients.

Write the “ingredients” for the person, in recipe terms, such as “6 cups kindness,” “5 tablespoons love,” or whatever else you can think of.

Leave space at the bottom to write out your instructions, also using recipe terms, like mix, add, fold, blend, and so on.

Decorate the rest of the paper, as desired.

My daughter did this wonderful project with her fourth grade class. Here is her “recipe”:

Good Morning song (traditional Waldorf verse and movements)

Good morning dear Earth (lower hands toward floor)

Good morning dear Sun (raise arms into the air)

Good morning dear stones (place hands one atop the other)

And the plants, every one (open out hands, as if blossoming)

Good morning dear bees (move hand around in flying motion)

And the birds in the trees (move fingers like fluttering wings)

Good morning to you (hands out to others)

And good morning to me! (hands across own chest)

 


 

Top 10 Ways to Learn in Your Own Backyard

Many parents worry about summer slide, the learning loss that can occur while school is out for the summer. Great news: There is a hotbed of learning right in your own backyard. Science, math, art, history, and early literacy can come alive through the kinds of rich, hands-on, project-based experiences that make learning meaningful, all while you’re having fun exploring outdoors.

(Read on for info about Galileo Camp and Natural Nester DIY Camp.)

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Grow a Habitat Garden and Experience Citizen Science

Small creatures like birds and butterflies are always fun to watch. There are lots of ways to encourage them to visit your garden and linger a while, many of which provide fun and fascinating projects while benefiting your local habitat, your garden and the greater ecosystem of the Earth. You don’t need a large yard to have a habitat garden. Apartment balconies, window ledges, school gardens, and decks can all host local habitat.

Backyard creatures essentially need four things: Food, water, shelter and places to lay eggs and care for their young. Learn more and find resources about habitat gardening. Welcoming wildlife needn’t be complicated. One very easy way to start is by making a bird feeder.

Want to take it a step farther? The Great Sunflower Project is just one of many opportunities for kids to experience citizen science close to home. Citizen scientists are ordinary people of all ages who help scientists and organizations track the count and behaviors of birds, butterflies, bees and others. After all, researchers can’t be everywhere, and many of us have habitats in our backyards and neighborhoods that can help them gain important information about nature. If you have 15 minutes, you can count bees, which are vital for the Earth’s ecosystem, for The Great Sunflower Project. Other projects available year-round allow you to track birds, bats, butterflies, fireflies, wildflowers, meteors and snow, learning about each in the process. See a list of citizen science projects.

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Have Some Gardening Fun

Pizza Garden

You can grow just about everything needed for a pizza right in your own yard and then harvest and eat all the items baked in a pizza. All you’ll need to add is the dough and cheese! Pizza gardens teach design, planning, growing, harvesting, cooking and nutrition. Determine the shape of your pizza garden and decide what you’d like to grown and how you want to divide the space. Round pizza gardens, for instance, can be divided into four, six, or eight spokes, to resemble pizza slices. Mark off areas with string or rocks. Make sure to give plants like tomatoes plenty of room. In addition to tomatoes, try zucchini, eggplant, peppers, spinach, basil, oregano, onions, or garlic. Or grow flowers – red flowers to represent tomato sauce, yellow flowers to represent cheese, pink flowers for pepperoni, and some green leafy plants for spinach or peppers.

Seed Race

Why not make gardening into a game, and create a science experiment at the same time, with a seed race? Choose two or more types of seeds.
Plant them at the same time, in the same conditions, near each other in the ground or in similar containers, indoors or out. (Or plant the same seeds and vary one or more conditions as an experiment.) Water and watch which one emerges first and grows fastest. Stake them with a store-bought or homemade yardstick to measure their progress.

Growing Initials

Give your kids something they can claim as their own, and engage them in early literacy  at the same time by planting seeds in the shape of a child’s initials. Lay string in the shapes of the letters you like and dig a shallow furrow beside it. Plant your seeds – leafy greens work well for this project because they come up quickly and fill out nicely. These include lettuce, chives, radishes, cress, and various grasses. Most greens have fine seeds, which can be planted in a close, continuous line and thinned as needed.

Saving Seeds

What better way for kids to learn about the process of seeds becoming plants than to collect, save, plant and grow their own seeds? Seed saving is fascinating, rewarding, frugal and fun!

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Make a Wind Chime or Music Tree

Kids love to make music and noise. What better place for that than outdoors? Hang old or recycled pots, pans, tin cans, lids, muffin tins, silverware, measuring cups and other items from tree branches. Group lighter items close together to create wind chimes, or place them farther apart to let kids make music with wooden spoons to experiment with different sounds or learn about the effects of wind.

Have Fun with Water

Outdoor time calls for water play, which allows even the youngest children to learn about the properties of water, as it allows things to float, sink, fill, empty, change textures and temperatures, and move at various speeds. Young children will enjoy a mud play area and lots of old cups and kitchen items for filling, scooping and dumping. Others may enjoy filling cups with water and making “magic potions” with food coloring, glitter and small found objects. Or fill a tub of water and make a fine sea-worthy vessel to play with.

Cork Rafts and Sailboats

You’ll need:
Corks
School or craft glue
Flat toothpicks
Construction or other paper
Ruler
Markers, crayons, or colored pencils
Scissors

Raft: Arrange corks in a square or rectangle, with long sides touching each other. Glue the sides of the corks together. Draw a small rectangle (approximately 1 x 4”) on the paper with the ruler and cut it out. Fold the paper in half, so that you have two rectangles approximately 1 x 2”. Draw your country’s flag, or flags from your imagination, on each outer side of the paper. Glue the toothpick into the inner fold on the back side between the two flags, and let the glue dry. Glue the two halves of the paper together to secure the flag. Affix the toothpick flags into one cork or several corks and set the raft in water.

Sailboat: Glue corks together, following the instructions for the raft, or simply use a single cork. Draw a triangular sail shape on the paper (approximately 1” long on the side that will be glued to the toothpick. Decorate your sail, if desired. Glue the sail to the toothpick on its 1” side and let the glue dry. Affix the toothpick sail into the cork or cork base and set sail!

Elementary and older children will enjoy making a paper boat and sailing it in a nearby body of water, alone or in a race with others.

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Create Garden Art

Artists and craftspeople have long been inspired by the garden. Just getting outside with art and craft materials can open a world of wonder and observation. Gardens, in all their color, variety and changing light, offer great subjects, as well as a place to clear the artist’s head. In addition, they often provide a place where one can get messier than inside a house. Bring tempera or finger paints and paper outside, for plein air painting, paint a flower pot that you can plant in, or make a pretty beaded spider web.

beaded_spider_web

Blow Bubbles

Bubble blowing may be one of life’s perfect activities. While providing endless possibilities and inexpensive fun, bubbles also illustrate properties of science. Each one is a thin skin of liquid surrounding a gas. The water molecules on their surfaces bond tightly together, because each is made up of two sticky hydrogen atoms and one oxygen one – H2O. More bubble science is explained here. Bubbles can be made using ingredients you have around the house. When the weather’s nice, I often make a bucket of bubble solution and leave it outside with wands and other fun equipment so my daughter and friends can make bubbles whenever they like. It’s always fun and magical to create bubbles and watch them trail in the breeze. Here’s a recipe for giant homemade bubbles and some fun bubble activities.

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Play Web of Life

This is a powerful group game that teaches older children about the interconnectedness of living things. We encountered it on a school field trip to a vibrant marsh and have never forgotten it.

You’ll need:
A ball of string, yarn, or twine

Players form a circle. The leader asks them to name a plant or animal that lives in the area. When someone names a plant or animal, he or she is handed the end of the ball of string. When someone names another plant or animal, the string is unraveled and handed to that person. The game continues this way until everyone is holding the same piece of string. It can be very dramatic for everyone to realize that they are webbed together. Choose one of the players to illustrate what happens when there is change, such as when a tree burns down or an animal is eaten. Have that person pull his or her piece of string to see its effect on all the others.

Slow Tip: If people get stuck on what to say next, go backward or forward in the food and shelter chain. The bird eats a frog, the frog eats an ant, the ant crawls under a tree, the tree provides oxygen for the deer, and so on.

Cook with the Sun

Box ovens employ one of the oldest energy sources of all, solar power. But while people have dried food in the sun for centuries, it was French-Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure who harnessed it for cooking. He used glass to trap heat and create convection while his 1700s peers were still burning mirrors. Anything that can be cooked in a regular oven can be cooked in a box oven, though it’s best to stick with recipes that don’t require raw meat or eggs, until you’re proficient.

You’ll need:
Large sturdy cardboard box, with four sides and a bottom (no top or lids), such as a 10-ream paper box
Heavy-duty aluminum foil
Duct tape
Cookie sheet or large cake pan
4 tin cans, filled with water to weight them
Charcoal briquettes and fire starter
Disposable foil tray or pie tins
Small stone
Recipe and cooking items
Bucket of water for fire safety

Choose a hot day with full sun. Completely line the box inside and out with foil, shiny side out. Tape only on the outside of the box (to avoid fumes getting in the food.) Choose a flat surface away from flammable objects. Line it with foil. Use the tin cans as “feet” to hold the cookie sheet or cake pan, which serves as the oven tray. Fill the foil tray or pie tins with briquettes, approx. one for every 40 degrees of desired oven temperature, and start. Place the item to be cooked on the oven tray (ideas follow). Slide the briquettes under the oven tray when ready (white). Place the box oven down over the items, using a small rock on the least windy side to lift part of the box off the ground for ventilation.

Follow the directions for your recipe. Cupcakes, biscuits, English muffin pizzas, and other items that don’t require long cooking times all work well in box ovens. Try one of our favorites:

Box Oven Pineapple Upside Down Cake

You’ll need:
2 boxes yellow cake mix, prepared
1 ounce butter or margarine
1 8-ounce can of pineapples
½ cup brown sugar
Dutch oven or large cake pan
Second pan or cookie sheet

Place butter or margarine in the Dutch oven or pan and melt it in the box oven. Stir brown sugar and pineapples into the melted butter. Pour prepared cake mix over the pineapple mixture. Bake for 25 minutes or more, until the cake is golden brown. Remove from the box oven and invert onto a second pan or cookie sheet.

Slow Tip: Want to try some super easy sun cooking? Make sun tea by filling a container with water, adding tea bags, and letting the container steep in the sun.

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Enjoy the Night Sky

Backyard fun needn’t only happen during the daytime. Nighttime offers lots of opportunities to explore constellations of stars; meteor showers, like August’s Perseids; or phases of the moon. You can’t help but be infused with a sense of wonder, awe, history and mystery while contemplating the cosmos, as countless people, back to the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and others have done before us.

Get to Know the Constellations

With 88 constellations and numerous other stars, the night sky can seem a bit overwhelming. Begin to get to know it by locating a few key constellations and orienting to those. After all, the constellations were themselves created to help the ancients better understand the night sky.

The Big Dipper, which is part of a larger constellation, is a great starting point, as it has an identifiable shape and is usually visible over much of the Northern Hemisphere. It appears like a ladle (bowl) and handle. Seeking the North Star, or Polaris? Extend an imaginary line up from the top corner of the ladle that is furthest from the handle. Polaris is in turn on the handle of the Little Dipper, which appears upside down and facing the opposite direction from the Big Dipper. Continue on from the North Star, away from the Big Dipper, for about the same distance and you will reach Casseopeia (the mythical Queen of Ethiopia), another famous constellation. In the Northern Hemisphere, Cassiopeia is shaped like an “M” in the Summer and a “W” in the Winter.

Consult a star map and continue to find relationships to these constellations.

Slow Snippet: What makes stars twinkle? What we see as twinkling is really the light from the star bending as it moves through layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. That trip takes billions of years, so that what we see is a snapshot of a time in the cosmos that is long past.

Keep a Moon Diary

Taking note of the moon’s phases and rhythms, as it moves through its cycle, is a great way to feel the rhythms of our lives and of nature. Observing the moon and keeping a moon diary can help younger children understand how long a month is.

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Have a Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts are a great way to get everyone exploring and observing in nature.

You’ll need:
Pencils and paper

Create a list in advance or have players contribute to one list of 10-20 things they might find in the backyard or park. A list might include an oak tree, a pond, a red bird, a dandelion, a wildflower, a nest, a feather, an acorn or a hollow log. You or the hunters could also list more subjective items, such as something rough, something orange, something unexpected, or a heart-shaped rock. Teams or players go off to seek the items on the list and cross each off when they see it. One point is awarded for each item found. The person or team with the most points wins.

Make a Nature Bracelet

This is a fun and easy way to get kids to look around them and observe small items in their own backyards.

You’ll need:
1″ or wider Masking Tape, enough to go around each child’s wrist

Tear off a piece of masking tape, slightly larger than the child’s wrist. Place it around the wrist with the sticky side out. Go for a walk or hunt and look for small items in nature that can be stuck to the masking tape, such as leaves, twigs, seeds, acorns and pods. (Generally things that have already fallen on the ground are safe to pick. If in doubt, leave something.) Fill the bracelet by sticking the items onto it and wear it proudly.

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These activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ more fun family activities.

Want to take it further? Create your own backyard DIY summer camp with eight weeks of ideas from A Natural Nester and many others.

San Francisco Bay Area parents, want to find a camp that inspires summer learning and fun? Check out Galileo Camps, with over 40 Bay Area locations. Use code: 2014INNOVATION for $30 off.

This post is part of the School’s Out Top 10 Summer Learning series. Be sure to read all the other great Top 10 lists!

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Thanks to our sponsor, Galileo Learning.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Kids Growing Strong (pizza garden), Public Domain (night sky), Pass the Cereal (nature bracelet)

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