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Family Fun at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Part 2

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In celebration of summer’s wonderful #EverydayMoments and the National Park Service Centennial Year, which begins August 25th, we decided to spend some time this summer in the beautiful Golden National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban parks in the world at more than 80,000 acres, and home to some of the National Park Service’s most beloved spots, such as Muir Woods National Monument, Point Reyes National Seashore (above), and the San Francisco Presidio.

After spending a full day at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and Fisherman’s Wharf (see Part 1), we visited the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

Like Maritime Park, the Marin Headlands, home of the lighthouse, is another large parcel within GGNRA. We began our journey at the Visitor Center, where interactive exhibits showed aspects of the Headlands’ natural and human history. In the 1970s, the Headlands were saved from a massive housing development to become public land for all to enjoy. We listened to recorded stories in a Coast Miwok dwelling, explored the bones of animals, sniffed the aromas of various native plants and read early lighthouse keepers’ diaries.

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The rangers helped us identify some great hikes. We chose a short trail through a tunnel and out to the lighthouse (check the web site for limited lighthouse hours.) Our walk offered beautiful vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, where we saw seagulls and other birds and heard, but didn’t see, harbor seals and other sea creatures.

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We learned a lot about lighthouse history from our knowledgeable ranger, Jim. Built in 1855, Point Bonita Lighthouse was the third lighthouse built on the west coast and the last to be manned, rather than to run on electricity. Each lighthouse and foghorn up and down the coast operates on a different pattern to help sailors navigate San Francisco’s treacherous waters. We learned about various shipwrecks (one of which is the namesake for GGNRA’s Tennessee Valley) and lighthouse operations and equipment. We listened to more great information through a cell phone system that GGNRA uses in many of its parks. Afterward we visited the pre-WWI Battery Mendell, one of the area’s military forts and saw the foundation for the old lighthouse keeper’s house around the bend of the bay (last photo, below).

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Family Activities

GGNRA offers lots of great family activities throughout the year at many of its sites. Our interest piqued about the park, we decided to join Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy for a morning of crabbing at Fort Baker Pier. We were greeted by our ranger, Al, who quickly showed us how easy it is to toss a crab basket, frisbee-style and containing a pouch with raw chicken for bait, into the bay.

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We learned about the various species of crabs in San Francisco Bay. These include Dungeness crabs–which are popular for eating, but which we weren’t allowed to keep if caught; yellow crabs; rock crabs; red crabs and slender crabs. We learned about the markings on a crab’s belly, which is one good way to distinguish male crabs from female crabs. Below is a male, noted for the triangle shape on the belly.

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Unlike fishing, there’s no tug on the line to alert you that you’ve caught a crab. Once you’ve lowered the net into the water, you just have to wait 10 minutes or more before checking to see if anything swam into your basket to take the bait.

After a time, I pulled up my basket. I had caught a crab! This was very exciting. I pulled it up to the pier. On closer inspection, the basket contained a large rock crab and a smaller red crab.

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My crab was measured and deemed too large to keep. (There are a lot of other rules about types and sizes of crabs, and even genders, that can be kept. If you go crabbing independently, you’ll want to know the rules and obey posted signs.)

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We explored our crabs a bit before tossing them back into the sea.

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One of our new friends caught a fish.

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Crabbing is a slow activity that provides a lot of delight (and perhaps dinner), as well as a chance to explore and learn a little more about the bay and its inhabitants. A couple of hours is plenty of time for crabbing. GGNRA offers crabbing at multiple locations. As a bonus, Fort Point is adjacent to a small beach that’s perfect for toddlers, and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, where you can continue to learn about crabs and fish (and even establish your own pretend fishery in the San Francisco Bay Room), as well as explore the many natural elements and exhibits that the award-winning hands-on museum has to offer.

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Here are some other piers throughout California where you can go crabbing.

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Road Trip Tips

If you’re traveling to visit a national park, there are ways to make your travel smoother and more delightful and memorable. Sometimes half the fun of family travel is “getting there”. Road trips have provided some of our family’s most treasured #EverydayMoments.

  • Involve kids in the planning or have them follow the trip’s progress on a map. If you’re an AAA member, maps are free. Some kids may want to keep a trip journal and add photos when they get home.
  • Have food and drinks on hand, if possible, and take frequent breaks to eat, use restrooms, or just stretch your bodies.
  • Remind children who are on screens to take breaks, to play a game or look around.
  • Pack along a few portable games for outdoor breaks and quiet times, such as cards, Mad Libs, a jump rope or jacks.
  • Play some of these tried-and-true road trip games that don’t require any equipment. They help make family memories when you’re driving, flying, or waiting in line.

Tried-and-True Road Trip Games

What I See From A to Z

Players try to find letters in license plates, billboards, road signs, or objects and must call out “I see an A,” or “I see something that starts with B,” when they spot a letter.

The first person to complete the alphabet wins. A variation for younger children is to pick one letter and have everyone look for that.

Semi Search

If you’re traveling on the interstate, you will probably have a lot of trucks for company, and this fun game makes use of that.

Each player chooses a different color. That color will be the color of truck trailer that the player is then searching for. Players announce when they see a semi on the road in their color, and they get one point for each.

A scorekeeper can be appointed to keep count, or everyone can keep their own score. The game is played until one person reaches 25 points, or another agreed-upon number.

Travel Scavenger Hunt (also known as Travel Olympics)

You’ll need: Pencil and paper for each player

Players all contribute to one list of 10-20 things they can see from or do in the car. For example, a list might include passing a cow pasture, seeing a gas station that has the color red in its logo, holding one’s breath through a tunnel, spotting two yellow license plates, or passing an RV.

The first person to accomplish everything on the list wins.

License Plate Scramble

The first player calls out all the letters, in order, that appear on a passing license plate.

All players try to create a word using those letters, in the same order. The first person to do so gets a point. For example, a player might call out ARN, and he, she, or any other player might come up with “arachnid” or “yarn”.

Decide if you want to play to a certain number of points, like 25. The first player to reach that total wins.

O.S.L.P.

Players search passing cars for “out of state” license plates (out of the state they are currently traveling in.)

When such a plate is spotted, the player yells, “O.S.L.P.!” If they are the first to see a particular plate, they score a point.

Decide if you want to play to a certain number of points, like 10. The first player to reach that total wins.

What Animal Am I?

One player thinks of an animal. Other players ask “yes” or “no” questions to determine what animal the first player is. Players might ask, “Do you live in the ocean?” or “Do you have four legs?”

There is no limit to the number of questions. Players can simply give up when stumped and choose who gets to be the animal next. Otherwise, the player who guessed the animal gets to be the next up.

 

This is part of a larger American Express initiative that will help encourage volunteering in America’s National Parks.

On July 30th, Amex EveryDay kicked off a contest that encourages people to share a photo and caption of their own #EveryDayMoments, taken at any park, for a chance to win one of three trips to some spectacular National Parks: National Mall and Memorial Parks (Washington, DC), Yosemite National Park (California) and Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Click Here to Enter between July 30th and August 31st: http://bit.ly/1elJ6qC; terms apply.

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Be sure to see Family Fun at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Part 1.

I am an Amex EveryDay CardMember and Ambassador for this program. However, all opinions about the Card are my own.

Road trip activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains more travel games in addition to 300+ fun family activities.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman and Wood for the Trees

 

 

 

 

Help National Park Trust Get More Kids to National Parks

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What if you could give a child a national park experience for the price of a latté? You can! National Park Trust recently learned that their youth programs were selected as a National Park Service Centennial Challenge Project in honor of the National Park Service Centennial Year, which begins August 25, 2015. ​T​he National Park Service selected​ National Park Trust (NPT) for a one-to-one match of $450,000 that will result ​​in a total of $900,000 specifically designated for the expansion of their school programs (Buddy Bison Environmental Education Program and Kids to Parks Day National School Contest). As we approach the new school year, NPT is asking for our help to raise resources for the Buddy Bison School Program.

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The Centennial Challenge will allow NPT to be able to work with up to 60 Title 1 schools to provide multiple park experiences — at least one to a national park unit — throughout the school year, plus classroom toolkits full of resources and so much more! ​Your $5 will become $10, which provides bus transportation for one child for one park trip. There are more than 400 national park units across the country!

For just $5, you can be part of a grassroots movement and help children have a park experience who wouldn’t otherwise have one. Click to Donate to NPT’s Centennial Challenge.

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My family loves the U.S. National Parks. We have visited many and are fortunate to live near the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which at more than 80,000 acres, is one of the largest urban parks in the world and the most-visited park in the U.S. National Park system. Rather than one park, it’s a group of parks spanning three counties. It includes five lighthouses, a famous prison, numerous museums and visitor centers, 91 miles of shoreline, 1,287 plant and animal species in 19 separate ecosystems, and 370 archeological sites that reveal the area’s history from the Native Americans through the Gold Rush and the present day.

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Read about our recent trip to Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the highlight of which was San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Like many national park units, Maritime Park features more history and science than nature, with historic ships, hands-on activities and elaborate displays.

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While we’ve hiked and biked in stunning national parks, such as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake and Acadia National Park (above), we’ve also discovered that some of the lesser known national park units (which include seashores, museums and monuments) provide fascination for kids who are interested in the outdoors, and also in history, anthropology, sociology, botany, earth science, literature and art. The great thing about our national parks is that they allow people to enter them through all different interests and enjoy them in many different ways.

More and more children are discovering our national parks, thanks to the National Park Service’s promotion of its Centennial Year and the National Park Trust’s work through their school programs. One more thing to celebrate? The National Park Service Centennial Year coincides with President Obama’s Every Kid in a Park Initiative, which will allow every 4th grader in the U.S., and their families to have a park experience during the 2015-16 school year. (The above link explains the program’s logistics.)

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National Park Trust is the nation’s only non-profit dedicated to supporting America’s parks through both land acquisition and preservation and youth education programs and initiatives that connect children with their local, state and national parks. I’m thrilled to help spread the word about their Centennial Challenge and hope you’ll join me in supporting them.

 

I was invited by National Park Trust to participate in their Centennial Challenge Campaign, however the views expressed are my own.

Photos by National Park Trust and Susan Sachs Lipman

 

 

Family Fun at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Part 1

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For most families like ours, summer is the season when time seems to expand. School’s out, days are long and family members visit from around the country to create fond memories and #EveryDayMoments at our treasured local sites.

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The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the Golden National Recreation Area, which at more than 80,000 acres, is one of the largest urban parks in the world and the most-visited park in the entire U.S. National Park system. Rather than one park, it’s a group of parks, ranging from Point Reyes National Seashore in the north to the Pfleger Estate in the south. It spans three counties and includes five lighthouses, a famous prison, numerous museums and visitor centers, 91 miles of shoreline, 1,287 plant and animal species in 19 separate ecosystems, 370 archeological sites that reveal the area’s history from the Native Americans through the Gold Rush and the present day, and such iconic areas as Muir Woods National Monument and Stinson Beach (above), Alcatraz Island, and the San Francisco Presidio, home of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

It would take many trips to discover all that GGNRA has to offer. For this trip we decided to focus on exploring San Francisco’s maritime past.

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Anna and her cousin Jake started their nautical exploration at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Because the park is conveniently located in Fisherman’s Wharf, we combined our visit with a ride on our favorite cable car and enjoyed fresh crab, sourdough bread and other local treats.

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We boarded the historic Balclutha cargo ship, where Anna and Jake imagined they were 19th century sailors. This was easy to do – the guide for the daily tour shared fascinating information about the sailors’ tight quarters and grim conditions as they sailed around Cape Horn and up to Alaska to transport salmon, lumber and other goods. Furnished kitchens and sleeping quarters; equipment and rigging; maps, diaries, photos and displays, including the impressive Cargo is King exhibit, which took up the whole cargo hold of the ship, brought the captain and crew to life.

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We went aboard other ships as well, including The Cottage, which had been a Marin County summer home. We practiced knot tying and saw on-site ship repair.

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We thought we’d quickly stop into the National Park Visitor Center across the street. We had no idea that inside an old cannery building was housed a very thorough exhibit that allowed us to walk through centuries of history of the San Francisco waterfront. Displays and sounds brought to life the Yelamu Natives, the discovery of gold, the raucous Barbary Coast, the Italian and other merchants, and the influx of pre-fab houses which were built south of Market Street, and which we learned came from China by ship.  There was even a display of items that had been recovered from Gold Rush -era ships as new waves of construction unearthed them.

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We continued our amazing maritime odyssey down the street at the Maritime Museum, where we saw more items from centuries of seafaring and enjoyed the building’s beautifully restored WPA murals. One of the most amazing things about the day was that, as a national park, Maritime Park is completely free, save the $5 adult price to board the historic ships. The park also offers lots of special programs, including sailing adventures and sea chantey singalongs.

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We had such a great time on our maritime adventure. We can’t wait to explore more of GGNRA and our bounty of national parks. In addition to the GGNRA site, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy offers information about activities in the various parks. We’re eager to celebrate the centennial year of the National Park Service, which begins August 25th.

On July 30th, Amex EveryDay is kicking off a contest that encourages people to share a photo and caption of their own #EveryDayMoments, taken at any park, for a chance to win one of three trips to some spectacular National Parks: Lincoln Memorial Park (Washington, DC), Yosemite National Park (California) and Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Click Here to Enter between July 30th and August 31st: FindYourEveryDayPark; terms apply.

This is part of a larger American Express initiative that will help encourage volunteering in America’s National Parks.

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Our adventures will continue in Family Fun at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Part 2.

I am an Amex EveryDay CardMember and Ambassador for this program. However, all opinions about the Card are my own.

 Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

12 Great Activities for Kids to Parks Day + Giveaway

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What if you could do something simple that involved beauty and fun, didn’t cost a thing, and  improved every aspect of your and your family’s health and well-being? That something is as simple as visiting your neighborhood or other park, woods, seashore or other favorite outdoor spot.

That’s why National Park Trust has designated Saturday, May 16, Kids to Parks Day. By setting aside one Saturday in mid-spring, NPT hopes to raise awareness of the ease and benefits of visiting a park and foster a connection with our public lands that will lead to lifelong enjoyment and stewardship.

Take the Kids to Parks Day pledge to bring a child to a park on May 16. Everyone who registers will be entered to win a Nikon COOLPIX L830 camera!

What do you do when you get to the park? That part is easy! Here are 12 Great Activities for Kids to Parks Day.

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Make a Paper or Cork Boat and Sail it in a Creek

My family first got the idea to make a paper boat from our beloved book, H.A. Rey’s Curious George Rides a Bike, in which sweet and loveable George secures a paper route, which leads him to make and sail a whole flotilla of folded-newspaper boats. Wondering if a newspaper boat could really float, we got out some old newspaper, folded it into boats using the directions in Curious George, and took our boats down to a local creek, where they indeed sailed along once released, on a gently flowing spring stream. You can make your own boat, using any kind of paper. Sail it or race it with others!

Got corks on hand? Make and enjoy a cork raft or cork sailboat.

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Blow Bubbles

Bubble blowing may be one of life’s perfect activities. Yes, they provide endless possibilities and inexpensive fun, but bubbles–each a thin skin of liquid surrounding a gas–sneakily illustrate a little science, too.  Read about bubble science here. Perhaps best of all, bubbles can be made using ingredients you probably have around the house. Take a bucket of mix to a park or lawn and enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures. Here’s a recipe for giant homemade bubbles and some fun bubble activities.

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Play Pick-Up Sticks with Real Twigs

It’s called Spillikans in Canada, Plockepinn in Sweden, Mikado throughout Europe, and Kau Cim in China, where the sticks were used as a fortune-telling device. Although you could buy a canister of pick-up sticks at a toy or variety store, why not collect your own, at the park, for free? As a bonus, you’ll have fun hunting for good sticks, as well as playing with them. Here are directions for Pick-Up Sticks.

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Cook with the Sun

Box ovens employ one of the oldest energy sources of all, solar power. French-Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure was the first to harness the sun 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. We like to make cupcakes, biscuits, English muffin pizzas, and other items that don’t require long cooking times. Try one of our favorites, Box Oven Pineapple Upside Down Cake.

Learn more about how to make a box oven and cook with the sun.

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Whistle with a Blade of Grass

Parks are the perfect place to let time move a little more slowly than usual. Try your hand at some outdoor activities from a slower time that need only the equipment on hand and a little practice. Even, and perhaps especially, a modern child will enjoy the chance to whistle with a blade of grass, make a daisy chain, or skip a stone in a body of water.

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Have a Scavenger Hunt or Make a Nature Bracelet

Whether you’re looking for wildflowers with five petals, red birds, or heart-shaped rocks, scavenger hunts get people of all ages exploring and observing in nature.

Nature bracelets also prove that simple is often best outdoors. Making them is a fun and easy way to get kids to look around them and observe small items. Like scavenger hunts, the hunt for nature bracelet items turns an outing into an adventure.

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Gaze at the Stars

Outdoor fun needn’t only happen during the daytime. The nighttime offers lots of opportunities to explore constellations of stars and exciting events like meteor showers, which happen often throughout the year. Many parks offer nighttime interpretive programs, and some U.S. national parks have been designated dark-sky parks, because of their excellent star-gazing conditions and educational opportunities.

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.

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Play Web of Life

This powerful group game 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. Learn the rules to Web of Life.

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Create Flower Fashions

The earliest May Day celebrations commemorated Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. Celebrate the spirit of Flora on May Day, Summer Solstice, Kids to Parks Day, or any time, by making lovely floral wreaths, crowns and baskets with materials found in a park or woods.

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Finger Weave

Bring your art to the park! Finger weaving is especially portable. Every year, at our annual Girl Scout Camporee weekend, this simple, tactile craft occupied girls of all ages, who wove, chatted, and relaxed in nature.

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Make S’Mores

If there’s a barbeque handy, consider firing it up and making everyone’s favorite camping treat, s’mores. The gooey creation has been pleasing people in parks since the first recipe was published in the 1927 Girl Scout handbook, Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.

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Play Classic Outdoor Games

When’s the last time you got a group together in a park for some old-fashioned playground or lawn games? Kids to Parks Day, or any day, is a great time to revive your favorites or learn something new. Games such as Red Light, Green Light, Duck Duck Goose, Mother/Father May I, Capture the Flag, Kick the Can, and the ever-popular Tag, in all its variations have been entertaining people around the world for decades. Here are the rules to these and other classic outdoor games. Try one in a park!

Prize Pack

Register for Kids to Parks Day & Enter the Buddy Bison Prize Pack Giveaway.

In addition to taking the Kids to Parks Day pledge to bring a child to a park on May 16, you can enter my giveaway to receive a Buddy Bison Prize Pack.

The prize package consists of a “Buddy Bison” mascot stuffed animal, 2 National Geographic Books (National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks and National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide U.S.A.), a CamelBak BPA- and BPS-free reusable bottle, a T-shirt, and a NPT Park Activity Guide ($75 value.)

To enter, take the the Kids to Parks Day pledge and then leave a comment on this post, letting me know you took the pledge and sharing your favorite park activity by Friday, May 15, Midnight, PDT. The giveaway winner will be chosen by random name generator and notified by email. The giveaway winner must respond within 48 hours of receiving the email to receive the prize.

Update: Laura has won the giveaway and claimed her prize. Thank you all for participating. Hope you enjoy your outdoor time.

Still looking for more park activities? Download National Park Trust’s Park Activity Guide. Have fun this spring in a park!

 

 

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

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Public Domain (grass, night sky, web of life), Pass the Cereal (nature bracelet), Virginia State Parks (classic games)

Other Slow Family posts you might like:

National Day of Service at our National Park
Ken Burns’ The National Parks on PBS
Camping Trip: California’s El Dorado National Forest
A Neighborhood Walk Turns into a Hike to Muir Woods

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count

Looking for a great winter or family nature activity? Join the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s Great Backyard Bird Count Friday-Monday, February 13-16, anywhere in the world. Anyone can participate, even if you only have 15 minutes and are completely new to birding.

Here’s how it works: You can pick a spot to go watch birds (a backyard, a park, a trail, a marsh, or anywhere you think birds might be) or you can join an organized event. You can download a very thorough check list of birds that are likely to be seen in your area. You record the birds that you see and then go home and either send in your checklist or enter the names and numbers in online.

There are lots more tips about counting and recording birds, tricky identifications, binoculars, and much more on BirdSource’s Great Backyard Bird Count page. The site also features recordings of bird sounds and more activities for kids.

The All About Birds site has beautiful photos and information that can help you identify birds. These are the top birds that were reported during the count last year.

So, why count birds in the first place, and why now? The Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Audubon Society and others use the information from the annual February count to track the health of various bird species over time and, in some cases, take steps to protect them. Mid-February has proven a good time to count, as it occurs just before the major Spring migrations. If you find you like counting, you can actually help year-round on various projects.

Last year 142,000 bird watchers from 135 countries documented nearly 4,300 species–or about 43% of all the bird species in the world! This year you could be part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Read about and see pictures of the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count.

Make a valentine feeder for the birds.

Get ideas for other great citizen science projects like Project Feeder Watch.


Photos: Painted Bunting and Green Honeycreeper by Doug Janson, Flame Colored Tanager by Jerry Oldenettel, Blue Jay: Creative Commons, Northern Spotted Owl by Susan Sachs Lipman

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!

Celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees

The Jewish holiday Tu B’Shevat, which occurs in mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere (sundown, February 3, this year) is known as the New Year of the Trees and, in some circles, as 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 the fruits and nuts of trees.

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 land and the planet.

Here are some easy, fun and meaningful ways to celebrate Tu B’Shevat.

Plant a Tree

Planting a tree is a simple and powerful act of faith and stewardship. Even a small yard or balcony can often accommodate a dwarf or potted tree. Alternately, there may be a neighborhood or public space available for the planting. This is a great project for a school, scout or youth group, as well as a family. Some people plant trees in the same place each year and watch them grow over the years.

See Blessings and Poems for Trees below.

Plant Vegetable or Flower Seeds

No space for a tree? No problem! Plant seeds outdoors or indoors that will come up in spring. You may want to plant parsley for Passover or Easter, peas for Earth Day, cosmos for May Day, or pansies for Mother’s Day. Of course, anything that grows will be celebrated anytime.

Try these easy-to-plant seeds, which can be planted in cool weather, are large enough for little fingers to handle, and sprout and grow relatively quickly: beans, gourds, morning glory, nasturtiums and peas.

Take a Photography or Poetry Walk

Sometimes the act of recording your observations with a camera or journal causes you to look around in a different way and notice things and make connections that you might not have made otherwise. Photography and poetry can help us quiet ourselves and focus our time in nature.

Be Kind to Nature

Choose an area near your home to care for for a few hours, in the form of weeding or picking up trash. These simple activities can really deepen our connections to the nature, as well as the people, around us. This can be especially true if we plant and revisit the same tree, or repeatedly care for the same piece of “nearby nature” over the years.

Make an Orange Bird Feeder

Did you know that orange halves make great bird feeders? They’re simple to make, visually appealing and even biodegradable. Best, your orange bird feeder will help you help the birds, at precisely the time when much of their food supply has diminished.

Have a Tu B’Shevat Seder

For those familiar with a Passover seder, a Tu B’Shevat seder is simpler. There are few rules. Hosts and participants decide on the customs that suit the event. Some plant seeds and tell stories that involve trees and tree planting. Others eat plenty of fruit and perhaps only fruit. You may want to choose from or eat all of these seven species which are abundant in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

Make a Fun Fruit Recipe

Why not try a new recipe? The following look very inviting:

Make a Root Viewer

For many, the roots of a plant can be just as fascinating as the parts we see above ground. This simple root viewer lets budding botanists view the magical processes that happen below the surface of growing things.

You’ll need:

  • Clear plastic cups, bottles or jars
  • Seeds and dirt

Fill the containers most of the way with dirt.
Plant the seeds close to one side, one or two per cup.
Put them in the sun and water gently.
Watch as roots form and plants sprout.

Blessings and Poems for Trees

At tree-planting time, you may want to recite a blessing or poem to encourage a long life for the tree. If you’d like, pass a chalice of water and have each person who receives it share a wish, thought or memory. Once the chalice has gone around, the water can be used to nourish the tree.

Simple Blessing for the Planting of a Tree

We plant this tree to honor ______ (name of person or occasion). May this tree’s roots go deep, its trunk grow strong, its branches spread wide, and its leaves and fruit provide nourishment, beauty and shade. May it always remind us of this special moment.

Growth of a Tree

I’m a little maple, oh so small,
In years ahead, I’ll grow so tall!
With a lot of water, sun, and air,
I will soon be way up there!

Deep inside the soil my roots are found,
Drinking the water underground.
Water from the roots my trunk receives,
Then my trunk starts making leaves.

As I start to climb in altitude,
Leaves on my branches will make food.
Soon my trunk and branches will grow wide,
And I’ll grow more bark outside!

I will be a maple very tall,
Losing my leaves when it is fall.
But when it is spring, new leaves will show.
How do trees grow? Now you know!

— Meish Goldish

Slow Snippet: In old Jewish homes, a cedar tree was planted for each baby boy, and a cypress tree for each girl. When two people married, branches from their trees were used to create their “chuppah”, or wedding canopy.

Hope you have joyous Tu B’Shevat!
Many of these activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ activities for family fun.

Have Some Shadowy Fun on Groundhog Day

Just in! Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. He predicted an six more weeks of winter 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.

First Meteor Shower of 2015: The Quadrantids

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The year’s first meteor shower is upon us. The Quadrantid Meteor Shower is set to peak on January 4th,  between Midnight and 2 a.m. Universal time (7-9 p.m. EST). Although the North American peak will occur at approximately 9 p.m. EST, the radiant will be very low on the horizon. For best viewing , look up between Midnight and 2 a.m., January 4th, your local time. If that won’t work, any time in the six-hour window around Midnight and 2 a.m. should yield some meteors, if other conditions are right. Be warned: Meteor watching is usually best on a clear, moonless night, and January 4th’s waxing gibbous moon may compete with the star show. Asia and Europe are predicted to have the best shows.

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower has been known to rival the popular Perseids and Geminids, in terms of number of meteors per hour, which can near 80. However, unlike those showers, during which meteors are sometimes visible for days, the window of time in which to view meteors is fairly brief.

What is a meteor shower?

Meteors occur when the Earth passes through streams of dust and debris from ancient comets which have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. (When the comet has flown close to the sun, its dirty ice evaporated and that, in turn, caused the comet dust to spew into space.) The Quadrantids are a relatively recent discovery (1830). Their name comes from a constellation that no longer exists on modern star charts. Their namesake, “The Mural Quadrant” has gone the way of other obscure and somewhat whimsical star patterns at one time known as “The Printing Office” and the “Northern Fly”.

How to watch the Quadrantid Meteor Shower

The Quadrantids should be visible with the naked eye in North America and other parts of the world. Sky watchers in cold climates should bundle up, grab a chair (ideally one with some neck support), and perhaps a blanket, head outside where you can see the largest patch of night sky possible (with as little city light as possible), and look up.

Because meteor showers can last for days before and after the projected peak, be sure to scan the skies during the surrounding days, if you can.

A thermos of hot chocolate is a great accompaniment for the Quadrantids.

This American Meteor Society page is a great site for exploring more about the Quadrantids and where and when to see them in your local night sky.

Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Graphics:  Astronomy Now, Photos by Kev

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?

Thanksgiving_grace_1942

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.

rainbow-hike

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)

 


 

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