I Dream of Clones

magnets-i-dreamed-my-whole-house-was-cleanAnne Taintor is my hands-down favourite satirist of motherhood and the life of a woman.  (Seriously, click that link and look at her gallery of images.  Time well spent.)

Sadly, she has not yet captured my dream with her witty one-liners: clones for the whole family.

It’s that time of year when folks are asking, “What would you/the kids/your husband like for Christmas?”

I’m sorely lacking in imagination with my answers because, frankly, I want for nothing but time.

How can you make my dreams come true?  Clone me.  Better yet, clone me, my husband and my three kids multiple times so that one husband can drive one kid to hockey while the same kid stays home and gets his homework done and the same husband drives a different kid to hockey and I stay home and supervise homework and attend both hockey games and the third kid’s basketball game and I cook a huge brunch and we all sleep in and enjoy a pajama day.

We have a lot on our plates, but you know what?  We don’t want to give any of it up.  The kids can’t wait to get out the door to hockey, whether it’s morning or night, and while the enthusiasm might be slightly more muted for the academic extracurriculars, they like those, too.  They aren’t complaining about being overscheduled.

Overscheduled is what we appear to be when you look at the bulging calendar, but the word implies an unwelcome burden and zombie kids but none of what we choose to stuff the calendar with is unwelcome and the kids are thriving.  Our lives are bountiful and filled with welcome plenty.  I struggle so with acknowledging all that welcome plenty at the same time as feeling frazzled from so much running around.  I am a homebody, and I crave my quiet nights, but I do not want to say no.  I do not want to trim or cut or axe or delete.  I want us all home and sitting around the dinner table together and I want us all tucked into our beds on time and I want time for my kids to really get pleasurably absorbed in a project and I want them to play epic games of Minecraft/tag/cards/whatever without watching the clock and I want us all at the rink, four cheering on the fifth, and I want to experience that fabled feeling of being in the moment when the moments only seem to come hurtling at me at 100 mph.

So, what is my dream for Christmas?  The impossible dream: I dream of clones.

Bedtime Stories Are My Abiding Delight

I am a big believer in making time, and lots of it, for books before bed.  My family was even interviewed about it once by Andrea Gordon at the Toronto Star.

Four years later, and the boys are bigger and, significantly, they play a lot more hockey.  All three boys play competitive hockey, and we make 10-12 trips to the rink a week.  This is a good thing, mostly, and I’m a little bit proud and a lot relieved to be raising kids who are so eager to be fit and healthy and active.  (Not my DNA.)  However, hockey eats into time for all kinds of things: playdates, family dinners, unstructured time, and, yes, bedtime stories.

Time is never found, it’s made, and I make time for bedtime reading whenever it’s remotely possible, which is still usually four times a week of an hour of reading aloud before bed.  I am a stickler for bedtimes, because some of us are quite cranky if we don’t get a full night’s sleep, even if some of us are in our forties.  But if I can squeeze in a chapter before Youngest’s bedtime, I will always go the extra mile to do so.  I’m now reading aloud to Youngest and Middlest, and it’s all Harry Potter all the time.  After Youngest pops off to bed, Middlest reads by himself, sometimes curled up with me and my book, and sometimes for up to two hours before it’s time for his lights out.  (Definitely my DNA.)  It’s a magical time.  I am so profoundly grateful for it.

endgameEldest does not read with predictable regularity any more, though, and that saddens me.  He is at the rink most often, and he comes home late.  He will occasionally get immersed in a series, but it’s not a dependable thing.  I recently heard an interview that impressed me so much, I went out and bought the book for him.  (Seriously, go listen to this interview: James Frey being interviewed by a boy named Joshua for The Guardian.  It’s not often I am more impressed by the interviewer than the interviewee, but this kid is sharp.)  Anyway, I learned from this interview that James Frey’s new YA novel The Calling, the first in the Endgame trilogy, has a puzzle built into it, and the first person to solve the puzzle has a chance to win $500,000 of James Frey’s own dollars, currently sitting in a vault in Las Vegas in gold bars.  “This will get his attention,” I thought.  I’m glad to say that while it did get his attention, and while he did find my enthusiasm about the interview infectious, he did not make a huge effort to read the book quickly to solve the puzzle to win the gold.

Reading should be its own reward, and I’m glad that money was not sufficient enticement.  I have a quiet faith that one day, when there is somewhat less hockey (and soccer and basketball and swimming) on his schedule, Eldest will make his way back to daily and lengthy engagements with a book.  Reading is my abiding delight, and I do so want them to have that kind of pleasure in their daily lives.

Giveaway: Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

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UPDATE: THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED

We have five sets of family passes to give away for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair!  (Each set has passes for four people.)

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is the world’s largest combined indoor agricultural and equestrian show.  This year, The 92nd Royal Agricultural Winter Fair runs November 7-16, 2014 in the Direct Energy Centre and Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.

All you need to do is leave a comment saying you’d like to go and we will select the winners on Thursday, November 6th.  (That’s tomorrow!  Enter now!)

 

horses

 

 

Meditating with Pattern-Making

photo 1 (3)Meditating and me, we just don’t click.  I can remember lying in bed as a child, struggling to fall asleep, and trying to count sheep.  I never even made it to ten before I’d be off track, imagining a wolf hiding behind a fence, waiting for his lunch, thinking about what I myself had had for lunch, and would there be any mango left over for lunch tomorrow, and thinking about how Soandso had sat with Whojimmywhatsit again, and my mind would be off racing.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I have the same problem of extreme distractibility as soon as I am supposed to immerse myself in concentrating on nothing.  I’ve tried and failed to empty my mind so many times, and as much as I love a challenge, I do not like repeated failure.

This past summer, though, as I was hunting for how-to books for making art with my kids, I stumbled upon a series of books about pattern-making called Zentangle.

The Zentangle Method is a way to create images by drawing structured patterns. It was created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, who found that she entered a meditative state as she drew her tangle patterns.  According to their web site, Zentangle began when Maria described “her feelings of timelessness, freedom and well-being and complete focus on what she was doing with no thought or worry about anything else.”

And it really is an all-absorbing, relaxing and fulfilling way to focus on something while thinking of nothing.

Carol told me recently about a tip someone had given her about how to occupy herself while sitting keeping her kids on task doing homework.  You know how sometimes, when you are sitting with your kids while they are doing homework and you get the urge to stick a hot poker in your eye just so that you can have something else to think about other than how much you’d like to escape?  Grab knitting needles instead.  It is more productive and less likely to end in bloodshed.  Knitting, once you are past the absolute beginner stage, is a brainless and soothing way to keep your hands busy when your mind has to be occupied.  Knitting also has the enormous value of giving you something in return for your effort, and at the end of the homework session, you will both have accomplished something other than screaming.  Drawing patterns has become that something for me.

Productivity is part of why I fail so spectacularly at meditation.  Believe me, I do get the irony of wanting meditation to be productive, but let’s face it, it’s not like I have lots of time to devote to getting it right.  I struggle and struggle and in the end I feel that I have wasted my time and energy and emerged with nothing, but not the nothing I was supposed to be aiming for.

Doodling patterns gets me into that totally focussed state of mind, gives me a feeling of well-being, and at the end of a doodling session, I have an image to show for it.  That is enormously satisfying.  I am working my way through doodling the letters of the alphabet.  This is what I made while the kids did math:

photo 2 (2)

If you’d like a quick tutorial on how to make one of the Zentangle designs, grab any old sheet of paper and something to draw with and follow along:

 

 

Tips for How to Turn Off the Television (Without a Fight)

tvOne of the transitions my kids like the least when we move from summer mode to school mode is the return of strict limits on screen time.  We are barely one week in, and already our heads are spinning from the number of things on the calendar.  With all of the sports, extra curriculars and playdates, there just isn’t time for television during the week, so our house rule is no television until after school Friday.   We usually have a movie night on Friday, and weekend mornings are fair game for whatever screen time the kids want (if the hockey schedule allows!) and it’s back to no screen time on Sunday nights.

Even with these limits, and even with a whole morning of available screen time on weekends, we still have a hard time when it comes to turning off the tube.  The kids resist unplugging, and there’s inevitably a squabble once the television stops entertaining them.

So at CBC Kids’ Days, when I met with Dr. Lynn Oldershaw of CBC Kids, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask her:

1. How can television teach kids how to regulate their emotions when the t.v. goes off?

2. How can we turn off the television without the meltdown that almost inevitably ensues?

Oldershaw pointed out that as part of their teaching of emotional intelligence, CBC Kids shows teach kids how to name their emotions, regulate their emotions and then problem solve to cope with their emotions.  Shows like The Adventures of Napkin Man and Poco teach strategies for how to manage anger or sadness, for example.  I’ve taken to getting Youngest to name the sense of aimlessness he feels when he unplugs.  At least if he’s able to recognize the pattern of feeling at a loss when the tv goes off, he can begin to find ways to overcome it.

Her advice for how to turn off the screens without a meltdown is to make empowerment the key.  Give your children choices.  The more control they feel they have, the less they will resist the limits you impose.  Have a family discussion about what is a reasonable amount of screen time and when it can happen.  Present them with choices before and after screen time:

“Do you want to watch television or play on the Wii?  It’s your choice how to spend your screen time.”

“Do you want to put in a movie or watch a television show?”

“Do you want to have lunch or go to the park?  It’s your choice what to do next.”

What do you do to help your kids unplug?  Is it a difficult transition? 

 

 

Elderflower Everything

stgermainliquuerI am obsessed with Elderflower.  Obsessed.  I discovered it a few years ago in a pop I found at Winners.  Do you know, I sometimes go to Winners just to shop in the crazy impulse buy aisles they have you weaving through miles of just to get to the cash register.  Seriously.  Just for that.  I find the best stuff in those aisles!  It’s where I found this elderflower pop.  It’s where my elderflower adventure began!

From a rare find at Winners to England, where elderflower pop is readily available at Tesco, and a habit was formed.  I drank a lot of it in England and brought home a bottle of elderflower cordial in my suitcase.

From elderflower softdrinks, I moved on to a discovery of elderflower liqueur.  St. Germain is available at the LCBO, and mixed with a splash of soda, it’s a little taste of heaven.

Also available at the LCBO is Rekorderlig elderflower and pear cider.  Serve very well chilled.  See above re: heaven.

Finally, a friend, aware of my passion, brought me a bottle of elderflower cordial from Ikea.

If you are feeling ambitious, you can make your own!  Recipe here from the Tree Council.

So, I’ve got several ways to find it, and now I’m working on ways to mix it.

Elderflower Bellini

A really indulgent cocktail that’s perfect for summer, is a simple mix of Prosecco and St. Germain.  Pour half an ounce of St. Germain into a champagne flute, fill with chilled Prosecco and feel the bliss.

REKORDERLIG-ELDERFLOWERElderflower Elvis

I made this cocktail for my Mad Mums’ Martini afternoon.  It was incredible.  At the time, I left out the beer from the original Bon Appetit recipe because I’m not a big fan of beer cocktails.  I’m thinking, though, that the Rekorderlig cider would be a delicious substitute for the beer and would amplify the elderflower flavour.

I also adapted the recipe by substituting vodka for gin and soaking segmented grapefruit in the vodka for a few hours.  I then used this flavour-infused vodka to make the cocktails and used the grapefruit for garnish.  Delish!

Virgin Elvis

Just add Elderflower cordial to pink grapefruit juice and add a splash of soda water.  Yum!

Please tell me about any other elderflower drinks you may know about!!

 

CBC Kids’ Programming: Combining Learning and Fun

photo (8)File this under things I never thought I’d say: if I had it all to do again, I would let my preschoolers watch more television.  At least, that’s how I feel after meeting some of the great minds behind CBC children’s programming.

I love meeting people who are infectiously enthusiastic about their jobs, and that was very much the case at CBC Kids’ Days when I met Kim Wilson, creative head of CBC children’s programming, and Dr. Lynn Oldershaw, child psychologist and children’s’ programming consultant for Kids’ CBC.  They were introducing three new shows coming to CBC Kids– Chirp, The Moblees, and You & Me–and they invited 4Mothers along to their Very Important Picnic, where parents and kids could mix and mingle and meet some of the people in front of and behind the camera.

(Confession: I have a crush on Mamma Yamma and I got to meet her!  In the potato flesh!)

photo (7)

Almost as exciting as that celebrity spotting, I learned a lot about their whole child approach to children’s programming and how their shows fill their mandate to educate and empower children.

“We are not just making content, we are making a difference.”

Kim Wilson

Both Kim and Lynn emphasized how television can make a positive difference to preschool-aged viewers, and, I confess, I was a bit skeptical at first.  As a rule, I place tight limits on screen time because I’d prefer my kids to be active, but as Lynn pointed out, preschoolers do not watch television passively in the way that adults and older children do.  Their minds are constantly working as they watch, and they are active consumers of what’s on the screen.  If you make sure to put them in front of quality, interactive programming, then they will engage and learn.

The team at CBC ensures that learning happens with their Whole Child Development Approach to programming, in which five areas of development are being targeted in shows that are very interactive:

1.  Cognitive Growth (science, spelling, numeracy, learning to read; Bookaboo, Monster Math Squad)

2. Social Skills (equally important in preparing for academic success is how to get along with other children; Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood)

3. Emotional Intelligence (empowering kids to identify and regulate their emotions and then problem-solve to cope with powerful emotions; Poko, The Adventures of Napkin Man)

4. Creativity (music, art, storytelling–children have an enormous capacity for creativity, and quality programming will stimulate it, not stifle it, by enabling kids to extend on what they see and hear; Artzooka; I noticed how simple the monsters in Monster Math would be to draw ourselves)

5. Physical Development (many aspects of the programming encourage, and even require, kids to move in order to propel the story; Bo on the Go)

I was thrilled to learn that John Mighton, of Jump Math fame, was a consultant on the numeracy content in Monster Math Squad, and Mary Gordon, who founded Roots of Empathy, was a consultant for the emotional intelligence content of The Adventures of Napkin Man.  These are thinkers and activists whose work I have long admired, and to hear that they are contributing to children’s television is nothing short of delightful.

We had a great day at the CBC studios, and I left feeling really grateful to have had the chance to look behind the curtain.  It has given me a much rosier view of how the small screen can be a positive part of at home learning.

 

50 Things to Do Outside

Have you seen the list of 50 Things to Do Before You Are 11 3/4 from England’s National Trust?  It’s brilliant.

I’m a big fan of the bucket-list approach to living.  (We are steadily working our way through 1001 Children’s Books to Read Before You Grow Up.  I plan never to be too old for anything in that book.  I love the whole series.)

Give me a list and I itch to get ticking.  Is it even possible to try 1001 Whiskeys Before You Die?  There’s only one way to find out!  It’s the journey and not the destination, right?

What I love about the National Trust List is that it is as much a starting point for infinite adventures as it is a finite list.  It works for the task-oriented, but also for those who like to wander off the beaten path.  It pushes you further into the wild, and it makes you open your eyes to the wilderness on your urban doorstep.

Middlest and I were walking through a ravine the other day, and he said, “People just see the danger in the wild.  They don’t see the good things.”  We started to name the good things.  We ran out of ravine before we ran out of ideas.

conkersI grew up playing conkers in England.  You tie a chestnut onto a string, and then you try to knock your opponent’s chestnut off of her string.  The enormous crispiness of those brown leaves, the prickle of the nut case, and the smell of weather cooling is forever part of my sensory memory.  I don’t know why conkers isn’t popular in Canada, but because it isn’t, chestnuts are just another tree to my boys, and they probably could not name it.  Chestnut, maple, oak: these are trees that I am confident I can identify in almost all seasons, but as Middlest and I were walking, I realized that I could not name nearly all of the trees we walked past.  It awoke in me a desire to learn to identify all of the trees in our neighbourhood.  They are so much a part of our lives, and yet we don’t know all of their names.

treeI’ve taken to carrying my tree guide to the park, to taking new routes with new trees, and while the kids play soccer, I wander around looking at the trees.  Then they wander over and have a peek and help me to identify the leaf shape and find the right name.

And, lo and behold, we all have a name for the fragrant tree that brings us so much joy when it’s in blossom in June and July.  Hello, Linden.  So nice to know your name.

Learning to Draw

Our theme for our posts for July is, loosely, homeschooling: learning at home.  Partly, we are talking about avoiding the summer slide, but we are also looking at how learning at home and outside of the classroom is important for broadening our kids’ horizons.  And, yes, we include our trip to LEGOLAND in the learning category!  You should have seen how the boys looked at each others’ car models and sought advice and inspiration from each other to make their cars faster.

One of my goals for myself and my kids this summer is to create more art.  I am powerfully drawn to art supply stores in a way that totally defies logic because I can’t draw!  All those gorgeous colours of markers, and here’s be barely able to draw a smiley face.

I’d like to change that.

Here are three sets of books that I have found really useful.

animalsEd Emberley’s illustration instruction is an outstanding place to start, not only because the method is so simple and fun but because results are so instant.  Seriously, no one can mess this up.  We have several of his books, but the web site is fun and useful, too.  It has printable sheets and animated instruction.  I really like the step-by-step method, but also how he includes ways to vary the basic image.  We own a copy of his Drawing Book of Animals, originally published in 1970.  It is dedicated to “the boy I was, the book I could not find.”  That broke my heart a little.  Well, your boys and girls can find both the book and the web site and can get busy making art right away.  His fingerprint illustrations are particularly fun, and they even incorporate literacy into the method: if you can write IVY LOU, you can draw an owl.

owl

Another series I love is based on shapes.  Chris Hart has a whole line of illustration instruction books, but the ones I go to all the time are his very basic shape-based ones: Draw a Triangle/Circle/Square, Draw Anything.

drawAgain, the key to the success of these books is step-by-step instruction and instant gratification.  My son’s hockey team, whose logo was a deer, made it to the finals in their division a few years back.  For luck, I decided to give them all lucky underwear (inspiration from the coach, who had a pair) and I went to this book to find a super-simple image of a deer to draw onto the underwear.  Huge hit.

20Finally, I have fallen in love with a great series of books that encourage artists not only to make art but to find a style that suits them: the 20 Ways to Draw series from Quarry books.  The illustrations are a lot more advanced, but the books demonstrate various styles for illustrating the same object, from simple to more complicated.  There is no step-by-step instruction, but there is a lot of inspiration!

20-ways-draw-penguin-244

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TMN-logo_Square1A reminder that voting is open for the best mom blog of 2014, for which we are thrilled to have been nominated.

Please head over to Toronto Mom Now and check out the other nominees.  You can vote for your favourite three.  Voting closes on Monday, July 14.

 

Legoland Fun for All

Lego ROM!  Amazing.

Lego ROM! Amazing.

Isn’t it a great feeling when your kids get along with your friend’s kids?

In the four years we have been blogging together, our boys have never met each other but last week we all met at Legoland Discovery Centre and within minutes our boys were laughing and playing together like they’ve been friends for years.

Legoland Discovery Centre invited us to try out the newest addition to the Vaughan Mills site: the Ninjago Laser Training Camp and since Carol, Nathalie and I are not as fluent in all things Lego like our boys, we brought them along.

Waiting to get in.

Waiting to get in.

 

Our morning started with a group photo before we entered the Lego Factory.  An interactive entrance to the museum, the factory lets kids see the steps that go into shaping a Lego brick.  They can also measure their height and weight in Lego bricks, and create art with Lego bricks on ipads.

After this introduction, we hopped aboard the Kingdom’s Quest tunnel ride and were handed laser guns.  This group of boys was giddy at the opportunity to point, shoot and tally up their score.  The mothers all sighed.  We’ve long given up on fighting the appeal of “gun play.”  Truth be told, Carol got the best score.  “Hey!  I’m pretty good at this!” she said.  Props for mom when the truth was revealed.

The boys then spent about thirty minutes constructing their Lego Racers and testing them out on the Royfoss track.  It always amazes me to see what kids are capable of creating with no adult involvement.  As a group they cheered each others’ cars on and made the necessary improvements to improve their performance.

After that they worked up a sweat racing through the multi-level play zone while the moms enjoyed each other’s company on the sidelines waiting to experience Merlin’s Apprentice.  Seated in pairs (children under 120 cm must ride with an adult on all Legoland Discovery Centre rides), we pedaled up, up and away!

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Before viewing one of the four 15 minute 4-D movies, we got in the line for the Ninjago Training Camp.  The boys were excited to tackle the lasers and discussed at length their strategies with the enthusiastic operator who encouraged the boys to try the more advanced ninja and sensei levels.  They were all too happy to oblige.

The maze doesn’t last long but it is addictive, meaning our boys returned to the line-up several times over to increase their score.  Points are awarded by making it through the maze without “breaking” any of the laser beams.  The boys used their creativity (and their oh-so-flexible limbs) to hop, crawl and slide their way through.  The moms were not quite so limber but in all fairness were saddled with purses and extra sweatshirts.

When it was time to say goodbye, with the promise to get together soon, the boys made their way through the exit and of course . . . the gift shop.  Each boy chose a small token to remember their special morning by and mothers were thankful for the minutes of quiet playtime said purchases bought later that afternoon.  We left feeling that we could easily have stayed longer and not run out of things to do.

Thinking of making a visit?  Here’s what you need to know:

-       Shoes and bare feet are not permitted inside the play zone.  Socks must be worn.

-       The snack shop has a variety of healthier options but many options are not nut-free.

-       The washrooms are clean!  Hurrah!!!!

-       There are NO in-and-out privileges.

-       Adults are not permitted entry without children.

-       Tickets are less expensive if purchased on-line ($18 each) and children under the age of 2 are free.

-       The centre is not large and can get very crowded at peak times (holidays, school breaks, summer vacation, etc.)

-       Many of the activities are geared to younger children (under 10)

-       We spent three hours there as a group, and Carol stayed for another two hours and said her boys would happily have kept building for yet more time.  Out of ten, her eldest gave it a “10 google” (off the charts).

-       None of us had been before and all of us would happily go back.