Friday Family Fun: Five crafty ideas to keep kids busy

I was in Costco the other day and they had the back-to-school supplies out already. Nooooooo! I’m not ready!!! Yeesh, summer has barely begun!

And yet, when the kids are restless, those long summer days can seem less like something to be enjoyed and more like something to be endured. For this week’s version of Friday Family Fun, here’s five crafty ideas that will keep kids engaged – for a few minutes, at least!

1. Make-yer-own sidewalk paint

I love this craft, and had no idea how easy it would be to make nor how easy it would be to clean up!! I wrote a post all about how to make-your-own sidewalk paint with nothing more than corn starch, water and food colouring last year.

Fun with sidewalk chalk paint (2 of 6)

2. Make-yer-own moon sand

Confession: we haven’t tried this one yet, but I’ve seen it all over the Interwebs this summer. Apparently, if you mix 4 cups of sand, 2 cups of corn starch and 1 cup of water, you get the equivalent of that mouldable Moon sand stuff. I think this would be really fun to try with that fancy Crayola coloured sand, which would give more than enough for each boy to have his own bin full.

3. Make-yer-own playdough

If moon sand isn’t your thing, how about some home-made playdough? We got this kool-aid playdough recipe from Simon’s nursery school years ago, and I really like how it turns out. You’ll need

1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup salt
1 pkg unsweetened Kool-aid (the mini-ones)
1 cup boiling water
1 1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil

In a bowl, mix flour, salt and dry kool-aid mix. Boil water and add with oil to dry mix. Be careful, it’s hot! Allow to cool a bit but while still warm knead with hands for about 5 minutes. Will store for up to two months in a Ziploc bag.

4. Beads

We make a trip out to the local bead store each summer. Once upon a time, I thought of beads as more of a girl thing, but I couldn’t be more wrong – all the boys I know love to make beady crafts. And you don’t have to limit yourself to jewelry, either – the boys make nametags for their backpacks and lunchbags, zipper pulls for their jackets, and even name collars for their Webkinz pets. I usually buy a big bag of pony beads and alphabet beads and some elastic cord at the dollar store, and let them choose half a dozen or so fancy beads each from the bead store, and we’re good for at least an afternoon of entertainment.


5. Rock painting

This is another one on my to-do list for the summer. You’ll need some bright colours of tempra or acrylic paint (not watercolours), some brushes, and various sizes of rocks. Tip: collecting the rocks can be a great way to waste an afternoon – erm, I mean, another way to spend some quality time with your children! You can be ridiculously fancy like Martha Stewart, or aim a little lower and just hope more paint ends up on the rocks than the kids. You can guess which end of the spectrum I fancy!

I also found this neat idea on Pinterest: Use a stamp kit, stencil or transfer to create a whole bunch of alphabet tiles made from small stones. Isn’t that a fun idea?

So there you go, that should keep the wee beasties busy for at least another week, right? 🙂 As always, please feel free to share your ideas for crafty family fun in the comments!

Friday Family Fun: Rainbow cupcakes

For this third installment of my summertime Friday Family Fun series, after suggesting some places to get out and visit around the national capital, I thought I’d post a suggestion for a fun kid activity that you can do whether you live in Ottawa or anywhere else. We did this last weekend and the boys loved it!

Cupcakes 1

You can start with cupcakes from scratch if you have that kind of talent, but we went with a box mix for plain vanilla cupcakes cuz that’s how we roll. However you start out, you should end up with a big bowl of cake batter. Separate that into as many bowls as you want colours — we went with four: red, green, yellow and blue. Add enough food colouring to each bowl of batter so you get a nice, rich hue.

Cupcakes 2

We made cupcakes, but the first time I saw this was on Amy’s blog, where she did a whole cake this way. I personally like the cupcake thing — I like my activities and my snacks bite-sized! Put a spoonful or two of each colour into a cupcake sleeve, and keep dripping layers of colour in until the batter fills the cup.

Cupcakes 3

As you can see, there’s not a lot of precision in our methodology. I’m learning to watch more and control less. It’s not always easy!

Cupcakes 4

When you bake them, they end up like this.

Cupcakes 5

As if fresh-baked cupcakes didn’t look delicious enough without the rainbow effect! And then, we added some frosting. Daddy dug out some star sprinkles to add just a bit more whimsey to the final product.

Cupcakes 6

Some of ours ended up half yellow and half blue, or mostly green with a touch of pink, but a few actually ended up like I had intended, looking something like this:

Cupcakes 7

Of course, this was the best part!

Cupcakes 8

If you’re looking for a fun rainy-day activity this summer vacation, consider rainbow cupcakes. So easy that even we could do them, so I’m sure just about anybody could!

It’s a 21st Century Christmas

This post was inspired by a CBC article about how Shaw Cable moved its beloved Yule Log channel to a Video On Demand channel. The previously free stream featuring nothing but a Yule log burning in a fireplace, now entering its 25th year, will now cost 99 cents. The fee, plus a matching amount from Shaw, will be donated to charity. Thanks to the Twitter conversation about the change to Shaw’s Yule log channel, I discovered that of course there’s an app for that. And then I fell down the rabbit hole of iPhone Christmas apps.

Here are five of the most interesting Christmas-themed apps I found. (Caveat: I have not tested many of these. Use at your own risk!)

1. The Yule Log app. As soothing and oddly compelling as Log itself.

2. Christmas Music by Nutsie. Thousands of Christmas songs wrapped up in dozens of playlists like Top 100 Christmas Songs, Children’s Christmas, Krazy Kristmas, and (I’m so curious, I may just have to fork out the $1.99 for this one) the Jingle Bells Playlist.

3. Postcards from Santa. This one is getting such great reviews that I think I might have to try it myself! “Select from a number of charming santa images, use our pre-written santa message or write your own, and enter the name and mailing address of the child you want to send the postcard to. We will print the customized postcard and drop it in the mail. Your child’s postcard will arrive only a few days later in the mail.” Fun!

4. Talking Santa. “Talk to Santa and he will repeat your words. Poke, swipe or tickle Santa to see his various reactions. Run Santa over with a huge snowball. (I can hear my boys howling over this already!) Give Santa milk & cookies. Touch the bag to see more than 20 gifts. Shake your device and see what happens.”

5. The Christmas Tree Decorating App. No space for a tree? This seems like a silly little app to help you feel like you decorated the tree. “Decorate your tree however you choose with colored lights, ornaments, candy canes and icicles. But be careful not to drop any ornaments or you will hear that dreaded shatter! Watch your individually decorated tree sparkle as you countdown the days till Christmas.”

And, for those of you who don’t have an iPhone or an iPad, here’s four more 21st Century Christmas sites and services!

I’ve said before how much of a huge fan I am of the Portable North Pole application. Upload a picture and make a few specifications on Santa’s site, and Santa will e-mail you a link to a personalized video that mentions your child by name AND shows a picture of him or her in Santa’s big book. This is a delightful service and my boys are already asking if Santa will be sending them a new message this year. (Um, note to self — next task on list = upload pix to Portable North Pole!)

Along the same lines, Sympatico’s Magic Santa is an online video service you can use to make free personalized videos messages from Santa for your kids. is partnering with Kids Help Phone and will be giving $0.25 to them for every video made up to $50,000. There’s also is a contest… one family will win a trip to Walt Disney World by capturing a photo or video of a child’s reaction to a Magic Santa video and submitting it to the contest site by December 19, 2010. And there’s even a Magic Santa iPhone app.

The NORAD Santa Tracker site has been around for awhile, but now there’s a mobile version, too! This Christmas eve, join NORAD to track Santa’s flight from your phone. On December 24th, open Google Maps for mobile and do a search for “Santa” to see his latest location.

And of course, you can always follow Santa on Twitter!

Completely serendipitously, just as I was finishing this post, my brother e-mailed me this amazing video of a Christmas concert staged entirely with iPhones and iPads. As my brother said, how could you NOT want an iPhone or an iPad after you see this?

We’ve come a long way from letters the editor, haven’t we Virginia?

Kids movies for the holidays

Last week in the mail, I got an unsolicited and unexpected DVD screener of the movie Ramona and Beezus. There was no cover letter, just the DVD in an envelope. I wasn’t even sure if it was the trailer or the full movie until we popped it in the DVD player and started it up.

Turns out it was the full movie, and the boys watched it with Beloved while I popped out on my weekly grocery run. I wasn’t sure how engaged a six- and eight-year-old boy would be by what seemed to me to be a “girl” movie (I have vague memories of reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby books when I was a kid) but they really enjoyed it. Tristan’s only complaint, lodged before I had finished hauling my grocery booty into the kitchen, was that there were FOUR kissing scenes. Apparently, in addition to warnings about violence, nudity and language, there should be a “kissing scene” warning banner prominently displayed on all movies.

I’m grateful for the free movie that was perfectly timed to follow a marathon two-hour outside play session, and which contributed to a rather perfect and laid-back Saturday at our place, and I’d like to pass on the favour. It doesn’t come with a box and Lucas tore up the sleeve it came it, but if you’d like the screener DVD, let me know in the comment box. First asker gets it! I’ll mail it to you this week, and while there is no obligation to do so, it would be lovely if you passed it on to someone else when you’re done.

If you’re looking for a really wonderful movie for school-age boys or girls, I highly recommend Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s one of those rare kid movies that are not just tolerable but quite enjoyable for grown-ups too. The boys have been reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books on and off for most of the year, and “cheese touch” is a perpetually-played game around here that tends to break out during walks home from school and the giggly time between bath and bedtime.

Myself, I’m looking forward to getting the DVD box set of all three Toy Story movies for the boys for Christmas. Beloved and the big boys saw Toy Story 3 in the theatre, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve been warned to have a hankie on hand when I do!

Seen any good kid movies lately?

Christmas Parades of Eastern Ontario – the 2010 Edition!

Edited to add: Click this link for the 2018 Santa Claus and holiday parade info!

Last leaves drifting from the trees? Check.

Halloween safely behind us, tucked into bed with a sore belly from too much candy? Check.

Weather turned cold, grey and damp — and snowy?!? Check.

Yay, it must be time for my annual guide to the Santa, Christmas and Holiday Parades of the National Capital region!!

This is the fifth anniversary of my bloggy parade preview, and it’s of one of my favourite posts to write each year. It’s a fun challenge tracking down all the big city and small town events in Eastern Ontario and the Outaouis, and gets me in the festive spirit almost as early as Costco has their Christmas trees on sale!

Here’s what’s happening in 2010, in chronological order.
Continue reading “Christmas Parades of Eastern Ontario – the 2010 Edition!”

Outdoor family fun: Make yer own sidewalk paint!

In years to come, they’ll talk about 2010 as the year that Easter fell in mid-summer. Yesterday, Ottawa was the warmest place in Canada with a high temp of 27C — that’s around 85F and the same temp as Miami, Florida!

Even without the extraordinary temperatures, I get excited when the winter finally breaks for spring. I’m inordinately delighted to see the toboggans and mittens replaced with skipping ropes and fooz-ball sets. In this warmer-than-average spring, we’ve already long since broken out the sidewalk chalk and bubbles, so I was looking for something fun to enjoy the lovely day. After lingering longingly over the (rather expensive) Crayola sets in the store, we decided to make my our sidewalk chalk paint!

Sidewalk chalk 6

It’s crazy easy: just stir together equal parts corn starch and water, and a couple drops of food colouring. We had to crank up the corn starch in our first batch because it came out too runny, but our second batch turned out perfectly! It looks a little watery when you paint it out, but as the water evaporates the colours become more vivid.

Sidewalk chalk 5

We tried regular brushes, but they were a little bit too small for the job. We found that the square foam brushes you use to paint household trim worked much better! We started out painting the driveway, and quickly moved on to bricks, garden fixtures and even the lamp post. And then, rather predictably, things disintegrated into a spatter-fest that would make Jackson Pollack proud.

Sidewalk chalk 1

We used about a half a box of corn starch and maybe a dozen drops of food colouring — that’s a full evening of creative, outdoor entertainment for less than $2. Oh, and did I mention? It washes out cleanly in water!

Sidewalk chalk 2

In which they become addicted to a thousand-year-old board game

Like so many of the best things in life, it’s deceptively simply and devilishly addictive. No, we’re not talking about cupcakes, but about a thousand-year-old board game called Mancala that has overtaken our family like a virus.

420:1000 Mancala TtV

Have you heard of it? I had not. Tristan got a Mancala set (also known as Kalah) for Christmas from my aunt, but we hadn’t gotten around to pulling off the wrapper until the March Break. From the first time we played, the big boys and I were hooked. We got Beloved addicted within the week.

Mancala is a derivative of an ancient family of games that are played all over the world. It’s about as low-tech as a game can get — and can I just take a minute and say how delightful it is to see the boys engaged by something that doesn’t flash, vibrate, blast electronic warbles or detonate aliens? You have a small wooden board with six small ‘pits’ laid out in two rows, and a big ‘pot’ at either end. You start out with four beads in each of the little pits. In any given move, you simply scoop out the beads in any of the pits in front of you and move counterclockwise around the board, depositing one bead in each pit. Play continues, usually for 10 to 15 minutes, until one player has no beads left in front of him or her. Player with the most beads in their pot at the end wins.

Here’s a complete set of rules from the (I swear!) official Mancala wiki. They use the term “seed” instead of bead, and the “kalah” is the big pot at your end of the board on your right side. The “store” is your opponent’s kalah.

Play is counterclockwise. The seeds are distributed one by one in the pits and the players own kalah, but not into the opponent’s store.

If the last seed is dropped into an opponent’s pit or a non-empty pit of the player, the move ends without anything being captured.

If the last seed falls into the player’s kalah, he must move again.

If the last seed is put into an empty pit owned by the player, he captures all contents of the opposite pit together with the capturing piece and puts them in his kalah. If the opposite pit is empty, nothing is captured. A capture ends the move.

The game ends when a player has no legal move and the remaining pieces are captured by his adversary. The player who has captured most pieces is declared the winner.

Devilishly addictive, dead simple, and oooh, pretty colours. What’s not to love?

The beauty of the game is that you could play it anywhere, with anything. You could play it on the beach by drawing your pits and pots and using stones; one of my Flickr friends mentioned she made a set out of an egg carton. And you can get high-tech, too: there are online versions and yes, there’s an app for that. I’ve resisted the digital versions, though. Something about the tactile interaction with those glass beads really enhances the game for me!

Everyone who has played seems to love the game, so I’m a little surprised to have never heard of it before. Have you played? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it for your next rainy day or family game night. I see many, many hours of Mancala tournaments in our future!

An experienced mom’s guide to kid birthday parties in Ottawa

We’re thick in the midst of birthday party season at our place: all three boys have birthdays in a five week span. Over the years we’ve mostly contracted out the birthday party, largely because the idea of avoiding 10 caked-up boys drunk on adrenaline on the loose in my house is worth just about any price! As such, I thought it would be nice to share our perspective on some of the various birthday party options for the school-age set in Ottawa.

Our perennial favourite has been Starr Gymnastics. They have two locations, one east and one west. I’ve never been to the Lancaster location, but have only good things to say about the west-end location. We’ve done four, maybe five birthday parties there, plus taken a couple of years’ worth of gymnastic lessons and even done a week of summer camp there. Starr gets a gold star in our book!

We tried Cosmic Adventures one year when Tristan was wee, I think it was his third birthday. It was fun, but the location is not convenient to Barrhaven, and we’ve never gone back. The boys have been to parties at Midway and Fun Junction, neither of which are convenient to Barrhaven although the boys had a good time.

One year we went with a few friends for an informal playdate at Playtime4Kids before having cake back at our house (that was the year Simon turned four and I was eleventy-hundred months pregnant with Lucas — we were looking for simplification that year!) and I was not really impressed with them at all.

This year, we did Simon’s party at A Gym Tale in Barrhaven, and we were extremely pleased with everything. The package included nearly an hour of free play on their indoor playground (very clean and very safe for toddlers), then a half an hour “adventure” led by a hilarious party helper. The kids did an obstacle course, and then the leader dressed up as an alien and let the kids pelt her with balls — the kids thought it was fantastic and the grownups watching couldn’t help but laugh. Then we had the standard 30 minutes for cake and presents in a private room. All told, I was highly impressed by the value and quality — another gold star!

375:1000 Happy Birthday Simon!

We’ve considered parties at the Agriculture Museum and the Museum of Science and Tech — would like to get around to those one year. Last year, we did Tristan’s 7th birthday at Merivale Bowling Centre, and I found that to be another excellent value that seemed to be a lot of fun for the kids. We toyed with a Cineplex party, as the kids have enjoyed attending parties there in the past, but there were simply no good movies on around the kids’ birthdays this year. And speaking of movies, did you know you can rent a movie theatre at the Colliseum to play Xbox on the big screen? How awesome is that! We’re *so* considering that for next year!!

But I don’t think any year will top this year’s party for sheer awesomeness, at least in Tristan’s mind. This year, I am so delighted by finding the perfect personality-theme mix that I am even willing to risk hosting it in my own house. Next month, I’m inviting five 8-year-olds (plus a nephew and two little brothers) to a Lego birthday party for Tristan. We’ve contracted “The Lego Guy” to come to our house for the event. You might have heard of him, he does a lot of Lego workshops around town. Here’s what he offers for birthday parties:

My party starts of playing the LEGO Creator Game, then building machines and structures using LEGO Technic pieces, example projects are amusement rides, hand drills, paper crinklers, etc., most of the projects can be motorized. The last part of the party is spent building LEGO robots using NXT Robotic System, and then do some sort of activity with them such as Sumo Wrestling and / or exploring with sensors to make the robots react to their surroundings.

Isn’t that perfect for a kid who lives and breathes Lego? And lookit me go, instead of dollar-store invites, I made personalized Lego invites with my mad photoshop skillz:

395:1000 Lego birthday invite

Fun, eh? The mini-fig is Tristan’s own representation of himself, made from this awesome “create yer own minifig” site. (If you’re doing this with the kiddies, make sure you use the kid-friendly version *without* cigarettes and handguns available!!) Of course, there will be a full report after the fact. Wish me luck on actually having the kids in my house!!

Now to see if we can find an alternative to loot bags (hate them!) that the kids loved as much as their personalized birthday CDs to give away!

Care to share your experiences? Any suggestions for fun kids’ parties in or around Ottawa? What has been your kids’ favourite or most memorable party experience?

Five ideas for Family Literacy Day

Did you know that Wednesday January 27 is Family Literacy Day in Canada? From the Web site:

Family Literacy Day takes place every year on January 27. ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation and Honda Canada created the day in 1999 to encourage families to read and learn together. […] Literacy is more than books. There are many ways to strengthen your literacy skills – all it takes is practicing for 15 minutes every day. Reading, writing, playing a game, following a recipe or even singing a song all help prepare children for challenges ahead and sharpen skills for adults.

Now, I’m guessing that I’m preaching to the choir when I tell you that literacy is one of the most important tools you can give your children, but I’m always looking for new tips and ideas for turning learning into a fun family activity.

Here’s five ideas for inspiring literacy in your family every day:

  1. Encourage your kids to tell stories. When you’re waiting in line, or in the car, or otherwise find yourself with time on your hands, create a story together based on something around you. See that man with the bright yellow t-shirt? What do you think he had for breakfast this morning? Why is he wearing that yellow shirt? Is his favourite colour yellow? Do you think he wears yellow every single day, one day wearing yellow pants and one day wearing yellow underwear? Why? You can get really silly with this, but it’s great fun and my kids love it.
  2. Did you know there’s a Sesame Street podcast? You know I love Sesame Street, and you know I’m fixated on my iPod. What could be better than the Word on the Street podcast from the creators of Sesame Street?!
  3. Sing it! I mentioned the other day how astonished I am that Lucas, not yet two, knows the melody if not all the words to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and he’s been calling out the last word of each line to You are my Sunshine for months now. This year’s official theme for Family Literacy Day is “Sing for Literacy” and ABC Canada has provided access to free karaoke videos online.
  4. Wear your words. This is a neat idea for older kids from ABC Canada’s family literacy tips pdf: write a story or a poem on an old pair of jeans. Love this idea!
  5. Make yer own books. Tristan was about three when I helped him make his first book, made of pictures cut out of a Thomas the Tank Engine catalogue. He made his own first comic book around age five. All you need is a single letter-sized page cut into quarters and stapled along one edge and voilà: instant 8-page mini-book ready for words or scribbles or stickers or whatever your child can think of. If you like, get fancy and use a hole-punch and ribbon or yard to bind the side. The only problem with these is that the kids make them by the pile and I never have the heart to throw them out!

Care to share? Add your thoughts for making literacy fun in the comment section!

Five ways to interact with Santa

Back in the day, the only ways you could “interact” with Santa were to stand in line at the mall to sit on his knee, or maybe at your parents’ annual company Christmas party.

Now that we live in an interactive world, though, not only can your kids write a letter to Santa, or listen to Christmas Eve updates of his whereabouts from the local weather man, but you can get e-mails, videos and track the big dude yourself starting early in December. Here are five fun ways for kids to communicate with Santa, starting with my fave.

1. The Portable North Pole. I love this app, madly and deeply. Whomever came up with this and put it together is brilliant. I did this last year and the look on the boys’ faces was priceless — and though I haven’t been all the way through it this year, I can see they’ve made even more improvements and personalization. You the parent have to go in ahead of time and set it up, supplying your kids’ first names, something they’ve done that’s good, a photo if you like, and other personalized details. They give you a link to a video, and you can visit it later with your kids. I must remember to go in tonight to set up all three boys, so they’ll know Santa is thinking about them!

2. Letters and e-mails to Santa. Yes, it’s true, you can e-mail Santa and he’ll reply, but isn’t the ritual of writing and sending an actual paper letter, and then the eye-popping excitement of getting something back in the mail box, worth the extra effort? In Canada, you have to mail your letters before December 16 if you want a reply. Mail to:

Santa Claus
North Pole
H0H 0H0

Or you can send an e-mail through (Hmmm, in the US, it seems that the US Postal Service has stopped providing a Letters to Santa service this year. Any other ideas from our American friends?)

3. Norad’s Santa Tracker. When I was a kid, I remember watching with slack-jawed wonder as Percy Saltzman, the weather man on Global News, talked about Norad tracking Santa as he began his journey around the world on Christmas Eve. I think just about everybody has heard of Norad’s Santa Tracking service, but I had no idea of this charming history to the project, courtesy of WikiPedia:

In 1955, a Colorado Springs-based Sears store ran an advertisement encouraging children to call Santa Claus on a special telephone hotline. Due to a printing error, the phone number that was printed was the hotline for the Director of Operations at the Continental Air Defense (CONAD). Colonel Harry Shoup took the first Santa call on Christmas Eve of 1955 from a six-year old boy who began reciting his Christmas list. Shoup didn’t find the call funny, but after asking the mother of the second caller what was happening, then realizing the mistake that occurred, he instructed his staff to give Santa’s position to any child who called in.

In 1997, Canadian Major Jamie Robertson took over the program and expanded it to the Web where corporation-donated services have given the tradition global accessibility. In 2004, NORAD received more than 35,000 e-mails, 55,000 calls and 912 million hits on the Santa-tracking website from 181 countries. The site now gets well over 1 billion hits.

Love it!

4. Friend Santa’s on Facebook Last year, there was a kerfuffle online when Facebook refused to let Santa have more than 5000 friends but the Norad Tracks Santa page has more than 37,000 fans. And if you’re in it for the presents, the I Believe In Santa Claus group has more than 150,000 fans and seems to have regular giveaways.

5. Follow Santa on Twitter. Alas, Santa is not immune to the celebrity social media phenomenon of having squatters steal his identity, but you can trust updates from @noradsanta (official twitter ID of the Norad Santa Tracker project) and @SantaClaus is keeping a public list of who’s naughty and nice! (And, those of you with a more cynical inclination to the holidays might appreciate the tweets of @loadedsanta, definitely not safe for kids!)