Enjoying weekend day trips: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Silver Beach

We’ve squeezed a lot of fun into the last week or so, including some things I didn’t photograph well or at all, so they didn’t get any air time. Last week Monday we were lucky enough to crash a Brendan James private house show. He and his band play tiny shows at people’s homes between their venue shows while on tour, and there happened to be one about 30 minutes from here. Despite never having met the homeowners or anyone else at the show (well, except for Brendan), we were allowed to attend and ended up with front-row outdoor couch seats, which was amazing. It was definitely one of the best live music experiences I’ve had.

The next night was the 4th of July, and while I feel kind of “meh” about the celebration of genocide and slavery that underpin the origins of the country, I love fireworks in a big way. I even love neighborhood fireworks, even on random summer nights, and yes, even when my kids are sleeping. I love them because when I was a kid, “big” fireworks weren’t legal in Michigan (that has since changed and grouchy people hate it), but every year my dad would go to a particular liquor store over in the neighborhood where his office used to be, and he would buy illegal fireworks from Indiana that they secretly sold in the back room. Sure, we spent some 4th of July nights in South Haven watching the official fireworks over Lake Michigan, but most of my 4th memories are of amateur fireworks shows put on by my dad in the elementary school parking lot across from our house. This year I wanted to take the kids to the lake (because it really is fun to be there with tons of people and glow necklaces and all of that energy, and to see the show over the lake) but ultimately we decided that it was going to be a hassle, and we were talked into heading to a church parking lot where the country club fireworks are visible across the road. It was actually a lot of fun, and my dad even came through with a few rockets and roman candles of his own. Every kid there was crowded around him, and our kids seemed to love it.

This weekend we ended up taking a couple of unplanned day trips that turned out to be absolutely lovely. On Saturday we checked out the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. We’d been told that they have a really nice children’s garden, but it absolutely exceeded my expectations. The boys loved the Great Lakes water tables with boats, Vivi would have played in a little fountain all day, and they went wild in an amazing treehouse structure that made me think of Swiss Family Robinson (although I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually read or seen that, so that association may be misguided).

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There was a lovely old barn in the farm garden, and naturally Vivienne wanted to climb the ladder up to a beam. There weren’t a lot of people around and we didn’t see a sign that told us explicitly not to climb it (although I’m guessing that wasn’t their aim), so we let her go. She’s always been such a climber, so nimble and fearless, and she scrambled right to the top.

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A family came through and seemed surprised to see such a tiny person up there. We mentioned how fearless she is, and they said something along the lines of, “Watch out when she’s a teenager!” We’ve heard that before, but this time when the family walked away Kristin pointed out that no one would ever say that about a little boy at the top of a ladder. I love how brave she is. So brave, in fact, that when we asked Jonah if he wanted to climb, he asked Vivi if she would rub her head against his so that he could have some of her bravery (they did it, but I didn’t get a photo – it was adorable though). He only made it up one or two rungs before he was too afraid, but Vivi did it three or four times, slapping the beam at the top each time to make her success known.

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On Sunday the day was actually off to a rough start; we have a tendency to keep the kids out late in pursuit of these adventures, and then we act surprised the next day when their behavior is out of control. Kristin took the twins to see some live music at a park while I went grocery shopping with Jonah who hadn’t exactly earned the field trip. In the late afternoon however, when I was feeling grouchy and sad about the way the day was unfolding, K convinced me to pack everyone up and drive to St. Joseph (about an hour away) to the beach and the splash pad. It completely turned the day around for me.

I expected the kids to be super into the splash pad since they’d loved the fountain the previous day, but they were a little tentative. Only Vivienne really got into it, although she tried hard to physically move Jude towards the water.

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See the photo above? Every so often, the vertical spouts shut off and all of the kids (and some adults) run into the center of the fountain to wait for giant water cannons to shoot into the middle. That’s what’s happening in the photo above. There’s so much water that you can hardly see the big group of people standing in the center. The first time it happened, Vivi and Jude and Jonah just stood back and watched, but the second time Vivi ran to the center to join everyone. Except that I don’t think she really knew what was going to happen, and as soon as the water rained down on her she began to sob hysterically, but didn’t know how to get out. Kristin the hero ran into the downpour fully clothed and carried her out.

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Believe it or not she wanted to keep playing for a few minutes after that, but before long we headed to the beach for some playground time.

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We aren’t big beach people really, because none of us love getting a lot of sun (hence the 6:00 p.m. trip to the beach), but we went in Charleston in April and we went to Lake Michigan last summer when my sister and the kids were in town, but this is really the first time I’ve seen the kids enjoy the beach in this way. Jude would have thrown handfuls of wet sand into the lake all night long. Vivi loved wading into the water again and again, and Jonah just seemed to take it all in, alternately playing in the sand, dipping his toes into the water, and climbing the lifeguard stand.

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Jude actually fell from that lifeguard stand after making it up another rung or two, which was pretty scary, but luckily he was OK. We all headed towards the bluff for pizza and made it a very late but beautiful evening. Jonah asked if next time we could go to “the beach with the pink house” (North Beach in South Haven) so I’m sure that’s coming up for a future weekend.

Summer carnival fun

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There are so many things that feel like iconic pieces of the Michigan summer childhood experience, and carnivals are one of those for me. I’m weirdly ambivalent about them; on one hand, I have a number of happy childhood memories from fairs and carnivals from one summer to the next, and I get genuinely excited about taking our kids to share some of those same experiences. On the other hand, almost as soon as we arrive I’m reminded of a slice of midwestern culture that I’m not exactly keen to align myself with (a snobbiness that has caused me to utter the phrase, “I’m not sure that I want our kids to grow up to be Michigan-people” before). I won’t try to describe exactly what I mean, but if you asked Kristin she’d tell you that it has something to do with the prevalence of calf tattoos. My dad took Jonah to see a monster truck show at the speedway tonight and reported back that the crowd was much of the same, which I could have guessed.

Even so, as soon as I heard about the Battle Creek Air Show coming up I put it on the calendar and told K that we were going, and invited my parents to join us because every one of my carnival and air show memories includes my parents, of course. On this particular night there weren’t actually going to be any flight demonstrations (I had mixed feelings because they were doing a big reenactment of the bombing of Pearl Harbor complete with pyrotechnics and I’m not big on the glorification of war, so I figured it made more sense to attend on an evening without all of that). There were supposed to be hot air balloons, which we love and got to see at a different event last summer, as well as some motorcycle stunts and a lumberjack demonstration (pure Michigan!). As it turned out, the weather was rainy so they didn’t end up flying the balloons, and we missed the motorcycles, but we did see the lumberjacks (Jonah enjoyed the axe throwing).

Mostly though, we hung out at the carnival: eating elephant ears and corn dogs, watching the kids grin through ride after ride, and being reminded how much of our own joy comes from watching their joy, no matter where we are. And some of those rides? I swear I remember riding the exact same ones when I was a kid. They didn’t have the giant slide with the burlap sacks, but it was still a pretty good lineup.

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The rain didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, and we didn’t get home till roughly 10:00 p.m. Jonah would have ridden those rides all night if we’d let him.

Summer fun – outdoor movies and a zoo visit

Nothing too profound today (although I’ve been doing a lot more thinking about kids and gender norms lately, so there may be a part 2 to this post coming up soon). I just want to log a little bit of summer weekend family fun.

We kicked things off on Friday evening by heading to a movie in a nearby park. Our first experience with an outdoor movie (actually, I think it may have been our first experience taking any of the kids to any movie ever) was this one last summer. Jonah asked if this one was going to be shown on a barn, a sensible conclusion for a four-year-old, but it actually took place at a park we’d never been to that was less than a mile from our house. We arrived at about 7:45, having stopped for candy and brought some popcorn from home, and got settled on our blanket. There was a playground nearby so we spent some time there, and by about 9:00 I was starting to get very grouchy and impatient. I know that Michigan is on the other end of the time zone from New York, but somehow I expected the parks department to have a projector that’s capable of operating in some daylight. But then the fireflies came out, and the kids all ran towards them.

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At first I caught and handed them fireflies, but before long they’d all caught their very own first fireflies (confession: I actually grew up calling them lightning bugs, but fireflies sounded better in the blog title, so now I go back and forth). They were all SO proud and Jude and Jonah even ran over to Kristin on the blanket to show her.

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I think that I may have seen Jude and Vivi give theirs kisses. Everything about it was adorable. And just to add to the sweetness, there was an older boy there (maybe a few years older than Jonah) who caught them just to hand them to the little kids repeatedly. It was darling.

Then the movie started and by some magic, everyone stayed awake and no one got cranky! Jude and Vivi were fast asleep at the movie last summer, and despite this one ending at nearly midnight they made it all the way through.

On Saturday we’d decided that we would check out the Binder Park Zoo. I hadn’t been in decades, and we had low expectations. We know that we were spoiled by the Bronx Zoo, and a friend warned us that Binder Park really ought to be called, “Trails, With Animals” because mostly it’s just a boatload of walking with periodic animal exhibits. It was more or less what I expected, but the kids had fun.

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See that photo above. That’s what happens when you really want to be in a picture with the kids for once, but two out of three are trying to get away and would rather be doing anything else but that. Thanks guys.

More than anything else, the kids were into the train ride and everything that was climbable. We asked Vivi later that evening what her favorite animal had been and she said, “the choo choo train”.

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They all seemed to enjoy the children’s zoo, and Vivi really loved the goats until she got nibbled.

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On Sunday we mostly hung out at home because the kids’ exhaustion seemed to have finally caught up with them (midnight bedtime Friday and nothing but car naps on Saturday? I can’t imagine why) and they were crabby, but when I came home from a grocery run with Jonah, Kristin and the twins were in the front yard with the gator and shortly thereafter the neighbors across the street invited us over the blow bubbles. It was a lovely way to end the weekend.

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The long-awaited swing set!

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We have been talking to the kids about the possibility of a treehouse / fort / swing set for what feels like forever. Before we ever found a house, Papa Doc had promised Jonah that he would build him a treehouse in our future yard. Of course we didn’t know whether or not we’d end up with a yard that had a suitable tree for an actual tree house (we didn’t) but Kristin and I always had a good-sized yard for play on our wish list, so I was sure we’d have room for something fun. I’ve been dreaming about having a space for outdoor living for ages, so I’ve been pretty motivated to make it special. (Gardening is another thing altogether;  we’ve pretty much ignored the actual plants so far, but one of these days we’ll learn how to take that on too). My dad built us an incredible play house on stilts when my sister and I were kids, so I knew what he was capable of.

I probably looked at hundreds of different treehouse kits online, trying to figure out which features I wanted ours to have, how large it should be, how sturdy one brand was compared to another. It was honestly really tough to tell one from the next with only photos and a few specs listed. A friend of mine from work had purchased one that he was happy with and recommended a blog post with a feature and buying guide. While I’m sure they aren’t the ultimate authority on swing sets, it was actually really helpful to consider their advice. I knew that I wanted swings, a slide, a large deck or fort (not just enough room to get on a slide, but plenty of room to hang out and play), and preferably a rope ladder or climbing wall, it narrowed my search. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if we wanted something high-quality it was going to cost close to $2000 (and you can easily spend far more than that if you get carried away). We don’t have that kind of a budget since we have three kids in full-time preschool, so we needed an alternative.

Fortunately, we happened to drop by a friend’s house on a neighborhood walk one weekend and the kids ran into the backyard when we stopped in the driveway to chat with the dad. When we went back there to retrieve them we saw their swing set, and it was great! I asked about it and found out that they’d purchased the plans and the hardware, bought the wood separately (from a provided lumber list) and DIY’d it. They even had their plans around the house so they offered to share them with us. After giving it some thought, I decided that I wanted to go with a slightly different version of the same set (the Trailblazer) because it had a 6’x6′ deck and all of the other features I was looking for. I ran the idea past my dad (who would be doing all of the work, so he had to be on board). He gave it a thumbs-up, so we went for it.

I didn’t have much of a sense of how long this would take; I’d read that even the kits can take roughly 20-25 hours for two adults to assemble. My dad brought over sawhorses, a table saw, a drill (although he ended up borrowing an impact driver from a friend, and said it made a huge difference), and probably a few other tools I’m forgetting, and set up shop in our garage. He had a trailer full of lumber delivered by a handyman friend who he trusted to pick out good wood (we used pressure treated pine), and went to work last week Tuesday.

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I’m not at all surprised by his handiness, but I’m honestly amazed by how quickly he put this together given all of the other estimates I’d read for a variety of sets. It took him less than a week of some partial and some full days, he estimates around 20 hours or so. On the first day, he asked me if Jonah might like to help him for a bit (he’d been talking about helping Papa Doc on this project for a long time) so I went to pick him up from preschool an hour early. He immediately ran down to the basement to get his toolbox.

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My dad let him ratchet in a bolt or two, but he lost interest pretty quickly and decided to just watch. The next day, when the kids came home from school the platform was up. Every day they’d run back there first thing to see what new progress had been made, and immediately climb on whatever was there. I should mention that it was probably key to progress that he worked on it almost exclusively while they were away at school. The interference and insistence on toddlers “helping” would have slowed things considerably.

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The swing beam and swings went up next, which was very exciting, along with the tarp for the roof. The angle on the a-frame for the swing beam is really wide, which bothers my dad a little bit visually, but it makes it ridiculously sturdy. Had he cut the beams shorter they could have sat at a narrower angle, but honestly I love how sturdy it is. You can set a glass of wine on the cross beam while the kids are swinging and it doesn’t even wobble (yes, I’ve tested this). My dad pointed out that this thing is WAY overbuilt. Literally anyone could climb all over this thing and it wouldn’t move.

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Next came the slide, which wasn’t included with the hardware kit so we were able to choose it. I wanted one with a weight limit that could handle adults as well because I wanted it to be good and sturdy, and we found this one at our local Home Depot. You need a 10′ slide for a 5′ platform, and fortunately it fit in my parents’ Four Runner. My dad showed up with the slide on a weekend morning, so all of the kids were there to watch him install it.

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I have to say that it does get really hot in the sun, so we may be hosing it down a bit this summer. Fortunately we have a shady yard and the set is almost entirely in the shade for most of the day.

The last item on the list was the cargo net, and that went in yesterday (not quite a week from when he started). When the kids came home from school they all fought to climb on it first.

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Oh, and there’s also a hammock! You can see it behind the fort in the photo above. That was only a partial impulse buy at Target this past weekend. We’d talked about trying to attach a hammock to the set somehow but hadn’t quite figured it out. I looked at kid-sized hammocks on Etsy but they were surprisingly pricey for a tiny hammock, but then I happened upon these $19 nylon hammocks in the seasonal section and grabbed one, figuring we’d see if we could make it work. My dad put a hook into one of the posts and attached the other end to the fence and that was it (along with a couple of carabiners and some cute yellow chain for length). It just happened to be the perfect distance from the fence.

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The kids are so in love with all of this. Every morning when they wake up they ask go outside before anything else, and at the end of the evening it’s tough to pull them away to get them into bed.

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On this week leading up to Father’s Day I couldn’t be more thankful for my dad, our loving, handy Papa Doc who put so much sweat and love into making the yard special for the kids. The final step is to get sand into the sandbox under the fort. It’s arriving on Friday; thirty six 50-pound bags to be exact. I still have some grass to dig out, and we considered making it twice as deep, but once we realized how much sand we would need I decided to leave it as-is and see if it suffices.

Here’s how the total budget shook out:

  • Plans and hardware (including swings, cargo net, and tarp): $399
  • Lumber: $280 (which is WAY cheaper than the plans estimate, but maybe that’s a Michigan thing?)
  • Slide: $189
  • Sandbox sand (1 cubic yard): $75 including delivery
  • Labor: FREE (thanks, Papa!)
  • Total cost: $943

It really ended up being SO much less expensive than a comparable kit might have been.

Also this past weekend I put up string lights on the patio, running from the garage to the apple tree and back, and I love the way it makes the whole patio feel: festive, like we’re setting up for a party (except that I’m an introvert so I sat out there by myself till 11:00 the other night and loved it). And we have fireflies! I’ve been dying to see if we would get them. We sat out there with Vivienne when she wouldn’t go to sleep a few nights ago and spotted them with her.

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A week or so ago I heard the poem The Gate by Marie Howe, and the last five lines have really stayed with me.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

I have a lot of “This” moments lately, and the majority of them seem to be happening outdoors.

We eventually put sand in the sandbox, and that post is here.

Enjoying everyday good stuff

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The last few days have included a few things I’ve really been looking forward to, but upon reflection I can see that they’re not all that big, but rather the kind of everyday joys we hoped to get a lot more of in this new Michigan life.

Last week both Kristin and I decided to take a day off and accompany Jonah on a field trip. His preschool goes on field trips all the time, but this is only the second time we’ve allowed him to go (parents have to leave car seats, and I hate taking it out and putting it back in again, so he only goes if we can take him ourselves). This time it was for Party In The Park, a library event that features dozens of readers going from blanket to blanket (all packed with kids) and reading to them. Lots of the readers were dressed in costume as the book characters they were reading, and it was SO MUCH FUN. No, he didn’t need both of us to drive him, but we both really wanted to go.

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I mean, it kind of felt like celebrity spotting.

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The field trip only went until about 11:30, so we took advantage of the afternoon and went out to lunch and decided to spend the rest of the day planning a summer mini-vacation to northern Michigan. The day felt surprisingly long and full of quality time. I think that we both needed it, both in terms of the special time with Jonah and the time to make plans we’re excited about without interruption.

This weekend was also on my list of things-to-look-forward-to, because it was the annual art fair and Do-Dah Parade downtown. You have to understand, this was a BIG weekend in my childhood memory. I come from a family of art lovers, and we always spent a lot of time at the art fair, but before that we always grabbed a good spot to watch the parade go by. I remember the Do-Dah Parade being chock-full of silly, wonderful, thematic, or just off-the-wall entries, so I’d talked it up pretty big with the kids. I knew that I ought to temper my expectations after the outrageously disappointing holiday parade this past December, but I couldn’t help it. I was psyched. Unfortunately, it really was kind of mediocre; it seems like some of the enthusiasm for creative entries has died down a bit over the past 30 years and there’s a lot more phoning-it-in going on. Even so, the kids said that they liked it and they were pretty rapt throughout.

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We met up with Gigi and Papa Doc just before it started, and then strolled through the art fair with them, which just feels like such a wonderful thing to be able to do. Not only because they’re a big part of why this weekend feels important to me, but just because it’s so nice to be able to spend time with them so easily and casually. They’ve popped over to our house on a few evenings recently, just for a quick hello and maybe a glass of wine, and that’s been absolutely wonderful. The kids can’t get enough of them.

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More moments of everyday happiness: watching these baby birds grow up and get ready to leave the nest.

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Or how about seeing Jonah share his remote controlled tarantula with Jude and show him how to use it? Both horrible and wonderful at the same time.

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Or how about a hula hoop dance party downtown with the kids the night before the parade? We had them out way past bedtime but I loved everything about it (well, except for the meltdowns once we got home, but you know what I mean).

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And finally, those weekend afternoons when everyone else is napping and I suggest to Jonah that we get out the paints and he’s totally into it. Lately he wants to collaborate on a painting with me (something we started by accident), and I love it. Today he wanted to paint outer space and then we painted a forest (he added a fox and a dragonfly). Sure, there may have also been tanks and zombies in at least one of his paintings, but I love these quiet moments with him. I was putting away groceries and I looked over and really noticed him standing there painting, and I knew that the groceries didn’t matter at all, so I left them on the floor and joined him.

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Dreaming of summer and thinking about school

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I’ve been so excited about summer, which I’m sure is obvious from all of the gushing I do about being in the yard with the kids (I’m pretty sure I started writing about that in February). It got cool again after it was play-in-the-sprinkler hot for about three days in a row, and I was downright grouchy about the change in weather. I’m ready for summer clothes and cold drinks on the patio and hose water everywhere you look. And fireflies, of course. I’m dying to see if we get fireflies in our yard (we moved here in November, so we haven’t seen a summer yet).

The swing set plans and hardware have arrived, the lumber is on its way, and Papa Doc has promised to get started with the lumber prep and to let Jonah help with the building. We’re going with this model, which is going to take up a pretty large section of our backyard, but as Kristin reminded me, “that’s what the yard is for.”

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I read a piece by one of my favorite bloggers the other day on summer hacks for moms and it got me even more excited about coming up with fun things to do, both for the kids and as a family. I really want to set up a “dirt kitchen” in a back corner of the yard where there’s too much shade for any grass to grow. I’d also forgotten how much the kids love to paint outdoors with water, so I need to pick up a few paintbrushes on my next trip to the hardware store. I’ve already whipped up a batch of homemade bug spray, we have plenty of sunscreen, now we just need to figure out some sort of storage for the toys that are always strewn across the patio, but I’ll get there. It’s only May.

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The kids will end their “school year” the same day that Kristin does (by design), which is in three weeks. I am a little bit worried that I’m setting myself up for disappointment, since I don’t actually get a summer off with the kids. Kristin does, and I know that there are more relaxing ways to spend a summer, but I’m still a little bit jealous. We aren’t planning on taking any major vacations this summer because of finances, so I might plan a staycation or two, and we may take some long weekends to do things we’ve been dreaming about that are within driving distance (the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Dark Sky Park, and maybe Chicago by train).

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We’ve been doing a lot of bike riding as a family lately, and this is the twins’ first time doing so since the bikes were in storage all last summer, and the previous year they were too young to ride along. We were fortunate to get a hand-me-down trailer from a neighbor we didn’t even know (thanks, Facebook!) and Jonah still (barely) fits in his seat, so we’ve been able to do some longish rides, both around our neighborhood and beyond. I’ve been loving this, and most nights after the kids get home from school, if the weather is decent, I end up proposing that we go for a quick ride after dinner.

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Even though I’m pretty fixated on summer, I’ve also been thinking a lot about school lately. I may have mentioned before that we love our preschool. We considered sending Jonah to kindergarten this coming fall (he’s too young to make the cut off, but he falls into an in-between group that is allowed to apply for a waiver and attend early). The financial savings of moving him to public school would be huge, but we feel like he needs another year of preschool for a variety of reasons. He’ll be much better off in the long run. As a result, we’re facing an additional year of three-kids-in-private-preschool, which makes up an astronomical portion of our budget. When we crunched the numbers, we gave serious thought to moving them to a less expensive school. I toured a couple, Kristin visited my favorite of the two and agreed that it seemed awfully nice, but in the end we decided not to move them. Why?

Well, in large part because the kids love it, and we love it, and they’re comfortable and happy there and we moved them across the country last summer. It just didn’t seem fair to move them again, especially Jonah who will then change schools yet again the following year when he does go to Kindergarten. But it also came down to what we believe education should be. Kristin and I don’t agree on everything (I read this one evening and was practically cheering, while the teacher in Kristin just couldn’t get on board), but we do value a lot of the same fundamentals when it comes to childhood and early learning.

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The preschool that our kids attend operates in a Montessori style. There are multiple rooms that are set up to support specific types of activities, and for nearly all of the day the children are free to select rooms and activities as they please. They go outside twice a day unless the weather is foul, and they have the most incredible outdoor play space I’ve ever seen at a school of any kind. It’s the kind of school that warns parents at the start of the year that when it gets warm, they will fill up a trench with the hose and let the kids sit in the mud if they please, so don’t send your children in clothes that you care about. We also love that a large number of the teachers there have been in early childhood education, many of them at this same school, for 30 or 40 years. There’s a wisdom there that you don’t find at every preschool, and we’ve gained a lot from it.

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The school that we considered moving them to felt more like a charter school (in my limited experience, but also in Kristin’s). Spotless, well-organized classrooms assigned by age, lots of information for parents on “assessment” methods. Jonah has already said that he’s excited about Jude and Vivienne being “upstairs” with him next year (the toddlers are in the basement) and as far as we could gather from the other school, they wouldn’t have crossed paths much. We want them to have that year together. I think that it’s good for their relationship.

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Exploring with total freedom, learning through play, getting dirty, being out in nature, this is the kind of education that we believe in. Kristin made a good point that this may be the last year that we end up educating them in a way that we truly believe in, and that made me very sad, but also gave me the courage to send them back there this fall despite our financial concerns. I read an article just a day or two ago about Germany’s outdoor preschools and thought to myself, yes, that is what I want for our children, but I want a variation of it for more than just preschool.

I recently stumbled upon an Instagram feed called Wild & Free that focuses on home schooling (or maybe unschooling is more like it). While we’re not really in a position to home school, not to mention the fact that we moved here largely for the free college that’s associated with attending the public schools all the way through graduation, I sometimes dream of living in the Montana wilderness and raising and educating our kids away from everything, outdoors more than in, away from the plague of standardized testing and schools that suck all of the joy out of learning. When I see our kids stopping to follow a caterpillar on its journey, and can see Jude’s smile from behind because of his adorable cheeks, I know that it’s that kind of natural curiosity that leads to real growth.

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And the amount of passionate observation and curiosity that has come from a mother robin building a nest on the trellis outside Vivi’s window, the way we all talk about and check on those robins at least 50 times a day,  the way the kids all come running when one of us sees a hungry baby’s head pop up, and all of the things Kristin and I have looked up about robins either to tell the kids or just because we’re curious, it’s all just so authentic and wonderful.

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We didn’t move to a ranch out west and we don’t even own camping equipment, so I can’t pretend to be rejecting modern conveniences or a suburban life. When it comes to our kids and their education, however, I kind of want more, and I wonder what we can do to make up that difference when they most likely end up in public school as planned. We love our home and we don’t really want to move to the wilderness, but many things lately are conspiring to make me think outside of the box and wonder how we can merge the two worlds to bring our children more of this magic, even when they’re trapped in a classroom that may not be very magical.

Until then, there’s summer, and I’m going to squeeze in as much magic and wonder as I possibly can. I’m off to make a summer bucket list.

Mama K’s sneaky Mother’s Day surprise project

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I just got back from another work trip to NYC this afternoon. Since it was the second trip, we all went into it with a tad more confidence that we could get through it, but that didn’t make leaving easy. I was eager to get back to my family, and I knew coming home that today was going to be a little bit hectic because I’d be taking Jonah to a bouncy-house birthday party almost as soon as we left the airport. He fell asleep in the car on the way to pick me up, and I let him stay there and sleep while I ran into the house to quickly put on a clean shirt and throw my hair into a ponytail. At some point I stepped towards the great room and Kristin told me that I wasn’t allowed to go near the backyard because there was a surprise, but Jonah wanted to show me.

I took him to the birthday party and when we got back I mentioned that there was some sort of surprise. He remembered, and took me to the windows to show me two pretty blue planters (a hand-me-down we’d claimed from my parents old house when they sold it) full of flowers. Kristin knows how excited I’ve been to get our backyard and patio ready for a season of outdoor living, one of the most significant reasons that we moved back to Michigan in the first place, so she took it upon herself to do a planting project with the kids this morning as an early Mother’s Day gift for me. I got teary when she told me that they all participated and that she even made sure to take photos of the process because she knew how meaningful that would be for me. She was right. There’s nothing better.

I can’t narrate this project for you because I wasn’t here, but I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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See that table? It’s going to get its own post sometime soon. It’s my contribution to the patio-beautification effort and while I’m hating nearly every second of the actual process, I’m hopeful about the results. More to come when I finally finish.

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Naturally there were construction vehicles involved in the transferring of soil.

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There aren’t as many photos of Jude because, as K tells it, this project went the way most projects go: everyone started strong, and Vivienne was by far the most dedicated (although I feel like the photos show a pretty strong effort from Jonah as well). Jude was on his scooter for much of the planting, it seems.

Kristin even told me that now she feels energized to do lots more of this and really dig into gardening (see what I did there?). I hated yard work as a kid but I too have been feeling somewhat inspired and interested in figuring out what’s out in our yard and trying to make it beautiful. We’re total amateurs and right now the garden portion of the yard is about 80% weeds (we think – we honestly have no idea) but this Mother’s Day project is so inspiring and full of love, I can’t wait to do more with the kids. K knows me so well, and the photos put the love right over the top.

Easter Fun

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For the last couple of years we’ve spent Easter morning with friends, complete with an egg hunt for our kids and a handful of others in a park near their home. I knew that we would miss that this year, and honestly we didn’t have much in the way of plans until some things fell into place at the last minute. It turned out to be a surprisingly lovely holiday weekend, both because the rain we’d expected turned into beautiful weather both days, and because we squeezed in plenty of Easter activities with people we love.

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On Saturday morning we dyed eggs with the kids, the kind of craft project I always visualize idyllically, but which always ends up somewhat marred by my anxiety and control-freak tendencies. It’s not that I really care what their eggs end up looking like (OK, I sort of do, but only in that I want them to stay in the dye long enough to have visible color and to end up with a variety by the end). This is actually the first year Jude and Vivi have dyed eggs. I’d forgotten that last year we did it while they were asleep (good move). They totally enjoyed it, but Jude really wanted to dunk his eggs aggressively, splashing dye everywhere, and Vivi wanted to dunk her hands in the dye because she’s really into hand-print art lately. We did end up spilling an entire cup of yellow dye on the wood floor (no stain, fortunately), and Jude did manage to stain a chair seat (our mistake for not putting him on a metal stool), and I was way less relaxed than I’d hoped to be, but I do think that they all had fun.

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One of K’s colleagues also gave the kids a set of foam eggs with stickers to decorate, so we also did a little bit of that before nap time.

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Some good friends invited us over for dinner and an egg hunt that evening, which was perfect because the weather was gorgeous and they have the most incredible yard for an egg hunt. The kids had a blast.

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We left much later than we’d planned, well after the sun had set, but the kids were still going strong out in the yard. Vivi and her friend Kate were busy building a tiny house out of sticks and mud, and she was not happy to leave her project to head home. I told Kristin that it’s exactly the sort of childhood I want them to have: out playing in nature for as long as we’ll let them. I’m so glad they have that now.

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On Easter Sunday we started the day with Easter baskets filled with tiny toys they seemed thrilled with, and drove out to Canton to have lunch with K’s family. I’d been dreading more time in the car, not yet having fully recovered from the drive back from Charleston last weekend, but I’m glad that we went. It was important to K and the kids had fun with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

We have way more candy in the house than we ought to, and it took the kids hours to fall asleep tonight surely due in part to all of the jellybeans and marshmallows their grandmother fed to them this afternoon (well, that and the car nap on the way home). But I’m trying to let that all go and be thankful for their delight.

More moments from Charleston spring break

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Returning home from vacation is always a little bit sad. I spend so much time looking forward to upcoming vacations that once they end I feel a little bit lost and unsure of what to focus on going forward. That’s not to say that there aren’t many moments of beauty in the everyday (and being more mindful and present in those moments is something that I’m working on) but having that uninterrupted time as a family for ten days and then heading back to work and school always feels sad.

We’ve been to Charleston many times over the years, but going back now always feels a bit different in a fun way because the kids are getting older so we are able to engage with the city in ways we didn’t before they were born and when they were babies. On a couple of days I think that we attempted to do too much, and ended up tired and grouchy by dinnertime. Still, some of my favorite parts of a visiting-family-in-a-familiar-place vacation are just being in a beautiful place, not doing anything in particular. My parents live on a busy road surrounded by beautiful marshes, and being out on their porch is lovely.

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In addition to that little terrarium, my mom has a tiny hedgehog that sits inside a tiny basket in another plant on the porch, and Vivi and Jude loved it so much. She kept taking it out and carrying it around and kissing it.

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The kids could not get enough of the hammock, and Vivi and Jonah in particular spent a lot of time there.

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The kids also loved being around the dog and cat of the house. They just adore those sweet creatures so much. Hunter (the dog) was much easier to track down (although Jude could throw a ball all day and Hunter would never go fetch it), but Lucy is elusive (and very old and eager to evade tiny grabby hands), so they spent a lot of time searching for her and hunkering down near her hiding spots once they located her. Jude only got bitten once.

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At one point I discovered that they’d put the hedgehog inside of Lucy’s house, presumably just to share it with her in the hopes of making friends and coaxing her out.

Even indoors we had lots of sweet moments of reading and cuddling and resting, as one should on vacation.

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Gigi got out some crafts one afternoon with Maris and Jonah, and they made paper chains followed by pipe cleaner crowns. Jonah was excited about his but didn’t feel like wearing it for the picture.

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One morning Maris stayed home from school and joined us for doughnuts at the best little doughnut shop (Glazed on King St.) followed by the SC aquarium, which is always a worthwhile trip. The kids had a lot of fun together.

I can’t get enough of Jude’s face in this one.

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That morning V brought him a headband, and while that one didn’t come with us in the car, she took off one of hers (she’d put on two) and insisted that it was his, and he refused to go into the shop until I put it on him. Those two, they make me smile a million times a day.

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On Wednesday we had family photos taken by a wonderful photographer and friend of my sister and brother-in-law, and we followed that up with dinner out at a casual Mexican place we’ve been to before. I don’t have any photos from dinner, but sitting around that long table with all of the noise and the pitchers of margaritas and the kids eventually running laps around the patio…it reminded me how nice it is to be with family even when it isn’t always relaxing.

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Photo credit Andrew Cebulka

The drive home to Michigan felt even longer than the drive down (surely because we weren’t headed towards a week of vacation at that point) and it took us a half-day longer (but that just means one extra waffle breakfast for the kids at a hotel, so they certainly weren’t complaining). Once again we made a couple of playground stops along the way, just to get everyone out of the car and into the sun. It slows the trip down for sure, but it always feels worth it.

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Despite the sadness of vacation ending, I have to say that coming home to this home actually felt rather sweet. I felt a sense of relief pulling into the driveway, and walking through the door felt comfortable and happy. Surely that had something to do with getting out of the car already, but it’s also nice to see how different it feels from each time we returned home in New York, when we’d groan at the ugliness of the highways and feel stifled by our apartment. This time there were purple flowers blooming by the lamppost in our front yard, and today I noticed buds on the apple tree out back. The first week in April is a good time to get away to the south because often when we return home, spring is finally showing up and it’s lovely.

Charleston spring break 2017 – days 1 & 2

We made it to Charleston, SC for spring break, despite some tears and frustration the night before we began the drive when I was tempted to call the whole thing off. Packing and preparing for family travel is always unbearably stressful for me, despite the fact that I’ve gotten pretty good at packing lists and mental prep. We got through the two-day drive, and although it was rough at times, the kids did remarkably well overall. It rained the whole first day, which gave us little opportunity to take a real break. Fortunately day two was nicer, and about four hours out from Charleston we stopped at a playground to give the kids a chance to run around. It was such a beautiful park, and that was the first moment that it really felt like we were on vacation.

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On our first full-day in Charleston we’d planned to head to Folly Beach with my parents and my sister and her whole family, but it turned out to be rather chilly and incredibly windy. We spent a portion of the morning at a great little playground and planned to have the kids nap before going to the beach.

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The naps didn’t end up happening, and we debated about skipping the beach, but we’re in Charleston and we weren’t sure we’d get in another beach day (as it turned out, we did) so we went anyway, despite ridiculous wind. We got there and the kids were all freezing. We layered on every item of clothing that we had, Jonah whimpered and begged to be cuddled under a blanket. It was really pretty ridiculous, but we were all able to laugh about it and before long all of the kids were playing in the sand as if it were a normal day at the beach.

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Today it was a good bit warmer and less windy, and Jonah begged to go back to the beach (it’s really just a giant sandbox) so we packed up to head that way. My parents live about two miles from the beach, and since it was a Monday there wasn’t much traffic (it can be a surprisingly long drive on a busy beach day). My dad offered to drive Jonah in the Willy’s, this fun 1948 vehicle that my parents got specifically to take to the beach.

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Jonah was pretty psyched about it, but after about a block he decided that it was “too fast” and wanted to get in our minivan (we were trailing them with Jude and Vivi). I traded places with him and thought that it was a lot of fun, but with no doors or roof (and they had the windshield down), I can understand Jonah’s hesitation. I’m glad he gave it a try, though.

The beach was a lot more fun today, much more comfortable. Jonah announced that he loves Charleston and calls it “warm world.” We had a couple of wardrobe changes when our kids (none of whom were in swimsuits) ended up falling into the water when the tide came in (only a few inches of water, but enough to soak them and leave them yelling from the shock and cold), but it was all part of the experience. My dad went back to get my mom and they came out to build sandcastles with the kids for a bit before lunch. It was a short beach day, which is all our pale-skinned family can handle.

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By the way, he’s bounced back beautifully from his dental work. When we arrived and my dad asked him what happened to his teeth, he said, very matter-of-factly, “they were dead so the dentist had to pull them out.” I’m used to his new smile and I still think he’s adorable.

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I don’t have too many great pictures of Jonah and Maris together so far,  but even without capturing it on film, seeing the two of them having fun together is always one of my top highlights of these trips. They just enjoy each other’s company SO much. This afternoon we went downtown (where my sister lives) and took the kids out for ice cream and then played at their house for a bit before heading back to Gigi and Papa Doc’s house for dinner. It was barely raining, but Maris really wanted to use her umbrella, and I just snapped one photo of the two of them sharing it (they actually walked together under it for quite awhile).

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More to come in the next couple of days, I’m sure.