Three Girl Pile-Up

…adventures of our homeschooling family

Month: September, 2008

A fun and fancy dinner

Okay, I give up! I had many pictures of Anna and Maggie both putting together and eating this meal, but for some reason they kept crashing iPhoto. So here is the one picture that survived…

..which doesn’t look particularly fun or fancy, does it? But trust me, it was.

I was throwing together a quick Friday night dinner for the girls, which for us is often a simple plate of fruit, protein (cheese for Maggie, meat of some sort for Anna), veggie (often raw carrots all around), and some buttered whole wheat toast. I think Anna was complaining about the hot dog she asked me to make for her, so I suggested that we put toothpicks in the pieces to make it more fun and easier to dip in the ketchup. And before I knew it both of the girls’ were happily putting toothpicks in every piece of food on their plate, asking me to cut up things that were too big. All of a sudden, a very routine dinner was transformed. As Anna put it, “Oh, Mommy! It’s so fun! And so fancy!”

So often, my kids make requests to take an activity a step further than I’d intended, and my instincitve reaction is to say no. I’m too tired, it’s too messy, it’s just too much! And while there are times when I really do need to say no, I’m reminded that when I say yes, much gleeful energy is produced–offsetting the extra effort by a mile.

I’m realizing that this is at least the second time I’ve written about this very idea here. Maybe by the eighth or tenth time it will start sinking in….


Little girl, big words

Little Anna has always been big in so many ways. Big feelings, big opinions, big ideas inside that slight frame. Anna is the person in our family most likely to run up to you, wrap you in an enormous squeeze, and say, “I love you!” And her delicate appearance and pale hair belie a core of steel. Lately, it’s been fun to watch her vocabulary catch up with her expansive emotions and ideas. Words like terrifying and incredible and fantastic and astonishing describe her experiences. It’s like we can almost feel her reaching out into the world to find words that can match the intensity of her feelings.

This has reminded me of Maggie at this same age. I remember that she and Steve would often lie in bed and create superlatives to describe how much they loved each other. As in, “I love you all the way to Mars and back!” Our favorite by far was when Maggie said, “I love you as much as as long as it would take to clean this whole messy house!”

In the words of Little Nut Brown Hare, “Wow. That’s a lot.”

P.S. I’ve souped up my hand-me-down laptop, so I’m hoping to be able to use the computer a little more easily. The big one is now off with the official Apple techs for a (thankfully free) replacement of the defective logic board. I love my Macs, but this particular one has tested my loyalty. I’m still mostly unable to do much with pictures–iPhoto is still freezing up on me–so there may not be many until I get the desktop computer back. Which hopefully will be in a week or so.

Breathing room

Lately, something kind of amazing has been happening around here.

This is the door to Maggie and Anna’s room, with Maggie and Anna playing behind it.

Now, Maggie and Anna have been playing together for a long time. But I realized recently that things have shifted. A couple of weekends ago, they returned from a trip to Gramma’s house in the midst of some sort of pretend play, hardly missing a beat as they retreated to their room and continued what they were doing. The amazing part was that before I realized it, they had spent well over an hour playing without even checking in with me. Maybe even closer to two–I hadn’t really been watching the clock.

As Anna is approaching four, it seems she has the sustained attention and the mental chops to really keep apace with Maggie in their complicated imaginary games. Plus, she has enough control to be able to negotiate some disagreements rather than just biting Maggie–a definite plus. The result is that increasingly they are able to craft these extended and very complicated imaginary games. And then play and play and play together.

Which is not to say that things are suddenly peaceful and seamless around here. I still spend a lot of my time helping them work out conflicts, or with Anna pulling on my shirt to get my attention. But somehow it feels like we’ve turned at least a little corner. It’s helping me see a light at the end of the tunnel of this incredibly intense time of living with and homeschooling these amazing and often demanding little people.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for us now!

“Oh, Mom, this is like paradise!”

So said Maggie as she first entered our condo in Kure Beach this weekend. It was chilly and gray outside, but we had a great view of the crashing waves from our deck.

By any objective standards, it was not a wonderful weekend to be at the beach, weather-wise. Although we managed to miss any rain, the weather was cool (sometimes downright cold!), cloudy, and a bit windy. The only time we saw the sun was when a little peeked through the clouds this morning.

But did this matter to the children? Not in the least. They ran in the waves and scampered up and down the beach. When high tide reduced the sand to only a couple of feet, they played in what was there. They engaged in a lot of serious work that involved digging. They got slammed in the face with water and came up laughing. They pretended to be sea turtles and sandpipers. They ran headlong into the waves, their whole bodies full of delight. They played until they were shivering and then played some more, finally bundling up and going inside.

I am deeply struck by the girls’ ability to be with what IS. I have such a tendency to approach situations with an evaluative eye (how is the weather? will it get better? should we have come this weekend? would another weekend have been better?). I am inspired by their ability to embrace what is in front of them and squeeze out every available ounce of fun. While I might have wished for a little more sunshine or a little less wind, the girls truly could not have had more fun. So of course Steve and I–who without them would have likely spent most of the weekend holed up inside–got to share in that fun. Without them, I would never have found myself sitting in the waves, scooping up coquinas and trying to get them to bury back into the sand–often getting a face full of water for my efforts. Some of my happiest moments are when I am able to join them in that place of frolicking joy.

It was such fun that we’re already planning a return trip. Maggie suggested next weekend, but we may need to wait a little longer than that…

p.s. Sorry, no pictures–the camera made it with me, but the memory card did not.

Making our own recycled paper

Making paper is something I’ve been wanting to do for some time now, and our recent science experiment on recycling included a papermaking activity. Of course, I couldn’t just follow the directions that came with the science kit. I had to google “making paper” and read seven or eight tutorials on the topic. What resulted was a hybrid of the many instructions I read plus the ones that came with the kit. And a little winging it, as my computer was down on the morning of the activity so I couldn’t double-check how to do it.

We started by gathering paper from our recycling bin. I tried to avoid paper with a lot of black print, so that our product wouldn’t be too gray. I also read somewhere that envelopes were good for papermaking (something about long fiber length), so we used a lot of those. First, we attacked our pile with scissors..

….but realized quickly that this was going to take a LONG time. So instead we pulled out a favorite appliance in our house: the paper shredder. Before long we had a big bucket full of paper shreds.

Yes, that is a big bucket full of paper bits. Probably the only thing we did “wrong” on this first effort was to use entirely too much raw material. That was the downside of the quick work of the shredder.

Next, Anna used one of her favorite tools–the sprayer on the sink–to fill the bucket with water.

The directions on how long to leave the paper to soak vary. We left ours for about two hours.

The next task was grinding up the paper. Most instructions I read suggested using a blender or possibly a food processor. We are currently blender-less, and the thought of grinding up batch after batch of paper mush in my Cuisinart was not appealing. Instead, we decided to give the immersion blender a try, and it worked like a charm. As a bonus, it was easy to plug it in outside and keep the whole thing out on the deck.

Next, we filled a dishpan halfway with water, and then added paper pulp. The amount was very inexact; I was aiming for three blender-fulls. Whatever that means. The night before, I had made molds from very simple wood frames that I happened to have on hand; the science kit came with screening that easily stapled over the opening. To make the paper, we immersed the mold in the dishpan and then lifted it out, leaving paper in the mold. You can adjust the amount of paper pulp in the water if your paper is too thick or too thin.

We then use a piece of fabric (cotton flannel) to help squeeze the water out of the pulp.

Once it was squeezed out enough to hold its shape, we carefully inverted it onto a cookie sheet. It was little tricky to get the paper out, but if we tapped the screen it would usually pop out.

We also had fun pulling out some flowers that we dried and pressed this fall, and adding them to the paper.

This part of the process proved to be very doable by both Maggie and Anna. Maggie really enjoyed it, and made a lot of sheets. Soon, though, Anna was more interested in doing some of her own mixing and molding with the paper pulp. Fortunately, we had more than enough to spare! The drained paper pulp has a very satisfying feel in the hands, and it seems like there are a lot of possibilities for projects starting with this material.

Next came the big squeeze. I put a folded bath towel on an additional cookie sheet, and inverted our piles of paper onto that, removing the cookie sheet. I placed another towel on top, and then put the cookie sheet on top of the pile. The girls enjoyed trying different methods for compressing the stack.

Drying was a little tricky to figure out. First, we tried hanging them with clothespins on a drying rack, but they were a little fragile for that. We tried balancing them across the top, but they seemed a bit precarious. In the end, we settled on laying some across a metal cooling rack, and others out on a cookie sheet.

They definitely dried more quickly on the rack, but ended up a little rippled from the uneven surface. The best technique seemed to be to try them partway on the cookie sheet, and then transfer them to the rack to finish drying.

We had a great time doing this, and Maggie in particular was excited about actually making her own paper. I think we all found the process to be much simpler than we expected. One caveat if you’re thinking about trying this…I’m really glad we did it on the deck. Clean-up was fairly easy, but it did involve a hose!

Wash Day

We were recently gifted with a lovely clothes drying rack from my friend Nancy, and it inspired me to help Anna get a little doll clothes washing going on a recent morning. Although the weather has now turned cooler, the past week has been HOT, so water play seemed just the way to start the day.

We got out two dishpans, filling one with soapy water and one with rinse water. No big surprise, Anna had her own scheme for washing, which involved first wetting the clothes in the clear water, then washing them in the soapy water, and then rinsing them in the clear water. She then hung them, sopping wet, on the little clotheslines. The only pins I had were the standard-sized ones I use for hanging out our clothes, and it definitely took all of her hand strength to pinch them open. So the task of pinning them to the line took quite a bit of concentration.

After she’d been working for awhile, she decided that my (carefully orchestrated) set-up needed some tweaking, and she moved the entire operation across the deck. I think this was partly driven by her rinse-wash-rinse system, as she proudly placed the basket of clothes between the two basins–clearly just where it belonged.

Maggie eventually got in on the action, too, which led to both some fun sisterly play and some violent sisterly screaming over such topics as maximizing the limited clotheline space and the correct number of pins to use for each garment.

I’ve still got another retractable clothesline ready to be installed in the backyard. I think its time to hang it at kid height and put them to work!

Science is fun!

(Maggie wrote the title to this entry.)

One of my parents’ birthday presents to Maggie back in May was a subscription to the Young Scientists Club, which sends monthly science experiment kits to you in the mail. We finally pulled out the first kit this week, with a set of experiments related to recycling.

I have been feeling for awhile that Maggie has been needing some more involved and engaging activities, and if this experience was any indication, I was right. She leapt into working on the first experiment, starting with some discussion questions related to recycling.

We then set up some simulated compost piles, one with apple inside, and one with plastic. We talked about what her predictions were for what would happen, and then she said to me, “Okay, Mom, now I’m going to write down my hypothesis.” So I guess she has picked up a little science lingo along the way after all.

The young scientist with her experiment:

It was a late bedtime (we started in the evening after Anna was asleep), but that smile made it all worth it.

More Scrabble…

I’ve gotten a little behind on the posting due to computer woes around here, but Maggie wanted me to share these pictures of her two latest Scrabble games with Steve. They’ve been playing in the evenings before bed.

Maggie is especially proud because she outscored Steve in both of these games. Granted, we do help her out, but she does a lot of the figuring herself. One of the highlights of this past week has been overhearing their enthusiastic comments and laughter as she and Steve play (and learn!) together.

Advice from a novice canner

Several folks have asked me about getting started with canning.  The truth is, I am not an experienced canner, just an enthusiastic one.  Although my mother is a great cook, and we spent a lot of time in the kitchen growing up, canning was not something that we did together.  My mother-in-law was the one who got me started, when I watched her make jam one summer at our little cabin in upstate New York.  This must have been about five or six years ago.  I had no idea that jam was so simple!  I came back home inspired, and made many batches of jam.  Pear-ginger.  Peach.  Hot pepper.

My jam-making has waxed and waned in the intervening years, waning significantly once Anna was born.  And mostly, I stuck to fruit–brandied cherries for Steve, some fruit chutneys, and more jam.  I experimented with recipes and types of pectin, but didn’t branch out that much.

And then, I began gardening.  Last year’s cucumber harvest wasn’t that great, but I found myself dreaming of pickles and relish.  My pepper harvest was more or less a total bust, but I wondered if I could someday make hot pepper jam using my own peppers (I did–yesterday!).  And tomatoes–what if I could actually can my own tomatoes?

I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which has got me hot not only to can but also to make my own cheese.  But that’s another post entirely.

So this has been my first summer of crazy canning.  Of really trying to put local, seasonal produce up for the winter.  I swear there’s something in my primal brain that is being satisfied by the process of hoarding up calories for myself and my family for the fallow season.  I feel like a mama squirrel gathering nuts into my nest, and I love to see the pile growing!

For those who are just getting started, here would be my non-expert advice.

1. Read some books. A very digestible classic is the Ball Blue Book of Home Preserving.  It’s inexpensive (mine was $6.50) and sold most places that sell canning supplies.  It has tons of basic and more interesting recipes, plus all of the information you could ever need on the mechanics of canning.  Plus I like that I can be sure that all the recipes are vetted in terms of food safety.  I just bought a copy this summer, and it’s already dog-eared.  For jam, I love Well Preserved by Joan Hassol.  My friend Nancy loaned me this book, and I liked it so much that I bought my own.  Although I have used this recipe more for inspiration that following exact recipes–I prefer less sugar than she suggests, and have substituted low-sugar pectin in many of the recipes.  It is both a lovely memoir about jam making and filled with interesting recipes.  And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my new favorite canning book is The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich.

2. Find a canning buddy.  For me, I was lucky enough to find an experienced canner in my friend Nancy, who could answer my questions and provide me with encouragement.  It would probably work equally well to find an enthusiastic friend who wants to learn along with you.  There is something magical about canning–trust me!–and it’s wonderful to have a friend or two who can share your triumphs, mourn your un-set jam, and understand your new obsession.  If you have someone who can walk you through your first canning adventures, all the better.

3. Get the right tools.  Especially a jar lifter.  I bought my first canning kettle with a rack this summer, and it’s definitely a must for quart jars of  tomatoes.  For half-pints of jam, you can get away with any big stock pot.  Myself, I’m jonesing for a magnetic wand to pick up jar lids, but it’s far from required.

4. Just do it. The detailed directions for canning can be a little overwhelming, but the actually doing of it is not that complicated.  It is important to follow recipes closely, especially in terms of maintaining the acidity of your food (this keeps bad bugs from growing). Personally, I’d start with jam, since it’s hard to screw up using commercial pectin, and it’s also hard to poison anyone.  If jam is bad, the worst that happens is that it’s moldy or icky–not dangerous. And speaking from experience, it’s probably a good idea to try your first batch or two without your kids underfoot, if possible.

Really, there is little more satisfying than seeing those rows of shiny glass jars filled with your own preserved concoctions.

Happy canning!

There were three in the bed, and the little one said…

We have a lot of beds in our house.  A lot of futons, really.  Over the years we have acquired more (hand-me-downs, upsizing beds) but can’t seem to get rid of the extras.  So at this point, we have two king-sized beds, two queens, and two doubles.  So there’s plenty of room for all of us to spread out.

However, this is the scene I happened upon the other night:

There’s little more heartwarming to me than seeing all those I love most snuggled up together!