Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Our Favorite Children's Books (Ages Birth to Three)

(For books for older kids, check out my favorite children's books for ages 4-8.)

As I already have my book list  for grown-ups, I wanted to start a list of our favorite children's books (so far). Kids grow through book stages so quickly that it's hard to even remember what they like at different ages if we don't keep track. The age listed is the youngest age at which my kids have liked these books. Of course, they continue to enjoy many of them well past these suggested ages.

I will continue adding books as I remember them, or as readers suggest them in the comments, so please let us know what your favorites are!

For babies (birth to 12 months):

Peek-a-Who? by Nina Laden. We have already gone through two copies of this and need a new one. Even the youngest babies love it, and my almost-3-year-old loves to "read" it to his baby sister.
Who Loves You, Baby? by Nina Laden
Ready, Set, Go! by Nina Laden
Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt

All the Indestructible books are wonderful for babies who still just want to crinkle and chew. I disagreed with the decision to portray broccoli as "yucky" in Baby Faces, but otherwise, they are great.

For 1- to 2-Year-Olds:

Tip Tip Dig Dig by Emma Garcia
Tap Tap Bang Bang  by Emma Garcia
Trucks by Byron Barton
Really, anything by Byron Barton. I confess that his writing style (simple, direct sentences) annoyed me a bit at first, but toddlers love it, and it has grown on me.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Barnyard Banter by Denise Fleming (the link is to the board book, but we've found the full-size picture book at our local library)
Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young edited by Jack Prelutsky
Word books from DK Publishing like My First Words.

For 2- to 3-Year-Olds:

Freight Train by Donald Crews (again, the link is to the board book, but we have read the picture book).
Other books by Donald Crews, such as School Bus, Carousel, and Bicycle Race, were favorites with the child but not always with the adults who have to read them repeatedly.
All the Mouse's First and Little Quack books by Lauren Thompson.
Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by James Dean. The other Pete the Cat books are wonderful too, but this remains the favorite.
Whose Mouse are You?  by Robert Kraus
Bear on a Bike and the other Bear books by Stella Blackstone. 
Wheels on the Bus (Raffi Songs to Read). There are obviously other versions of "Wheels on the Bus" to read and sing, but I love the French town portrayed in this book.
Extra Yarn  by Mac Barnett. Yes, the knitting is nice, but the story is warm, lovely, and intriguing to both kids and adults, and the illustrations by Jon Klassen are rich and beautiful.
This Place in the Snow by Rebecca Bond. Poetic without the silly rhyming typical of children's books, this book captures the enchantment and majesty of winter.
Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. We love this edition with luscious illustrations by Loren Long.
Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Walk for All Weathers

This month has thrown every kind of weather at us, from snow to driving rain, from some beautiful sunshine and temperatures in the high 40s and 50s (downright balmy for Spokane in November and December) to beautiful sunshine and temperatures in the teens. And we have been walking, and biking, and playing through all of it. As much as possible, I have been trying to spend time outside, at least a little bit, every day, and to maintain our previously scheduled activities no matter the weather. By doing this, I'm hoping to acclimate us gradually to the winter weather, and, I think more importantly, to toughen myself mentally for the winter weather.

Because really, the hardest part of living without a car in the winter is the inertia that sets in and stops us from walking out the door. We look; we think, "Ugh, it's cold/raining/snowing/windy," and we prefer the idea of staying warm and dry inside rather than bundling up our kids and ourselves for the outdoors. But getting ready really is the hardest part. Once everyone is bundled and we get outside, it is almost inevitably warmer and drier than I had anticipated. What's more, the outdoors and the exercise is almost invariably uplifting and soul-warming. By spending time outside, we end up fearing the winter less, and enjoying it more, than we see our neighbors with cars doing.

On the morning of our first real snow a few weeks ago, we had a monthly moms' group to attend about 1.5 miles away. We easily could have skipped it: it's not a necessity, and many of the other moms opted to stay home rather than brave the roads. But honestly, I thought, "If I start skipping things in November, what am I going to do in December? January? February? Will I be housebound for four months, just because of the weather?" And so I braved it, and I was so glad I did! It was a truly beautiful morning, with a gently falling snow, just perfect, and the exercise gave me such a boost that I felt amazing by the time I got there - energized and giddy. I realized I need some better snow boots, but other than that, I was warm and dry, and the kids were snug in their Burley. I felt somewhat guilty bragging to anyone who would listen about the beautiful walk, particularly when many had horror stories about their drives.

We've walked to library story time (our Thursday institution) in driving rain one week and below-freezing temperatures the next. It was only in the mid-30s when I rode my bike to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey last week, and another customer commented, "Ooh, it's cold to be on a bike!" Warm as I was from my ride, I was baffled. It might have been cold for a bike ride had I insisted on wearing a bikini and not actually pedaling the bike, but properly dressed (including a balaclava, my new favorite cold weather accessory) and exerting myself, I was beyond comfortable.

The battle with winter weather is largely mental. I confess that it is still a challenge for me to get out the door some days. I envy the ducks in our local park, who seem completely unfazed by the fact that their pond has almost completely frozen over. They have down and oils to keep them warm and dry... but I remind myself that we have large brains to help us figure out what clothes to wear to keep ourselves warm (often the same down and wool that animals have!). We should get out there and have fun - it's so liberating not to be controlled by the weather.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Car-Free in the Winter

It is not winter yet. Oh, no, no, no. Not yet. But I've had a couple of questions lately from friends and relatives about our transportation plans for the inevitable cold months ahead (which can be long and snowy here in the Inland Northwest).

First of all, we have done five years' worth of car-free winters in DC, and winter is usually no picnic there, either. On the other hand, the walkability and dependable public transit options in the DC area do make for a different situation. We also spent three of our DC winters without kids, and the remaining two winters with only one kid, so we are indeed dealing with a different matter this time around.

Based on our experience now and doing this lifestyle with kids, I'm fairly convinced that any healthy person without children can live well without owning a car almost anywhere. Active transportation like walking and biking warms you up, so staying warm is genuinely not a problem if you dress appropriately. And snow can be stared down quite effectively with a good pair of boots (or a not-great pair of sneakers, which is what I've been using up until now). Having kids does complicate the winter issue insofar as young kids can't walk or bike as far as adults (or not at all, in the case of our 9-month-old), so they can't warm themselves up.

That being said, we will likely continue doing what we're doing now, just with more layers! I especially love wool and silk under- and over-layers, whether knitted by Mama or purchased from any number of accommodating retailers. Although wool under-layers can be expensive, they don't need to be washed often, so I can get away with just buying one of a particular item of clothing and airing it out to fresh between wearings. And, really, I could outfit my kids from head to toe in organic wool and silk and still come out ahead compared to owning a car!

I would love to ride my bike all winter, and I am going to try to do this as much as possible, especially on kid-free trips. I don't know how my tires will do on snow and ice, and I probably wouldn't want to ride next to cars in icy or dark conditions with kids. Cars around here will not be looking out for bikes past October. In the daytime, though, if it's just cold, our bike trailer is fully enclosed and blocks the wind, so it is surprisingly warm inside.

The same bike trailer turns into our double stroller, so again, if we adults can walk somewhere, the kids should be cozy inside with coats and a blanket. Thick snow might be a problem for this stroller, but a light snowfall won't deter the 20" inflatable wheels on this baby. Sidewalks around here tend to get shoveled pretty well (as opposed to the streets), so I'm really not worried about even deeper snows. And, really, who would drive a car in over two or three feet of snow, anyway? On truly terrible winter days, we will do what all of us should be doing: taking a snow day and sticking close to home while making do with what we have, or sending one of us stouthearted adults to the store alone if necessary.

As final options, there is almost always the bus for longer trips, or getting a ride from a neighbor in dire circumstances. I don't like doing this much, but neighbors should be neighborly, and I wouldn't deny someone the joy of being neighborly if we truly needed something and couldn't get to it.

Finally, there are two things I like to keep in mind about winter carlessness: first, walkability is much more about proximity of amenities and quality of infrastructure than it is about climate (look at Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, and even parts of Canada). By no means am I comparing Spokane to Finland, but it helps to remember that many other humans live in equally bad or worse winter conditions without cars, and they do just fine.

And second, driving a car in the winter brings its own discomforts, inconveniences (I recall one particularly irksome episode, waiting in line at Costco for snow tires as a favor to a relative after the first snowfall last year), and probably more dangers. Winter just has a way of toughening us all up.  


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Our Gear

We finally feel satisfied with our gear for walking, biking, and riding transit with kids (as well as doing all these things with cargo, usually groceries). Because gear often makes or breaks our ability to live car-free, I wanted to share some of the specifics of how we do what we do. I've already written about my bike, and my husband recently got the men's version of the same model, which he is very happy with, so I'll focus on our other gear.

The Double Stroller/Bike Trailer: Burley Encore 2011 with Two-Wheel Stroller Kit

This beauty essentially makes our life possible. We have used it mostly in stroller mode thus far, as my youngest is still too young to be pulled behind a bike in it. I found our trailer used on Ebay, but I made sure to get a newer version so that I could use the swiveling two-wheel stroller attachment. If you just want a bike trailer, Craigslist or your local garage sale can set you up with any number and brand of trailers in great used condition (I myself got a chance to use my sister's Via Velo from Costco this summer, and it was wonderful as a bike trailer, though a bit narrower in the kids' shoulders than the Burley Encore). Our two small children fit comfortably in the Burley, along with quite a bit of cargo, maybe a week's worth of groceries. The seats fold down to accommodate tons of cargo if you're traveling sans kids. 

This model is still about as narrow as a wheelchair, so it fits through standard doorways and the security gate at the library. Before I found this trailer, I was seriously considering a new Croozer two-child trailer, which has quite a bit more shoulder room inside and individual bucket seats for the two kids. Unfortunately, it is very large at 35" wide, so it would not be convenient to take indoors anywhere. My hope is that by the time my oldest outgrows the trailer, he will be able to ride his own bike, or we might consider a trail-a-bike.

City Mini Single Stroller

When I know I'll be going on a bus, my toddler rides in the City Mini while baby rides in a carrier. Hands down, the best feature of the City Mini is the one-handed easy fold: you just pull up on a strap in the seat, and the whole thing collapses flat to about the size of a small suitcase. Its footprint is comparable in size to an umbrella stroller, but it swivels nicely with only one hand, so it is ideal for dealing with two kids of different ages in small spaces. It reclines flat, so baby can take a turn in it too if the toddler wants to walk or ride his balance bike. The only downside of the City Mini is limited cargo space in the basket, but it is still enough for the library or a small grocery run.

Strider Balance Bike

When we bought this guy on Amazon, I thought we were getting a toy, an alternative to a tricycle or a bike with training wheels, for my toddler to ride around in the driveway. As it turns out, the Strider has become like a hands-free stroller. Our 2 1/2-year-old is skilled enough on the Strider at this point that it is a viable transportation option for trips under 3 miles or so. He is actually quite a bit faster than my walking speed, so I stick to smaller streets (though we stay on the sidewalk, of course) and carry his bike to cross busy streets. We have even gone to the grocery store with him on his bike: I just throw his little bike in the cart when we get to the store.  

Baby Carriers: Um, One of Each, Please

I confess that I'm a sucker for baby slings. I started with a homemade wrap (equivalent to a Moby or Sleepy) and then kept adding to my collection on a quest for the perfect one. As babywearing moms will attest, no carrier is perfect for every stage of babyhood:
  • The wrap continues to be my favorite for young babies.
  • My Baby K'Tan, somewhere between a wrap and a structured carrier, is the best all-around carrier for different ages and holds, but you have to get it in your size, so it probably won't also work for a daddy or other caregiver;
  • I got a Mei Tai from Etsy to be able to carry baby on my back. Back carrying is more comfortable on long walks but is usually only safe for an older baby (6+ months). I have even carried my 30-pound 2-year-old in a Mei Tai fairly comfortably!
  • The Dr. Sears sling (Balboa Baby Sling) is adjustable, so it was useful for Daddy to walk the little baby down to sleep and trade off if necessary. It's generally very versatile and very quick to put on, but I confess that I haven't used mine very much lately.
  • We also have a structured carrier that Daddy prefers but I've never worn. 
I know many moms swear by their Ergos, but that is one I haven't tried yet. 

It feels like a lot of gear when I write it all out, but really, we have our routines set so that deciding on a method of travel is always easy. Library? Both kids in the double stroller. Bus to downtown? Toddler in the City Mini, baby in the Baby K'Tan. Local park? Toddler on his Strider, baby in the City Mini. Living successfully without a car (and, you know, still actually going places) is just a matter of preparation.

Feel free to brag about your favorite baby- and child-toting gear in the comments!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Knitting Season

We are coming up on what is probably one of my favorite seasons: autumn. Summer is fun and active, simple in its small wardrobes and minimal planning requirements. But I have to confess that I really start to come alive during these first crisp mornings and evenings. My heart warms at the prospect of chilies and cornbread, stews to be stewed, babes to be bundled, leaves to be raked, hot cider to be sipped. Both of my babies have come of solid food age in the fall, and I delight in introducing them to squashes and sweet potatoes, apples, pears, pumpkins, and eventually the nourishing, warming soups of the season.

And of course, as a knitter, I relish being able to pull out those long-forgotten wool projects that hibernated patiently all summer.

With our cool summer nights in the Northwest, I am able to continue knitting with some cottons and linens during the warm months, but how satisfying to come back to the beloved woolens that will sustain our little and big ones through the winter. I have some cozy projects in the works as I dust off my list of 52 projects that I'm afraid I've neglected of late.

For my 8-month-old, I think she will require at least one more wool diaper cover from The Expectant Knitter in Malabrigo Merino Worsted. Because really, a sweet baby can just never have too many wool diaper covers. I have repurposed longies in the works for her too, from a lovely wool sweater that accidentally went through the washer.

This littlest one among us will also need a Christmas stocking soon enough. To be honest, our other three stockings have never actually been hung by the chimney with care, but we now have a beautiful working fireplace, so this must be the year! I've made basic 72-stitch (I think) stockings for each of us, with slight variations and unique color schemes (no red and green here) - I'm excited to pick out colors for our sweet girl.

As much as I love knitting for little babies, I can't forget my big boy, who is blessedly still young enough not to care how I dress him most of the time. For him, I have in mind a stash-breaking hipster sweater vest with a fun array of bold colors. I'm following the Kids' Vest pattern from More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts, and the yarn is a combination of KnitPicks Swish and Wool of the Andes, Malabrigo Merino again, and Cascade Superwash, and some in there that I don't even remember.

For myself (yes, Mama needs something too, don't we think?) my fall/winter bicycling wardrobe is crying out for some colorful arm warmers and knee socks. After SpokeFest a couple of weeks ago, I realized the beauty of arm warmers, which cut down on the chill as you start riding but can then be pushed up as you get warmer from riding. The same goes for knee socks, with the added benefit of being able to roll up your pant legs and avoid the chain without your legs getting cold. Thus, the cycling life and a hippie DIY wardrobe complement each other perfectly. I have the gorgeous Crystal Palace Sausalito on hand for either socks or arm warmers. Delicious.

Do you have any warm craft projects in mind for the fall season ahead?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kids as Billboards

At the risk of sounding a bit too bourgeois bohemian, I have to say that I love PBS. Quality programming, no commercials (except for those commercials that aren't supposed to be commercials, you know the ones), and often addictive documentaries and mini-series. When I give in to the temptation to use the TV as a babysitter for my toddler, I appreciate the Daniel Tigers and Sid the Science Kids who help me to feel less guilty about it.

But I have to say that my snobbish, "Oh no, my children don't watch commercial television" attitude was in for a rude awakening the first time I walked into a store with the aforementioned toddler and experienced the barrage of "Thomas!" "Elmo!" "Dinosaur Train!" Oops. It would appear that even PBS is out to ensnare parents trying to protect our kids from materialism.*

Kids are great business. According to Simplicity Parenting, marketers spend $16 billion per year to target kids directly. My most recent experience of this phenomenon pertains to children's underpants, that symbolic graduation from babyhood into bigness (and apparently, into consumer culture). My search for said intimate apparel has turned up Superman, Thomas the Train, Sesame Street, Angry Birds, and the Avengers (which is a PG-13 movie anyway, so theoretically 2-year-olds should not have even seen it).

And this is for my son. I dread the orgy of Disney princesses that will be available when my daughter is learned in the potty arts. Plain colored underpants with non-branded trains, cars, and dinosaurs required a special order online.

So what's the big deal, after all? I've had to ask myself why Avengers undies bother me so much. I'm not convinced that superhero underpants will turn my son into a sociopath (or a superhero, for that matter). My reasoning comes down to a few concerns:

  1. Kids are gullible. It hardly seems fair to trick them into buying something when they don't have the critical thinking skills to combat marketing tactics. It's just too easy.
  2. Manipulation should be reserved for adults. In the same vein, if someone should be manipulated into buying stuff, it should be adults. At least they have (ideally) developed the ability to say "no" to something, even if they've seen it on TV. Adults are better able to assess whether a product is really better quality, or if it just has a character on it that they happen to recognize.
  3. For my own children, I hope to instill in them the principle that buying things does not equal happiness. Hey, don't get me wrong: I like buying new clothes as much as the next person. But clothes for kids are not an end in and of themselves. The same is true for toys. The stuff of underwear and T-shirts and toys should fade away as the real substance of childhood - play and mess and learning and friends and brothers and sisters and more play and more mess - takes center stage. 
In many cases, this means that the simpler choice is often the best - even if it requires a bit of extra research.

*To be fair to PBS, I believe that proceeds from their merchandise go back to support PBS programming. Did I mention that I love PBS? Please don't stop supporting PBS.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On Wasted Time

Last weekend, we walked to our nearest library, as we often do (we've been averaging two trips a week here). It is almost two miles to the library, so with the double stroller, a slight incline, and 50 pounds of children, it takes about 40 minutes each way. Forty minutes! Eighty minutes round-trip. An hour and twenty minutes wasted, just to go to the library. Right?

Not so. The idea that the time spent getting somewhere is "wasted" comes from our car culture. An hour and  half spent in the car, just to go to the library and back, twice a week, would indeed be wasted time. But walking is rarely wasted time.

At the very least, it is good exercise. Depending on your locale, walking can also be beautiful and enjoyable. And with kids, significant others, or friends along, walking is also quality relationship and learning time.

Obviously, it is possible to have conversations and see pretty things in a car. But the focus is often different, isn't it? We rarely decide to go on a leisure drive with friends, but a leisure walk is commonplace - why? Walking outdoors involves more eye contact, greater sensory stimulation, and usually less frustration and cursing than driving. While walking, we can stop or slow down at will to watch a squirrel, smell a flower, or examine a building more closely.

Compare our library walking experience to a car moment we had just a few weeks earlier. The week before we moved to our new house, we went to the Royal Fireworks Concert in a relative's car and paid to park in a garage. After the concert ended, around 10 PM, we got stuck in a traffic jam getting out of the garage. Although everyone had already had to pay on the way in, we had to scan our ticket or some such nonsense in order to be allowed to leave the garage. For twenty minutes, we sat in the infuriatingly slow line of cars, breathing fumes, looking at concrete beams, and listening to dozens of car engines idling (as well as one screaming baby), magnified by the concrete.

It did not escape our reflection that in the time we spent walking to the car, loading up the kids, and waiting to leave, we could have walked to our new home. While this car experience was exceptional, it is certainly not uncommon to waste time sitting in line to leave a parking garage.

As a practitioner and proponent of the "alternative" lifestyles of car-free and car-light living, I often feel called upon to defend our crazy ways. The biggest question is usually how we cope with things taking so much longer than they would in a car. I can't deny that living without a car is often slower (though by no means always, especially when bikes or quality public transit are involved). But on the other hand, very little time is ever truly wasted - instead, travel time is enriched by the mode of transportation.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Oh So Much Walking

As I've mentioned, we moved about a month ago from our suburban exile to an older, denser, more walkable neighborhood. Now, this isn't DC, we're not kidding ourselves; it is definitely not the "pop out the door at 10 PM to pick up a bag of chips" kind of convenience we're accustomed to, but that being said, so much about our new life here over the past month has been so glorious.

Walking is once again our go-to form of transportation. For quickness or convenience, we might jump on a bike or grab the bus, but for shorter trips to the park or grocery store, we need look no further than our own two (or four, or six) feet.

We're meeting our neighbors and others in our community. We walk past their houses, they walk past ours; we see kids and size them up for playmates. The denser neighborhood, sidewalks, and multiple walking destinations mean we just see our neighbors more.

We are developing systems and building up our resources. This sounds very unromantic. Let me explain: as opposed to driving a car, the car-free life is ultimately about problem solving. Still not romantic enough for you? Everything eventually falls into place and becomes second nature, but starting out in a new place (especially now with two kids, which we didn't have in DC), every trip requires an assessment of what methods will be most efficient - kids in the double stroller? Baby in the single stroller, toddler on his bike? Toddler in the single stroller, baby in a wrap? Walk? Bus? Bike? While it sounds tedious, I feel like this way of thinking makes me an active, thoughtful participant in my daily life and challenges me, keeping my brain from getting flabby. In this way, we also build up our repertoire of strategies for various key trips and our own personal resources for getting around and just dealing with life.

We feel healthier and stronger. Especially with the hills around our new home, it took only a few days for both of us adults to start feeling trimmer and stronger - no gym membership required for our needs. When movement is integrated into daily life, we're more likely to stick to a fitness routine (you know, the one called "life"). Our 2.5-year-old also gets a lot more opportunities to ride his little balance bike to "real" destinations (as opposed to riding in the driveway) because there are sidewalks anyplace we need to go.

Our kids get to see walking as the default form of human transportation. I'm often surprised when I bring up the importance of walking and walkable neighborhoods with new acquaintances, and after a blank look crosses their face, they clarify, "Oh, you mean like walking for transportation?" Well, yeah, like using your legs to get somewhere that you need to go. It's amazing that we have turned the most basic form of human transportation into an exercise regimen or a leisure activity. It is both of those, to be sure, but it is wonderful for kids to be able to see real grown-ups walking as a way of life.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Learning About Rhythms

We just finished moving for the second time in a year (the third time in three years, come to that). This wasn't a dramatic or difficult move, in many ways: we moved only 13 miles, most of our stuff was still packed from the last move, and we had access to a car to be able to make several trips over a few days. On the other hand, this was our first time moving with two kids, one of whom is now old enough to notice and care (and who inconveniently developed a low-grade fever just in time for moving day). This move, though a wonderfully positive one in many ways, threw all four of us off our game. Naps were skipped, meals refused, uncharacteristic tantrums thrown. Now that we are mercifully settling anew into a household and family routine, I've been thinking about the importance of rhythms for family (and indeed, any) life.

Let's be clear: I am not your meal plan, nap schedule, laundry day kind of mama by nature. Oh, no. Nor is my husband the dinner-on-the-table-when-I-get-home-from-work kind of guy. We often do things in a way that he terms "organic" and I call "waiting until something absolutely, undeniably, unavoidably needs to be done right now, or preferably until someone else does it."

But that being said, I am learning. First of all, because young children have a way of forcing even the most laissez-faire into some kind of schedule. And second, because based on the efforts I have made to this end, rhythms and routines, while intimidating on the surface, really do make life easier for parents and calmer for kids.

Routines and predictability are so important for young kids because really, they are just figuring out this big, confusing world over which they have no control. In The Baby Book, Dr. Sears talks about toddlers' need for a feeling of mastery over their environment, and how seemingly small changes may elicit extreme reactions from them.

Imagine, if you will, that you've been at a new job for six weeks, and you are just starting to feel comfortable. Then one day, you arrive at work to find that all of the offices have been rearranged without warning. You can't find your own office, let alone your colleagues'. The next day, they've moved the offices back to normal, but the coffee maker is now on the opposite side of the building. The day after that, you're issued a completely new procedures manual, and all of your work has been changed, effective immediately. I think any of us might throw a tantrum at this point.

This approximates how a toddler might feel when rules, schedules, and surroundings are changed on a regular basis. Obviously, kids enjoy seeing and doing new things, going to new places. But the novelty must be set against the safe and secure backdrop of an environment they have mastered.

And whether we admit it or not, adults also need a home base from which to branch out, try new things, meet new people, and create.

That explains a bit of my motivation behind developing family rhythms. Now here are some of the home routines I'm working to develop.

  • Getting up before my kids - The day goes much more smoothly when I have even a bit of time to take care of myself before the kids call. This also necessitates going to bed at a decent hour. Ahem.
  • Plenty of unstructured time - Every moment doesn't need to be full of appointments and play dates. Kids need time to just play and even be bored sometimes: they can develop wonderful abilities to entertain themselves and be imaginative if we are not constantly entertaining them!
  • "Full" days and "empty" days - Weekends tend to be busy for us, so I try to leave Mondays open for time at home to relax and regroup, as well as catch up on any household chores from the weekend. On "empty" days, a trip to the park or grocery store may be all that we "do."
  • Meal routine - This is an idea I got from Simplicity Parenting. The goal is not to eat only the same seven meals, over and over, but for dinner each day to have a theme: Monday is rice night, Tuesday pasta night, Wednesday soup night, and so on. It sounds intimidating at first, but in reality, it makes planning and cooking each night so easy. What's for dinner? Well, what night is it? The details can change, of course, so you can still serve a wide variety of foods. This routine should also help the habitually picky eater to know what to expect and settle into it.
  • Chores routine - A work in progress for me. I got inspiration for this idea (though it's obviously not a new concept) from Large Family Logistics - though ours is by no means a large family, I figure I have a lot to learn about efficiency from larger families. The book suggests making Monday laundry day, Tuesday kitchen day, Wednesday office day... you get the idea. When I tried this in earnest, my house was spotless without a whole lot of effort. I had only one child, and I still fell out of the routine after a few weeks, but like the meals routine, a concept that sounds overly strict can actually be quite freeing (if you stick with it).  There is no need to decide each day what needs to be done around the house, and in addition, nothing ever gets very dirty if you clean it at least once a week.  Right now, I am trying to decide which of her "days" work best for me, in order to integrate those into our existing routines.
I hope you might find some ideas here to make your own family routine a bit more predictable and just a bit calmer for everyone involved (especially you). 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Walking with Children: The Basics

How has a blog by A Walking Mama failed to address the basics of walking with children as a way of life?  I have no idea.  I must discuss this with the management. Ahem.  In the meantime, if you are looking for ways to incorporate more walking and less driving into your daily life with your kids, here are my suggestions for getting started.

1) Get the right equipment.

When my son outgrew his baby carriage, we decided to buy a reasonably-priced umbrella stroller - not the cheapest, but certainly not top-of-the-line. The idea of spending hundreds of dollars on a stroller our child would only use for a few years seemed ridiculous.  Less than a year later, we had run that poor little stroller into the ground and had to buy a replacement.  This time we went with a Baby Jogger City Mini, which cost more than I would have imagined spending on a stroller... but had we just gotten a high-quality item in the first place, we would have saved ourselves the expense of the cheap stroller, as well as the hassle of finding a new one (on vacation, no less).  Our City Mini still looks and feels new a year later, and I know we will be packing our kids around in it for years to come.  

If your children are too young to walk the distances you will be covering, you will need a reliable and comfortable carrier, stroller, double stroller, or some combination thereof.  My 2 1/2-year-old can walk further than most (and you can bet we're proud of that fact), but after about half a mile to a mile, walking with him becomes, shall we say, inefficient.  You know the drill.  Even as he gets older and more focused, I'm sure there will be times when we will tire him out with the distances we want to cover to get our errands done.  Don't be embarrassed to be seen with your 4- or 5-year-old in a stroller if you're covering long distances (and make sure to have a stroller that will carry them comfortably). 

If walking will be a part of your daily life with your children, allow yourself to splurge a bit on good-quality equipment. Think of this as an investment that will ultimately make it possible for you to save money by driving less. Please take note, I am not giving you free rein here to go out and buy a brand-new, thousand-dollar Bugaboo that will just sit and collect dust in your garage until you sell it on Craigslist in a few years (though if money is really no object, be my guest - they make some pretty amazing stuff). But I am giving you permission to look beyond the low-end umbrella strollers.  Read the reviews - those cheap Disney strollers are for getting your kids from the minivan into the mall, not much more.  Spending a bit more upfront will save you money, sanity, and health in the long run.  If you enjoy using your stroller, you are also going to be more likely to use it more often.

2) Be prepared - but not too prepared.

If you're used to traveling by car with kids, you're likely in the habit of storing everything you could possibly need in the car - extra clothes, toys, diapers, snacks, shoes, hot and cold weather accessories - just to have your bases covered for any eventuality. After all, in the car, you have space for it, so why not? When you're walking, however, you will have less room and, really, less need for all the "just in case" gear. If you will be within walking distance of your home, most emergencies can be handled by just going home.    

When we lived in the DC area, we always marveled at the parents and nannies who had strollers stuffed full of snacks, toys, and extra clothes.  If our child got hungry playing on the playground, we went home for a snack.  If he spilled something (rare because we didn't carry food with us) or got dirty, we took him home to change.  Unless you will be out for the whole afternoon or day, only bring with you what you will need for your trip. And remember, even kids who get bored in the car will likely be entertained enough by the walk, nature, and your almost-undivided attention that they won't need toys or snacks to distract them.

3) Combine trips.

This seems like a no-brainer for parents, even those who drive everywhere, but it is surprising how often we give ourselves more trouble than we need to by not combining trips. If you are walking to the grocery store, is there anything you can pick up at the hardware store next door, or the library on the way?  Does it make sense to go to a different grocery store that is a bit further away in order to stop in at other stores you might need?  
This mindset makes sense for anyone doing errands without a car, but it is especially helpful for parents of young children.  If you can work it out so that boring errands are interspersed with interesting or fun ones, or if you can squeeze in a trip to the park on the way home, then so much the better. 

Beyond combining your own errands, is there any way to make your family's errands more efficient overall?  Perhaps your spouse or a friend can pick up something for you on the way home from work, if it will be more convenient for them. If you need to make a purchase that will take some research, do the research you can online or even by phone first, rather than going to many different stores to see products in person.

One of the things I love about the car-free life is how this kind of thinking becomes second nature.  Much less time is wasted driving around to different stores you don't really need, just because you can.  It can make life with children much more pleasant because you also aren't dragging them to places unnecessarily, tiring everyone out in the process.  Even errands that might normally be difficult with children become easier when the journey involves healthy exercise and fun interaction.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Moving to be Car-Free (Again)

As you have probably gathered, we have been living against our will as exiles in suburbia for the last several months.  I started this blog partly in response to our situation, to remind myself of my values in an environment that seems designed to undermine them.  That sounds overly dramatic, and I know that there are people who manage to live simple, non-materialistic, non-car-centric lives in the suburbs. But really, trying to live car-light in the postwar suburbs is like trying to lose weight living next door to a McDonald's: possible, but unnecessarily difficult.

For this reason, I'm thrilled that our liberation from suburbia is now imminent!  Our situation has become secure enough in our new city that we will be able to move into a more permanent home in August. We have already located said charming bungalow, so I wanted to expound a bit on our thought processes in choosing a home that supports a car-free life with little ones.

The Fabric of Our Lives

I do love cotton. But in this case, I'm referring to the geographic fabric of the places we choose to live and be. 

For myself, I feel that my life's fabric is a cohesive whole when I know I can walk to anyplace that I need on a daily or weekly basis. That is our general guiding principle for choosing a place to live. That doesn't necessarily mean that I will walk to all of these places; I may bike, take public transit, or carpool, depending on my needs, time, energy, and the weather, but I like to know that nothing I need on a regular basis requires me to run across a freeway, walk more than a block or two on those hideous 6-lane tributes to postwar engineering (you know the ones), or generally take my life in my hands. Even if Trader Joe's is 5 miles away, I like to know that I could walk there safely if the mood were to strike. 

WalkScore.com is a very useful tool to determine whether the neighborhood you're considering is generally walkable. It has features that allow you to plot your commute by time and mode of transport (a 30-minute walk, for example, or a 10-minute bus ride).  It does have some limitations, however, so it is necessary to check into the specifics yourself.  For example, an outlying area covered in strip malls, big box stores, and wide streets will receive a high walk score, though no one in her right mind would like to live there.  I know WalkScore is working on a new Street Smart feature to mitigate this problem, but it is not operational yet.

With those general ideas in mind, here were our specific guidelines for choosing a walkable home.

#1: Walking distance (or one easy bus ride) to working spouse's work.

In How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, author Chris Balish argues that if you can get to work reliably and regularly without your own car, then you can live without one altogether. Work is the one place you need to get to on time, on a daily basis. Everything else is negotiable. For us, walking distance is under 2 miles or so, a 30- to 40-minute walk. 

The house we settled on is even closer to my husband's work than we planned, more like a 20-25 minute walk. Keep in mind that 20 minutes of walking is not like 20 minutes of driving: it is 20 minutes door to door. No looking for parking, no waiting in traffic, just 20 minutes of fresh air and exercise. Forgot your wallet? No U-turns or driving around the block necessary: just stop, turn 180 degrees, and continue walking down the sidewalk until you get back home to pick up whatever you left behind.

This is actually the first time we will have the luxury of living within walking distance to work. Walking Daddy is looking forward to leaving behind his two-bus commute and having a bit more freedom. I will also be able to walk to meet him with the kids for lunch or after work for evening activities downtown.  For lazy days, running-late days, or bad weather days, there is also a bus that can take him to work in 5 minutes.

#2: Ten-minute walk to at least one real grocery store.   

Not a convenience store or just a farmers' market. This may or may not be where we do our large weekly grocery run, but it needs to be a place where we can pick up bread at 10 o'clock at night, or eggs for a last-minute birthday cake.  We then like to have other grocery stores or farmers' markets within a 30-minute walk or an easy bus ride.

#3: Ten- to fifteen-minute walk to at least one park with a playground. Multiple parks preferred.

With young kids, a park within walking distance is a necessity and sanity-saver. We prefer to have more than one park to choose from so the walk is interesting and varied for us parents as well.

#4: One library within a comfortable walk or a very easy bus ride.

See my last post on libraries: the library is a weekly necessity for us.  In our new home, we will actually have three libraries within a 2-mile walk, including the main library branch.

#5: A neighborhood where we want to take walks.  

Walking is the major leisure activity for the adults in our family, so some elements we look for are sidewalks, interesting homes, mature trees, businesses for window shopping, and multiple parks.

#6: Other amenities desirable but not necessary for daily/weekly life: A hardware store, coffee shops, clothing and household stores like Target (we do much of this kind of shopping online anyway), churches, bookstores, restaurants, theaters, community centers, doctor's offices, or natural parenting stores (I only mention these because our city just got one - Bella Cova).

Note that our list of priorities reflects our current life stage and needs... if we didn't have kids (or if we liked bars), then bars, clubs, and restaurants would figure higher on the list. With very young kids, we're not too concerned about schools yet, though we will have one right across the street, which will be nice for the playground and comparatively slow traffic.

 But doesn't that cost more?

To paraphrase the bookseller in You've Got Mail, yes, housing in a community like I'm describing is worth more. There are ways to cut the extra expense, such as choosing a smaller dwelling, picking an apartment over a house, or living in an up-and-coming neighborhood. We are fortunate to live in a city where the cost of housing is low enough to begin with that we don't have to compromise any of our house wants (size, style, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, yard, etc.) to live in a location we love, BUT we would be willing to sacrifice any of those things for location in a heartbeat if we had to. When we lived in the DC area, we did sacrifice quite a few things we wanted in our home itself in order to be able to afford to live in a walkable neighborhood.

While our housing expenses may be higher than they would be in an outlying suburb, our overall cost of living is much lower. By living in a walkable community, we save hundreds per month on car ownership (about $8000 per year according to Balish), not to mention gym membership. We're healthier and happier being part of the fabric of a community, rather than having the different parts of our lives divided up into pieces. Is all of this worth either higher housing costs or less square footage?  There is no doubt in my mind.



Friday, June 28, 2013

The Beauty of Libraries

I have always loved reading.  As a child, I read during literally every spare moment - during meals, while walking, in the car, at the occasional symphony concert, even guiltily beneath my desk at school during particularly suspenseful parts.

But I came rather late to public libraries.  My parents were of the mindset that money spent on books is never wasted, so we were bookstore people more than library people growing up. Libraries for me brought to mind dusty, old, outdated books, not the flashy new covers to be found in the local Barnes and Noble.

Finally, as a full-time volunteer fresh out of college with an $85 monthly stipend, I discovered the infinite possibilities presented by the humble local library. For the first time in 17 years, I was not a student, and the free time was intoxicating. The freedom to choose my own reading, to read as much or as little as I wanted, to be accountable to no one for what I read... oh, bliss.  It helped that I worked around the corner from the main branch of the Baltimore Public Library, a lovely, expansive historic building with almost any book I could want.

I learned that I could place a hold on a book that was checked out, or even request that the library purchase new books that weren't in the system.  I learned that most libraries try to keep up on new releases, so that the books at my library are very often the same as those at the bookstore or on Amazon.  And I learned that books are just the beginning of what libraries offer, which also includes DVDs (both educational and popular), magazines, databases for personal research, audio and digital books, song downloads, even classes.

Now we only very rarely buy books.  And maybe I have to wait a few weeks for a book I want to read, or a new-release movie - and so what?  The anticipation is part of the fun, and I'm much more likely to read a book cover to cover if I've had to "earn" it by waiting (ironically, even more so than if I've actually earned it by paying money!).

The library DVDs have been a welcome and surprising addition to our movie nights, as we've seen many films we might not otherwise see.  For kids, the library allows us to read and possess 15 or more new picture books every couple of weeks, some lovingly packed into themed book bags to minimize the time and effort required of parents. As a crafter, I have often found a recipe or knitting pattern in a large volume that I would not otherwise buy or use.  And let's not forget about story time for kids, classes and book groups for adults, and the informed and enthusiastic advice of knowledgeable librarians when I need help choosing new books for a specific child.

Did I mention that all of this is FREE (through the wonderful prepayment plan of local taxes)???  I would estimate that we've saved hundreds or thousands of dollars on books, or, more likely, simply read hundreds more books than we would have if we were limited to books we had to purchase.

The best part is that once we're done with the books, they go back for someone else to enjoy - no collecting dust and taking up physical and mental space ("I bought that book; I really should read it sometime...").

We do have and treasure a personal library, and I very much respect my parents' attitude that money spent on books is never wasted.  But I am happy that my children are getting to know and love the beauty of the shared library.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Making Our Cities Family-Friendly

Usually, when I hear the term "family-friendly," it is referring to parents' ability to protect their children from seeing or hearing about sex, violence, foul language, rock n' roll, or nipples. For a city to be labelled "family-friendly," it must also have good schools, some parks and/or museums, a low crime rate, and a small visible homeless population.  All worthy goals, to be sure.

But as you've probably guessed, I am not referring to any of these admirable qualities when I talk about making our cities family-friendly. Instead, I'm thinking about ways we can make it easier, safer, and more pleasant for people of all ages and life stages to get around without a car. This used to be the norm in all American towns and cities because, um, people didn't have cars, or only had one family car. The postwar boom years changed all that, and many of our cities are just getting around to correcting those mistakes, as we begin to see where this automobile-centric development has gotten us.

Though you'll notice that I am unequivocally in favor of car-free and car-light living as much as possible, this post is primarily aimed at exposing the follies of policy-level decisions about urban and suburban development that do not promote walkability (what I would call livability).

But why should we frame this as a family issue?  I'll look at it from two angles, the health and development of children, and the health of family finances. Both arguments apply equally well to singles, couples without kids, families with pets, the elderly... you know, humans in general.

Cars (our own and other people's) are not good for our kids 

This is a shockingly traitorous thing to say in a country that loves its "family" cars, the bigger, the better.  My husband and I got married having never owned cars, and no one seemed to mind (especially as we were starving grad students in a very walkable city).  But once we were expecting our first baby, the not-so-subtle hints started rolling in... "How will you get to the hospital?"  "How will you take the baby to the doctor?"  "What will you do in the winter?"  With this highly ingrained notion in our culture that the smallest children require 3500-pound vehicles to get around, it might seem crazy to argue that kids might be better off without so much car travel in their daily lives, but here goes.

Car accidents are the most obvious manifestation of the fact that cars are bad for us. Accidents continue to be among the leading causes of death for all age groups, and the number one cause of death for children. To be fair, something has to be the leading cause of death, and I bet we would all prefer for it to be accidents than, say, pneumonia. All the same, any other cause would have a ribbon color and charity walk assigned to it by now. Unfortunately, the individual choice for families to go car-light or car-free does not necessarily remedy this situation, as pedestrians and cyclists are not protected from being hit by cars.  In the name of safety, many cities continue to widen roads, which only leads motorists to drive more recklessly.  Ironic.

Besides accidents, cars also contribute more than their fair share to pollution, spewing exhaust and emissions into the air that children should really have the right to breathe without concern. This affects children in cars, as well as children walking and bicycling (though kids walking on busy roads during rush hour will get the worst of it). 

And of course, our kids are becoming obese in higher numbers than ever before.  High fructose corn syrup doesn't help, soda doesn't help, TV and video games don't help, but for many kids, a sedentary lifestyle stems from their real inability to get anywhere safely without depending on their parents' (or eventually their own) cars. Kids walk and bike to school more rarely than previous generations did, and then they often need to be driven around to after-school activities by taxi moms (no fun for the moms, either).

Constant car travel also isn't great for parental interaction with kids.  The ungenerous laws of physics dictate that our youngest, most vulnerable children should be as far away from us as possible in a motor vehicle in order to keep them safe. Our littlest babies face the back of the car, missing out on the face-to-face time generally considered beneficial to human interaction and development.  When we do turn around to address squabbling siblings or a lost pacifier, we are putting our kids in danger.  Compare this to walking with a baby in a carrier or stroller, or walking side-by-side with an older child (on a safe and beautiful sidewalk) - every moment is an opportunity for conversation, learning, and relationship-building.    

The necessity of owning a car (or two) is not good for family finances

Anything that leads us to waste money is not family-friendly. Spending more unnecessarily means working more and/or saving less, which means less time with our family, more debt, later retirement, and more stress due to financial difficulties. And cars are undoubtedly a huge financial drain, from purchasing (including financing and depreciation), to use and maintenance (insurance, gas, repairs, upgrades...). 

They are certainly a useful waste of money, in their place, but unfortunately, many of our cities are built in such a way as to mandate their use. This means that families need to spend more money (on the order of $8000 a year per vehicle), work more, and sometimes sacrifice the luxury of having an at-home parent, just to keep their two or more cars.

A good chunk of a second income earner's salary often goes just to pay for that second car, which in turn is necessary to get to work and drop kids at school or daycare. Even in the case of a stay-at-home parent, a second car may still be necessary because schools, groceries, libraries, doctor's appointments, and parks are not within walking distance. How many extra hours of work do we put in, just for the privilege of getting from place to place!

What do we do?

Obviously, cars are useful and have their place.  I like to think of them like fast food: convenient, sometimes practical, fun on occasion (like road trips), but definitely not something you want to use every day of your life.

We need to look at what we can do on a city and community level, as the title of this post suggests. At the very least, our cities should be safe and welcoming for all kinds of families and individuals, particularly those who cannot drive cars and end up being the most vulnerable (i.e. children, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor). By developing cities (and suburbs, and exurbs) where car ownership is an implicit prerequisite, we condemn these groups of people to a life of dependency on motorists.

On an individual level, we can make the decision to live car-light as much as possible, or even car-free.  This depends a lot on where you live, but thankfully, most of us have some control over where we live.  We have found the site WalkScore.com very helpful in determining the most walkable neighborhoods in our city.  If you plan to change jobs or cities soon, that makes this lifestyle choice even easier: set up your life such that your home and work are both in walkable areas, preferably within walking and/or biking distance from each other.  Take advantage of the opportunities for walking, biking, and public transit that do exist in your community (and they exist in almost every community), and make sure your elected officials know that you support the type of infrastructure that makes this possible and enjoyable.  The chances are good that the less walkable your city/town/community is, the more access you will have to your local elected leaders, so make sure they know that you support infrastructure for walking and biking.

Imagine a residential area that is mixed-use so a stay-at-home mom can drop older kids at school, take little ones to the doctor or library, and pick up groceries on the way home, all without using a car. Imagine the money they will save for retirement, college, or just for that mom to be able to stay home. Imagine a child who grows up with walking as a way of life, built-in exercise and bonding time with parents or siblings. Imagine an elderly couple being able to stay fit and active in their community, without depending on their kids for a ride. This is what is at stake. This is what walkable, livable communities and smart growth are all about.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

40 Screen-Free Activities for Toddlers

The summer weather has officially arrived here in the Inland Northwest, and it is glorious.  Nothing makes one appreciate a dry climate like five years of DC summers.  Warm days, cool nights, children roaming free without fear of heat stroke or mosquitoes: just perfect. In the spirit of the season, and as a follow-up to my Screen-Free Week post a few weeks ago, I wanted to share a list I've been making of fun activities for toddlers that don't involve turning on the TV or sticking them in front of an iPad app.

Toddlers present a special case for parents committed to a screen-light lifestyle... while some might entertain themselves, many toddlers still need constant supervision, redirection, and structure to keep them busy and (mostly) uninjured all day.  I don't know about you, but I often need some creative ideas to keep the day moving and avoid the "just play with your toys, already!" directives (that somehow never work).  These ideas have the bonus of being free or inexpensive, for the most part.  Feel free to add your own favorite ideas in the comments!

Disclaimer: Some of the activities I recommend (such as stickers or trains) will be labeled for 3 years and up, but we have used them from 18 months or so with no problems. Use your own judgment and knowledge of your child's development to decide which activities will be fun and safe. And supervise your child. Duh.

  1. Ride bikes, trikes, or scooters.  If you don't have one, check Craigslist or ask around to friends with older kids who might be trying to get rid of an outgrown model.
  2. Help with gardening.  My almost-2 1/2-year-old can move dirt, water flowers, and sort of pull weeds.
  3. Pretend play. Pretend to be farm animals, complete with sound effects.
  4. Make your own play dough and play with it using cookie cutters, toothpicks, and chopsticks.
  5. Play with dry beans in containers, or make pictures using glue sticks and beans.
  6. Pasta necklaces - a classic.
  7. Make your own shapes box by cutting shapes out of a shoe box and making or finding objects that fit through the holes.
  8. Make a play oven out of a medium-sized moving box. If you have some old pots and pans or utensils lying around, let your toddler keep them in his own "kitchen."
  9. Stickers. We have gotten hours of entertainment out of just stickers and paper.
  10. Finger or brush paints. For an older toddler, I think brushes make less of a mess than finger paints.
  11. Wooden train sets - check Craigslist for parents getting rid of whole sets, rather than buying the pieces one at a time.
  12. Or make your own train by tying shoe boxes together.  Your child's stuffed animals can ride in the "cars."
  13. Make blocks out of square tissue boxes or milk cartons. Big blocks make for a big (and relatively quiet) tumble when knocked down!
  14. Make a playhouse from larger appliance boxes.
  15. Design a maze or tunnel out of large cardboard boxes for your child to crawl through.
  16. Make a car, airplane, or boat out of a cardboard box for your child to sit in.
  17. Decorate any of your cardboard box creations with stickers!
  18. Glue fuzzy balls or small pieces of paper to a larger piece of paper to make a collage.  It won't look like much at this age, but your toddler will enjoy it.
  19. Sing songs together.  
  20. Go to the library!  Many libraries have baby or toddler story time. 
  21. Read library books together. The wonderful thing about library books for toddlers is that the 3- or 4-week checkout window is just perfect for a toddler's attention span. By the time your child is growing tired of the same books, it's time to take them back anyway! Our local library has book bags available with a theme (family, colors, food, animals...) for toddlers and preschoolers that make it easy to run in and out with an active child and still get some good books.
  22. Help with baking. Toddlers can pour measured ingredients, stir batter (with help), and put utensils in the sink.
  23. Finger knitting. I confess I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds fun.
  24. Playing with a ball of yarn (with supervision, of course).
  25. Dirt. We had three cubic yards of dirt delivered for our flower beds and garden (pictured above). Never have you seen a happier boy.
  26. Mud. This is advanced dirt.
  27. Water. In cups, in tubs, in tubes. Make a "water wall" with containers designed to overflow into each other. Water.
  28. Make a simple matching game with stickers, stamps, or your own drawings on poster board cards.
  29. Teach your child to stitch using a blunt needle, yarn, and plastic mesh.
  30. Play instruments. You can play the piano or guitar, or your child can play a harmonica, kazoo, recorder, or drums (at your own risk).
  31. Plant a garden together outside or potted herbs inside (from seeds, so you can watch them grow together).
  32. Sprout beans in a jar.
  33. Make clothespin dolls (old-fashioned clothespins without metal springs work best).
  34. Puzzles - make your own, or find on Craigslist or at garage sales.
  35. Attach chopsticks together with a rubber band and rolled-up chopstick wrapper, and use them to pick up small objects and put them in a box.
  36. Sidewalk chalk.
  37. Tear up paper that needs to be recycled anyway - catalogs, newspapers, magazines, and junk mail.
  38. Take a short walk with your toddler on foot. You can take the opportunity to teach some pedestrian safety, and she will find lots to entertain her along the way!
  39. Build a fort from furniture and blankets. 
  40. Play with your child! Often when I feel frustrated that my toddler isn't playing with his toys, I realize I've been trying to dictate his play from across the room, rather than getting down and actually playing with him. Sometimes all I have to do is to sit down on the floor with my own book or knitting, and this is enough to make him comfortable that he isn't missing out on any fun grown-up stuff up there.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Car-Free Moment #2

As I ride more and more frequently for practical reasons, I find that riding is the easy part, even on hilly terrain or busy streets.  In fact, I enjoy mapping out new bicycle-friendly routes for myself and discovering the best ways to get somewhere on a bike.  The hard part is what to do with my bike when I get there.

Last weekend, I needed to make a trip to the pharmacy (and needed an excuse to use my new pannier bags), so I left the kids with Daddy (thanks, Honey) and hopped on the bike.  I hadn't ridden to this particular area before, so it was like a new little adventure on some different roads.

The ride there was uneventful; however, when I arrived, I realized that there was no bike rack to lock up my bike.  No signposts, no shopping cart racks, no trees, nothing.  The closest I could find to an immovable object was a rickety chain link fence, hardly immovable (or unbreakable) for an enterprising person.  Conveniently, though, there was a competing pharmacy across the street, with a beautifully solid bike rack visible  even from where I stood.  Eureka!  I was quite proud of myself, both for being so resourceful and for supporting a business that supported bicycling.

Of course, as these things happen, the bike-friendly pharmacy did not carry what I needed (how can it be so hard to find infant vitamin D drops when they're recommended for all breastfed babies?).  So, back I went, somewhat sheepishly, to the bicycle-hostile pharmacy.  I ended up locking my bike to the sturdy fence of the Starbuck's in the next parking lot.

It was not difficult, except that the footing was awkward as the fence was placed between a sidewalk and some decorative loose rocks.  Not used to my pannier bags and not considering the physics implications, I removed one pannier bag to move the bike closer, and the whole bike tipped over, scratching my leg on its way down.  Picking up my bike, I instinctively glanced around to make sure no one had noticed.  I hadn't realized it until that moment, but the pharmacy with no bike rack had three drive-through lanes on one side of the building, and I was in the direct line of sight of three drivers as I righted my bike and examined my injuries with embarrassment.

This pharmacy, which had not seen fit to provide any secure place for me to park my vehicle, had made it possible for not one, not two, but three motorists to simultaneously avoid even having to get out of theirs.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Smart Growth Strategies Can Improve Financial Bottom Line for Towns

Smart Growth America just released a report on the financial benefits of smart growth policies for municipalities.  They found that smart growth development saved towns an average of 38% on upfront infrastructure costs and 10% on ongoing services, and generated 10 times more revenue per acre than conventional suburban development.

Check out the full report on their website, http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2013/05/21/building-better-budgets-quantifies-average-savings-and-revenue-of-smart-growth-development/.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Car-Free Moment #1

This is the first in what I hope will be a recurring feature called Car-Free Moments.  I'd like to use these stories to capture the good, the bad, the ugly, the funny, the absurd moments attached to the practice of car freedom, particularly in places where it is not the norm.  Feel free to add your own extraordinary moments of walking, biking, or using public transit, whether or not you own a car or three.

I'll start with a positive experience, as I'm sure there will be plenty of absurdity later on.

Last week after work, the Walking Daddy was kind enough to give me some time for a solo leisure bike ride. With no agenda and no place I needed to go, I headed in the opposite direction from the grocery stores and the library.  Although I knew that this entire area had been farmland only a few decades ago, I had forgotten how much real countryside is left, and very close by.

Not six blocks south of suburbia, I discovered real actual fields and horses and goats, framed by beautiful, majestic mountains and a deep blue sky.  The lilacs are in bloom, and they lined the road and filled the fresh air with their evocative springtime scent.  In a car, I never would have had cause to go this direction, and I certainly wouldn't have lingered so long.  The sky feels so much bigger on a bike.  And even with windows rolled down, I could never have enjoyed the lilac-scented air as well as I did on my bike, in the outdoors, at human level.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My New Ride

After a lot of test riding and even more research and visiting (at least) eight local bike shops, I finally chose my bike about a month ago. In the end, it turned out to be love at first ride with my Trek Allant WSD.

I tried pretty much every commuter and hybrid bike in my local bike shops, which were limited as these shops unfortunately seem to target the hardcore racing and mountain biking crowd. I tried Giants, Treks, Specialized, a Jamis and an Electra. As a relatively inexperienced cyclist, I didn't really know what I was looking for, and I can see why committed cyclists end up with two or three or more bikes for different purposes.

After visiting every bike shop in town, I decided to check one out in a town 26 miles away because I knew they carried the Allant and I had read good things about it. After two trips around the block in the rain, I was hooked.

The Trek Allant has the classic city bike look and feel to it that I was hoping to find. It has a leather saddle and cork handlebars, and let's face it, it's pretty, which a bike ought to be if it possibly can. Its seven speeds are plenty for the hills I'll encounter, and the more upright posture is nice when I'm riding alongside cars (which is all the time, so far at least). I find that it feels a bit heavier than the old mountain bike I had been riding, and it's possible that it's harder to go super fast as a result, but I will usually be carrying cargo, kids, or both, so speediness would be wasted on me, anyway.

Other than that, I can only tell you that I love riding this bike. Love. I don't know enough about bikes to tell you what kind of gears or derailers or tires or brakes it has (except that they're the squeezy kind, not the disc-y kind).

Buying a bike turns out to be surprisingly like buying cloth diapers: you research the heck out of these things, and you go around and around in your head about price and features and what you really want (which you don't know anyway because you've never really used them). But in the end, you have to just take a leap of faith and pick something. The choosing is a lot tougher than the using. And as I learn more and ride more and see what challenges I encounter, I may end up changing some things. I've already added a rear rack, a front basket, a lock mount for my U-lock, and I'm waiting on a set of beautiful pannier bags from Paris Packs on Etsy. The next step, of course, will be a child seat and/or a trailer (I still haven't decided) for the kiddos. Once I can take the kids with me, then I'll really feel that my bike is a viable transportation option for my everyday life.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Screen-Free Week Reflections

Screen-Free Week and I have a tenuous relationship.  If you're not familiar with the week, it is during the last week of April every year, sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and promoted by other lovely organizations like Center for a New American Dream and Simplicity Parenting.  I say we have a tenuous relationship because limited screen time is one (very important, I think) element of simple living that I have never really been able to get a grasp on.

We had a TV, VCR, and Nintendo (the original) in my house growing up, with fairly few restrictions on our viewing except for content (I remember that MTV and VH1 were blocked, and we weren't allowed to watch the Simpsons). In spite of the relative lack of limits on screen time itself, most of my childhood memories involve outdoor play, make-believe, reading, and riding bikes. I had a few shows that were my favorites (Garfield and Friends, My Little Pony, Reading Rainbow, the TGIF and Snick lineups, oh how I'm dating myself...), but I could watch one show or play one level of a video game and be done. Playing with toys or outdoors had much more of a draw for me, at least from what I remember.  As a teenager, I was obsessed with my couple of favorite shows and had to see them every week or record them (this was before Hulu, Netflix, episodes posted online, or even DVDs of whole TV shows).  Thinking back, my fixation with Lois and Clark or Mulder and Scully, characters who weren't real, was probably not terribly healthy.

Fast-forward to adulthood.  First as a college student (no TV unless my roommates had one), then a full-time volunteer living with other volunteers (a tiny old TV with no cable), then a newlywed (TV but still no cable), I made an effort to assess and reassess my TV consumption often and keep it limited. Now, as a parent of young children, I've gone back and forth over whether we should have a TV at all, where it should be in the house, and how we should use it. I admit to having used the TV as a babysitter, but I've also discovered some PBS shows that I think my son has genuinely learned from.

It's a tough line to walk for me, as I have a number of competing desires: I LIKE watching TV, especially movies; my husband likes TV, and it is something we have done together and from which we have lots of inside jokes. I also have two small children and I worry about TV's effects on their brain development/creativity/learning/morals, but at the same time, I need a shower and I need to work once in a while, and TV does hold my very active two-year-old's attention better than any other activity (which is quite scary). And yes, I do think TV has something to offer in terms of educational value (obviously not to the exclusion of actual human interaction). With those caveats in mind, I have always wanted to give Screen-Free Week a shot, which brings us to last week.

As it happened, I have to confess that it turned out to be "screen-free between the hours of 8 and 6, Monday through Friday" week, but in our current situation, this was all I could ask for. My parameters were: no TV during those hours, no blogs or Facebook for me, no online cartoons for my toddler; I only allowed myself to check email (I work from home, so can't be unreachable) and necessary sites (banks, Google maps, etc.). We were coming off of some screen-heavy weeks thanks to my heavy workload, so this was quite the change.

I expected my two-year-old to beg for Sesame Street, Dinosaur Train, and Daniel Tiger, but in fact, he barely seemed to care that the TV was off.  He still sang his songs from these shows (it's creepy how he remembers them), but he didn't ask to watch them, mostly because we got busy with other activities. With ideas from Joyful Play with Toddlers  from the library, we made Play-Dough porcupines and forests (with toothpicks), and tunnels, a play house, a sit-in airplane, and a play oven, all out of cardboard boxes. We read dozens of library books. I knitted; my son actually played with his toys and tried to show his baby sister how to play with his toys. We went to the park almost every day, and I got to talk to actual adults there. I didn't miss my blogs or Facebook (much), and my son wasn't begging me to watch his favorite videos or trying to type on the keyboard because I wasn't at the computer. In fact, I had a lot fewer discipline issues with him overall because I was actually physically and mentally present with him, rather than yelling corrections at him from across the room. I felt like a better parent, and I daresay he learned even more from me than from Sesame Street. It was also much easier to keep to a schedule, without the distractions of internet rabbit trails or one "quality" children's program after another. For that or some other reason, my son took naps four days in a row, for the first time in months.

During Screen-Free Week, my second cousin had a baby, and I didn't find out about it until days later because I wasn't on Facebook (I had to hear about it from my mom, who is on Facebook.). And you know what? No one noticed that I didn't comment on her cute baby photos. No one felt slighted, I didn't feel out of the loop (in fact, it was kind of freeing not to be involved in everyone's life all. the. time.). That baby was no less loved because I wasn't virtually "there" to take notice of him. Her baby wasn't less loved, but my babies were so much more loved due to my presence and attention to them.

Our TV probably isn't going into the dumpster or onto Craigslist anytime soon (much as I might enjoy that). But, I will say that the TV has naturally come on less and less often since Screen-Free Week. I am sticking to my policy of no TV during the daytime, and limiting my own computer use during the times of day when I am alone with my kids. This does require more work from me during this particular stage of parenting - I often need to redirect my two-year-old to new activities, or even create new activities for him.  I need to assess his mood and the situation to decide whether we need to start a new activity or get outside or go to the park.  But, I can see how this extra work early on in my children's lives will cultivate the springs of creativity that they will draw on later to keep themselves engaged. Even with just one week of screen-light, interaction-heavy time, I can see my son's attention span growing. And the bonus for me?  I'm feeling the creative juices flowing again as well, thinking about gardening and writing and knitting and sewing and drawing (I can't draw). Is that worth missing a few hours of TV or Facebook?  I'm thinking yes.

Did you participate in Screen-Free Week?  How do you and your family deal with screens in your home?

P.S. A book I found inspiring during the week was Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets by Barbara Brock.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book List

I would like to write reviews for some of these eventually, but in the meantime, here are some of my favorite books about smart growth and walkability, simple living, creativity, and parenting.

Smart Growth and Walkability

How to Live Well Without Owning a Car: Save Money, Breathe Easier, and Get More Mileage out of Life by Chris Balish

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck

The Smart Growth Manual by Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon

The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment by Eric O. Jacobsen

Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World by Ross Chapin

Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike for Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle) by Elly Blue

Crafts, Cooking, and Creativity

Knitting for Baby by Melanie Falick and Kristin Nicholas

The Expectant Knitter: 30 Designs for Baby and Your Growing Family  by Marie Connolly

More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson and Anna Williams

Simply in Season by Cathleen Hockman-Wert and Mary Beth Lind

The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections by Amanda Blake Soule

Handmade Home: Simple Ways to Repurpose Old Materials into New Family Treasures by Amanda Blake Soule

Family, Parenting, Simplicity, and General Life

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore

The Rhythm of Family: Discovering a Sense of Wonder through the Seasons by Amanda Blake Soule and Stephen Soule

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne

The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two by William Sears, Martha Sears, Robert Sears, and James Sears

Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets by Barbara Brock

Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children by Sharifa Oppenheimer

Monday, April 8, 2013

Making hand-me-downs work for children of different genders

I've been writing a lot about walkability/biking/transit/smart growth and how they relate to simpler parenthood, but I'd like to continue in the simple living thread by discussing how we can reuse kids' items, especially when we have kids of different genders. Conventional wisdom says that kids are expensive, but parents can usually choose to spend significantly less than the standard "cost per child" figures commonly tossed around. One logical way to do that is to reuse items from one child to the next as much as possible, but parents might wonder what to do when they have children of different genders.  Here are some of my ideas after having a boy and a girl in immediate succession.

1. Plan for hand-me-downs starting with your first child

First of all, if you suspect you might eventually have more than one child, start planning for it by getting (buying, registering for, inheriting, finding on Craigslist, or making) baby supplies accordingly when you are expecting your first child. 

This might mean getting higher-quality items that cost a bit more so they will last through a second or third child, which will cost less in the long run. This is especially true for the big-ticket items like strollers. 

It might meaning using cloth diapers, which can typically be reused through at least two children, unlike disposable diapers (that would be gross).

If you are on a tight baby budget, it might be tempting to skip the infant car seat and go straight to a convertible car seat.  However, if you plan on having children within a few years of each other, keep in mind that your oldest might still be using the convertible car seat when the second baby comes along, necessitating a second car seat anyway. We decided on an infant car seat (which is also infinitely easier to transport on foot if you are car-free with a baby, the subject of another post altogether) and got a convertible car seat when our oldest was almost 12 months old.

2. Get gender-neutral basics

This is more difficult than it sounds, which you will undoubtedly know if you have walked into a Gymboree lately. Children's clothing manufacturers don't want you to buy gender-neutral clothes that can be reused for second and subsequent babies. They want your girls in princess dresses and your boys in baseball uniforms so you will have to buy a brand-new wardrobe when that opposite-sex sibling comes along. Besides being not a little ridiculous (Do strangers really need to know whether your child is a boy or a girl at one month old? Are you planning on marrying them off anytime soon?), buying a completely gender-specific wardrobe is hardly cost-effective for clothes that will be outgrown after a few weeks anyway.

Basics like onesies, socks, cloth diaper covers, and sometimes sleepers and pants can usually be found in gender-neutral colors or good old-fashioned white. If you're having trouble finding neutral clothes, check the boys' section. Blame it on sexism, but boys' clothes tend to be or at least seem more neutral than girls' clothes. Boys's clothes often include green, gray, yellow, and red, while most girls' clothes go for the pink and purple. It is generally more acceptable for a girl to wear blue than for a boy to wear pink, so between real neutrals and some neutral-ish boys' clothes, you will be set with a wardrobe of basics than can be worn by a son or daughter. 

3. Get gender-neutral gear and toys

Your car seat, stroller, swing, bouncer, etc. do not need to be in gender-specific colors, and there are many gender-neutral options for these items. Paying hundreds of dollars for a new crib just so little Reagan can have a pink one is unnecessary. In my opinion, baby carriers and diaper bags belong to the parent's wardrobe, not the baby's, so you can go crazy with the design that matches your own personal style. That being said, if you expect Daddy to carry the baby or the bag, just say "no" to the purple Moby and opt for something more neutral. 

Toys, like baby gear, have become surprisingly more gender-specific over the years, as marketers have discovered that parents will pay for a brand-new toy collection if toys are marketed in terms of "his" and hers." For a fascinating look at gender in toy marketing, check out this article on the Center for a New American Dream blog. In the meantime, there are many wonderful toys that are for everyone. Classic toys like blocks, puzzles, wagons, books, and balls, and creative toys like crayons and other art supplies, transcend gender. For big purchases like bicycles and scooters, try to find (again, often marketed as "boys'") red or green items rather than ones with very gender-specific designs or characters. You can even find toy kitchens, dolls, or workbenches that are gender-neutral enough to suggest that either girls or boys can cook, have children, build things, and otherwise engage in human life. By following these toy suggestions, you will also likely avoid the Disneyfied, mass-marketed, and mass-produced toys in favor of handmade or small company's toys (search Etsy for wooden toys, dolls, Waldorf toys and Montessori toys, for a start).

4. Buy or make a few special items

There's no shame in sometimes wanting to dress your baby in gender-specific clothes, and the easiest and most cost-effective way to do this is to get (request, register for, find on Craigslist, or make) a few special items for your baby: a cute dress or two per season for a girl, or an Easter vest or button-down shirt for a boy. These can be paired with neutral items for a feminine or masculine effect, without doing the whole outfit, every day. Trust me, if you put a sweet A-line tunic on your daughter, no one will notice that airplane sleeper underneath (and since when do only boys ride in airplanes, anyway?). Extra points if you stitch or sew your special items for your cherubs - these will be special not only for your little boys and girls, but also for a niece, nephew, a friend's child, or even a grandchild! Now that is what I call an efficient hand-me-down.