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 Libraries for me brought to mind dusty, old, outdated books, not the flashy new covers to be found in the local Barnes and Noble.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 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.