Category Archives: fun activities

Adventures in Our Odyssey: Why We Drove to South Dakota

We drove for two and a half days, pressing on hard for our destination, with few stops along the way. So many miles–over 4,000 in all–with so much to do and so little time. We were a family on a mission, journeying from Georgia to South Dakota, trying to satisfy all our pent-up wanderlust in the proper, allotted vacation time like respectable folk. Sometimes I wish we were not nearly so respectable.

Crossing the Mississippi River

Our Honda Odyssey, aptly named, was jam-packed with enough clothes, snacks, books, CDs, camping gear, and supplies to carry our family of five through our 10-day adventure. An adventure that included camping in the Black Hills, hiking in the Badlands and around Devil’s Tower, traversing the Great Plains, and searching for diamonds in Arkansas. We did bring some entertaining electronics, but the kids were limited in their usage because–hello!–my husband and I wanted them to see and experience the trip. We did not embark on this journey so our kids could achieve new levels of video game expertise; we wanted them to experience this amazing world in a way that only a road trip can provide.

Buffalo Herd (yes, I know technically they’re bison, but I like the word “buffalo” better)

The open road has long called out to me, and my parents encouraged it with annual winter drives from New Jersey to Florida when I was a child. I loved the changing scenery, the quirky billboards (South of the Border in the ’70s, anyone?), the changing state signs to mark our progress (Welcome to North Carolina!), the truckers chattering on the CB radio. I loved the going and all that it entailed. The sheer joy of going somewhere away and different. I still love it, and I want to pass that on to my kids.

The road trip has its limitations, of course–like how far you can go on a 10-day vacation. But it also has benefits that flying to your destination just can’t deliver. The road trip provides continuity for your travels. You know where you start and where you’re going, and you get to see how everything changes in between. When we crossed two time zones between here and South Dakota, we changed our minivan’s clock each time. We knew when and where it happened; we didn’t just plop down in the midst of two hours’ difference.

A driving adventure allows you to really experience this great country of ours, both in the details and in the distance. If we had simply flown to South Dakota, we would have missed the winding roads and small towns, ButterBurgers at Culver’s in Iowa, the far-reaching corn fields, and very cute, little 13-stripe squirrels at a rest area in South Dakota. We might also have missed out on the realization of the great distance we had come.

His first ButterBurger

13-Stripe Ground Squirrel

 

The driving allows the places, the land, the experience to seep into your heart and soul. They become yours in a way that I believe flying cannot offer. We stopped to touch the waving prairie grasses, and admired the neat stacks of hay bales. The hot prairie winds pushed against us unrelenting while we marveled at the immense sky. We drove through towns that had been crossed by the Trail of Tears and the Oregon Trail, and learned a little about those who came before us.

Our kids were mostly awesome on our trip. Though I’m sure they had times of boredom, they hardly complained at all, so maybe they didn’t mind the driving too much. Maybe the driving was good for them. Maybe they will continue to grow in a love of driving and traveling and experiencing this great big world of ours.

The open road is calling…

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7 Reasons to Lock the Kids Out of the House

The weather has turned blissfully autumn around South Georgia recently. Perfect for spending time outside without instantly sweating. Equally perfect for kids (and adults) to play outside. While my children do play outside during the dreadful heat of summer (which lasts far too long here if you ask me), in this autumn weather I am more enthusiastic in my encouragement of outside play, as well as more likely to join in walks, bike rides, and other outdoor fun. It just feels good to be out there in the cool weather sunshine with its crunchy leaves and butterflies.

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And outside play is great for kids. It is natural and healthy, even important, for children to spend time outside, connecting with nature and exploring their world. Research shows that we humans have a need for this type of connection. That it is good for us. That we suffer for a lack of it.

So rather than stressing grades quite so much, we might do some good by sending the kiddos out to play more. For there is some important learning to be done outside, independently, as well. It is good for the kids and good for the environment, as people who develop a connection with nature are more likely to take action to care for it. And it is just plain fun to play outside.

Outside, kids really tap into their creativity and imagination. They make tools out of sticks and clubhouses from clusters of trees. They develop storylines and characters for their games, maybe good guys and bad guys or imaginary creatures. The sky is the limit so they can imagine big.

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With all the talk of childhood obesity these days, playing outside is a great alternative to sitting in front of a screen. Kids exercise without even thinking about it as they chase each other, fly a kite, climb in that clubhouse tree cluster, or ride their bikes.

Perhaps children today are more sedentary not so much because they don’t want to exercise (as we adults may sometimes think of it as another chore), but rather because they are not often placed into the opportunity to exercise naturally. We let them sit and watch while the world outside beckons for them to explore and run and jump. They might just need some encouragement in the right direction if they are not used to playing outside much.

We might be tempted to think it would be better for our children to practice more with those flash cards than to play outside. While that sounds good (to adults anyway) and while there is a time and a place for flash cards, consider this article, by Richard Louv of the Children & Nature Network, based on studies that show the connection between getting out into nature, and the world, and learning science. Apparently a lot of science learning takes place outside the walls of a classroom, so it is not enough to rely on teachers alone to teach science to our kids. If you really want them to excel, send them outside or take them hiking. Maybe bring a field guide and binoculars.

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The scientific method, at its core, starts with curiosity, a wanting to know. When kids are outdoors, interacting with the plants and creatures and landscape, their curiosity has a chance to lead them into new discoveries and even basic research. I don’t know how many caterpillars our family has looked up online because we found them in our yard, and the kids wanted to know what they eat and what they will become.

Playing in the great outdoors also gives children the chance to develop their problem solving skills, which are essential to their life success. Spurred on by their curiosity, creativity, and imagination, kids are bound to run into some problems out there. As they learn how to solve these problems, they learn about themselves and their abilities, develop a healthy self-confidence, and become better equipped to handle larger life problems in the future. They cultivate a healthy sense of risk-taking as we allow them  to take reasonable risks, which also contributes to their self-confidence for taking on bigger challenges.

In this age of helicopter parents and preplanned activities, children don’t need to be coddled or sheltered by well-intentioned adults as much as they need room to grow. When we send them outside to play or take them to natural areas, like state parks or the beach, we give their natural curiosity and imagination room to expand, their bodies room to stretch and romp, their minds room to wonder and learn and solve problems that matter to them.

So many benefits from something as simple as playing outside and interacting with the natural world. So get them out there. Tell your kids to take a hike. Or go fly a kite. Or whatever. And sometimes you can go, too, just for the fun of it.

 

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Milkweed, Monarchs, and Family Fun

This summer we planted milkweed in our yard, some in the front and some in the back, in hopes of attracting monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate south from August through October and return north in the spring, seeking milkweed to lay their eggs along the way. The little caterpillars only eat milkweed, so it is vital to their existence. We planted and watched and waited.

After a few weeks we had our first monarch butterfly sighting in our yard, and before we knew it our milkweed plants were being devoured by some very hungry caterpillars. Milkweed is poisonous, and the caterpillars become poisonous by eating it, thus providing them with some protection from would-be predators. We all loved checking on the caterpillars throughout the day, marveling over how much they grew and wondering if we had enough plants to feed them.

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One day, after the caterpillars had grown to about two inches long, I noticed them wandering away from their beloved milkweed plants. A couple of them headed toward our patio, which I did not think was a good idea, so I returned them to the milkweed. The next day I found a beautiful pale green chrysalis adorned with gold sparkles hanging below a window overlooking the patio. It was stunning in its delicate beauty and the promise of transformation inside.

And so began our chrysalis time as more caterpillars disappeared, presumably wandering off to start their transformation. But we wanted to see, so we brought four large caterpillars inside, placing them in a mesh “butterfly habitat” with a few leaves for good measure. They did not eat the leaves, but made their chrysalises instead.

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The monarch stays inside its chrysalis for eight to ten days before emerging. After a couple days, the chrysalis on the patio turned strangely dark in one spot, as did one of our inside chrysalises. After nine days of watching and waiting, one of our healthy chrysalises turned clear, darkened by the orange and black wing pattern that was now plainly visible inside. A few hours later our first monarch emerged with her lovely wings.

The new butterfly clung to her broken chrysalis, and rested while her wings expanded and dried, dripping some extra color onto the bottom of the habitat like a tie-dyed shirt dripping. She would sometimes twirl and twist and stretch her wings. As she grew stronger, she would flutter a bit.

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Within two to four hours of emergence, after the wings are dry, the butterfly is ready to go. The kids and I released our monarch friend in the front yard near some flowers. Uninterested in the flowers, she fluttered from one leaf to another before settling on a leaf on our gum tree. There she rested for so long that we finally gave up watching her. At some point she flew away.

That same day we saw at least two more monarchs in our yard feasting on flowers, apparently the product of our crop of caterpillars who had wandered off into the yard. Two other indoor butterflies emerged over the next day or two, but the two that had darkened early never did emerge. My son also found one other chrysalis in the yard that had been broken before it had a chance to emerge.

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It was pretty amazing and special for our family to get this glimpse into the life of monarch butterflies, watching them go through their stages, considering their needs, witnessing their transformation, and releasing them to fly their long journey. I like to think we made a difference for these guys with our little patches of milkweed. Hopefully more monarchs will find us along their route.

Monarch butterflies have seen a decline in populations largely due to loss of milkweed. If you have a place in your yard to plant some milkweed, maybe the butterflies will find you, too. And you can help make a difference for these beautiful, fascinating creatures.

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Our Epic Family Vacation

In July our family embarked on our Epic Family Vacation to New England. This trip added about 3000 miles to our minivan, enabled us all to learn the words to the Frozen soundtrack, spanned city and country settings, brought us face to face with history and wildlife, and tested our camping skills, adaptability, patience, and perseverance. It was the best of times.

Our first stop was Boston, Massachusetts, a city rich in history and conveniently located near prime whale watching areas. Our family boarded the Hurricane II in search of whales on Saturday, and enjoyed a morning full of breaching humpbacks and swimming minkes. It was amazing.

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In the city, we followed the Freedom Trail, learning more about the American Revolution along the way and reflecting on the ideas of liberty and courage. It is always inspiring to gaze into the lives of those who were brave to stand for what they believed. We wrapped up our time in the Boston area with a dip in Walden Pond where Thoreau found inspiration and I hoped for some of the same.

The next leg of our Epic Family Vacation took us six hours farther north to Acadia National Park where we camped for four nights to the sound of waves crashing on the rocky coast. It is a magical, postcard kind of place. The air was cool and refreshing, a world apart from our own south Georgia in July. Sunshine sparkled on the waves while we clambered over rocks and ate wild blueberries along the path. We couldn’t resist taking a dip in this frigid part of the Atlantic, discovering that it’s not so bad once your legs go numb. We also had to swim in Echo Lake, which was just a tad less frigid.

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Our greatest vacation accomplishment was hiking to the almost-top of the South Bubble Mountain near Jordan Pond. The kids climbed like mountain goats up the rocky scramble trail, and we actually had to tell them to slow down. Eight-year-old Will was determined to make it to the top. Almost there, we came to a very narrow, steep section. Jon climbed up to check it out, and we decided not to proceed with our 10, 8, and 5-year-olds. The trick, of course, would be not just going up, but also coming back down with tired legs. Will was terribly disappointed. One day when they are older maybe we will tackle it again. Unfortunately, we will also be older!

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All too soon it was time to pack up camp and move on, meandering southward like a lazy river. Our river, however, crossed the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, which is when we went into full moose lookout mode. The road signs clearly indicated moose crossings in abundance, but not a single moose graced us with its appearance.

The evening we slept in New Hampshire, we drove around a while after dinner. When we came upon a good potential moose area, we set up our stake-out, watching and waiting. It was a grassy area by a pond, surrounded by woods. Prime moose habitat. A fellow moose-seeker stopped his car and told us he had seen moose there before. And so we waited more. But it was not to be.

Although we returned home mooseless, we did enjoy seeing many critters on our trip… amazing whales, incredibly cute red squirrels, zippy chipmunks, giant slugs, dead porcupines and skunks, lots of deer and turkeys and groundhogs, a peregrine falcon fledgling, tidal pool starfish, and a mink (we think). Not bad at all.

Maine was so awesomely beautiful, we didn’t want to leave. We hope to visit again some time, though it is such a long drive. But I think one has to go far to get to some place so completely different. And different can shake us up and shake us free sometimes. And that, I think, is one of the best things about travel.

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Our First Family Camping Adventure on Our Own

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Our family has been trying to go camping for weeks now, but we have been thwarted consistently by other obligations or threats of bad weather. This past weekend we took the plunge in spite of a less-than-desirable forecast of thunderstorms and high temperatures. We arranged care for our pets, loaded the minivan, and made the short drive south to Fort McAllister State Park for our first camping adventure on our own.

In the past we have camped out with my son’s Cub Scout troop, which is great fun, but we wanted to see how we would fare on our own in the wilderness, aka campground. This has become an important mission for our family because, crazy or not, we are planning to camp out for four nights in Maine this summer during our vacation. So before we live out the storyline for a new National Lampoon family vacation camping movie, we thought it would be a good idea to test out our camping skills and preparedness a bit closer to home.

The campground was quite nice, with an elevated spot to set up the tent, along with running water and an electric hookup. The bathroom was a short walk away, as were the playground and dock. The Magnolia Trail that we explored a few times was smooth enough for our bikes, and wandered through a lovely Spanish moss-draped forest with views of the river and marsh.

As for wildlife, we saw an armadillo, osprey, dolphins, and several deer including a couple fawns. At the dock we watched one man reel in a sting ray and another carry his catch of blue crabs back to his campsite where he said the pot of water was already boiling.

But the real excitement started with the sun’s retreat. That’s when the masked bandits descended from the trees, and skipped around the edges of the campsites, looking for an opportunity to move in on some food. There’s no telling how many raccoons we saw. One raccoon tried to open our cooler with my husband and sons sitting right there! In the morning our campsite, and even my son’s hat that he had left on the table overnight, was covered with little raccoon footprints to remind us of our furry visitors.

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All in all, our camping trip was a success. We had a great time in the outdoors as a family. We worked together as a team. We discovered some items that will be handy to have next time around. We even survived the heat and humidity and some thunder, although the real storm graciously passed us by.

Most importantly, perhaps, we gained some confidence to apply to our upcoming vacation campout. So, hopefully we will not return from Maine with Griswold-style stories to tell. Although there is something to be said for having a good story to tell. Anyway, I’ll let you know how the Big Campout goes…

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