things to do with kids in Guelph

(This was originally to be posted in the Guelph Mercury but cut for length and fairness to other merchants/organizations).

It’s getting to be that time of year when the kids (and us) start to go a little bit stir-crazy, isn’t it? The cold weather has set in, there’s not much snow to even try and get out and enjoy it, and Christmas is still far enough away that you aren’t caught up in the hustle and bustle quite yet. I’ve been trying to offset that a bit this year by sampling some of Guelph and area’s plethora of fun family cultural events and entertainment and it’s been doing a pretty good job of keeping us amused and occupied in recent weeks.

Now that I’ve visited (and in some cases, revisited) many of the area’s finer points of interest with my two young kids, I can finally say I’m feeling attuned to Guelph’s cultural beat – and I’m completely impressed with what I’ve seen thus far. I’ve focused the list on what my kids (2.5 and 6) and I have deemed as our favourites – and most of these places certainly cater to the above-6 crowd quite expertly as well.

A list of our top faves:

River Run Centre

What a great place to introduce your young ones to theatre and impart in them a lasting appreciation for theatre and the arts (the building’s architecture and surrounding scenery are pretty amazing too). All of River Run’s programming is done particularly well but where they really excel is in the family component.

The regular Kinderconcert series, in conjunction with members of the Guelph Symphony Orchestra, is geared towards families with preschoolers and serves as a great introduction to classical instruments through stories and music and typically runs a reasonable 40 minutes in length.

The aisles are wide enough that restless tots can have a bit of space to work it out, and also enables quick exits just in case it’s a bit too much for them to take in.

My family and I recently took in a Sharon and Bram concert and what a great ambience the Centre’s lovely, sophisticated setting provided for the beloved duo’s cherished music; it made the nostalgic music and the day out a little more magical.

The most recent Kinderconcert, Jack and the Beanstalk, was priced at $11 ticket for kids, $14 for adults.

Guelph Civic Museum

Guelph’s museums offer a multitude of family-friendly activities and we try to take advantage of as many of their ongoing events as we can.

Fourth Fridays is a free monthly event that runs past the museum’s usual closing time (5-9 p.m.) where music, entertainment, and special activities are always on the agenda: The most recent date highlighted a special performance by Guelph Youth Dance Company and the Concorde String Ensemble.

Weekends are pretty lively for families too. Art Break on Saturdays features organized focused or themed projects inspired by current exhibits, and Batteries Not Included runs Sundays where families can play with the games and toys set up in the programming room. The holiday break and P.D. days always have special programming going on too.

Although my littlest one and I have yet to check out the monthly Tiny Tots Thursdays, I hear nothing but rave reviews from friends that frequent it. It offers an hour of free-play in the museum’s family gallery – a special spot for those with small children that includes a play kitchen, pretend rail car, puppets, and train table – followed up by themed craft and circle time with stories and songs.

The John McCrae House is especially popular amongst families in summer when programming is at its peak and takes advantage of the lovely setting – Canada Day celebrations and the family garden party are always busy. Remembrance Week sees quite a few families visit as well.

Family admission: $10 / $4 adult / $3 child over age 2.


Children’s Art Factory

I cannot stress enough what a magical spot this is for kids (aged 2-7) and their traveling grown-up accomplices. If you’re like me and wish you had more time and energy to set up fun art projects and science experiments at home but get squeamish thinking about the mess that will require days of scrubbing and vacuuming afterwards, this is the perfect spot for you to take the kids and unleash their creativities! Pure, unadulterated, mad fun! Mess is encouraged!

Owner Melissa advocates open-ended, child-led activities and has different weekly themes so there’s always something new. Painting, chalk drawing, moon sand, and a stage in the back room with costumes and (real) microphone are always accessible.

My six-year-old mini scientist LOVED concocting his potions with vinegar, baking soda (they sure love the sound of that fizz), coloured water, and glitter. Recent themes included sensory sandbox, stamp your feet dance party, painting 3D objects, and playing with light.

$8 child / $15 two siblings / $5 each additional sibling.


Play with Clay

I can see this place becoming incredibly addictive for families (mine included) with kids of all ages. I recently dropped in to this amazing little spot on a Saturday with my boys. The place, located in St. Georges Square in the heart of downtown, was packed and buzzing with families, teens, college students, single ladies, groups, and mom-and-kid dates. Owner Nina quickly greeted us and cleared off a table that had somehow magically emptied as we entered. I had spoken to her prior to our visit to ask whether she recommended I bring my younger son and she encouraged me to do so as he’d have tons of fun making a mess. Truer words were never spoken.

To the pottery newbie, the space features a wall of shelves crammed with gorgeous, cute and unique items ($5-20) that you’re able to choose from and add your own personal painting touch. I was a bit nervous about my typically rambunctious boys but a transformation seemed to come over them as they looked at each item and calmly but excitedly pondered what the best project would be. Alas we each chose an item (my eldest son a Spiderman trinket box, my youngest a small elephant trinket, and I took on a small dish with fossilized leaves), then headed to the counter to pick out the paint colours we wanted to use. Once we were back at our table we immediately set to work and it was a full 10 minutes before I even looked up to check on how they were doing. We spent over an hour there, happily, peacefully, painting and perfecting our items, lost in our thoughts and periodically exclaiming how much fun it was to be there. When we were done we reluctantly handed them over to staff who told us they’d bake it in their ovens and we could pick up in a week.

This was some serious fun for my crew – a totally fantastic way to spend some family time working on our own projects, and nice to see the boys so incredibly focused and absorbed while painting their clay projects.

Additionally, the shop offers kids’ clay camps for ages 4-9 where they focus on clay hand-building and pottery painting, and tween pottery camps for ages 10-16 where they get to try their hand spinning on the potter’s wheel.

The Museum, Kitchener

A long-standing family favourite, The Museum, located in downtown Kitchener, is worth the drive. The rotating exhibitions and events never make it old, and there’s truly something for everyone.

The main atrium is a great spot for kids to socialize, build structures with giant blocks, and check out the fish tanks, and gives parents a chance to catch up on some email or talk with other parents. Totspot is perfect for babies and toddlers to hang out; the padded play area is great for non-walkers to cruise around in, and the sensory walls and toys, puppet theatre and tunnels keep the older ones occupied. I’ve been taking my older son there since he was 8 months old and he still loves to hang out in the space with his younger brother.

Upstairs features a virtual graffiti wall, animation station, water table, walking piano, bed of nails, reptile area and monthly reptile parties, and pin and magnetic walls. If we have time and energy left over, we love to check out the exhibits (most are covered with admission fee), which is a great springboard for giving your child an introduction to more cultural topics and conversation.

General admission (ages 14+): $14.95 / $10.95 children (ages 3-13) / $5 Wednesdays (ages 3+).


Guelph Public Library

With six branches spread out across the city, there’s always something happening at the library. My youngest and I drop in to story time and play circles as often as we can while the bigger guy is at school, but we also spend a crazy amount of time here after school where we’re getting to know some of the regulars.

Each branch has their own kids’ section that features trains and other toys that the little ones can’t get enough of, and books are displayed at their level. We always intend to go for a few minutes and often end up staying for a couple hours. For families with older kids, they offer art projects, chess, and more. Check out your nearest branch’s calendar of events. All free.

Niagara Falls and NOTL weekend jaunt recharges and reconnects

My husband and I celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago with our first-ever night away alone together since our second son was born. We were married on the Central Coast of California and spent many a wine-soaked day during our month-long honeymoon at some of the world’s best vineyards. A trip to California wasn’t in the cards this year but we decided we’d drive an hour south to the beautiful region of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL). And wow, what a gorgeous weekend it was. The leaves had recently started turning their autumn oranges and reds, the weather was absolutely perfect – and we were more than ready to have a grown-up couple of days to celebrate.

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View of the Falls from our Fallsview room, Sheraton on the Falls. 

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Autumn shows its mighty colours. 

We arrived to Niagara Falls earlier than our check-in time so we decided to make a quick jaunt over the Rainbow Bridge to Lewiston, NY to stock up on some of our favourite American goodies. The wait time was decent – about 15-20 mins – and we were treated to a view of the mighty Falls the whole time.

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The view from the Rainbow Bridge while waiting to cross to the U.S.

We left U.S. Target with a couple of bags that included Cocoa Pebbles, Chocolate Chex and Honey Nut cream cheese, cruised around some insanely posh lakeside neighbourhoods, and retreated back to the customs line where we waited… and waited … and waited. We had yet to check in to our hotel and we had dinner reservations for 7 at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, its newest (and largest) location. I called the restaurant, switched our reservation for 8, and 1.5 hours later we were through after a couple eyebrow raises from our border guard regarding our cereal obsession.

We drove straight to the Sheraton on the Falls (I’d purchased a Travelzoo voucher which I was able to upgrade to a Falls-view room on one of its highest floors). It was worth every penny. We watched the sun set from our juliet balcony and enjoyed breathtaking views of the Falls, the parks (the leaves looked like they were on fire), the famous Clifton Hill strip, and hundreds of miniaturized people and cars out for the night.

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Clifton Hill Strip (view from 20th floor of The Sheraton on the Falls, Fallsview room)

I’d been to Niagara Falls dozens of times but I’d never seen it from up high. It was a totally amazing experience.

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20 floors up. Yikes. 

After a good 35 minute walk, we finally arrived to Ruth’s Chris – a steakhouse that’s been on my list of places to try for at least 10 years. We were in the mood for a damn good steak and some red wine. The prices are definitely higher than your typical steak restaurant – side dishes are extra – but man, is it worth it. I ordered the rib-eye, medium, and hubs ordered the filet, medium, and we split a side of the most flavourful mushrooms and mashed potatoes. We ordered a bottle of Hahn Pinot Noir (Monterey, because we had, after all, gotten married there) – just totally amazing.

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Obligatory food shot. This is my rib-eye, cooked to absolute perfection.

Sure, it could have been my lovely date and the fact that we were just happy to be together, alone, and in the mood for celebrating but the meal, friendliest staff, and fabulous atmosphere (all tables are in their own separated banquette rooms) made this one of the best dining experiences of my life.

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Wall of wine, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The selection is reasonably priced and hard to choose from. 

Afterwards we decided to walk off our steak and wine-induced clouds to – where else! – the casino across the street. We’re not much for gambling but we had $25 in credits that was included in our hotel package and the hubs was itching to use it. 25 minutes later (and an additional $20 of our own), we were out of there. We decided to walk back to Clifton Hill by way of the Falls, always particularly lovely when illuminated at night. Our next stop was the Skyview Ferris Wheel ($12/person), a new addition since I’d last visited the Falls (has it been that many years??) and mostly filled with tipsy couples at that hour. This is by far the best view in the city – mandatory for anyone who hasn’t seen the Falls up high – and the erupting volcano and dinosaurs from the mini golf course were entertaining as well.

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Best view in all the city: Up high above the Falls on the Skywheel.

We headed back to our hotel room, intending to take a wee rest before heading out for a nightcap, but the wine, the insanely comfortable king-size bed, and the last half of SNL, did us in for the night.

We awoke, unusually refreshed, after a full night’s sleep, with no toddler crammed between us, at our own leisure. Check-out wasn’t till 12 so we decided to take advantage and lounge around as long as we could. We still had some shopping to do so we walked down Falls Ave, checked out the Hershey store, and walked back up to Clifton Hill to grab a bite and some souvenirs for the kids.

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No, this is not one of the souvenirs we bought!

We decided we’d better head over to Niagara-on-the-Lake as we had reservations for a bicycle tour through vineyards. I hadn’t been on a bike for at least a dozen years so I was a bit apprehensive. When we arrived in NOTL, we were wowed. We’d gone through some of the vineyards before but had never actually been to the village. It was a gorgeous early-fall day – sunny, temps in the low 20s – and it was packed! We parked a couple blocks away from Queen Street and made our way to Niagara Tours to pick up our bikes. The lovely lady first chided us for coming so late as the free tours included in the deal had already ended – but honestly, we just wanted to ride some bikes and drink some wine, then gave us tons of tips on the best wines and a shortcut back. We were off!

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Our bikes, rented via Niagara Tours.

The bike route takes you past some absolutely stunning views – we rode a part of the Niagara River for a while, overlooking the homes across the water, each dock dotted with their own sailboats. We travelled through parks and woods and farmland and fields and when we finally reached our first one, we were ready for our samples! Reiff, Frog Pond Organic, Peller, and two others I’m sort of over were included in this tour: the most generous pours came from Reiff – and we ended up buying a couple bottles , which would be waiting for us back at the bike rental shop upon our return.

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The Niagara River, as admired from the bike trail.

The Frog Pond Organic grounds definitely had the most ambience – chickens and sheep and massive gardens and picnic spots surrounding an old farmhouse – it was an old favourite of ours.

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The rustic farm at Frog Pond Organic: Just the way a small farm should look!

We made it through through wineries – the last at Peller was kind of a speedy tasting as we needed to be back at the shop by 5 to return our bikes and pick up our wine – but we’d been there on a previous trip and I’ve never been overly impressed with their wine. The shortcut sure came in handy here – we cruised back, somewhat tipsy and energized from the wind and wine, huge smiles upon our faces. It was an absolutely surreal, amazing experience – one we will remember forever. I’ll definitely be back – perhaps next time with some girlfriends!

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Vine madness at Reiff. 

We returned the bikes, retrieved our wine, then decided to grab a bite at one of the many restaurants along Queen Street. At this point evening was setting in and we were beat – we grabbed a coffee and decided it was time to head home and gather the munchkins up and take them home. All in all, it was a short trip but one that re-connected us in the best way possible. And every mom and dad needs some of that to make things right.

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One of NOTL’s many, many B+Bs. Loved the name of this one.

pasta with sausage & broccolini

This recipe’s a great way to sneak in some green powerhouses in the form of broccolini (rapini) and spinach. My kids are ok with spinach and broccoli. Surprisingly even the roasted red peppers only occasionally get picked out. Must be the chunks of sausage that keeps them going. It’s so tasty that you don’t need to add any other spices or sauces to the pasta.

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Ingredients:

1 box/bag rotini pasta (traps all the green goodness in)
5-6 fresh mild Italian sausages (squeezed out of casings)
1 head broccolini/rapini
Small bunch baby spinach
1 jar roasted red peppers, sliced
Monterey Jack cheese or any white cheese you have on hand
Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Bring a large salted pot of water to boil. Add rotini, cook until al dente. Dip a cup into your pasta water before draining and set aside.

Meanwhile, cook crumbled sausage in pan. Add broccolini and spinach and cook 5 minutes.

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Toss your pasta with about half a cup of reserved pasta water, add shredded cheese and stir to melt. Sometimes I use Monterey Jack, sometimes I use 4-5 triangles Laughing Cow cheese as I always have those on hand. Mix in sausage and greens mixture, add roasted red peppers and juice from the jar. Stir well. If your pasta is a bit dry you can add more pasta water. Top with Parmesan cheese before serving. I make enough of this to feed my family dinner and lunch the next day. They seriously can’t get enough of it.

Serves 6 hungry folks (with leftovers for next day)

give life with a blood donation

I recently received an email from my son’s dojo (karate school) that a Dai’Sempai who has occasionally led my son’s karate class had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. The man, I’m guessing in his early 40s, is solid, stealthy and strong. He has his black belt. Although I don’t know him closely, I was floored. I know cancer doesn’t differentiate between people’s stance and activity level and colour of belt, but this was pretty surprising to all. The dojo has hosted blood drives before (I just discovered this was in part to Dai’Sempai’s urging even before the news struck) and this weekend they’re hosting another in honour of him. I was moved enough to dust off my blood donor card (it’s been a couple years) and make an appointment.

I brought it up tonight to my son while he was brushing his teeth and he looked at me rather horrified that I would deliberately have a needle stuck into my arm to remove blood. I explained to him how his instructor and many others are in dire need of blood, especially ours as it’s a rarer type, and that one day I hoped he’d do the same. The dojo has even suggested that parents donating blood bring their children dressed in uniform, but I think at his age, a freshly-turned 6, that he’s still a bit young for the sight.

Regardless of his squeamishness, it was a good opportunity to talk about several things that I think he ought to be more aware of – that sometimes the people we know get sick, that we can help those in need, and that one day we might be on the receiving end and someone else could be responsible for saving our life. It was an important discussion and I think I got through.

movie review: Despicable Me 2

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When the first Despicable Me came out in 2010 it felt fresh and put new life into the family-friendly animated film genre that had started to get stale. After endless amounts of films cheering for the good guy, we were all of a sudden rooting for the bad guy and actually wanted him to succeed in stealing the moon to be the most evil villain in the world. It was fun and exciting. Despicable Me 2 is unfortunately not as original as the first, but it is equally entertaining.

Gru (Steve Carell), who is out of the villain game raising his three adopted girls and working on a line of jams and jellies, is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help find a criminal mastermind with plans to create evil creatures and take over the world. He’s partnered with an agent named Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and must go undercover in a mall to stop them before it’s too late.

While the plot is not that groundbreaking, the script is loaded with gags and one-liners that Carell and Wiig pull off perfectly. The film never feels dull and is a continuous laughfest. This is largely thanks to the addition of Benjamin Bratt as Eduardo, the owner of a Mexican restaurant in the mall. I’ve never considered Bratt a funny guy, but he really puts it on here and makes me want to hear him do more characters like this. Steve Coogan and Ken Jeong work well too, but both are highly underused.

I honestly dread 3D films these days, but the use of it in Despicable Me 2 is great. There are a few gags such as bubbles floating around, which the kids in the audience went nuts for, but for the most part it is used to help the glorious animation look even more stunning. And just like the first, the animation and colour palette is truly wonderful.

Of course, the only opinion that matters is that of my six-year-old son, who screened the film with me. He was so excited to see it he couldn’t sleep the night before. When the credits rolled he immediately wanted to know when we could see it again because to him, it was the most amazing thing ever. And how can anyone argue with that?

Rating: ★★★★☆

Rated G
Cast: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt
Directed by: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

Top image: A scene from Despicable Me 2. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

Source: Criticize This! 

teddy mars cars

I’ve made these adorable little Mars bar cars a few times now and they’re always a hit with young and old alike (old like them more for the look – taste-wise it’s a bit of a mishmash smorgasbord of candy and an assault on the sweet buds). But sometimes you’ve got to forget about sugar and reward the kids for their hard work at school all year (I just made this for my son’s kindergarten graduation) or as a special treat at their birthday party. And trust me, one goes a long way.

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NEEDED:

25 teddy grahams, sawed in half just above waist
25 mini Mars bars, refrigerated
100 Smarties
Chocolate frosting, refrigerated

DIRECTIONS:

Refrigerate the mini Mars bars for at least an hour (or stick in freezer for 15-20 mins). Having them cold makes it easier to cut a slit into the middle of the top of the candy bar without too much cracking down the sides. Use a sharp, serrated knife for this and pull out just a bit of the caramel and chocolate to make enough room for the upper body of the teddy graham cookie. Note: not all teddy grahams are created equal. It’s worth seeking out the smaller kind (maybe check at your local bulk store) as the smaller the bear, the nicer they will fit their plump bodies into the car. It’s easiest to do this this as a bit of an assembly line – i.e. first cut out the Mars bars and cut the teddy grahams in half. Once all your cars have a driver, put a dab of chocolate frosting on four sides and then stick on your Smarties wheels. Keep them level to the bottom of the candy bar so the wheels don’t slide off. You shouldn’t have any trouble keeping the wheels to stick – just give it an hour to set and you’re good to go.

I like to display this on black cardstock so it looks like a road and normally dress it up with a couple of the kids’ play traffic signs.

Note: I’ve made these leaving the bears intact and also cutting the the bears in half – it’s a tiny bit more work but it’s definitely easier inserting half a bear rather than the whole thing into a tiny Mars bar. Just FYI. Hope your kiddos enjoy as much as mine do!

Makes 25 cars

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top 10 activities for my funner summer

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This handy guide spread via the Pinterest circuit a couple years ago. I refer to it often for inspiration and in hopes I don’t lose track of the magic of childhood. We’re on day 2 of summer holidays and I’m on a mission to fill it with as much adventure and activity that my kids will be begging me for a break. Haha – just joking. Their curiosities and need to always “do something” is insatiable – but I’m aiming for at least one fun new activity a week. Hence this post: I’ve gathered 10 pins I’ve been saving in my ‘kidcraft’ Pinterest board that we’ll be taking on this summer.

FIZZY EXPLOSION BAGS

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Explode sandwich bags with the mighty force of vinegar and baking soda!  This is just the kind of thing my two boys are into (frankly anyone would get a kick out of this, I’d say). This will keep them occupied for hopefully at least a couple of hours, and learning why this reaction occurs is an added bonus.

Source: All Things Beautiful

CAN-DO STILTS

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This is the sort of thing I would have totally dug as a kid, and I know it might be a recipe for disaster, but I think my 6-year-od is ready to take this on. I’M ready to take this on! Probably a good activity during the 2-year-old’s naptime.

Source: Spoonful

DIY BOUNCY BALLS

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OK, how cool is this?! Who doesn’t want to do this now!? The best part: materials can be found in a grocery or natural food store. Simple Simon. Making my shopping list now.

Source: About.com Chemistry

SQUISHY FISHY AQUARIUMS

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I had to throw this in for my younger son – I know my oldest will love it as well. Completely cute! Note to self: invest in the good Ziplocs or this will turn ugly fast.

Source: Teach Preschool

SINK A MARSHMALLOW AND OTHER FUN CANDY-ABUSE EXPERIMENTS

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Judging by the amount of repins I’ve gotten from this, this should be a pretty popular activity amongst my brood. Squishing mini marshmallows to remove the air – and hence the sinking – is just way too cool an activity to pass up. Also pretty cool: drop M&Ms into water, watch the colour fade away and the letters magically float (they’re printed with edible ink that doesn’t dissolve).

Source: About.com Chemistry

FOSSILIZED PLAYDOUGH

afamplaydo fossils

My kids love to go on nature walks and collect just about everything on God’s green acre. We have jars filled with pinecone collections, rock collections, seashell collections, pine needle collections from our long-ago-defunct Christmas tree, sand collections, and more. I think they’d get a kick out of fossilizing some of their precious materials into their much-loved playdough collection.

Source: Soaring Through Second

BACKYARD PLAY AREA

afambackyardroadway

This little project has been on my must-do list for the last two years. This is the summer I enlist the help of my husband and we just get it done! It’s wondrous and awe-inducing and the kids would literally poop their pants in excitement if they saw this in their yard (in a good way). Loews has some amazing ideas on their website about how to transform a part of your backyard into a truly magical place for kids. Tons of useful tips and ideas too – I hope to incorporate most of them.

Source: Loews

DIY TEEPEE, FORT, HIDEOUT, TENT, PLAYHOUSE, ETC.

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Every kid need their own place to hang out and dream in. The hardest part is narrowing down which tent/teepee/fort/hideaway to create as there are a ton making their way round the internets. They can be as elaborate or as simple as you can think of. My kids are mostly happy with a new cardboard box but would be thrilled with something of this magnitude that mom and dad engineer into something a bit more solid (personally very tired of hearing ‘can you help me?’ The cushions won’t stay up’).

Source: Babble

TERRARIUMS R US

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Terrariums are perfect for kids on many levels. They get to pick cutesy lil plants and toys and squish it into an equally cute little glass dome. Working with teensy, tiny, little things lead to patience and concentration, right? They can tend for it quite easily (a few spritzes here and there, something they love to do), and with any luck, it will thrive and bring lots of enjoyment.

Source: National Geographic Kids

BACKYARD DRIVE-IN

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How fun would it be to gather the neighbourhood kids together for a backyard drive-in theatre! This is definitely on my must-do list this summer. I’ve seen posts where people set up boxes and kids get to decorate their “cars” before the show starts. Pretty stinking cute but it would be equally cool watching from our DIY teepee. ;)

Source: Bunch Family