Sunday, January 30, 2011

homemade brownies

Recent adventures with oatmeal cookies a la Betty Crocker.
I have a cookbook that I cherish. It belonged to my grandma Maisy, a gift from my grandfather in 1971. It's a bright orange Betty Crocker cookbook complete with a split spine, crooked binder rings, and newspaper clippings that my grandma tucked inside.

When I want to make something sweet, retro Betty Crocker is my go-to.

So I was flipping through the pages past my favorite buttermilk waffles, oatmeal cookies, and spice cake when I came across a recipe for brownies. Admittedly, we always use boxed brownies, but I wondered how the homemade version would stack up.

Now, I can't remember what ingredients are listed in the boxed brownies, but I assure you they are not as fresh or wholesome as these:

-4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
-2/3 cups shortening
-2 cups of sugar
-4 eggs (I only used 3 eggs and added 1 tablespoon of water)
-1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-1 1/4 cups flour
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1 teaspoon salt
Optional: 1 cup chopped nuts (which I omitted)

Just like the store-bought ones, heat the oven to 350. Grease a 9X12 baking dish. First, melt the chocolate and shortening in a sauce pan on low heat. Then remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. The batter is thick, but it spreads just fine with a spatula in the baking dish. Cook uncovered for 30 minutes. Voila!

These brownies taste EXACTLY like the boxed brownies except I can pronounce everything in the recipe and I can use organic versions of each item. No preservatives, either! Time-wise, it doesn't take that much longer to make them and I already had everything in my cupboard.

If you have a sweet tooth, I highly recommend them...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

power of play

"Play" is a topic that most people don't give any thought to. Lots of parents want their kids to "go play" to get them out of their hair (myself included at times!). It's an enjoyable time for kids to wind down and have fun. But I've been uncovering the importance of play recently, and what I have found is profound and eye-opening.

Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, points to several insightful studies throughout her book. One I find fascinating is about children's self-control. The initial study was conducted in the 1940's and was replicated in 2001. A series of experiments were performed on children ages 3, 5, and 7 years old. Each task required some degree of focus and self-control, for example, standing still. Researchers discovered that children were only half as likely to be able to control themselves compared to the children studied in the 1940's.

Some people might be tempted to think that the out-dated approach of punishing and spanking kids is why some children have lost the ability to control their own behavior. (You've heard parents say it: "what that kid needs is a good kick in the pants!") To the contrary, Carter states:

"Besides being ineffective over the long term, punishment - physically punitive practices such as spanking as well as threatening behaviors such as yelling, grabbing, and verbal coercion - tends to be damaging to kids. Lots of studies have found associations between harsh parenting and higher rates of defiance, behavior problems, and depression and anxiety...not to mention kids' diminished ability to control their behavior and emotions."

So why is self-control relevant to a discussion about play? Because Carter's research also finds that:

"In addition to helping kids learn to self-regulate, child-led, unstructured play (with or without adults) promotes intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Unstructured play helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and behavior, and speak up for themselves."

Research shows that children are developing keen skills that they cannot obtain ANY OTHER WAY through spontaneous, child-led play. No amount of structured lessons or academic preparations will substitute for the knowledge children construct on their own during play. In fact, the urgency that some parents feel to give their children an academic "leg up" can be doing them a great disservice - if happiness and success is the intended goal. Carter finds in one study that:

"...children attending academic preschools showed no advantage in reading or math achievement over kids who went to play-based preschools, but they did have higher levels of test anxiety...These academically pushed kids were less creative and had more negative attitudes toward school than did the kids in play-based preschool."

So if we know that play is good for our children, why don't children play as much now as in the past?

There are many factors to take into consideration. Children have far more scheduled activities today. Children are spending more time in child care centers, where regimented activities are the norm, rather than unstructured play. Children don't spend enough time outdoors exploring (read Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods for more on that). And although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television watching for children under the age of two, children are still getting too much screen time. Even with the television on as background noise, it still hinders a child's ability to focus during play. Carter sites another study that found that "TV viewing before the age of three can harm language development and attention span later in life." Though some programs are educational and interactive, screen time cuts into creative and unstructured play. Another factor must be the amount of time we spend in vehicles getting from point A to point B. Carter notes that on average, children have about 8 hours per week LESS of play.

30 minutes is the minimum amount of play needed to foster this healthy development. Several hour stretches are better. This allows children to become immersed in play, busy developing the skills they will need as adults. It seems that, much as it is difficult for us to do in these modern times, we must slow down, unplug, and give our children some good old-fashioned time to play.

Monday, January 24, 2011

baby art?

Little guy's first solo drawing!

My husband and I are both artists. That's how we met, in an undergrad painting class. Even though our son is only 14 months old, we do our best to encourage creative expression. But it can be hard to know how to foster creative thinking since he is so young.

For toddlers it seems creativity translates into experimentation. As he uses his pee-wee trial and error skills, creativity manifests itself as he invents new ways of manipulating objects or materials. Rather than squashing this budding creativity ("no, that's not how that works, silly!") we try to give him the freedom to experiment in his own ways (underline TRY!).

This is a collaboration between mommy, daddy and E.

Washable markers give E instant results. We offer huge paper so that we won't have to say "no, not on the wall! no not on the table!" Obviously he wouldn't enjoy making marks if we were yelling at him every few minutes. Once he learns how to steady a marker, we'll play some more with crayons. (Pressing hard enough to see colors is a challenge right now...)

I have an afternoon of painting in mind today which will involve making drawings with washable markers, putting markers away, and then offering a damp cloth and paint brush for E to smear around on the drawings. This will make the colors blend and bleed since the markers are washable. (This is probably way over his head, but I'll just have to see where it takes us...)

We also have all kinds of recyclables that he can combine to make interesting sounds. I wouldn't say they are exactly "musical" sounds, but as hubby and I shake them and pretend to dance or sing, E gets it.
I know I used to paint for my own edification, but these days, it's all about E. The little paintings here are going to be a series of four animals. For number 1, I printed his hand since he is 1 year old. I figure after the age of 4, I'll come up with another idea. I'll be sure to post them when I finish painting them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

pajama outing in the snow

More snow this morning, so out we go! Who cares if we are still in our pajamas?

E got geared up in his snowpants for our morning play, and I actually found that the footy pjs meant that I didn't have to find his socks. The bulky feet made for snug boots, but E didn't mind. It was spontaneous, after all.

He's still in amazement by the snow. (So am I.) It's either a state of awe at the vast white sight or bewilderment from the cold that keeps him spellbound. Either way, my little cub enjoys our snowy winter play. 

A lot happens around here before breakfast...

If he could talk I think he would say "What's this white stuff again?"

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

toddler review: his favorite books

Our sweetie reads I Am A Bunny before bedtime.
Every day I get the great priveledge of snuggle time with my toddler when we read books. This happens several times a day from the moment he wakes up until just before he lays down for the night. As a mom and an educator, his early interest in books feels incredibly rewarding.

He loves books. I'm not sure if it's the reading as much as it is the funny, beautiful or strange illustrations that he wants to figure out. He mimics the sounds I make and tries to find the tiny details hidden in the pictures. I know his vocabulary is multiplying as I read and re-read the stories -- research tells us as much. But I'm also starting to learn more about him and his interests, too.

After we read, I let him go back to the beginning and flip through the pages without my narration. Sometimes he talks, points or stops to look closely at an image. Watching and listening as he interacts with the books helps me to discover what he is curious about. Considering his limited vocabulary, any insights about what he enjoys, is fascinating to me.

If you've got (or had) a toddler then you already know that any book with flaps or pieces to manipulate are a big hit. He relishes a good "lift the flap" book or books with special textures.

There are dozens of classics that we are just getting into (Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I Am A Bunny and The Snowy Day, etc.). But there are many more fantastic stories that you may not have heard of. Because I enjoy the books just as much as E, I thought I'd share some of these lesser known faves:

Little Feet Love by Anthony Nex (lots of textures for feet!)
In My Tree by Sara Gillingham (a tiny owl finger puppet)
Counting Book 1 to 10 by Cyndy Szekeres (adorable mouse illustrations to count)
Mama, Where Are You? by Diane Muldrow (flaps of baby animals and their mamas)
The Tiny Tadpole by Little Scholastic (touch and feel book about frog metamorphosis)
I Dreamt I Was a Dinosaur by Stella Blackstone (beautiful textile illustrations)
Ten Little Ladybugs by Melanie Gerth (touch and feel lady bugs to count)
Natural World A, B, C by Crocodile Creek (chunky board book - read, identify pictures or sing the song)
Fuzzy Yellow Ducklings by Matthew Van Fleet (touch and feel with flaps, including "sticky frog tongues")
Little Bee by Chronicle Books (finger puppet helps encourage appreciation for bees!)
Goodnight, Baby by Ikids (place the animal babies in a pocket on every page)

Please share your favorite books for toddlers, too. I'd love to keep adding to our growing library. Happy reading!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

natural disaster

Toddlers don't care about tired parents. They have two modes: full speed or zonked. I'm dragging today, so my little man has free run of the house. I'm doing my best to keep up with him, but WOW. He's full of energy and all I want is ten minutes for coffee.

Needless to say our house is a wreck. It's our version of a 'natural disaster'. The hubs likes to ask if a tornado came through. Actually, yes, our toddler has a lot in common with a tornado: picks up anything in his path, no discrimination about what he may destroy, and leaves survivors reeling in his wake. I've never known a tornado to clean up after itself, either :)

Shall we play a little game? How about "I spy"? Let's see...I spy a busy baby in the kitchen...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

winter play on a chilly day

As our little E gets older, there are more and more opportunities for us to play outside with him. Still, he's not even two years old, so our play time is limited in the cold. With my preschoolers, it's a whole different ball game - that is - snowball game!

If you're looking for ways to engage in winter play with your child, here are some ideas:

Winter play with kiddos under 2:-Bundle up for a stroller or wagon ride. Stop to savor winter beauty (look for snow-covered pine trees, reflective frozen ice or nests visible in bare trees).

-Listen for sounds in winter. Are there geese overhead? Scampering squirrels? Birds chattering from the shrubs? Is snow crunching underfoot?

-Walk or crawl in the snow (limit the amount of time your little one does this!). Let her examine it. Offer beach toys or a bucket to play in the snow.

-Sing a winter song. Cuddle your little one and sing "Here Comes Suzy Snowflake" or "Frosty the Snowman" as you take a winter walk.

-Sprinkle bird seed in your yard. The birds won't mind if it's dumped in a pile or evenly scattered - they are grateful for your offerings all winter long!

Winter play with kiddos ages 3-5:-Bundle up and take a walk! Bring along a backpack with items such as a magnifying glass, spray bottle with water, beach toys, bath toys, buckets, measuring cups or sunglasses. You may want your camera, too.

-Explore the winter landscape. Let your child pull out the backpack items and dig in. Resist the urge to initiate your own activities. Instead, let your child select items or locations in the yard to explore. This will provide an opportunity for her to invent a game or share her own interests with you.

-Time for snowballs! Teach your child how to compact snow into a snow ball. (Use water from a spray bottle if it is helpful.) Arrange the snowballs from largest to smallest or set up a target (dad?!) and throw them!
-Make snow cookies. Yes, you heard that right: COOKIES! Bring out old baking sheets and cookie cutters. Let your little chef make snow cookies - you can even add sprinkles on top. (If the snow doesn't pack, spray with your water bottle and let the cookies freeze. Remove the cookie cutters the following day.)

-Hide the bear. Well, they do hibernate after all so take a stuffed animal such as a turtle, frog or bear outside and hide it from plain view. Challenge your tot to find the hibernating animal!

-Build a snow castle. Use beach buckets filled with snow to create snow castles. Make one glorious castle, decorated with icicles and stones, or build an entire village. Add holiday lights to see your creation lit up at night.
-Make a mini-snowman (or snow woman, if you prefer). It's still a snow man even if it is two feet tall! And if you build quickly, you could make a whole family. Add carrots, raisins, apple slices, cereal pieces or banana to decorate.

-Fashion a recycled feeder and hang it somewhere you can view it from a window. Try using a 1/2 gallon milk jug, oatmeal container, or cereal box. Determine how to hang it with string and cut openings to fill it with seed. The more unusual the container, the more creative you can be!

-Count birds that visit your bird feeder. (If you're like me, you may want to count squirrels, too!)

-Use drops of food coloring to create colorful water dyes. Pour them in clean, recycled spray bottles and let your child squirt rainbow art in the snow.

-Do a science experiment. Make two snowballs. Place one outside, where you will not move it. Place the other on a plate inside. Take photographs of each snowball over time. How long does it take each one to melt?

I hope you enjoy these ideas for winter play. I'd love to hear your ideas and stories, too!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

great reads for parents and educators

I will devour any book or reading material if I think it will help me become a better parent or educator - and I just can't get enough of these two books: Raising Happiness by Christine Carter and Mind in the Making by Ellen Galinsky. Keep your pen and paper (or Ipad) handy because you'll want to take notes when you read them!

Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents
Photo copyright at

Raising Happiness is my new bible. The author speaks as if she were chatting to a friend on the phone, but her observations and advice is based on sound, documented research and lots of her own parenting "oops" moments. This book is chock full of realistic methods and specific techniques that a parent, caregiver, or educator could use to help encourage the skills and emotional literacy that children need to develop habits of happiness. I particularly love Carter's points about the importance of maintaining a "growth mind-set", her "ways to raise kind children", and her geniusly simple problem-resolving steps. Please, I beg of you, READ THIS BOOK! To learn more, go to

Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs
Photo copyright at

Mind in the Making discusses the "seven essential life skills every child needs". In fact, I know plenty of adults that need some of these skills, including myself! This book provides useful insight into the science of a developing brain, which has helped me better understand why some behavioral strategies are more effective than others (especially where my preschoolers are concerned). For example, there is a passage about the importance of focus and self-control, along with practical activities to try. The author provides case studies and research findings which help explain how our brains are wired and how they respond to our educational approaches differently. Mind in the Making is a fascinating read and ties in nicely with the emotional literacy piece that Raising Happiness highlights.

If you find yourself snowed in any time soon, I hope you'll have the great fortune of reading both of these books. I plan to put this information to good use in my classroom and at home. I am happy to say (get it?) that I'm already practicing "loving-kindness", but you'll have to read up to see what it's all about!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Warhol with a toddler?

Oh yes, that's right. We were THOSE people with our baby at the museum. We took our first family outing to the BMA and it was a treat!

Photo copyright by of Andy Warhol's Rorschachs
 It was the closing weekend for the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the museum was a madhouse. (Next time we'll go on a weekday...) I strapped E into our baby carrier and traded off with the hubby during our visit. Given the crowds of people and the amount of time we spent there, E did a great job! We both cracked up as he kept singing and humming to himself in the serious silence of all the art lovers. (I'm thinking it's a right-brained thing - his way of enjoying the art.) Little E was mesmerized by the colors and repetition of Warhol's work. He seemed especially taken with the Rorschach-inspired inkblot paintings, which are nearly 14 feet tall!

I am a huge fan of the abstract expressionist movement (Kandinsky, de Kooning, Pollock, Frankenthaler, Twombly, Hartigan, Kline) as well as the reinvented works of the "neo" abstract expressionists (Motherwell, Appel, Basquiat). Any art aficionado will tell you it can be difficult to separate artists in categories that are so black and white. Warhol is no exception. His work took on many forms throughout his productive, acclaimed career. If all you've seen from Warhol are his pop icon images of over-sized soup cans or Marilyn Monroe screen prints, then I highly suggest you check out this exhibition (rotating nationwide)!

The exhibition was thought-provoking and a treat for my eyes. Viewing art always makes me miss the days of painting for hours on end in my studio. I do still paint, but it's usually little owls or turtles or something along those lines for my students or for E. Maybe that should be my resolution this year - schedule blocks of time to paint for ME. Hmm. We'll see...

Saturday, January 8, 2011


I know there are lots of grumbly people that hate snow. And maybe if I lived somewhere that it snowed all the time, I could relate. Roads can be dangerous, power outages can ensue, shoveling is inevitable - I get it. But here in Maryland, we have four distinctly beautiful seasons, and I cherish each one. I, too, am a grumbly person about certain things, but not when it comes to snow!

3 months old (Feb. 2010)

14 months old (Jan. 2011)

I absolutely love winter. (Actually, let me preface that by saying that I love winter when I am warmly dressed!) Layer on the fuzzy scarves and sweaters, don the woolly striped socks, pile the blankets high. Mostly, I love the magic of mother nature tossing a giant white quilt on the earth to protect living things during the cold. Snow is an amazing gift in winter.

I get excited like a child each and every time it snows, but I'm finding even more joy sharing the snow with E. Unlike me, E isn't convinced of all the magic. Today he is geared up in puffy snow pants, a warm hat and all the other cold-weather trimmings. He resembles the giant puffy marshmallow guy from Ghostbusters in his duds. When he tries to walk in his stiff boots, he looks like a little padded robot. It's so cute!

So, we went outside in the snow and, like always, he "helped" me fill our bird feeders. Here is E last year in the snow compared to now. WOW. What a difference a year makes.

He is a curious tot and a really good sport when it comes to, well just about anything. He's got a great threshold of patience. Even when he fell over in the snow (in slow motion due to all the layers), he shook it off. He didn't mind sitting still, silently perched in the snow-covered grass as I poured the sunflower seeds in the feeder. I guess those snow pants keep his tush warm! He had finally had enough when his mittens got wet, so we came back inside.

The weather forecast calls for more snow this week. Wo-hoo!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

kissable snot-nosed kid

He's as cute as a button, but today he is more accurately as cute as a jellyfish.

There are more squishy fluids on his kissable mug than ever before, given his first round with "the cold". I'm talking druel, snot, an ever-changing assortment of organic foods, and sometimes tears, smeared across his face and in those hard-to-reach crevices under his silky (slimy) chin.  He's congested and teething so the faucet-like nose and drippy mouth gushes on. Who knows for how long? I hope not all winter!

(Try to imagine sound effects here with his wet coughs, sneezes, and a raspy 14-month-old voice.)

Despite all the goo and slime, he's still as kissable as ever. I really can't resist the toothy grin or the "I'm not feeling well, mama!" pout. I'm covered in slime like Sooki Stackhouse on a bad day. But still, as kissable as ever.

Even MORE ooey-gooey sweet is the fact that he doesn't hesitate when it comes to kissing things. Here are a few things he's kissed today, snot and all:

-ME! Don't ask me to bake you anything today...
-our 11-year-old cat (he's a good sport)
-a crab puppet
-wooden puzzle piece of turtle
-blue stuffed elephant

Here is my child examining (and then kissing) a baby goat. AW!

-rocking horse
-super-long stuffed toy snake
-pictures in our books: a baby, cheetah, dinosaur, dolphin, get the picture?

I'm glad to see he's in such a great mood even though he's not feeling his best. As I watch him innocently, freely share his kisses, I happily return each and every kiss.

That is...when I can find a dry spot!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

scary new endeavor

So, the more I think about the idea of regularly writing this blog, the more excited I am about the whole adventure. I know almost nothing about blogs. Seriously. I have been a guest writer on two blogs for about six months now and I regularly write content for my job, but in terms of "blogging", it's an entirely new thing for me.

I decided to start this blog mostly because I love to write and I always have a ton to say. I am overly opinionated, to my detriment at times! (A dear friend once sarcastically quipped, "just tell me what you're thinking because you know what's best for EVERYONE, right?".)

But opinions aside, I am an avid journaler (pretty sure that's not a real word). Although, these days it seems like I only write in my journal once a month at best. I must confess, typing is way faster than writing with a felt pen and my laptop is always near. The journal, well, that stays in my car for the rare moments I have fifteen minutes alone in a coffee shop to savor some "me time". Plus the journal feels so personal that I don't want it lying around the house for visitors to find.

I've been torn about blogging because I'm so sentimental about having a tangible journal that I can hold and physically pass down. But what I'm beginning to realize is that technology is giving me an amazing opportunity to share and trade thoughts with an enormous community of "powerhouse mommies". It feels like an extended support system, which is very comforting to me.

Take all these mommy blogs, for starters. Once I started looking around online, I was gobsmacked by the quantity (and quality) of the mommy blogs out there! I am learning so much from all of you! Like Scary Mommy, for example, also based here in Baltimore, MD. When I read her blogging tips, I thought "wow, I hope I can be knowledgeable enough to share tips with others some day!" And Little Miss Mommy, another sassy, fun mom with tons of life lessons to share. There's way too many to name, but I am happy to share virtual space with empowered women such as these.

For now, I'm going to get my bearings on this whole 'blog thing' and try to navigate my way around the crazy blogosphere that I now call home.

I created this image some time ago using ink, markers, and colored pencil. There's text embedded in the image, which is something I love to do in my paintings.

Yes, peas are delicious - and funny!

Yes, peas are delicious - and funny!
Our little guy at 15 months, February 2011.