Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The guessing game

One of our favorite family pastimes of late is “the guessing game,” invented by Will as a spin-off of the tired old “Why did the chicken cross the road” question, which Will seems to never tire of.
In fact, he used to always launch the game with that question.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” he’d ask.

“To get to the other side,” Rob or I would reply, except for the rare occasion when we’d bother to try to be more inventive.

“Yep,” Will would say. “Now it’s your turn.”

And that’s the cue for the game to actually get new and interesting.

We’ll pose questions back and forth like Why did the bus stop at the beach? Why did the squirrel run up the tree? Why did the bear go to sleep?

And often the asker and the guesser have different answers in mind. Sometimes we’re close though.

“Why did the duck say cock-a-doodle-doo?” I asked Will during one recent game in the car.

“Because he wanted to be a rooster,” Will said.

“That’s pretty close,” I said. “Because he was raised by a hen and a rooster so all he ever heard each morning was cock-a-doodle-doo and pretty soon he started saying it too.”

(In the guessing game, the asker always owns the “right” answer.)

Rob likes to get punny as the questioner:

"Why did the newspaper want to be green?" he asked the other day.

Will was too baffled too guess.

"Because it didn't want to be read," Rob said.

But my favorite rounds come when Will poses a question and we guess right.

“Why did the ball go so high up into the sky?” he asked me during that same game in the car.

“Because a boy named Will had incredibly strong arms so when he threw the ball it went a mile into the sky,” I guessed.

“Oh man,” he said, slapping his forehead in disbelief, “You guessed it!”

I’m starting to love the game as much as Will. And I think we’ll rely on it some as a time-killer as we attempt another nutty road trip to Colorado this summer.

What invented games do you play with your kids?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tonight, observe Earth Hour

Well, I meant to post this a couple days in advance, but lost track of it on my calendar. Tonight people across the planet will observe Earth Hour. From 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. wherever you happen to live, people will be turning off all their lights in their homes, in towering skyscrapers, in the Great Pyramids of Giza. You name it.

I'm going to cheat and leave the night lights on in Will and Owen's room, but otherwise we're planning to darken our house then. So if you read this in time, consider joining in. And if not you could always do it a day or two late, just for the heck of it. It's all electricity saved and pollution prevented regardless of when we do it. And of course it's mostly just a symbolic reminder to be conscientious about our use of energy every day.

If only I could convince Owen that switching the kitchen light on and off, on and off isn't necessary, without having to remove all the chairs from the kitchen.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Over the weekend, Will captured a caterpillar in the yard, and decided to make a pet of it for at least a few hours. Will assumed it was a male and named him Tiny Little Smokey Addington (inspired by our weekend encounter with Smokey the Bear), and he collected some things around the yard – grasses, leaves and twigs -- that he thought might make Tiny Little Smokey feel at home in his jar. We talked about how he would one day turn into a butterfly and Will was eager to bring him in for the night, where Tiny Little Smokey wouldn’t have to be afraid of big things in the dark. We of course nailed holes in the jar lid, but by morning, Tiny Little Smokey was looking rather stationary and sickly and quite possibly on the verge of death, so Will agreed that we should release him.

A couple days later, though, we stumbled upon a handful of Tiny Little Smokey clones all crawling around on a potted plant on our back deck. Will delighted in transporting them from a leaf to his arm and letting them crawl around on his neck and arms. He had four on him at one time and was feeling like a caterpillar whisperer of sorts.

“Mommy,” he said, “maybe I can be a scientist when I grow up. I want to be a scientist and grow up taking care of animals. I want to take care of caterpillars.”

This seemed like a lovely career goal to me and we’d begun to do a little research on our backyard caterpillars that made me feel less guilty about potentially killing them off if we proved to be lousy caterpillar caregivers. We’d identified the caterpillars as Eastern Tent Caterpillars and a little reading soon led me to realize that while they’re kind of pretty in the caterpillar stage, they do a lot of damage to fruit tree leaves and are widely regarded as pests. (They also turn into drab gray moths, rather than brilliant butterflies – but I’ve never been one to discriminate when it comes to wing color.)

I read that when it comes to raising caterpillars even though you may accidentally kill your captives, they probably stand a better chance of surviving with you than with cruel nature, which in its various guises has a tendency to gobble up caterpillars by the hundreds. I also read that it’s normal for caterpillars to get stationary as they prepare to go into cocoon mode. I’m not sure when that will be for the tent caterpillars, but I think they won’t be emerging as moths until early summer.

In any case, we decided to make a second stab at keeping a caterpillar. Will chose the caterpillar who he thought seemed to like him most and named him “Friendy.” We tried to gather a sampling from as many different leaves as possible from our yard so that we could try to determine Friendy’s dietary preferences. Actually he seems to prefer the leaf of a pear tree I stole from a neighbor’s yard to anything we foraged from our back yard, so this caterpillar-keeping business may reduce me to regular tree leaf theft.

So far Friendy’s been doing more pooping than eating, and he’s gone pretty stationary on us too, but a swift poke of the leaves sends him crawling. Will is already preparing for the fact that Friendy may not live to see moth stage. And he’s determined that since Friendy is now officially our pet, we will have to dig a grave for him in the backyard if he doesn’t make it to mothhood. Because he’ll need to be buried with all his leaves, Will’s already decided that he’ll need a larger headstone than the one we crafted for our guppy Zoe. I’d never imagined having a pet cemetery in miniature like the one we now see in our future.

If you have any caterpillar-keeping advice, please share. Or if you think we should free Friendy and let nature be – or squash him and all other pesky tent caterpillars we find, feel free to weigh in. There seem to be plenty of folks out their on both sides of the debate. (In defense of Friendy, though, I should say that while he and his friends may build unsightly white web-tents in trees and then munch on lots of leaves, they almost never kill the host trees. They just eat them up a bit. All of this according to the government.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The week (and more) in pictures

Here are a few photos from Saturday, when we went to Fire on the Mountain at Sprewell Bluff State Park, where we picnicked, listened to music, watched a demonstration prescribed fire and viewed some rescue animals -- owls, snakes and gopher tortoises. From afar, Owen thought Smokey the Bear looked pretty interesting but when we got up close he wanted away from the big friendly bear (whose slogan, by the way, is now “Only you can prevent wildfires” instead of “forest fires” – since prescribed fires are now cool with Smokey and the Forest Service folks who tell him to what to think).
Will knew better than to get anywhere near a man in a bear suit, so he went to work manning Rob’s Nature Conservancy booth.

The highlight though, was throwing rocks in the river, although it took a little work at first to convince Owen not to throw himself in the river too.

Later in the weekend, the boys pretended they were boating in the hammock with Rob, who was sporting the grisly bearded look for a few more hours before he would shave the thing off to mark the onset of spring.

And as I downloaded our camera to get the weekend photos I discovered this picture of Will practicing the lift from “Dirty Dancing” with Aunt Alicia a week and a half ago. Will and Owen enjoyed some raucous living room dancing with Papa and Aunt Alicia that weekend, and Will must have made Alicia play Patrick Swayze at least a couple dozen times (not that he’s seen the film or anything – he just likes to elevate himself above the rest of us).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Kindergarten readiness: The redshirting debate

Today's Ledger-Enquirer includes a Q&A I did with Laura Johnson, pre-K lead teacher for the Muscogee County School District, about
how to decide whether you child is ready for pre-k and kindergarten and about the trend toward “redshirting” children who have late birthdays. It all started, of course, with me mulling the question for Will, who has an August 31 birthday in a school system with a September 1 cut-off.

Much of our interview didn't make it into the print edition, so I'm including the extended interview below. Also, if you’re interested in the subject, this 2007 New York Times Magazine article, entitled “When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten” provides a much more indepth look at what research and a variety of experts and teachers say about the implications of redshirting and how age affects school performance. It also delves into how redshirting can exacerbate socioeconomic gaps in the classroom since it is generally only middle and upper class parents who can afford to hold their child back a year.

Here's the rest of my interview with Laura Johnson. See the Ledger link above for the initial discussion:

Q: I’ve talked with parents who sent their child on to kindergarten and then came to regret the decision much later, when their child wasn’t as physically or emotionally mature as his or her peers in middle or high school, for example. Do you encourage parents to think mostly about Pre-K or kindergarten readiness – or do you think it makes sense to somehow project possible pros and cons far into the future?

A: “It’s such an individual decision. We’re all just so different, and they can be strong in one area and weak in another and just do fine. Particularly for parents deciding whether to start their children in Pre-K, they can try it for 30 days. In the lottery-funded Pre-K program, parents who withdraw their child within the first 30 days of Pre-K can then register them for Pre-K in the following year.”

Q: A primary fear for parents who are considering holding their child back a year is that the child will be bored. Have you seen many children who are bored in school because they were held back unnecessarily?

A: “Not in the past few years because with the Georgia performance standards in kindergarten and the content standards in Pre-K it’s such a learning atmosphere all day long – plus we’re trying to differentiate instruction and meet their needs.”

Q: “What would you say to parents who are concerned about sending a child who’s recently turned 4 to an all-day Pre-K program?”

A: “We were concerned with that at first. But they do have a full hour rest time, so teachers break up the activities so that we’ve really had few complaints from parents saying the day is too long …They also have an outside time – about 30 minutes a day.”

Q: “Kindergarten today seems like a different beast than it was a generation ago. Instead of a part-day program that includes plenty of napping and play time, it’s all day every day – and with homework to boot in many cases. Do you think children often do need to be a bit older to thrive in today’s kindergarten programs?”

A: “No, I really wouldn’t. It depends on the individual child. I taught many children who were born in August and my youngest daughter was born in late August. I have seen both younger and older children succeed and have problems. In my opinion it seems more to do with the individual than the birthday.”

Q: Some parents are weighing another decision now – whether to send their child to an all-day public Pre-K program or a private half-day Pre-K program. One difference I hear parents talk about frequently is that while many private Pre-K programs begin handwriting instruction immediately, the public Pre-K programs delay formal handwriting instruction until the second semester. Can you talk about why state guidelines suggest it is best to delay formal handwriting instruction?

A: “In Pre-K, we put out all the materials to make our writing centers very fun to be in, with markers and different sizes of pencils and paper, name and picture cards, stamps and stencils. We encourage them to write that way, but there is no set handwriting instruction because not everybody is ready. It is developmentally appropriate. Everything in the Georgia Pre-K program is based on research about how 4- and 5 year-olds learn best.”

Q: What other advice would you give to parents?:

A: “Let it be an individual decision – and the sooner the better to have them in school in some kind of program where they’re getting ready to read, learning phonological awareness, rhyming, learning new vocabulary, and socialization. I’d like to see even a 3-year-old program (in the public school system). If possible, have your child do a half-day pre-school before Pre-K.”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Drawing God

Today after drawing an airplane, Will began wondering about how God made cars. And then he decided he wanted to try drawing a picture of God. When he asked me how I thought God looked, I told him that I didn’t necessarily picture God as a person but as something much bigger, connecting everything. I told him I didn’t know how to draw God. Of course I knew I was being way too abstract for Will. So I asked him how he imagined God looking, and that set him to musing:

“What he seems like in my imagination is he’s up in the sky and the sun is rising on him and he has a wide green body and white hair. In my imagination he looks silly. In my imagination it seems like the sun rises right on God. Because if God didn’t have light he wouldn’t be able to see anything...”

But then he reconsidered, apparently imagining heaven in outer space: “But if he lives up in space he doesn’t have light. It’s dark. So that means if it’s dark, he sleeps forever.”

Maybe he can work in the dark, I suggested. Will nodded in agreement and then drew this picture.
At first I thought he’d drawn a crown on God’s head, but Will said, no, that was just his white hair, outlined in green.

How do you your children envision God -- or do they?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bread of the Irish

Happy St. Patty’s Day! I’ve never done much to celebrate this one beyond dressing the family in green so we don’t get pinched. But I think I’m going to start a tradition of serving leek and potato soup and Irish soda bread on March 17. This year we had ours early, at a Sunday St. Patty’s potluck. Here’s a simple recipe from Anna Thomas’s “The New Vegetarian Epicure” for a healthier than normal version of Irish Soda Bread that we thought was tasty.

1 ¾ cups buttermilk; 1 egg; 2 Tbsp. melted butter; 1 tsp baking soda; 3 tsp. baking powder; 1 ¼ tsp. salt; 1 ½ cups white flour; 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour; 1 cup rolled oats; ½ cup raisins.
Beat together the buttermilk, egg and melted butter. Sift together the baking soda, baking powder, salt, white flour and whole wheat flour. Stir in the rolled oats and raisins and then the buttermilk mixture. Turn the dough out on a well-floured board and knead gently, dusting with a bit more flour to keep it from sticking, just until it all holds together. Divide the dough into 2 parts and form each part into a smooth ball. Place the loaves on a buttered baking sheet, press down slightly and cut a shallow cross in the top of each one. Bake 35-40 minutes at 375. Makes two medium loaves.

Anyone have other favorite Irish recipes to share?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Buying consigned

This evening I’ll be heading to the Just 4 Kidz Consignments pre-sale. Over the past year, I’ve started investing just enough time to consign 25 items to the sale – the minimum required to gain admittance to a Monday night presale. I never feel like pricing anything high, as I envision other budget-wary moms shopping for bargains like me, so I rake in something like $15 dollars for my trouble but then get to go early and look for Will’s wardrobe for the upcoming season (and it really is the majority of what he wears). The way I see it buying consigned is still stimulating the economy – we’re just pumping dollars back into the wallets of moms on tight enough budgets that they’re willing to take time to consign.

This year’s sale starts Tuesday, with a 25 percent off day on Friday and a half-price day Saturday. See the Web site for details.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

He's a toddler

The rainy day postponed our plans for Fire on the Mountain (which we’ll now be enjoying next Saturday). But that gave Rob and I the excuse to go on a rare six-hour-long date while Papa and Aunt Alicia entertained the boys.

We saw "Slum Dog Millionaire," did some thrift store shopping and went out for dinner. Meanwhile the boys got to enjoy a rare treat of their own with an equally rare trip to Chick-fil-A, where Will was apparently very protective of his little brother as they played on the indoor playground together. He even defended young Owen’s honor when a couple of other kids referred to him as a baby. “He’s not a baby; he’s a toddler,” Will said.

Here’s a photo of an outing we took on Friday to a Nature Conservancy property called Blackjack Crossing, where Rob put in a little time doing prescribed fire prep while Papa and Owen and I took a hike, did some tee-pee building and had a picnic.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sweet spring

This is a treasured time of year for me – that honeymoon with spring, when the weather warms up enough for shorts and T-shirts and lots of outdoor play and yet the mosquitoes haven’t quite descended on us yet. So we can enjoy our backyard without either dousing our entire bodies in mosquito repellent or getting eaten alive. We are eating dinner on our back deck, running around outside – and catching our first sightings of bluebirds, azaleas and flowering Redbuds. And we’re enjoying it all with Papa, who’s come for a visit for the first time since we lost Nana. After the boys are in bed, we share stories about her around the chiminea. I’ll post spring photos soon.

We're also planning an expedition Saturday to Fire on the Mountain at Sprewell Bluff State Park, assuming the weather's decent. If you're shopping for a weekend activity, check out the Web site. It's a lovely setting for listening to music, letting the kids run around, throwing rocks in the river and viewing some prescribed fire from a safe distance. It's about an hour's drive from Columbus, and if the weather's looking rainy you'll want to recheck the Web site to make sure the event hasn't been postponed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

R.I.P. Zacky

A week ago Friday we lost our first pet: a tiny guppy named Zacky whose “sister” Zoey is now swimming lonely in her tank. We’d had both fish several months and Rob and I can’t tell them apart (much less assess their gender), but Will at least likes to think that he knows which is which. So it was Will who told us that it was Zacky who died. He was a bit sad – Zacky was his favorite fish, he said. But he knows we’ll get a replacement soon.

I discovered Zacky’s death just minutes before we had friends arriving for a playdate, so I scooped him up along with some water from the tank and stored him in an empty pill bottle for a later burial. Then we had rainstorms Saturday and snowstorms Sunday, so Zacky stayed in limbo in the pill bottle until Monday, when Will and I buried him behind a tree in our backyard along with a bit of the water and a few blue rocks from his fish tank. We said a simple prayer of sorts and Will found a rock that would serve as his headstone. Today, a week later, Will finally painted a fish on the headstone in acrylic paint, wrote Zacky in permanent marker and laid it on the grave. He adorned the site with pinecones and camellias. We kind of miss that inch-long fish.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Something to sleep on

A couple times over the past few weeks, Will has gotten too little sleep at night and then had a major meltdown or two the following day. When he gets tired he tends to regress a year, and that three-year-old occasional tantrumer rears his beastly head again. Yesterday this story on NPR pointed to sleep disorders and snoring in children as a cause of behavior and learning problems. If you suspect your child may be getting too little sleep or less-than-peaceful sleep, you might want to check it out. There’s a related story on adult snoring for those of you whose significant others are the ones keeping every one awake in the house.

And moving from causes to coping strategies:
When Will launched into one of his overtired meltdowns last week, I suddenly decided to try art therapy. “Do you want to draw how you’re feeling – you could pick a color and try to draw how mad you are,” I suggested, doubting he would take me up on it. But Will agreed, stopped crying, chose a red crayon and got to work, and within 30 seconds he announced, “I’m not going to draw how mad I am; I’m just going to draw something else.” And he drew himself sitting on a treehouse with a rainbow hovering just above his head and a fire truck arriving at the scene. That picture doused the frustration completely.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

From the weekend weather archive

I’m just now getting these photos posted, but on Saturday, the day before we got the biggest snow that Columbus has seen in years, we got pounded by a big thunderstorm that was followed by a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the balmy 70s. When I told Will then that it was supposed to go from being so warm to snowing overnight, he said “that must be because of magic.”

On the way back from a trip to the library, Will spotted a giant lake in a baseball field at Lakebottom Park, where they were having such major drainage issues that one family decided to bring their giant inflatable raft and go boating in the flood of water. From our car, Will saw kids wading and asked if we could go have our own water adventure. So we rounded up Owen and took the stroller down, loaded with a full change of clothes, towels and rainboots.

In the beginning, Will was amusingly cautious about trying to keep his shorts dry.

But soon he was running and splashing with gusto. The boys had such great fun romping in the mini-lakes and 50-yard long sidewalk puddles that I decided it was definitely worth all the clothes changing and scrubbing, and I’m already looking forward to more warm, rainy days to come.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Southern snowmen

Yesterday, for the first time in the five years we’ve lived in Columbus we got snow that actually stuck to the ground. And it kept on falling. Unfortunately Owen was stuck inside with some raspy breathing after his cold took a turn for the worse. But he got to look out the window and watch as Rob and Will built a snow man and then had a snowball fight.

Snowman building in the warm wet Georgia snow actually proved much easier than snowman building in Colorado -- except that there was less of the stuff to work with and plenty of yard debris that attached itself to the snowballs. When Rob found a couple sticks to serve as arms for the snowman, Will remarked that they looked a lot more like deer antlers than arms. But they made arms of them anyway. So here are Will and Willy, the dirty, antler-armed snowman that Will named after himself. We warned Will that Willy may melt right into the grass by this afternoon, and he suggested that we behead the snowman and preserve just the head in our freezer. It's a lovely idea, but I just don't think it will fit.
If you've got a blog or other Web site with photos of your own Southern snowmen (I know there are plenty of them barely surviving out there today), please post a link.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Grieving with children

It’s been a month now since we lost Rob’s mom. I’ve been especially grateful during that time to read stories and remembrances of Ann written by many of her longtime friends – stories that we’ll print and preserve for Will and Owen to read one day. Today’s Ledger-Enquirer includes our family’s story of coping with the loss of a grandmother – and mother -- who meant so much to us.

Here are a few Web sites that offer guidance about how to help children cope with the death of a loved one. Hospice.net offers a comprehensive article on the subject as does this National Institutes of Health publication . This NDSU Web site focuses on how children understand and react to the death of a loved one at different ages and ends by recommending some age-appropriate book that deal with death.

If you have any personal stories to share or advice to offer about how your own children have worked through a family member’s death, please leave a comment.