Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Draw with Sidewalk Chalk – Fun Stuff to Do Anywhere

Draw with Sidewalk Chalk – Fun Stuff to Do Anywhere

Those big pieces of sidewalk chalk can be found very inexpensively.  Whenever we are with a group of kids it's always a surprisingly big hit. Toddlers love making marks on the ground, and even the teens in the group enjoy making more elaborate or artistic drawings. I love activities like this that appeal so well to all age groups, and are just so simple, and pure fun.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Golden Skate in San Ramon

Golden Skate in San Ramon

It made me kinda happy to see so many kids enjoying roller skating at our recent visit to Golden Skate in San Ramon. Just like when I was a kid, you could tell that some had spent quite a bit of time on skates, and others appeared to be trying it out for the first time, clinging to the rail for dear life as they scooted around the ring. I was impressed how clean and new the inside of Golden Skate appeared. We haven’t been roller skating in a very long time, but the rinks we visited were older, word and dingy.

The Golden Skate was colorful, and bright. Carpeting lets less confident skaters get their bearings while putting on their skates and when they are off the rink. The exception, reasonably, is the restrooms which have traditional linoleum flooring. This became a bit of a problem for my youngest, which was unwilling to get on the rink with her skates at all, preferring to scoot around on the long stretch of carpet. In retrospect, I would have had her take the rollerskates off before going to the restroom, but it felt like a hassle at the time.

While we were there, they played a group skating game, had shout-outs to the birthday kids, played a few songs with the lights out and colored spotlights and the disco ball going, and even did one traditional playing of ‘YMCA”, even though the rest of the time they stuck mainly to modern pop music.

They also have a nice large snack area with lots of seats for anyone not skating, or for skaters to rest and snack. A dozen or so video games and ticket games are also available with the usual little plastic prizes for tickets.

The party rooms are small. For the party we attended, parents couldn’t fit into the room at all, although one or two squeezed themselves in and stood by the wall. There was another slightly larger party room next door to ours, but I noticed that parents in that group didn’t really try to fit themselves in there either.  The two young men who were in charge of facilitating the birthday party we attended were wonderful. They had constant smiles, and I saw them constantly offering assistance or helping or tidying up. All the employees I interacted with seemed to really enjoy their job, and that was so refreshing and pleasant. 

The cost seems to depend on the session you want to attend, with most sessions lasting around 2 hours. They are only open for roller skating on Fridays thru Sundays, with an adult skating session on Wendsday nights. You can visit their website to see their calender of upcoming skating sessions and prices. 

My kids has so much fun, they have been asking to go roller skating again ever since. So I hope to have other roller skating rinks to review for you soon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pumpkin Patch Review: Clayton Valley Pumpkin Farm

Clayton Valley Pumpkin Farm

We like the Clayton Valley Pumpkin Patch partly because it is not too far from us. Even so, it is a very nice pumpkin patch, with lots for kids to do.

The Clayton pumpkin patch seems to have expanded somewhat this year since our last visit a few years ago. They have two separate play areas for kids now instead of the one they had at our last visit. With a separate charge for each one, although they do offer a combination charge that saves you all of $1 if you do both. We decided against going down to the play areas this year due to the cost. It felt overpriced the last time we were there to me, although the kids loved it.

There is also a very small train ride for a smaller cost that makes a loop around the upper patch area. We did take a train ride this year, and it was what one would expect for that type of ride, although there were some cute decorations set up along the route to look at and even a tunnel to go through.

Even without spending much money, there was enough to keep our kids busy and happy for the hour or so we spent at the Clayton Pumpkin Patch. There was a small hay tunnel that they went in and out of over and over and over again with enthusiasm. I understand there is a much larger version of this in the pay-to-play area.

There are also a few farm animals to look at. Two pigs and two goats that we could see the day we visited. While the kids can't go in with the animals or touch them, they have a neat contraption for the kids to feed them with. It is sort of a stationary bike connected to a pulley. They can buy animal feed for a quarter, put the food into a can, and then peddle the can up where it will tip over the fence into a bowl before coming back down. My children were a little disappointed that the animals were not interested in the food pellets they peddled into their bowl, but not disappointed enough to keep them from asking to do it again.

Then there are the pumpkins. They are divided into piles by size. They even have piles of the more exotic green and white pumpkins some folks like. There are wheelbarrows in the pumpkin area to load up your pumpkins to take to the payment counter. The wheelbarrows are small and easy enough to handle that I never touched it, my 5 and 9 year old kids could maneuver them on their own. My husband learned that they don't actually grow the pumpkins there at the Clayton Farm; they are brought in from other places in California.

They also have a shop with other nice fall items, such as gourds, Indian corn, and Halloween decorations. The prices were not the lowest I've seen, but they are reasonable. The workers were all very helpful, and did their best to keep anyone from waiting for help.

We visited in mid-morning, and never had to wait in a line except for the train, and then not more than maybe 5 minutes. However, by the time we left, parking was very full, and I noticed that the train line was easily 5 times as long as when we had taken our ride. So aim for an earlier visit if you want to avoid the more crowded parts of the day.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Storytime at Your Library - Fun Stuff to do Anywhere

Storytime at Your Library – Fun Stuff to Do Anywhere

Most libraries offer a storytime for young children. All the libraries that we have lived near offered three different storytimes, one for babies, one for toddlers, and one for preschoolers. We have also visited other libraries that only offer one storytime for all ages together. Several times, I have seen evening storytime hours for the whole family, although we haven’t had a chance to attend one of these yet.

Regularly attending library storytimes has benefited both my children and me in a number of ways. When I was a new mom, with no friends who had babies, library storytime is how we made connections with other families with new children close in age. Some of the friends we made there, have remained lifelong friends to this day, over 9 years later.

It also established what I consider a very healthy habit of regular visits to the library. The kids love to pick out a book or two (or six) to bring home. I got into the habit of checking out parenting books that I had heard about without spending a lot of money. One or two were useful enough to me to buy my own copy of, but without the library, I would have given up before I found them.

While libraries don’t usually offer storytimes for school aged children or teens, they do have a lot of other programs for the older kids too. Some have book clubs, movie afternoons, read-to-dog programs, or other regular activities for older kids and teens. And, the programs are all free. Check out what your local library has to offer. Most libraries post their offerings online at their websites.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek

The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek

Our only visit to the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek was recently during their Fall Festival. While I enjoyed wandering around the beautiful garden, and the kids had a great time with all the activities and crafts that were set up for the festival, it was hard for me to envision what a visit might be like on a regular, non-festival day.

A few of the plants we saw sparked the kid's interest – especially the large variety (and large in size!) cactus we looked at. Otherwise, I'm not sure how much interest they would have had in our visit without the festival going on.

However, the Ruth Bancroft Garden website has a calendar of events that includes some events, like an upcoming fruit tasting, that kids might also enjoy. The garden also offers tours, and special children's tours that could well make things much more interesting for kids to visit. We have had friends attend these children's tours, and they reported that everyone had an enjoyable and educational time.

I did not see any labeling plaques on any of the plants, so a tour could be really helpful to get a full appreciation of what you are seeing. There were several handouts that we didn't take that may have also provided more information about the plants.

We had not visited The Ruth Bancroft Garden before because, while children get in for free, admission for adults is $10. However, I just learned that on the first Tuesday of each month, the garden offers free admission to everyone. So that would be a great time to check them out. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Visit a Pet Store - Fun Stuff to Do Anywhere

Visit a pet store

I’m always surprised how much my kids love visiting a local pet store. For me, it’s an errand that needs to get checked off my to-do list. But for them, it’s almost like a free mini visit to the zoo. So now, every once in awhile when we are nearby, we’ll go to a pet shop just so they can look at the fish and the mice, and the adoptable kittens.

It helps to have some ground rules established ahead of time. For us, this is namely that we will NOT be getting a pet to bring home. Any requests to get a new pet means the pet store visit is over and we will leave. I’ve found this is a good place to enforce that kind of rule. Leaving the pet store is no big deal to me – we didn’t pay to get in or drive a long way to get there.

Also, if you can get a small group of kids together, many pet stores will set up a tour for you. We’ve been on one such tour at a PetCo, and it was more fun than I expected. The pet shop employees brought several animals out of their enclosures to let the kids hold and pet them, and we learned a little about what type of care they each needed.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tilden Park in Berkley

Tilden Park in Berkley

Tilden Park in Berkley is a very big place. The first time we visited for a hike, we could have easily come and gone without ever knowing what other fun places there were for kids and families to visit there.

The hiking alone in Tilden Park is wonderful. It is a wooded area, and tends to be fairly cool compared to many other places around the bay. Our preschooler didn’t have any trouble with the trail we hiked, but since we have only hiked twice here, I am sure there are places with much more challenging trails. However, if you want to hike with little ones, you won’t have trouble finding a good place to do so in Tilden.

In addition to the lovely hiking trails, Tilden Park also has a small train that can take you for a short ride through the woods, and even smaller trains that can take kids for a ride around the miniature train yard. The train runs on weekends only and parking is fairly limited in the lot right by the train. The trains open at 11:00 am, and it is best to get there a little before they start if you want to park close by.

There is also an Environmental Education Center. Inside there is a room-sized model of the Bay Area, and a few other displays to look at. Naturalists also occasionally bring out some of their educational wildlife ambassadors and give short talks about them. We were fortunate enough to get to see a small snake and a tarantula on our visit.

Right next to the Education Center, is what they call the “Little Farm”. It’s basically what it sounds like, a small area with farm animals. There are cows, sheep, goats, chickens and ducks, and rabbits. It isn’t a petting zoo, but if the animals happen to come up to the fence, they can be touched.  When we last visited, guests were allowed to feed lettuce or celery that they had brought from home to the animals. My kids were a little sad that we had nothing to feed because we didn’t know ahead of time. I know from experience that the feeding rules can change at these places depending on the health needs of the animals, so if you bring something, please make sure to check the posted signs to make sure what you brought is safe to feed before you give anything to the animals.

While we have never visited it ourselves, there is also a merry-go-round, a botanic garden, and something called the Brazil building at Tilden. We hope to go explore these other area soon. Most of these attractions are not grouped together, but spread around the park, so we haven’t been able to see more than one or two areas at each visit. To see a map to plan your trip, and check hours of operation and costs, you can visit the Tilden Park page of the East County Parks website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Halloween Crafts

Halloween Crafts

Kids love Halloween. Most grown ups too for that matter. While decorating for Halloween can be fun, it is even more fun when you make the decorations yourself.

Pumpkin painting:
Supplies needed:
Paints (we used washable tempera paint but you could use fancier acrylic paints if your kids can be trusted with them.)
Paint brushes

My kids are still to little to do any pumpkin carving on their own, so they usually draw a design, and we do the carving for them. Painting is another way they can decorate a pumpkin on their own. These little pumpkins are usually fairly cheep, and the kids love painting them.

Lolly Pop Ghosts:
Supplies needed:
Lolly pops
Ribbon or twist ties
Black marker

This is a old classic too, but still fun. Put a tissue over the lollypop, tie with a ribbon or twisty tie. Draw eyes on. Ta-Da!

Let The Kids Invent Their Own Halloween Craft

Supplies needed:
Possibly, but not limited to: pom poms, pipe cleaners, glue, googly eyes, markers, construction paper, sequins, fabric scraps, feathers. . . etc.

Today, the kids dragged out all our craft supplies on their own and started making Halloween decorations. They made ghosts out of construction paper and craft foam. Spiders our of pipe cleaners, and other spooky critters out of pompoms. Sometimes, giving them a pile of stuff, and letting them create all on their own can be the most fun (and least work for Mom!)

I'm going to try out this neat pumpkin art project with my kids this week:
There are many other absolutely wonderful art lessons and projects on the Deep Space Sparkle site. I suggest subscribing to the RSS feed there if your kids enjoy art. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Make Cookies - Fun Stuff to do Anywhere

Make Cookies

Another good activity for those days that are too icky to spend outside. Plus we’re headed in to that time of year when it’s nice to have cookies around to share and give out.

While it can still be kind of fun to make cookies if you buy the premade dough, I think making them from scratch is the way to go. It takes longer, which is good if part of your goal is spending time together with your kids doing fun stuff. It’s easier to accommodate special diets: you can lower the sugar content using Splenda or Stevia, you can use egg replacers and vegetable shortenings for vegetarians, and so forth. Plus, the kids get to measure and see real ingredients – so much learning can happen over a batch of cookies.

You can decide on a simple cookie or a more fancy variety based on your families tastes and the age of your kids. There are great recipes all over the internet, but often we just use whatever recipe comes on the back of the package of chocolate chips. One of our favorites is to use a regular chocolate chip cookie recipe, but use M & Ms instead of the chips, or mix chips – like half chocolate chips, and half butterscotch or peanut butter chips. You can allow the kids to get creative with the chips, as long as you stick to the recipe for the dough, and they will feel very creative and the cookies will still turn out great.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Western Railway Museum Pumpkin Festival in Suisun

It has been several years since our most recent visit to the Western Railway Museum in Suisun, but it is a trip we remember very fondly each time, and it is on our list of pumpkin patches that we are strongly considering returning to this year.

The Western Railway Museum is open on weekends year round (except for major holidays), and some weekdays over the summer. They have restored electric trains and streetcars on display.

During their Pumpkin Festival, which runs weekends from Oct 13th thru the 28th this year, they also add a hay bale fort, tractor ride, music, and games. They also have pumpkins for sale of course, but I wouldn't consider the pumpkin selection to ever have been the strongest point for the Railway Museum's Pumpkin Festival on the times we've been. Even so, they have pumpkins available, and when we go this counts as our pumpkin patch visit for the year.

The hay fort and tractor rides are nothing amazing, but they are nice, and the kids love them. They always ask for a few more minutes in the fort, or another ride on the wagon, so these are winning features in their eyes.

For the grown-ups in our group, the highlight instead is usually the ride over to the play / pumpkin patch area on board one of the historic rail cars. I don't recall how long the ride takes. It is more than a few minutes, but not long enough to drag on. Maybe 15 to 20 minutes? You ride the train to the area with the fort and pumpkins, stay as long as you like there, and catch another train back to the museum when you are ready. Trains run every 30 minutes starting at 10:00 am.

The actual museum part, including the restored streetcars and rail trains was probably more of a hit with the adults in our group, again, but the kids did look around and seemed to really enjoy seeing the trains. They were just "done" sooner with that part of the visit.

The last time we visited, one of our favorite bands, The Hip Waders, was playing, so we spent extra time watching them. They often let the kids perform along with them onstage with toy instruments. I checked, and they will be at the Western Railway's Pumpkin Festival again this year on Oct 21st, 27th, and 28th starting at 11:00 am.

The admission cost for the Pumpkin Festival is slightly more than the regular Railway Resume admission cost. It is $12 for adults, and $9 for kids, $11 for seniors. You could easily, however, take a picnic lunch with you and make a whole day of it in the pumpkin patch / play area.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

City Park in Antioch

City Park in Antioch

The City Park in Antioch is at the corners of 10th St and A St, and has a number of nice features. The play structures are a lot of fun: they’re colorful, and well designed. There is a separate are designed for smaller kids. Picnic tables are available, but there aren’t really any clustered in a group if you plan to be there with a lot of people. The view of the playground from the tables isn’t great, but there are benches closer if parents want a place to sit and keep an eye on their kiddos.

While the playground itself is out in the sun, there are large trees boarding the playground that provide nice shady areas, and I often see kids go play around the trees if they need a break from the heat. Also, in the corner near the trees is a beautiful rose garden created by a gardening club that specializes in roses. Each type of rose is labeled, which helps folks like me who would never know they were different types without the little signs.

There are restrooms available, which is always a plus, but they are across the parking lot from the play area, so small kids still need a grown up to walk with them for safety.  Also, across 10th St is a snow cone hut that is who knows how old – but my husband remember getting comes there when he was a kid, so it has been around awhile.

We don’t visit often on weekends, but when we have visited, we have never had any problem find a parking spot.

While the beautiful playground at City Park in Antioch isn't all that new anymore, I remember a time when that park was not a place most people would take their children. I love that the city cleaned up and turned the park into a fun place for families once again.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Make Thumb Print Critters - Fun Stuff to do Anywhere

Make Thumb Print Critters

I think we first did this thumb print craft in a preschool group, but we’ve done it a few times since then and it’s always a lot of fun.

The main idea is to make a thumb print, then with a marker or pen, add details to turn it into a critter. I bought a special stamp pad with washable ink to use for making thumb print critter art, but you don’t have to do that. Washable markers can be used too. Just cover the pad of the thumb with the ink and then press that spot onto the paper, and wash the ink off the thumb. Or you can keep some wet wipes at the table with you to avoid the kids having to get up and wash over and over again.

One thumb print makes a good spider or owl. Two together can give you a body and a head for a critter. A whole line of them could be a caterpillar. Just let the imagination go. It didn’t take long for my kids to start  using whole hand prints in their thumb print art creations.

You don’t have to have great art skills to make cute pictures. They kids like that it feels kinda messy (but if you make sure to stick to washable inks, it isn’t really messy). It’s a fun way to spend some inside time when the kids need help for ideas of what to do.