Tag Archives: Nature

Three Important Life Lessons I Learned at Summer Camp

In the summer of 1984, I turned nine. Finally, I was old enough to attend resident camp in the Wisconsin wilderness. For months I had been looking forward to the freedom of time away – the joys of spending my days canoeing, swimming, making crafts, and hiking in the woods, far removed from my urban landscape and typical routine.

The reality of summer camp was even better than I could have imagined. That first year, I lived with seven other girls in a rustic A-frame cabin draped with heavy canvas walls that smelled of mildew and pine needles. My bed was a thin mattress placed on top of a wooden board, where I carefully spread out my cozy sleeping bag that felt like a hug from home. A flowing mosquito net covered my bunk to protect me from things that bite in the night. At the far end of the room, I had a small cubbyhole to store my belongings, and a single nail to hang my rain poncho, swim suit and towel. My God! They were the worst living conditions I had ever experienced – and I relished every moment.

At camp I quickly learned that “the rules” were a framework for establishing order. It was up to me to choose my attitude, participate fully in the community, make good decisions, and accept the consequences of my actions. My counselor served as a guide on my journey, but the success of the camp environment truly rested on the shoulders of each young woman. At a very young age, we were entrusted with building a positive and supportive atmosphere. And overwhelmingly, we rose to the occasion. In a parentless world, we learned how to navigate conflict, manage abundant free time, and thrive without gadgets and gizmos.

Summer camp taught me many important lessons, but the three that have had the most profound and lasting impact on my life are these:

1.) Quiet moments can breed boredom or creativity. Choose creativity. 

Summer camp was a great mixture of planned activities and “downtime”. During my very first day, those quiet hours felt excruciating. I wanted to be  meeting new friends and participating in one activity after the next…I wanted to be “doing”. Funny thing, by day two, after spending hours surrounded by 100 other girls, I ached for the quiet times. It was up to me to decide how I would spend those moments….would I be bored or could I entertain myself? On most days, I would find a shady area beneath a pine tree where I would write stories in my journal or pen letters home. The solitude birthed my love of writing. And when you find a passion, you are never bored again.

2.) From uncertainty comes courage.

Though I was excited to attend camp, there was some apprehension about the experience. Would I make friends? Would the other girls like me? Would I get homesick? When my parents dropped me at the camp gates with my duffel bag in tow, I had to push away that self-doubt and make the most of my new reality. Today, I carry the confidence of that nine-year-old girl who thrived in the unknown wilderness and made friends with children from all walks of life. Because of camp, I know that most of the time, fear is a mental state that can be overcome when I confront that which frightens me.

3.) The world is mine to explore.

In the summer of 1984, I was a young girl who longed for more independence and adventure. Every path was new and waiting to be traveled. The experience made me incredibly curious about the world around me.

Fifteen summers later, I was on a plane headed to a new continent to live and study abroad. There I was, traveling to a foreign land where I didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, and had no idea what was waiting for me. Just a girl and her duffel bag. However, that sense of being alone in a strange place was nothing new. Camp had not only prepared me to make the most of the unknown – it had motivated me to seek it out.

This time of year, I am always excited to see children heading off to camp with their pillows and sleeping bags tucked under their arms. In this author’s opinion, there has never been a more important time for summer camp. The experience helps kids step away from the constant noise and stimuli that surrounds them so they may develop self-sufficiency, confidence, and creativity – tools that will serve them well throughout life.

 

 

Simple Vacations Are Rewarding, Too (no matter what your Instagram feed tries to tell you)

We’ve just returned from our spring break in New England. Over the past week we wound our way from Kennebunkport to Portland, Maine and then on to Boston, Massachusetts. Our vacation was laid back and simple, filled with fresh sea food, trips to the ocean, and long walks. This journey was also educational as my daughter learned about the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution, and the founding principles of the United States. #parentingwin

Over spring break, I saw many of my friends posting photos of their adventures – from Mexico, to Florida, to Italy – families were taking this time to get away, explore, and unwind. Travel is a wonderful way to bond as a family, gain an appreciation for the world around us, and learn about different cultures. In an increasingly global society, travel prepares us to work with colleagues, customers, and collaborators from other lands. And as Saint Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

However, to reap the rewards of travel, you don’t have to take an elaborate or expensive vacation. Jet setting families look pretty on Instagram, but most of us don’t have the funds or the time to set off on an around-the-world tour. In fact, a “staycation” or short trip can give you the same benefits. So friends, don’t fret about keeping up with the Joneses. Create a special experience that works for your family. This is something I know a thing or two about!

When I was a kid, my family couldn’t afford many vacations…we usually had one getaway during the summer. My parents would cram sleeping bags, pillows, drawing pads and a box full or markers, food, and games into our 1980s station wagon and we’d drive three hours to a placid lake in northern Wisconsin. There we would pitch a tent, cook our meals over an open flame, and pee in the woods. It was simple and perfect. At night we’d lay near the empty country road that ran along our property and watch stars shoot across the pitch black sky. We’d tell ghost stories with flashlights under our chins while munching on Jiffy Pop.

At the lake, my brother and I lived in our swim suits and always smelled like a mixture of Coppertone, Off!, and algae. There were no cell phones, no flush toilets, no showers, and we were in heaven. Those rustic, “roughing it moments” – as my dad referred to them – are some of the best memories of my childhood.

Tent camping taught us to appreciate nature. My dad would take us on hikes through pine forests in search of deer tracks. We would catch grasshoppers and learn how to tell time by watching the sun. On the shores of the lake, we would find snails and my mom would tell us about the escargot served in France. My brother and I would wrinkle our noses.

Those long summer days were filled with teaching moments. It was where I learned about the glaciers that once covered Wisconsin and the importance of freshwater lakes. We learned about the logging industry in our state and toured paper mills. And usually one night during our stay, we would venture into a nearby town to partake in a Wisconsin fish fry. If we ever complained about being bored, my parents would hand us the drawing pads and markers and tell us to make art.

Next time you’re planning a trip, think about something simple and close to home. Head to a museum, a State Park, or go camping in the woods. Encourage your children to put down the electronic devises and spend time with their imaginations. Help them expand their understanding of the world through fun, hands-on learning.

Happy traveling! -Mara

Beginning Each Day In The Garden

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Entertaining Family in the Garden

Wisconsin is my home, and one of my favorite things about this beautiful place is the vibrancy of each season. I love them all, but today summer has my heart. As the weather warms, my living space expands into our gardens and it becomes easier to connect with nature on a daily basis.

I like to begin each day by enjoying a cup of coffee on our back patio. As I take my first sips of the morning, I am serenaded by a couple of cardinals that have nested in a nearby tree. Drops of dew have gathered making leaves glisten and flowers sparkle. As the sun rises, the world has an ethereal hush and my mind is quiet.

Humming birds, monarchs, and honey bees are already hard at work. I watch them tend to the garden and try not to disturb their habitat.

I am lucky to watch over this place. Our little piece of the world.

Entertaining Family in the Garden 2

 

Entertaining Kids: Using Nature As A Classroom

“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

– Richard Louv

My little one completed first grade today! Hallelujah. I can say with confidence that summer has finally arrived in the Midwest. As I type this post, I am sitting at my kitchen island with the windows wide open. The scent of sweet peonies and freshly cut grass are drifting through my home on a cool breeze. Outside I can hear my daughter giggling as she digs for worms in the garden. School may be over, but the learning of childhood continues.

I remember loving summer vacation as a youngster. It was a magical time to explore nature, as my friends and I would play and adventure from dawn until dinner time. Neighborhood trees transformed into spaceships, front yards morphed into baseball fields, and my father’s garden became a tasting lab filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. The days were long, and friendships blossomed and grew under bright blue skies that stretched on forever.

Though I can idealize my formative years, even back in the 1980s kids were susceptible to the influence of electronic devices. From Atari to Nintendo to cable TV, I remember friends staying inside glued to a television screen all summer long. My parents set limits on those things, and I was better off because of it.

We have to set limits, too.

As parents, it is our job to give kids the space to roam and explore the natural world. In the book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes about the important role nature plays in nurturing the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people. Playing outside helps kid builds independence, confidence, creativity, and resiliency. It also teaches children about the interconnectedness of Earth’s living beings and the need to care for the world around us. And for those parents fixated on academic achievement, nature absolutely reinforces important math, science, and reasoning skills taught during the school year.

Here are some fun ways to encourage your child to get outdoors this summer:

1.) Get her involved in gardening and yard work. After all, your backyard is an ecosystem filled with birds, bugs, flowers, and trees…it’s all there waiting to be discovered. Have your child keep a “field journal” to document what she sees and learns.

2.) Allow your child to create a “kids space” outside. It could be a quiet corner under a shady tree where he lays down a blanket to read, an existing tree house that he fixes up with artwork and age-appropriate games and toys, or a dedicated space on the patio that he uses to paint and draw.

Space for Kids

3.) As a family, explore parks, botanical gardens, beaches, and trails to discover new plants and animals. Spend time teaching your child about nature. As grownups, we benefit from these experiences too!

4.) Let your child dress up in costumes as she heads out to explore. My little one loves to put on a fancy dress or cape before adventuring into the wild. Imaginative play is creative and fun! It turns the world into a story with evolving characters, settings, and possibilities.

Superhero by Masha

5.) As much as you might want to tell him to “be careful” every five minutes, children need space to try new things and test boundaries. Scrapes and scratches are to be expected. I always tell my kiddo, if you have a scraped knee, then I know you had fun.

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Wading in the Water

Enjoy this amazing time of year – it goes by so quickly!

Does your family want more adventure? On your next stop to the library or bookstore, consider exploring one of these titles with your youngster: Lady Bug Girl and Bingo by David Soman and Jacky Davis; Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel; Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton; or, for older readers, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

If you’re looking for more inspiration from Entertaining Family, check out Family “Field Trips”.

Friends

Strategies for Introducing Children to Healthy Foods

    

Today we’re revisiting a post from 2015 – just in time for summer!

Fruits and veggies and legumes, oh my!

Getting kids to choose healthy foods can be difficult, but Entertaining Family has got some great pointers and tricks to help you get started.

Let me begin by sharing a story. Years ago, I was saddened to watch a little boy, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, walking home from a neighborhood store drinking a 20 oz. caffeinated soda and eating a family-sized bag of cheese flavored chips. With all of the choices we have in our society, this was what he was using for nourishment and comfort.

It’s no surprise. Everyday, children and adults alike are bombarded with marketing campaigns, characters, and taglines pushing food and beverages that have little nutritional content and are loaded with sodium and sugar, which our taste buds get conditioned to crave. It can make it easy to feel disconnected from the origins of our food – and to miss the fact that what we eat has a direct impact on our quality of our life. Watching that little boy influenced the way I parent and the lessons I try to impart on my child.

To begin setting healthy examples, my husband and I involved our daughter in grocery shopping early on. From the moment I was able to carry her in the Baby Bjorn, we were taking her to food stores, farmers’ markets, and community gardens. Because of this, as a baby some of her first words were “garbanzos” and “cabbage”, and by the age of two she could name almost every item in the produce section of a grocery store. And fun fact: her first dolls were named after the cashiers at our local health food store!

Seasonally we bring home new offerings and incorporate them into our cooking – fresh fava beans, ramps and fiddlehead ferns are some of our favorites. We also take the opportunity to “farm” as a family and grow fruits and vegetables in our small urban garden. Our daughter loves eating tomatoes off of the vine, picking lettuces, chewing chives like blades of grass, and using fruit from our cherry tree to bake pies for dinner parties.

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Getting children interested in wholesome, nutritious food is something that parents can nurture. Like anything it becomes easier the more exposure children receive. For example, the first few times our little one tried arugula she wasn’t a fan, but we kept offering it to her and now she enjoys its peppery taste and eats the leaves right out of our raised beds.

At her school, our daughter and her classmates tend to garden plots filled with different herbs and vegetables and they are encouraged to sample what they grow. When we help young children develop an interest in real food they grow into teenagers and adults who make better choices (at times when they have the autonomy to make their own decisions and mom and dad are no longer watching over their shoulders). It teaches that food in its whole form comes from living entities – plants, trees, and animals – not plastic, Styrofoam, or aluminum containers.

I’m not naive. My daughter won’t always make healthy selections, but she won’t always make unhealthy ones either. At the grocery store, after a long day at school, she is more apt to ask for an orange than a candy bar. At home she is more likely to reach for radishes and hummus than potato chips. Her pallet has been trained to appreciate juicy, flavorful fruits and vegetables, and to crave what is in season.

Here are some of the simple strategies and tricks that we use in our house to keep her interested in healthy foods:

  • Our daughter gets to help plan our menus for the week and design what we serve at dinner parties. We try to eat “around the globe” and let her try foods from different cultures.
  • We go through my Pinterest Boards to find new recipes and flavors, and the more colors we can add to a meal, the better!
  • She helps us chop vegetables and mix ingredients which makes her feel very proud. It also gives her a sense of ownership for the meal. If she has a hand in creating it, she is more likely to try it.
  • When we’re on a shopping trip, she is encouraged to find unusual or “new” fruits and vegetables to sample. This keeps her taste buds open to new experiences. It keeps us on our toes too! Sometimes we have to Google the food she selects to figure out how to prepare it. Some flavors she likes and some she doesn’t, but she is eager to try them. Lychee and Rambutan are new favorites.
  • We stock “special treats” like clementines, kiwis, “pickles” (cucumbers in rice vinegar) and nori/seaweed chips which makes snacking fun and nutritious.
  • We refer to sparkling water as “soda”. She is in first grade, and to this point she has never had a traditional sugar or diet soda in our home.
  • For weekly desserts we try to choose sorbet with fresh berries or fruit that is in season. On special occasions we will bake vegan cookies or cake from scratch.
  • If she is really curious about something that we consider a “junk food” we will usually let her try a taste. We don’t want things to be forbidden.

To keep our family inspired, I’ve create this Pinterest Board on healthy meal ideas that I invite you to visit. And please share your tips for keeping your family healthy!

Photos of the Snow – A Walk Under the Blue Skies of Winter

As many of you know, everyday, no matter the season, I love to get out for a walk in nature – even if it is ten degrees below zero. And that isn’t an exaggeration.

Recently we’ve been experiencing a stretch of frigid temperatures in the Midwest. It has led some to wonder how I can brave Wisconsin winters. Heck…sometimes I wonder how I do it! But the truth is that while it’s certainly cold, it is also stunning. The stark white ground, the bare branches of the trees, and the vastness of the sky create a beautiful backdrop for living.

For me, winter has always been a season of rest and quiet contemplation. A time to slow down, but never a time to stop. Today I am sharing photos from a recent trek along the shores of Lake Michigan and the thoughts I carried on my journey.

There is beauty to be found every day.

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The world is much bigger than I am.

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I can walk a trail a thousand times and still have a new experience.

Nature allows me to view the world with fresh eyes.

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The Earth is always changing, as am I.

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Friends walk with me, no matter the conditions.

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It is important to be quiet and present. Be the lion.

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In time, I will always get where I need to be.

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As a kid, my family cultivated my love of nature. We were always going for hikes, sleeping under the stars, or spending a day at the beach. When I was old enough, I would happily go to summer camp each year – an experience that developed my independent spirit and desire to explore the world around me. One of the first songs I learned at camp was called “On the Loose”, I’m sure some of you know it. My favorite verse is this: There’s a trail that I’ll be hiking just to see where it might go, many places yet to visit and many people yet to know. And in following my dreams, I will live and I will grow, on a trail that’s waiting out there on the loose.

That sense of wonder and curiosity is with me always.

Everyone of us is balancing multiple roles and responsibilities. Sometimes it is important to step away from the noise and connect with the planet.

Take time to savor the simple pleasures in life.

 

Creating a Meditative Outdoor Space That Fit Our Lifestyle

Our climbing vines

If you’ve read Entertaining Family before, then you know that I am a woman who can’t sit still…I love being with people, learning new things, and exploring the world around me. My inquisitive mind would constantly be in motion if I didn’t intentionally set aside time to relax, meditate, and decompress. One of my favorite places to unwind is my tiny urban garden.

But that wasn’t always so.

When my husband and I moved into our 1896 Victorian home, almost a decade ago, the yard was overgrown with invasive weeds and trees, and the ground was uneven at best…filled with dangerous, gaping holes is more like it. There was no place to entertain, and no where to sit and relax. In fact, being in our yard was anything but relaxing…overwhelming and anxiety producing was more like it.

We knew we needed to change things up, but we couldn’t do it ourselves. We hired an innovate design company, Greener Roofs and Gardens in Milwaukee, WI, to help us develop a plan that would fit our busy lives.

They knew it was important to us that no chemicals be used to tame the yard. Many landscapers, seeing the mess before them, would have said we’re going to have to pass on this job, but not John LaPointe and his crew. They emphasize green practices and were up for the task! If you look at their portfolio and testimonials, you will see that this was nothing new for them.

In creating our “new” outdoor space, we drew inspiration from the gorgeous neighborhood in which we live. Not far from Lake Michigan, our east side community is nestled between Milwaukee’s Lake Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th Century (the landscape architect who also designed Central Park in New York City), and Riverside Park, an urban green space along the Milwaukee River which leads to miles of hiking trails and an arboretum. The two parks are connected by Newberry Boulevard, a stately road lined with a canopy of towering maple trees.

Greener Roofs and Gardens completely re-landscaped our home to create a serene, meditative outdoor space that fit our family, reflected our love of wild, natural spaces and mirrored the outdoor environments found throughout our neighborhood.

We developed a low-fuss plan (a.k.a., there is absolutely no mowing required, ANYWHERE). We added a circular seating area for entertaining, a play space for our young daughter which includes a sandbox and a “tree house” with a garden roof, and raised beds to grow and harvest vegetables during the summer and fall (the inspiration for the vegan recipes I post on Entertaining Family). We used greenery (vines, cranberry bushes, and sculptural trees) to screen out the city buildings around us and create a yard that envelopes us in nature.

The entertaining space

In the front yard, our landscapers created a rain garden filled with native plants and flowers and decorative elements like flagstone walking paths and a free-form stone wall. In Milwaukee, during rain storms, we have issues with runoff taxing our deep tunnel system and this results in raw sewage being dumped into Lake Michigan – our city’s most important natural resource. Our small rain garden is one way to help reduce that runoff. Rather than having rain water flow from our yard into the sewage system, it pools in our garden where our big, hearty plants drink it up. This space is also a haven for honey bees, monarchs and different types of birds.

Today I couldn’t be happier, more relaxed or more content sitting in our outdoor space. First of all, it is absolutely lush and picturesque. Second, it supports he way we live! I’m simply too busy to spend all of my time caring for a lawn – and it’s not good for the environment – so this low-maintenance space is perfect for me and my family. Moreover, there are ample spaces for us to garden together, play together, and entertain friends and family. This type of yard wouldn’t work for everyone…and it doesn’t have to – it was made just for us and we love it!