I've always believed in bringing magic into children's lives. I had a very magical childhood, filled with stories of fairies, leprechauns, banshees, gnomes and more. My mother's family were Irish, so I had all of that Celtic magic. My dad's family were much more practical but even my grandmother, who was very straitlaced and rigid, told me stories of fairies. She lived in a big Victorian house in Niantic, Connecticut. I lost a tooth during one visit and put it under my pillow at her house that night. In the morning, I found a quarter, the usual booty for a tooth at that time. As we walked downstairs, she told me that the toothfairies turned all the baby teeth into pearls that they strung and wore around their necks when they went out, and if I looked under the carpeting at the bottom of the stairs, I might find some. Sure enough, there were a couple of tiny pearls under that rug. Every visit, I would look for pearls. Sometimes there were none, but every once in a while, I would find one or two. I'm sure they were from a broken necklace in the past, but to me they were left by the fairies.
When my children were young, I told them the fairy stories I had learned and created some of my own to explain natural phenomena. When we would pass by a lake or pond with wisps of fog still lingering on the surface, I would say that they were the fairies dancing on the water. One particularly foggy morning, one of my sons declared that the fairies must be having a huge party that day because we couldn't even see the surface.
Ever since I moved into this home, I've had a fairy garden every year. It gets shaded by the leaves of the apple trees in the summer, so there are snowdrops that bloom in the early spring, columbine that bloom a little later and shade-loving annuals like begonias and impatiens in the summer. There is also a trillium plant and a jack-in-the-pulpit that have decided they like to be near the fairies. It's fun for the younger set to look for the fairies and see the changes each year. Sometimes I hide a gnome or two that they have to look for, which is a fun way of teaching them to be aware of their environment. Occasionally the fairies move around too, reinforcing that awareness. This year, they have glow-in-the-dark paths to their little houses so they can find their way late at night, and the woodland gnomes have taken up residence near our front door.
I know that a lot of people have trouble with the Santa Claus myth, but for me it was more magic. Every Christmas Eve, my parents would wake us at midnight to the sound of sleigh bells and, "Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas." We would rush to the window and look for Santa's sleigh in the sky. There were a couple of times when I swore, I could see it flying away in the distance. I don't celebrate Christmas as an adult, but still maintain the magic of the season with the Snow Fairies during the Winter Solstice because I think magic is an important component of a child's life. It's a good way to encourage and nurture imagination. This doesn't have to be done with holidays but can just be a part of everyday life. You can build fairy houses in the yard, leaving edible things that the animals (or fairies) will take. You can point out the fairies dancing on the water or look for woodland spirits in the bark of the trees.
I will be taking a break from this blog until June. I am going to China to teach music in two bilingual preschools, including teaching the teachers and parents about music development in young children. I need these next couple of weeks to prepare for my trip, and then I will be out of the country. For those of you who would like to follow my travels, I will be posting an online travelogue on the other blog page. I leave on May 10th. Meanwhile, please send me topics you would like me to address here for when I return.
I’m still thinking about spring and spring related things to do with kids. Now is a great time to start seeds. Marigolds and radishes are easy and fun with seeds big enough for even tiny fingers. When my kids were young, I would have them plant in eggshells. Then when it’s time to transplant outside, you can just crumble the bottom lightly, and the shells also help the soil. I always encouraged my kids to have their own little gardens. I never directed them much but gave help when asked. My daughter wasn’t much into it, but the boys loved it. I also taught them to weed at an early age. I would show them specific plants that weren’t welcome in the gardens and have them root them out. Kids love to have jobs to do. It makes them feel important and included. One time my husband at the time sent a passel of kids outside to pick dandelions. He offered a penny for each one. The truth is that he didn’t want to go out and mow the lawn and, although the grass was not terribly tall, the neighbors were starting to be upset about the dandelions.
With very young children, I like to pick a couple of flowers that I consistently point out so that they learn their names and can identify them on their own. Repetition is the best teacher for children. I pick a couple for each growing phase. Right now, it’s daffodils. They are everywhere and so brightly colored. They’re easy to spot. In a little while, the violets and the dandelions will come out, and I will teach them that they are edible. My rule with edible plants is, even if you’re sure you know what they are, you have to check with a grown-up first. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
There is so many plants just waking up right now. Go outside with your children and look for buds on the trees. Explain to them what will be happening and keep checking on them for those changes. Look up in the trees now, before the leaves come out, and see if you can find bird and squirrel nests. Smell the aromas around you, the damp dirt, the blossoms as they bloom, the freshness in the breeze. Listen to all the wonderful sounds, the birds, the frogs, the returning geese and the wind in the trees. Go for walks as often as you can, looking for changes. Those changes happen quickly this time of year.
The photo above is of one of my grandsons fishing in our vernal pool. It was a toy fishing pole with no hook or bait. I’m sure there were no fish in the pool anyway. He had a grand time, throwing the line into the water over and over again, not caring whether or not he caught anything. He was just enjoying the moment. That’s what spring is about for me, enjoying these brief moments to their fullest.
I have always been comforted by sound. This time of year, it is especially alluring. Last night, I came home and stood outside for quite a long time listening to the sound of the birds and the haunting sound of the peepers from the pond across the road. I even took out my phone and recorded it so I could listen again later. As I stood there, I could hear turkeys, the returning geese, the variety of frogs and insects and the symphony of birds. It reminded me that I used to bring my children and grandchildren outside at dusk to listen. "How many different sounds can you hear?" I would ask them. I would also point out the more obvious ones, but I wanted them to pick out all fo the differences for themselves. If they said, "I hear birds," I would ask, "What kind of bird sound?"
I think it's easy to forget that there is music all around us, and not only in nature. I once had a couple of friends in a band that played "Industrial Noise." There is music in the sound of traffic, in the airplanes and jets flying by, in the sirens and even in the voices of the people in the cities. How often do we notice that constant music? We want our children to be aware of their surroundings, so why not point out the sounds as well as the sights. And, while we're at it, why not the smells? I remember taking my spice jars and holding them up to my babies noses so they could have that sensory experience. I always have hyacinths in my house in the springtime so their amazing aroma fills my environment. There are books with different textures for babies to feel, even scratch and sniff books, and there are books that have noises to go with them. That's because the authors recognize that children thrive on a variety of experiences. They are like sponges soaking up every experience and learning every moment.
When you go for a walk with your children, whether in the city, suburb or out in the country, point out the sights, smells and sounds. They will quickly catch on and start pointing them out to you. I've often found that the kids I'm with, who are used to doing that, find new things before I do and revel in sharing them with me. Some of the sounds only last for a short while in the spring, so be sure to go out and enjoy these wonderful discoveries while you can.
As my thoughts turn to spring with its warmer weather and more time outdoors, I start to think about the activities my children and I enjoyed the most. My two sons and my granddaughter loved hiking in the woods. Although, my daughter always loved walking and walked early and well, she hated the woods. She often didn’t want to go outdoors at all unless we were actually going somewhere, even if it was a random walk. I remember locking her go outside with a bag full of books. If I didn’t lock the door, she would sneak back in as soon as my back was turned. But the others loved it! Even babies benefit from being outside. I remember taking one of my grandsons outdoors when he was fussy because he would always stop crying and gaze up at the big maple tree with it's canopy of green leaves. It worked everytime.
There are lots of wonderful hiking places in our area for kids of all ages. My favorite go-to hiking spot for very young kids is Five Rivers Environmental Education Center which has hikes of different levels of difficulty and a fun nature center. Thatcher Park is the same. Although the Indian Ladder Trail is too difficult for the very young, we always loved going to the Knowles Flats picnic area and looking for fossils in and along the stream. The Emma Treadwell Nature Center is close by as is Thompson’s Lake, if you’re interested in swimming or camping. Christman Sanctuary in Duanesburg is another fun place but also a little difficult for the very young. I couldn’t possibly name all of the wonderful places to hike near the bigger cities. That’s one of the things I love about this area. Although, I lived in the country for quite a while when my children were young, I still took them to these places. There are well-marked trails, and you can often get trail guides to educate or just for fun. Soon, you’ll be able to see and hear frogs of all kinds, see the animals coming out of hibernation, the birds building their nests and the geese returning to the north.
I always loved making my own nature scavenger hunts for the kids. They had so much fun, and it honed their observational skills. I chose simple things at first like a squirrel, chipmunk, robin, a feather, a pinecone, acorn or an early wildflower, maybe even a footprint in the mud. As they get better at it, you can step it up and ask them to find a mushroom, a nest in a tree, frog eggs in a pond, signs of a snake. I often find photos of the things I want them to find and print them out on one sheet to check off as we find them. There is so much out there to see and hear. I’ve also made up audible scavenger hunts. What sounds do they hear? A bird song? A goose? A frog? A plane flying overhead or the sound of traffic in the distance? The more we turn these outdoor adventures into fun, the less afraid they often are of harmless wildlife like spiders or snakes. Mud season is a great time to look for animal tracks. Be sure you wear good mud boots if you go out in the spring, though. If you are living in the city, it’s easy to forget that the woods take longer to warm up and dry out. I have made that mistake myself. It’s also often cooler in the woods, so be prepared.
Preparation is key to taking young people out into the woods anyway. I always have water and snacks with me. Oranges are a great refreshing hiking snack. I also have some kind of wash cloth or wipes, just in case. Sweaters or jackets can be worn around the waist if you are too warm, but if you don’t have them, it can end a wonderful time very quickly. My kids were never very patient about discomfort, and who can blame them? It’s also fun to bring an inexpensive camera for your kids to use themselves. There’s nothing like a child’s perspective. Although you’re not supposed to take anything out of the woods in a State Park, my kids would often pick up a pretty rock, pinecone or acorns. Rather than finding them in their pockets later, I always brought along a small bag, just in case. You’ll figure all of this out as you go along, just like I did. The main thing is to just get out and enjoy nature. It’s healthy, makes them more aware of their surroundings and, it’s a great way to keep your kids away from their screens. Let me know some of your favorite hiking spots in the Capital Region.