Friday, February 17, 2017

February Vacation: Be Prepared!

How is next week already February school vacation? We just had a 5-day weekend last weekend, so I feel like I've already done vacation week. What on earth can I do with my kids this week, since I've already used up most of my fun ideas? 

If you're thinking this, never fear. I have a whole list of cool ideas you can do with your kids (or send your kids off to do on their own). Depending on whether your kids are into art, cooking, science, reading, or whatever, you can surely find a few things on this list to keep them busy and entertained (and out of your hair) this vacation. 

If your kids are artistic, they probably do a lot of drawing and coloring. But sculpture can be really fun for a creative, artistic child - and even for children who don't enjoy drawing quite as much. Homemade moon sand and play dough both require ingredients you probably already have on hand (or can pick up at the local grocery or drug store), and are a wonderfully tactile way to enjoy artistic expression. Plus putting together the recipes is a great way to teach little ones to follow step-by-step directions and older ones to learn measurements, math, fractions, and chemistry. But shhhh - don't tell them they're learning!

Moon Sand
Moon sand feels like fine beach sand, but tends to clump together so a) you can sculpt with it, and b) it's easy to clean up. Two of the easiest recipes call for flour and baby oil, and cornstarch and vegetable oil. If you want to color your sand, divide the flour or cornstarch evenly into smaller bowls and mix in a few tablespoon or two of powdered chalk, powdered tempera paint, or even various flavors of Kool-Aid mix to each bowl. (Due to the oil base, water-based food coloring will not work well.) You can also add glitter, but I can't guarantee the glitter will clean up as easily as the sand. Then add the oil and work together unless well mixed. Keep it in an airtight container, and it will last for up to a month. If it seems a little dry, add a tablespoon or two of water to freshen it up. 

Homemade Play Dough
There are plenty of uncooked recipes for various kinds of play dough, but this cooked recipe results in a much smoother, softer, long-lasting dough. In a medium saucepan, mix together 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, 2 tablespoons cream of tartar, and 1 tablespoon oil. Stir in 1 cup of water and mix well. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 3-5 minutes, until the mixture begins to clump and pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from heat and knead for five minutes. Divide into as many parts as you want different colors, and knead a few drops of food coloring into each part. Store in an airtight plastic container (recycled single-serving yogurt cups work well) or ziploc sandwich bags. 

Depending on how old your kids are and what types of things they like to cook, there are lots of interesting options for side dishes, appetizers, desserts, and main courses. Recipes for a few of our favorites are listed below. 

This slightly sweet, fried flatbread from India is delicious eaten alone as a snack, or can be topped with various sweet or savory ingredients. Experiment with peanut butter, jelly, pesto, hummus, or whatever else you have on hand. 

1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup white sugar2 tsp salt1 egg, beaten3 tbsp milk4+ cups flour1/4 cup butter, melted

1 Tblsp butter or margarine 
¾ cup long grain rice (uncooked)
Juice of 2 fresh limes (~3 Tblsp)
3 Tblsp olive oil, divided
4 Tblsp chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
4 tsp minced garlic, divided
kosher salt
¼ tsp sugar
2 to 6 white fish fillets
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 (15 oz.) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
In a shallow dish large enough for all the fillets, combine lime juice, 1 Tblsp olive oil, 2 Tblsp parsley or cilantro, and 1 tsp minced garlic. Marinade fillets for 15-30 minutes, flipping over halfway through.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet. Saute onion, pepper, and remaining garlic for 5 minutes, until tender. Add black beans, oregano, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for an additional 5 minutes until heated through, stirring occasionally.
1 cup butter (room temperature)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg plus 1 yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2-3/4 cups flour
For the coating:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
In a large mixing bowl, beat together butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add in egg, yolk, and vanilla and beat for an additional minute, scraping sides of bowl with rubber spatula. Turn mixer to medium-low and add baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and cinnamon. Gradually add flour with mixer on low, scraping bowl with spatula and mixing till just combined.
In a small, shallow bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon till well mixed and set aside.
Preheat oven to 325 and line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop out two tablespoons of dough at a time and shape into balls, then roll in cinnamon sugar until well coated. Place on parchment, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until edges are slightly golden. If you prefer crisper cookies, bake for 2 additional minutes. Allow to cool on parchment.

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Add sugar, salt, egg, and milk and blend well. Gradually add enough flour to make a soft dough. Knead for 6-8 minutes on a lightly floured board (or in the mixing bowl) until smooth and elastic, adding flour if needed. Turn dough out into an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down dough, then pinch off golfball-sized handfuls of dough and form into smooth balls. Place balls on a cookie sheet lined with non-stick foil. Cover with a towel (or not) and allow to rise an additional 30 minutes.
Spray the grill with oil and preheat to high heat. Flatten each dough ball into a thin circle with rolling pin or hands. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until lightly browned and puffy. Brush the uncooked side with butter and flip with tongs. Cook the second side for an additional 2-3 minutes, until browned, and remove from grill.

(For more complete directions, including photos of each step, see this blog entry.)

Costa Rican Dinner
The process for making this delicious dish of white fish with beans and rice includes more difficult steps like cutting up vegetables and juicing limes, which older kids can do, and easy ones, like rinsing beans and measuring ingredients, which younger kids can do. The recipe was originally designed for tilapia, but any white fish, such as haddock or cod, will work equally well. I like the kick added by the cayenne pepper, but this dish is perfectly flavorful without it, so feel free to omit if you prefer. 

1-1/2 cups water
Add ½ tsp salt and the butter to the water and bring to a boil. Add rice; reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, until water is fully absorbed. Keep warm until ready to use.

Place rice in baking dish large enough for fillets. Add bean mixture and blend together. Lay fillets on top and pour over excess marinade. Bake uncovered at 400 degrees for 16-20 minutes, until fish is fully cooked (thicker fillets may take a few extra minutes). 

(For more complete directions and photos of each step, see this blog entry.)

What's not to love about a recipe that starts with two sticks of butter and then adds a bunch of sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla? Nothing, that's what. These delicious cookies are melt-in-your-mouth good with a mug of tea or a glass of milk. Little ones can help forming the cookies into evenly-sized balls and rolling them in the cinnamon sugar; older ones can help measure and mix. 

For the cookies:

1 cup butter (room temperature)3/4 cup granulated sugar1/2 cup brown sugar1 egg plus 1 yolk1 tablespoon vanilla extract1 teaspoon baking soda1 teaspoon cream of tartar1/2 teaspoon salt1 teaspoon cinnamon2-3/4 cups flour

For the coating:1/4 cup granulated sugar1 tablespoon cinnamon

In a large mixing bowl, beat together butter and both sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add in egg, yolk, and vanilla and beat for an additional minute, scraping sides of bowl with rubber spatula. Turn mixer to medium-low and add baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and cinnamon. Gradually add flour with mixer on low, scraping bowl with spatula and mixing till just combined. 

In a small, shallow bowl, combine sugar and cinnamon till well mixed and set aside.

Preheat oven to 325 and line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop out two tablespoons of dough at a time and shape into balls, then roll in cinnamon sugar until well coated. Place on parchment, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until edges are slightly golden. If you prefer crisper cookies, bake for 2 additional minutes. Allow to cool on parchment for 5 minutes before moving to wire racks to cool completely.

(For more complete directions and photos of each steps, see this blog entry.) 

If your kids are all about experimenting and making things that stink or blow up or otherwise make a mess, here are some ideas that are fun and slightly messy without being actual biohazards. 

Marshmallow Catapult

Most kids, whether engineering-minded or not, are fascinated by catapults and trebuchets. We were fortunate that my husband's last employer sponsored an annual "Punkin Chunkin'" contest, where company engineers teamed up to build catapults, trebuchets, and ballistas, which they would then use to fling pumpkins across the parking lot toward the target, an inflatable castle. Points were scored for both distance and accuracy. Half the fun was watching the launch, and the other half was watching the satisfying SPLAT! when each pumpkin landed. Watching this inspired my son to want to make his own working catapult. Marshmallows may not be quite as impressive as pumpkins, but they're a lot less messy and still fun to shoot across the room. Plus, the ingredients are cheap so you can build a bunch and have contests!

See this website for complete directions. Supplies needed are bamboo skewers, a plastic spoon, a rubber band, masking tape, and full-sized marshmallows. You form a triangle of skewers, using marshmallows to hold them together at the corners, then build it up into a pyramid. Tape the spoon to the end of another skewer and insert it into one of the base marshmallows. Loop the rubber band over the top marshmallow and the spoon, then load the spoon with a marshmallow, pull it back, and let it fly! We discovered that it was often helpful for one person to hold the catapult steady while the other shot the marshmallow. The website also notes that the catapult is sturdier if you make it the day before and let the marshmallows get stale overnight. 

Melting Ice with Salt
If you live in a cold climate, like I do, take advantage of the huge built-in freezer outside your door for this fun experiment, which also let kids explore the science of why we throw ice on the steps when it's freezing out. Adding colored paint into the mix not only highlights the pattern of the ice melting, it also ups the messy factor, which is always a big positive for kids' projects.

See complete directions here. You'll need a bunch of small, shallow bowls (different shapes make it more interesting), some salt (preferably a few different kinds: table salt, rock salt, ice melt), a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan with raised sides, food coloring or liquid watercolors and small jars to put them in, and some plastic eyedroppers (or just use measuring spoons, if you're careful). Fill the bowls with water and put them outside to freezer overnight. Bring them inside and invert them on the cookie sheet (good idea to place a towel underneath to protect the table from overflows). Sprinkle them with salt and watch as the ice starts to melt! Use the eyedroppers or measuring spoons to drizzle the colors over to highlight the ravines created by the salt. (If the tray gets too full of melted ice, you can use a turkey baster to take some out.)

If your kid is a reader, like mine is, school vacation is a great time to get him or her immersed in an exciting book series or read-aloud book. If they're younger, you can read to them; if they're older, they can read to you or take turns reading to each other. Here is a list of some of my family's favorite read-aloud books, most of which appeal to a wide range of ages.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series gets a little dark towards the end, but the early books can stand alone, so this is a great way to start getting young readers interested in the series, and they can go back and read the later books when they're a bit older. The books include some wonderfully positive themes, including love of family, loyalty to friends, knowing when to obey and when to defy authority, and young people working together to change their world for the better.

The Amazing Flight of Darius Frobischer by Bill Harley
I stumbled across this charming book by chance, and it turned out to be an absolute page-turner for my then 5-year-old son, but will still appeal to older readers. Kids will love the crazy, offbeat characters (both heroes and villains), and the mix of reality and magic will intrigue them. We had a lot of fun imagining the events in the book, and illustrating what we saw in our minds as we read. 

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
Another delightful mix of fantasy and reality, Banks creates a look back at early American history in a way that is interesting to even kids who aren't history buffs. It puts a real face on what it was like to live at the time when European settlers and second- and third-generation Americans were interacting with native Americans. Like Harry Potter, the subsequent books in the series get somewhat darker, so I recommend pre-reading them to make sure they're age-appropriate for your child. These books are also a great kickoff for more research and discussion about early American history. 

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The books in Lewis' classic series, The Chronicles of Narnia, are arguably the best fantasy books for young readers ever written. They stand on their own as a surface story, but can also be taken as a Christian allegory. Whichever level you choose to read them at, the world Lewis creates is rich with detail, and full of fascinating characters and conflicts. Each of the seven books can stand alone, but there are enough overarching themes and through plots that reading them in the indicated order (which is not chronological, but is all the more intriguing for the flashback effect of reading in the sequence in which they were written) adds richness. The books are wonderful for kicking off discussions about government, faith, and family. 

The Rush Revere Series by Rush Limbaugh
Don't be turned off by the author's name - they were actually co-written by his daughter (and I suspect mainly written by her, with Rush only provided his name for the PR value). Rush Revere is a history teacher who owns a horse which happens to be able to talk - oh, yeah, and also travel through time. Rush brings his students back in history to learn firsthand what really happened, and why. We talk to historical characters like Paul Revere and George Washington to understand why they made their strategic decisions, and what they sacrificed to build this country. It's a creative twist on learning American history, and if your kids are intrigued by battles, they'll certainly be interested in this whole series. It's not high literature by any means, but the historical details seem sound, and if it gets kids interested in early American history, it's okay by me. 

Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson and Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

These two classics are both thrilling adventure tales that will enthrall most young readers. Treasure Island features pirates and a hunt for treasure (obviously); Swiss Family Robinson features a shipwreck and survival on a distant island. The latter includes some fascinating information on the kinds of skills that most people had at that time (the early 1700s), and can spark interesting conversations about how well (or not) most modern people would be able to survive under similar circumstances. In both books, young people are called upon to mature early and act as adults, which is an intriguing idea to most children. 

Hey, I did include "whatever" as a category, right? So here are a few more random things to keep your kids entertained during the long week ahead. 

Plant Some Seeds
Stop by your local garden center and pick up some small plant pots or seed tray, a bag of dirt, and a collection of your favorite flower or herb or vegetable seeds, and look forward to spring by getting your garden started. Kids will love helping pick out what you plant, and watching (patiently or impatiently) for the seeds to start sprouting. Once the weather warms up they can help plant the seedlings outside in the garden, and you can look forward to enjoying the flowers and fruits of your labors all summer long. 

Go Camping Indoors
Set up a tent in the living room - or throw an old bedspread over the dining room table - and let the kids sleep in it in sleeping bags or on bedrolls. If you have a fireplace, cook dinner over the fire: hot dogs on sticks, s'mores, toast, pretty much anything that just needs to be heated a little. You can even carefully set an old pan of canned beans or soup on the fire if you build it carefully. Or have a cold picnic lunch with peanut butter sandwiches and juice boxes. Turn off all the lights and read stories or play games by the light of the fire or a battery-operated lantern. Listen to old-time radio. Tell ghost stories. 

Have a Dance Party
Ask your kids for their favorite songs and put together a playlist or upbeat tunes - and add a few of your own favorites. Then crank the tunes and let everybody jam out! Younger kids will love to add in scarves or ribbons and various rhythm instruments. Sing along if you know the words. Make them up if you don't. Teach the kids the words to your favorite songs from when you were their age. Mom and Dad joining in is half the fun. 

Theme Days
Pick a theme and go with it for the whole day. Pajama Day: Wear your pajamas all day long, eat only breakfast foods, listen to lullabies all day. Backwards Day: Wear your clothes backwards, eat meatloaf and mashed potatoes for breakfast and cereal for dinner, figure out what everyone's name is spelled backwards and call them that all day long, learn to recite the alphabet backwards. Literature Day: Pick a favorite book and assign everyone a character, then let them be that character all day long - eat what they would eat, talk the way they would talk, do the kinds of things they would do, dress like they would. Pirate Day: Add "aaarrrr!" to the end of every sentence, sing sea chanties, eat snacks like beef jerky and dried fruit. Country Day: Choose a country then eat foods that are popular there, research popular games and play them, try to put together an approximation of their traditional or current clothing from your own closet, learn a few phrases in their native language. 

Happy vacation!

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