Growing Garbage for Fun and Learning

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:50 PM by Ellen

In the 1940s, most kitchens had a cheerful green vine growing in the windowsill, along with multiple plants decorating countertops and shelves. Our great grandmothers didn’t go to the plant nursery to get house plants and potted ferns – they grew their decorations from items that might otherwise be thrown on the compost heap.

Kids love to plant gardens, but creating houseplants from garbage is a fun and fascinating project you can do with them on rainy afternoons and weekends during all kinds of weather. Not only will you end up with some great house decorations, you’ll teach your kids the value of recycling and reusing objects instead of throwing them away into the landfill.

Sweet potato vine

The classic sweet potato vine has been a kitchen standard for decades and is easy for kids to grow.

• Choose a firm red or yellow sweet potato (ideally one that’s already started to grow buds) and insert four strong toothpicks around the middle to suspend it inside a jar.
• Fill a jar most of the way with water, place the potato in the jar with the more pointed side down and place the jar in a windowsill where it will get strong sunlight. You should see some small buds emerging from the top of the potato within a few days. Fine roots will start to form under water in the first week.
• Pour out the water and replace it with a fresh batch every week. The purple vines and glossy green leaves make an attractive house plant – one your child can even be proud to give as a gift.

Carrot ferns

Baby carrots are all the rage, but frugal parents know they can make their own carrot sticks for a fraction of the cost. As an added bonus, you can use the ends of the carrots to grow a beautiful fern full of soft fronds after you eat the rest of the veggie.

• Cut off the bottom 2 inches of a few carrots and set them aside. Fill the bottom two inches of a small bowl with pea gravel, fish tank rocks or something similar.
• Push the cut side of the carrot ends into the gravel and fill the bowl with water just until it covers the rocks. Place the bowl in a sunny window and keep the water topped off.
• After a few weeks, the carrots will produce tall, lacy fronds that look exactly like expensive fern plants. Keep them in the bowl or plant them in potting soil for an even longer-lasting set of plants.

Avocado tree

For fast results with impatient kids, nothing beats growing an avocado seed.

• Push four toothpicks into the side of the seed and suspend it over a small container of fresh water with the pointed side down (just like growing the sweet potato vine).
• Keep the water fresh by changing it twice a week and keep the jar in a sunny window to encourage sprouting.
• Once roots have appeared at the bottom of the pit and a sprout begins to produce leaves at the top, plant the avocado in a large pot filled with potting soil.
• With sunlight and regular watering, your fast-growing avocado tree will be as tall as a toddler within a couple of months.

Citrus trees

Orange and lemon trees grow much more slowly than avocado trees, but sometimes that’s a good thing. If you’ve got a kid who doesn’t deal well with change, it’s good for him or her to grow a plant that will stay healthy and growing for a year or two before you have to transplant it.

• Pick a seed or two from a lemon, orange, or tangerine and soak them in water overnight.
• Plant the seeds in potting soil and cover the pot with a plastic bag to keep in the moisture.
• Place the pot in a warm, sunny spot and keep the soil moist.
• Remove the plastic when you see green shoots coming up, and place the planter in a sunny window.

Your miniature citrus tree will have brown twigs and glossy green leaves, growing slowly enough so that your child can proudly introduce “her tree” to anyone who comes to visit for the next couple of years.

Diaper Swapers

Feeding and Identifying Winter Birds

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:45 PM by Ellen

Usually, when we think of birds, it conjures up green grass, flowering trees and other signs of spring. However, seeing birds in the winter happens just as frequently. Many birds do not migrate to warmer areas when winter approaches, meaning these birds have to adapt from living outdoors in warm weather to life outdoors in the cold.

Birds are warm-blooded creatures, which means their body temperature maintains itself within a certain range regardless of the temperatures around them. To do this, however, birds need a diet rich in high-energy foods. The extra energy allows the birds to fluff out their feathers more, increasing the insulation their feathers provide in keeping the bird warm. Birds also need a source of water and in the event of severe weather, a place to take shelter.

This is where you and your kids come in. You can provide the extra food, water and shelter these birds need to make it through to spring. And while you provide these supplies, it’s a great way to learn to identify different types of birds.

Food, feeders and water for winter birds

The food birds consume in the winter is higher in fat and proteins. The extra nutrients help the birds stay warm. If you want to feed a variety of birds, using ground feeders, platform feeders and hanging feeders will attract the most birds.

Ground feeders attract:

• Sparrows
• Juncos
• Pheasants
• Thrashers
• Woodpeckers

Platform feeders are appreciated by:

• Cardinals
• Wrens
• Titmice
• Jays

Hanging Feeders will receive visits from:

• Chickadees
• Titmice
• Nuthatches
• Finches

High protein foods, including oily sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet are welcome meals for birds. Put a mixture of these seeds in your feeders and watch the birds flock to your yard.

A tip about placement for your feeders:

• The feeders should be out of the wind, so if possible, try to place the feeders on the east side of your home, preferably near a tree line. Also, birds have to eat while staying watchful for predators, so having the feeders in a place that is open enough to eat and stay on the watch means more bird visits.

Birds also need a reliable water source. Providing a heated birdbath will provide water for birds all winter. You can also use a regular birdbath that has been properly de-iced. As for shelter, you can build or buy one that can help bids keep warm in the winter and provide safety from predators. Having fir or pine trees and other trees that keep leaves in the winter also provide shelter for birds when it rains, snows or becomes extremely windy and cold.

Watching the birds

Now that your feeders are set up and filled with high-energy food, you’ve provided water and options for shelter, get comfortable and watch what happens. At first, you might only see a few birds or maybe a flock or two. But once word gets out that your yard has food, water, and shelter, it will become a gathering place for a variety of birds.

When the birds start to gather, older kids can take pictures of the birds, while younger kids can draw pictures of them. Later you can use the pictures to try and identify the birds in a bird encyclopedia on from pictures on the Internet.

It’s a good idea to research the kind of birds that are native to your area in the winter. This will help you know what kind of birds to look for in your bird paradise. During the day, you might even catch a song or two from a finch, cardinal or jay or hear the hammering of a woodpecker.

Setting up an area for birds to eat, drink and be merry is not just a fun activity for kids; it’s a wonderful thing to do for the environment. Making sure birds make it from winter to spring helps to keep our eco-system in balance.

Creating a Yarn Monster

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:38 PM by Ellen

yarn monster

Grrrrr! Rawr! Arrrrrrrgh! – those just might be the sounds a couple of yarn monsters would make if they were able to talk, and with your child’s imagination – they just might. At first glance, yarn monsters are merely giant pom-poms. But they’re so much more than that: Yarn monsters are good for hugging, tossing or just holding at nap time.

And their tickly tendrils make for hours of giggles and laughter as they go on adventures with other toys in your child’s magical world of play.

Of course, once you’ve made one yarn monster, you’ll have to make more – one is never enough. This is the perfect crafting project for you and your child on a cold or rainy day.


• While it’s no surprise that yarn monsters require yarn, the size of the monster depends entirely on the amount of yarn used. For example, a small yarn monster can take up to 80 yards of yarn, while a larger monster requires several thousand yards of yarn.

• When you decide on the size of your monster, choose yarns in multiple colors that either coordinate or contrast. This is an excellent time to put those hoarded lengths of knitting yarn to use, too.

Note: Using acrylic yarn will not only allow the monsters to survive occasional cleanings and accidental dunkings, the colors are less likely to fade and the material won’t shrink.

• You’ll also need some type of cardboard. Heavy-duty corrugated cardboard used for shipping boxes works best for bigger yarn monsters, while smaller monsters can be made using less sturdy cardboard, such as that used to make cereal boxes.

• If you’re a crafter who is proprietary about scissors, you’ll need one pair for the yarn and one for cardboard; otherwise a sharp pair of household scissors will do the job, as long as they’re strong enough to handle heavy cardboard and thick yarn layers.

• Googly eyes and hot glue are optional. Not all yarn monsters need to have eyes, especially if your child is still prone to chewing things or putting things in his or her mouth. But without eyes, your yarn monster is really just a giant pom pom. So consider using large, sturdy knots of yarn for the eyes in white yarn.

Cut it and wrap it

• Cut two identical circles from your cardboard. While they don’t have to be perfectly round or particularly neat cut outs, they do have to be the same basic size.
• When you’ve cut your circles, cut out a second set of circles on the inside – essentially making two identical cardboard doughnuts. These form the template for your yarn monster.
• Wrap any skeins or hanks of yarn into balls – for this project it is necessary. Begin by winding the yarn around three of your fingers ten or fifteen times. Slip the yarn off of your fingers and begin wrapping yarn around the center of the loops. Keep wrapping in different directions until a ball takes form.
• Do not make the ball any larger than the center of your cardboard doughnut, but uniformity in size does not matter otherwise.

Yarn monster

• It’s time to bring your yarn monster to life and it couldn’t be simpler. Have your child help you wrap the balled-up yarn around every inch of the cardboard template.
• When every inch of cardboard has been covered, cover that layer of yarn with another layer. And another. And another, until you can’t even pass one strand of yarn through the center hole of the cardboard template. This could take a few days to a few months, depending on how quick your child wraps the yarn and how big your yarn monster is, as well as how often you both work on it.

Note: This is a great activity for those “Mom, I’m BORED!” moments.

• When you can’t wrap any more yarn around your cardboard doughnut, stick the scissors in between the two circles of cardboard and cut open the yarn around the outer edge.
• Cut a length of yarn about 12 inches long and separate the two cardboard circles by about half an inch. Insert the yarn length in between the circles and wrap it around the yarn encased by the center hole of the cardboard doughnuts. This secures the pompom and holds your yarn monster together. Tie a knot – or two or three – very tightly to keep your monster together.
• Slide the cardboard templates off and fluff your monster out so the tie and knots aren’t visible.
• If you desire eyes, glue them on using a low temperature hot glue gun. Enjoy!

Kid-Friendly Cardboard Loom

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:35 PM by Ellen

“Mom, I’m bored!” is a cry heard nearly every day by parents with kids who are stuck inside because of cold, icy or rainy weather, or just because there are no friends outside to play with – it’s a battle cry that screams, “Give me something to do!”. So, why not take the time to put your bored children to work while making something beautiful at the same time.

Let me spin you a tale

Weaving is an ancient art that’s been around for as long as people have been working with different fibers. From clothing to housewares, textile artistry is still the subsistence craft of many people – and many children – around the world.

By teaching your child to weave on a recycled cardboard loom, they’ll learn the rudiments of a skill that encourages hand-eye coordination, spatial cognizance and focus while learning a lesson in cultural diversity and sensitivity. Children no older than your own may be weaving every day – for pennies – in order to help their families survive.


This isn’t a very supply-intensive project. You’ll need cardboard, scissors, tape and yarn – most of which you probably have in your home, so you’ll only need to invest in some yarn. If you do have scraps of yarn on hand, this is the perfect use for them, as this small weaving project doesn’t require much yarn.

The best cardboard for this project is the heavy, corrugated type used to create shipping boxes because it’s sturdy and can take the abuse little, uncoordinated hands might give it during the weaving process. Heavier cardboard can also survive traveling, as this project makes a perfect, on-the-go activity. If you’re low on boxes, however, you can use a double layer of cardboard from cereal boxes or even index cards.

Creating the loom

Decide what kind of project your child will be making, such as a small, square potholder or a long scarf, and cut the cardboard to the approximate shape and dimensions of the object.

For example, a scarf or doll blanket might take a 14-inch long by 5-inch wide rectangle, while a simple potholder might take a 6 inch square.

Create the loom by cutting one-half-inch notches spaced about a quarter of an inch apart around the outer edges of the cardboard. This creates the framework for the warp yarns, which are the yarns that your child will be weaving over and under.

Stringing the loom

Choose a thin, smooth yarn for the warp yarns. It won’t be seen in the finished project, so it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t match the other yarn you have chosen for your child’s project.

• Thread a length of yarn into the first notch at the top of the loom, leaving a few inches to hang down the back.
• Wrap the yarn around the notched cardboard and string it down to the first notch on the bottom of the loom.
• Wrap it around that notch, and up to the second notch on the top of the loom.
• Continue stringing up and down (vertically), until you’ve reached the last notch.
• Cut your warp yarn and leave a few inches hanging.
• Secure the the hanging threads on the back of your loom with tape to guard against becoming loosened as the weaving progresses.

Children, start your weaving

• Cut a length of your chosen yarn to about two feet in length.
• Begin working the yarn over and under each of the warp threads, pulling tightly but not tight enough to put too much pressure on the warp threads. You’ll want to teach your child to maintain an even tension for the best looking finished project.
• When you run out of yarn, simply knot the end to another length (and color) of yarn and keep weaving. As the weave grows, push the lines of yarn gently up toward the top of the loom. This will result in a denser fabric that won’t reveal the warp yarn.


• Tuck in any loose ends of yarn that your child made by changing colors.
• Slip the warp threads off of the loom, and gently work the weaving down to the very bottom of those threads. This will loosen up any free warp threads at the top of your project, which you can then knot near the end of the weaving and tuck in.

You’ve got a handmade work of woven art that was made using an ancient technique that’s been in use for centuries.

Craft Tutorial: Poster Board Animal Wings

Posted 03-20-2015 at 06:37 PM by Banana Cat


Ok, I really forget why my daughter suddenly decided she needed wings. Not just any wings would do, either—they had to be bat wings. I reached under the bed for the plastic bin that serves as our very lame dress-up costume repository, only to discover that we had no wings at all. I’ll pick up a bunch of costumes at Goodwill for cheap after Halloween, I had thought but never actually followed through on. So instead we made some.

Are you in my exact same situation? Never fear! Whip up some animal wings at home really quickly, and you get the bonus of your child helping out, as well.


  • Poster board
  • Scissors
  • Decorative materials
  • String

Step One

Craft Tutorial: Ice Cube Boats

Posted 02-12-2015 at 05:17 PM by Banana Cat


Ok, we live in the Pacific Northwest. There are a lot of rainy days, and granted, our area has an amazing amount of toddler-friendly gyms, museums, and other indoor play places we often take advantage of. But sometimes we (ok, I) don’t feel like loading up the kids and trekking out. Sometimes it feels nice to have an in-home day where we can all lounge around with no shoes and sometimes no pants on…but the kids still want to play with water, maybe even channel summertime a bit. And it’s easy to do this with ice cube boats, and even better, you may even have all the supplies to do this already!



  • Bendy straws
  • Small, freezable cups
  • Paper

Step One


Fill your small, freezable cups with water. Disposable plastic or paper cups should work—we had actually just made cupcakes and I still had all my silicone cupcake cups out, so we used those! Cram the bendy straw into place. I had to trim mine a bit to make it fit.

Create Holiday Traditions for Your Family

Posted 12-19-2014 at 02:58 PM by Ellen

baking cookies

From baking cookies to cutting a fresh pine tree to lighting candles and giving blessings for Shabbat, you look forward to your cherished holiday traditions every year. They help you bond with family members and spend special time together, giving everyone a little break from busy modern life. But, sometimes newlywed couples, newly blended families and couples with their first baby want to start their own traditions. That being said, here are some ideas to start your new holiday family traditions.

Tutorial: Homemade Threading Board

Posted 10-22-2014 at 02:53 PM by Banana Cat


So I like to sew. I have a cheap plastic sewing machine, and what feels like a 5000 lb vintage cast iron sewing machine, and between the two of them I can usually sew whatever I need to, unless it’s something like a king size quilt, because we don’t have room for a quilting machine in our apartment because dumb things like the stove and refrigerator are in the way. But, sometimes I need to hand sew something a little more delicate, or I’m just way too lazy to clear off the dining table and yank out the sewing machine and all the STUFF that goes along with it. One day, I was repairing a small hole on the seam of a sweater by hand, squinting and remembering that once long ago I wore glasses and whatever happened to them anyway?, when my 2 year old came over and asked what I was doing.

“Sewing up a hole in Mommy’s sweater,” I explained.

She stood up tall and declared in the way of two year olds, “Ok. I sew too.”

Now what? I had some large, dull embroidery needles and some yarn. Sewing/threading boards are all over the place—wooden or plastic boards with large holes in them that kids can practice sewing on—but we didn’t have one. So, I put my sewing aside and declared that it was now time for an art project.


Tutorial: Three Travel Busy Bag Ideas

Posted 10-7-2014 at 01:55 PM by Banana Cat



Soon, it will be the holidays.

Soon, hundreds of thousands of families will pack their kids up and travel.

Soon, parents will be rubbing their temples and buying headache medication in giant Costco-sized containers.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Parents hit the road (or sky), not necessarily because they want to, as in during the summer, but because of family obligations and gatherings. It can be hard enough to entertain a child when you’re at home surrounded by their favorite toys, but how to do so while travelling, possibly cramped in a small vehicle for hours at a time, without resorting to gluing your kid to the iPad for 6 straight hours? Thankfully, some smart parent before me has solved this problem with the invention of “busy bags”—small bags with a travel-sized activity to keep your kids busy. While there are a million different types of bags you can put together, here are three easy, low-budget ones.

Tutorial: The Cow and the Moon

Posted 07-28-2014 at 12:36 PM by Banana Cat



My two year old is currently obsessed with the moon. She’s always liked looking at it when it’s visible, but it was always more of a “Oh look, a moon, hey a worm on the ground, Mommy can I have apple juice?” sort of thing.  Then one day I grabbed a science preschool moon book off the shelf at a thrift store to keep her quiet. Best $0.79 I’ve spent in a long time—it became her nighttime “Again, again!” read. She learned all the phases of the moon and eagerly ran to her window before bedtime to see what the moon looked like that night. She pointed out the moon in every other book or video she had. Everything was suddenly all about the moon, all the time.

We pulled out a book of nursery rhymes one day and read “Hey Diddle Diddle.” My daughter pointed to the picture and said, “The cow is jumping da moon? What, dat’s SILLY.” It was the most hilarious thing she’d apparently seen in a long time. So, we made a cow-jumping-over-the-moon craft, made out of simple shapes and supplies so my 2 year old could do as much as she could on her own.



  • A white circle. A paper plate would work perfectly for this, but we were out so we used a circle of construction paper instead
  • A piece of paper to make spots for the cow, if your cow is the spotted kind.
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • More paper to make the cow’s head and legs