How to Grow a Sunflower Playhouse

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:55 PM by Ellen

Is there a kid alive that doesn’t love a fort, a tent or a secret backyard spot? Children seem to be born with a need for small spaces where they can let their imaginations run free. From magical campsites underneath picnic tables to blanket tent “castles” in the dining room, kids love to play in their own special cozy spaces.

Imagine if – instead of using a temporary shelter, your children could have a semi-permanent spot in your backyard – a place that felt completely private inside, but was open enough so that mom or dad could easily keep an eye on their antics.

If you’re willing to give up a piece of your gardening space, you can create a spot like this for your kids to enjoy all summer. Growing a sunflower playhouse for your kids will not only add a bit of whimsy to your landscape, it can be used as a base around which you can grow other flowers. Big enough for them to pretend to camp out in, a sunflower playhouse is also cozy enough for secret club meetings.

Mapping the playhouse
The size of your custom playhouse will naturally depend on the available space in your yard and how many of your (and the neighborhood) kids will be in it at one time or another. Most of the time your kids will only have one or two friends inside the secret playhouse, so unless you’ve got a giant pack of kids constantly roaming through your backyard, you won’t need to increase the size.

• Have your child lay down on the ground where you’ll grow the playhouse and mark his or her height on the ground. Do the same thing in the other direction so you have basic vertical and horizontal measurements.

• Dig a trench about six inches outside of each measurement, surrounding the entire central area. It goes without saying that you’ll need to situate the playhouse on a flat piece of ground in the sunshine, but locating it on a nice patch of grass is especially comfortable.

Growing the walls

• When you have the trench dug, it’s time to plant the walls. Timing will depend on where you live in the country, but if you aren’t sure of the best time to plant for your region, squeeze a handful of garden soil. If it crumbles like chocolate cake, it’s ready to plant. If the soil stays in a muddy clump, give it a week or two and test again.

• Once the soil is ready, plant sunflower seeds two inches deep and six inches apart in the trench that circles the play area. Don’t forget to leave a space for the doorway!

• When choosing the sunflower seeds for this project, look for one of the super-tall varieties such as Sunforest, Mammoth Russian or American Giant. These will all grow plants at least 10 feet tall, making most impressive playhouse walls.

Filling in the walls

After the sunflowers have grown to about a foot in height, fill in the spaces between them by planting sweet pea, clematis or moonflower. These fast-growing, aromatic vines will twine themselves between the sturdy sunflower stalks, adding another leafy layer to the walls.

By the middle of summer, you’ll have a green roofless house in your yard, with flowers and vines covering the outside and inside walls. Make sure to have your kids water the planting trench each week when it doesn’t rain. Sunflowers originally developed in areas that lacked water, so they can survive with some abuse and lack of water, but they’ll grow taller and sturdier if they’re well cared for throughout the growing season.

Once the sunflowers reach above your head, the sunflower playhouse may be your kids’ favorite place to play all summer long. It’s perfect for laying in the grass reading a book, holding club meetings, having an afternoon snack or for a little privacy. A sunflower playhouse holds no bounds for imaginative kids.

Diaper Swapers

How to Grow a Birdhouse

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:55 PM by Ellen

Hanging a birdhouse is a great way for kids to learn about the cycle of life and the birds living in your neighborhood. Most children enjoy watching the antics of the birds living in your yard, but they’ll be even more fascinated if they grew the birdhouse themselves. Instead of hammering together a few boards, your children can take a tip from Native Americans and early settlers by growing a special birdhouse gourd and turning it into a home for your feathered neighbors.

The best gourd
Birdhouses are most commonly made using a special type of gourd, which, when dried correctly, become as hard as wood. In fact, some gourds are even carved into tools like wood. Your birdhouse will enjoy some drilling and carving before the project is finished. The first part is easy, though.

Look through an online seed catalog for birdhouse gourd seeds. They’re specially grown to be the size and shape that birds prefer. While other gourds will work for this project, birdhouse gourds will give you the best results.

Growing the gourd
Check the seed packet to find the best planting time for your region. When the soil has warmed enough for your variety, plant the gourd seeds near a sturdy fence or structure to which the vines can attach and climb. This will allow the gourds to grow without being twisted, avoiding any rotting that can happen when gourds sit on damp or wet ground for long periods of time. After the vines have died back in the fall, cut the gourds from the dead foliage, leaving about 2 inches of stem attached to the gourd.

Preparing the gourd
Gourds need to be completely dry before they can be turned into birdhouses. Lay the gourds in a spot where air can reach the entire surface, like over an old window screen in a protected garage. Drying will take months, so plan to make the birdhouses in the spring. If you shake a gourd and hear the seeds rattling inside, it’s dry enough to be used.

Make a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water and pour it in a bucket. Place the gourd in the solution and let it soak for 15 minutes. This will kill any bacteria that might turn into mold and rot your birdhouse later in the season. Once the soaking is done, allow the gourd to air dry.

Making the birdhouse
Birds need a way to get into the birdhouse, so a doorway should be cut into the gourd. Surprisingly enough, each variety of bird will only use a birdhouse with a certain size of doorway hole. You can see the right size of doorway hole for the type of bird you’re trying to attract in this chart.

• Use a keyhole saw or doorknob cutter to saw a hole in the upper half of the gourd’s side. You can add a perch by drilling a small hole right beneath the doorway and inserting a twig, a shortened dowel or even a colorful pencil. Drill about four small holes in the bottom of the gourd for drainage and two holes near the top for the hanger.

• After all this drilling, your kids are probably eager to pitch in, so this is where they get to have some fun by painting and decorating the birdhouse. House paint is weather-resistant and available in a wide range of colors. Decorative art, using permanent markers or other artistic mediums, can be applied to the gourd later, once the paint is dry.

Be sure to keep to lighter paint colors so any baby birds won’t be too hot inside, but otherwise let your kids’ imaginations go wild. When they’re done decorating the gourds, slide a wire through the top holes in the gourd and hang the birdhouses in the trees in your yard. Make sure you hang the gourds where the birds will get a bit of privacy without interfering with your view.

Homemade Snow Globes

Posted 05-7-2015 at 05:54 PM by Ellen

homemade snowglobe

If you’re the parent of a small child, chances are high that you’ve got at least one or two empty baby food jars floating around. These things multiply like rabbits – you only buy one or two but they just keep showing up in the pantry. And after the contents are gobbled up by your adoring little one, you just don’t want to throw away the containers.

After all, they’re perfectly good glass jars. Of course, after you’ve organized your push-pins, rubber bands, hair ties, crayons, nuts, bolts, nails, washers and every other tiny thing you’ve accumulated, you still have a mountain of jars left. Why not make something beautiful and fun from them?

homemade snowglobe supplies

A note on supplies

• For the purpose of this article, a glass shaker jar with a replaceable, solid lid is being used. Toddlers love throwing things and baby food jars might not always hold up to a solid pitch into the floor or an even more solid object. Similar containers can be found at your local discount stores.

Next up, you’ve get to choose the contents of your snow globe. Think of snow globes as miniature dioramas. You can put anything in there, as long as it will fit on the lid of the jar.

For my project, I again turned to the local dollar store and picked out some super-cool dinosaurs that any little boy or girl would love instantly. After locating the ones my daughter hadn’t hidden, I decided on a blue Tyrannosaurus Rex. Unfortunately, you don’t see him in the final project – which brings me to my next point: Glue.

Glitter and glue

You’ll want to use a glue that will stand up to being immersed in baby oil. Some websites mention that straight water works just as well, but I discovered that baby oil lets the glitter (or “snow”) swirl at a much slower, languid pace and it captures my child’s interest longer.

Because the glue I initially chose was not oil-resistant, Mr. T-Rex did not stay put and was cut from the project. E-6000 is a two-part epoxy resin that only cures when the two parts of the glue are mixed together. I recommend this as it’s not only oil resistant – it’s pretty much resistant to everything – including prying toddler fingers. Always have an adult do the gluing, lest you end up at the emergency room with a sticky, craft-related problem.

You’ll also need glitter. I chose red glitter, but any type of large-cut glitter will do. Let your child mix colors or choose just one color for a display piece. Again, I found mine at the dollar store. A three-pack set me back – you guessed it – a dollar.

Putting it all together

Remove the label from your jar. Hot water and dish soap should take most of it off, but if not, you’ve already got baby oil on hand to take off the rest of the gunk left behind.

Open the jar and glue your diorama bits to the inside of the lid of the jar. Be creative in your placement, or just stick ‘em on there. Again, make sure the adult crafter is doing the gluing. Keep little fingers away from the glue at all times!

Add the baby oil to your jar. You’ll want to fill it ALMOST to the top, but not quite. Leave enough space for your diorama items and the glitter. A little empty space is not a problem in the finished project – it will still look beautiful and provide hours of fun.

Add the glitter to the jar – carefully. A tiny, one-ounce container of glitter was almost too much for the jar I used, so add the glitter in small amounts until you’re satisfied. You can always add more glitter, but getting it back out is nearly impossible once it’s floating in the baby oil.

When you’re happy with the glitter-baby oil ratio, coat the inner lip of the jar lid in glue and screw it on tight. Wait for the glue to dry and then hand it to your kiddo for some snow-globing fun. Remember – this quick and easy craft project can be done with minimal time, effort and cost.

The look on your kid’s face as they turn the globe and watch the glitter swirl is invaluable!

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.

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.