Tag Archives: holidays

Gamer Baby in Three Easy Steps: Intro to Toddler Board Games

Like board games? Have toddlers in your life? Want to share that love of competition and collaboration and teeny wooden Meeples with the next generation? There are some really, really fun toddler board games out there, designed for children as young as 2. They’re simple enough to teach to kids who have a limited vocabulary, but they’re not insipidly stupid, so parents won’t lose their minds playing along.

We’re lucky enough to have a group of gamer friends whose kids have been playing since they’re teeny, and they introduced us to some of the best toddler board games out there. These three are our favorites, and taken together they’re a solid three-step process to getting your toddler (or someone else’s) into the basics of board games – both the rules and the fun.

Step 1: Go Away Monster

(Cardboard pieces. Recommended for toddlers as young as 18 months, depending on temperament.)

Go Away Monster Toddler Game

This is more of a puzzle than a true board game, but it’s excellent for teaching toddlers the important concepts of turn-taking and placing pieces on a game board. There are four eclectically decorated flat cardboard rooms, and a small canvas bag of assorted bedroom furniture. Players take turns picking a piece out of the bag without peeking, and hope to pull out something that they need – a teddy bear, maybe, or a lamp. But there are monsters lurking in the canvas bag, too! Any player who pulls out a monster gets to throw it into the game’s empty box, saying “GO AWAY MONSTER!” This is, by far, my son’s favorite part of the game.

When you first start playing, it’ll be a challenge to get the kid to give up the bag for someone else’s turn, and to keep them from peeking into the bag to find their favorite pieces. In theory, the game ends when one player completes their room’s decor, but it’s okay not to push the concept of winning or losing just yet. It can be a good lead-in to discussions of sharing: “Mommy just got a bed out of the bag! But Mommy already has a bed in her room, what should I do? Does anyone else need a bed more than I do?”

Step 2: My First Orchard

(Cardboard with painted wooden pieces. Recommended for toddlers 2 and up.)

First Orchard Game Toddlers

This could also be called “My first Co-operative Board Game,” because this game pits players against a hungry crow who is trying to get to the orchard to steal our basket of fruit.

The shiny fruit pieces sit in their cardboard “trees,” waiting to be picked when a player rolls the right color. Yellow? Pick a pear and put it in the basket. Blue? Pick a plum. The basket symbol is a freebie – you can pick whichever fruit you want. If you roll the crow, then the bird moves one more step along the orchard path. If he gets to the orchard before you’ve filled up the basket, the game is over!


The orchard game reinforces turn-taking skills and teaches children to roll a die and follow up with the appropriate action. My 2-year-old still has trouble with the basket symbol and how to proceed when he rolls it, so we’re currently using the basket as though it meant “roll again.” Younger kids also won’t understand the winning/losing aspect of moving the bird along the path, but they’ll get there. I love that this game starts out as a simple roll-and-match game for the youngest players but grows with the kids as they grasp more concepts.

Step 3: Snail’s Pace Race

(Cardboard game board, wooden pieces. Possible choking hazard, so I recommend age 2 1/2 and up, depending on your child’s propensity to stuff things in their mouth.)

Snail Pace Race Game

This is another one that’s not really a game, as there are no winners or losers. Six bright wooden snails are lined up at the starting line for a race, and are moved ahead depending on what the dice say. Players take turns rolling two dice, and moving the snails that correspond to the colors they’ve rolled. This introduces the idea of moving pieces along a board according to what dice tell you. Because sometimes you will roll the same color on both dice, kids will learn how to decide whether a piece needs to move one or two spaces.

Full disclosure: we don’t have this one for our son yet, but we’ve played it at a friend’s house, and it’s on our wishlist for the holidays. He’s asking us to play both Go Away Monster and “the apples game” almost every night, and it’s time to add this one to the rotation.

If you’re looking to get some games for the holidays, definitely consider these. They’ve brought us hours and hours of fun. They’re well made, and can stand up to grabby toddler hands. Absolutely worth the cost.

Note: links above are Amazon affiliate links, and you can learn more about that here. I only link to items I like enough to recommend to actual friends.

Here Comes Cookie Day

I spent the entire evening baking cookies yesterday. It made my house smell delicious. I made several dozen oatmeal chocolate chip Craisin cookies. They’re chewy and cinnamony and absolutely perfect, but this batch isn’t for me. These are sharing cookies. I made enough to give away to the family this weekend, when we all get together for Cookie Day.


C is for coooookie

Cookie day is an annual tradition here with my Maryland family. December comes, and it’s so easy to get swept up in a Christmas panic. We all take a Saturday off, away from the crowds at the mall, and spend an afternoon at my in-laws’. The guys put up and decorate the tree, and the women bake and decorate dozens of Christmas cookies. It’s a comfy, casual day, and I always look forward to it.

We always have to make Hershey’s kiss “peanut blossom” cookies, because there would be a general revolt from the guys if we didn’t. We’ve been alternating between sugar cookies and shortbread cookies, both of which wear holiday sprinkles well. We’ve tried a few other kinds, too, including the oatmeal ones I just got done with tonight. We won’t have time to bake more than two kinds of cookie this weekend, though. Even with someone making the sugar cookie dough in advance. See, Cookie Day got more complicated once my nephew arrived on the scene. A baby (and then a toddler) needs constant supervision, so there was less time and attention available for baking. This year, we’ve got his little sister around, distracting us even more from the tough cookie work. No complaints here; a cute nephew and niece are much more worthy of my attention than sugar cookies! But we all love cookies, and it’s more fun to have a big variety. And, honestly? A few dozen cookies, split between three families, taken home on the first weekend of December? They have no hope of lasting until Christmas. I figured that I’d use up a bit of my spare energy and chocolate chips and bring a couple dozen to Cookie Day. All the cookies, none of the effort (for them, anyway)!

This year, my nephew will be old enough to help us decorate the sugar cookies with sprinkles, which will be so much fun. I know he’s probably just going to dump sprinkles all over everything, but I can’t wait to eat his masterpieces.

Cookie day just keeps getting better.

Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, Part 2

A day off. December looming. A husband stuck heading into work to finish up a project. It added up to the perfect day to deck out the house and surprise my hardworking husband by having him come home to Christmas.

First, and most importantly, the tree. We made the transition to an artificial Christmas tree a few years ago, so at least I wouldn’t be stuck driving back from Home Depot with a tree drooping into the windshield of my tiny Honda Fit. But our fake tree spends the off-season in a giant box on a shelf in the garage. I do not like the garage. If Baroque cartographers had sketched the continent of “Garage,” they would have marked its mysterious wilds with “Here There Be Spiders.”

With one itchy-trigger-fingered hand holding a giant red can of Raid, I opened the door between the mudroom and garage. I flapped my other hand wildly in the darkness to trigger the motion sensor and get some light. A cricket bounced away from me, presumably to tell his spider friends about the fresh meat coming their way. Picking my way through the junk on the floor, I found the tree shelf. The front of the box was clean. No cobwebs. I shook the box, hard, to disturb any creatures with too many legs who may have been hiding under or behind it. Nothing scurried, so I lifted the box.

That is to say, I heaved and pulled and yanked on the box until it crashed to the floor, and then dragged it into the house with many huffs and puffs. Artificial trees are heavy.


I didn’t need the Raid. But I was PREPARED.

I got the metal stand assembled and hoisted the bottom section of the tree into it. The tip that goes into the stand looks like the end of a patio umbrella, and trying to dock it with the base took a few tries, a few curses, and lots of flailing. Between its weight and the twenty branches flapping in my face and obscuring my view, that section is tough to maneuver.


Umbrella stage complete.

The other two tree sections were much lighter, and I could easily see where they fit together, so the rest of the tree went up without any swears. The six pairs of plugs for connecting the built-in strings of lights were color-coded, and easy to reach and connect. And almost all of the LEDs worked, halleluiah! I pulled on a pair of work gloves and spent the next half hour fluffing out the branches. The cats helped by tasting lower branches for doneness.


Al dente, just how Horton likes it.

Next, I installed the fiber-based anti-cat tree-protection device. Very necessary when you have cats who consider the Christmas tree a great place to recreate the epic battles of history. While I enjoy a good cat fight as much as the next guy, I’d rather not lose my ornament collection as casualties of war.


Fiber-based anti-cat tree-protection device. Patent pending.

Fluffed and secured, the tree was ready to be dressed in its Christmas finest. I made myself a mug of hot chocolate, put on the Christmas radio station through the TV, and trimmed that tree like I meant it.

IMG_1085sIt ended up beautiful, and my husband was all smiles when he came home to twinkling lights in the living room. I caught him staring at the top of the tree, which is when I remembered I’d put a placeholder up there so that he could be the one to decide whether it would be an angel year or a star year. He hasn’t changed it yet, so it looks like 2013 is a Stegosaurus year. That feels just right.

Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, Part 1

It’s been Christmas around here for a while, as far as the stores and restaurants are concerned. The Jingle Bells and Holly Jollies started weeks ago almost everywhere we shop or eat, and the aisles in Target and Wegmans and Michaels are full of already-discounted decorations and holiday-themed housewares.


What, you don’t have a Christmas-themed Spreader Set? You barbarian.

I hate that I’m always pressured into starting “Christmas” immediately after Thanksgiving, but that seems to be the way it works around here. Six seconds after your first post-Thanksgiving-turkey burp, an elf pops up and yells “CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS!!! GO GO GO!!!” while waving a Macy’s Black Friday Sale flyer as a starting flag.

image from money.cnn.com


I usually resist decorating my own home and allowing the Christmas spirit to permeate my being until I can flip the calendar over to December. Too early and the music will annoy me too soon. All the snowman cookies will be eaten long before I’m supposed to leave some for Santa. And I’ll forget which presents I’ve bought for whom and end up buying much more than I need.

But this year, I started early.

I’m going to claim that this year’s super-late Thanksgiving coerced me into obeying the starting elf. A late Thanksgiving means that there are only four weekends between the holidays, which means a whole lot less time to get anything done, especially when you factor in parties and family get-togethers. I had a whole Friday to myself. I was kept from sleeping in by the army of leaf-blowers clearing the neighbor’s yard. I wasn’t going to fight the Black Friday crowds for discount cheese knives. Why not haul out all the Christmas crap and decorate?


It’s Halloween! We get quite a few trick-or-treaters around here, so I try to be ready with the good candy (always chocolate) and enough decorations to signal we’re home and ready to drop candy into pillowcases and pumpkin buckets.

The theme for this year’s pumpkin: goofy.

IMG_1070He’s even cuter when he’s lit up.IMG_1071I love Halloween. 🙂


The Smashing Of The Bunny

It’s a funny thing, to watch an octogenarian grin wickedly as she crushes a chocolate bunny’s skull in her wrinkled hands.

The Smashing Of The Bunny is a decades-old Easter tradition in my family. Every year, a large hollow chocolate creature of some kind sits at the center of our Easter table, nestled in neon plastic grass, surrounded by Hershey kisses and Cadbury Creme Eggs.  A bunny, a hen, sometimes a squirrel, quietly waiting for us to finish our plates of deviled eggs and honeyed ham.

Waiting to meet its doom.

A different executioner is selected every year, and each family member has a different signature approach to the job. My brother grips the bunny’s ears, and then delivers a sweet right hook to obliterate his belly. More than once, we had to retrieve bunny shards from the kitchen floor. My sister has a clean, top-down approach with the chocolate hens, bringing a swift fist of justice down onto her victim. I am the decapitator, squeezing the hollow neck until I feel a crack, and then lifting the chocolate head high in victory.

When I was first asked to bring dessert to Easter dinner with my in-laws, several years ago, I brought along a lovely chocolate bunny. The family was a little puzzled at first when I explained that after dinner, we would beat him into the chocolate chips from whence he came. Luckily for me, they’re more than happy to include my family’s strange ways with theirs, and we have had a Smashing Of The Bunny every year since. I’m incredibly grateful.

Because Easter isn’t over till a chocolate bunny dies.

Merry Christmas To All

Merry Christmas, everyone.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a breakfast with your loved ones and shared some smiles and hugs beside the tree as everyone unwrapped their lovingly-chosen gifts.
As with a traditional chocolate-filled Advent calendar, the doors to all my daily ornament stories were opened by Christmas Eve. I hope that some of my stories made you smile, because I had fun writing them. I got a lot of writing practice done, and I’m pretty proud of myself for getting through 25 straight days of posts. I think I’ll take a few days off now to think up some new stories and thoughts to share, and to stretch my wrists and fight off the carpal tunnel issues that are surely settling in.
Here’s a list of the ornament stories, in case you missed any:

December Blog Project

  1. The advantage of sensible shoes
  2. It’s not real, but it’s spectacular
  3. Bonjour, hi.
  4. Night Owl
  5. The Best Game you Can Name
  6. The Chocolate Moose
  7. Interdit
  8. Reindeer Prints
  9. She said Duh!!
  10. Unphotographed Memories
  11. Yes, Virginia, this is a honeymoon
  12. Chocolate Raspberry is a Gateway Coffee
  13. The Christmas Pageant Where I Was A Beet
  14. Mononuclear summer
  15. Fighting for the Top Spot
  16. The hills are alive with Mozart
  17. Cruisin’ on down to Awesomeville
  18. Ring in the Season
  19. Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves
  21. (Guest post) It’s Kind of Like They’re the Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen of Christmas Ornaments
  22. Plate it Out
  23. Home
  24. Not Pony Tails or Cotton Tails But Duck Tales (woo-oo) 
A final thought to leave you with, courtesy of Dr. Seuss:

Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to grasp.

Christmas Day will always be
Just as long as we have we.

Welcome Christmas while we stand
Heart to heart and hand in hand.

Not Pony Tails or Cotton Tails But Duck Tales (woo-oo)

This is the 24th of my “Advent Calendar” Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I’m challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it’s entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I’m sticking with them anyway.

Ducks are sleek and stately birds until they pop their heads under the surface to look for bugs. That’s when they tip ass-over-teakettle and wave their ridiculous little tails at you. It’s impossible to take a duck completely seriously, and I think that’s probably the moral of my life story.

How can you take this seriously? You just can’t.
Dave and I had one of those silly “OMG, no way” moments between us when we were first dating, when I discovered that his most beloved childhood toy was a stuffed Donald Duck. In what I thought was a world-stopping coincidence, “duck” had been my very first word, recorded for posterity in my baby book alongside a height and weight chart and a delicate curl from my first haircut. My grandmother, who lived next door to me when I was a baby, owned two geranium-filled plastic garden planters shaped like swans. Being a baby, I wasn’t familiar with the phenotypic variations between species of waterfowl, so I excitedly petted them and called them ducks. 
Obviously, fate saw these two duck-admiring children and felt it right to bring them together. Luckily, we had more in common than an appreciation for aquatic birds, and we ended up married and living happily ever after, as you do.
In our home, the duck invasion has been a slow and insidious one. There’s the big canvas print of an irritated Donald Duck placed where it can welcome visitors to our home. There’s the brown ceramic duck-shaped dish I found for Dave to put his wedding ring in at night. There’s the plush robotic Easter Bunny Donald Duck my Grandmaman sent us – he waddles in a circle quacking Polly-Wally-Doodle until you pick him up by his ears and he hollers at you in a true Donald meltdown. There’s the duck-shaped teapot Mom gave us as a housewarming gift. There are the drawer pulls Dave chose for the dresser in our bedroom, with majestic mallards on them. There are the happy yellow bride-and-groom rubber duckies who sat atop our wedding cake.
I realize that we’re absolutely doomed once we have kids. It doesn’t matter if we want the nursery to be decorated with dinosaurs or teddy bears or classic 80s music videos. We’re going to get ducks. So many ducks.
But I’m okay with that. There’s an expression “Like a duck: calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” Dave is the duck above the surface, calm and relaxed and with water flowing off his back like there’s nothing in the world that can bother him. Meanwhile, I’m paddling like mad and never feeling like I’m out of danger, never getting enough done. I think people who know us see instinctively that if you put the two of us together, you’ve got yourself a damn fine duck.


This is the 23rd of my “Advent Calendar” Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I’m challenging myself to complete it, see here. Note: it’s entirely possible some of these memories are inexact, but I’m sticking with them anyway.



I was addressing Christmas cards last week and noticed how many addresses I’ve had to cross out as friends and family pack up and move to new places. For some who moved almost annually, I started writing in pencil, because I was running out of space on the page for new addresses. I’ve had eight addresses myself, but I hope that the current one is permanent enough to be safely written in ink.


The Little House

I grew up next door to my grandmother’s house, in a tiny red house with a wide porch and a huge yard. There was a birch tree that made me sneeze, and a tamarack tree so tall that I had to lie down on the ground to see the very top without hurting my neck. We played outside a lot. So many trees, and so many summer hours spent sending maple helicopters down the winding rivers we made with the hose in the driveway. There was a path through the cedar hedge to my grandmother’s house, and we could run over for a visit anytime. We could walk to the dépanneur next door and pick out white and purple Mr Freezies from the jumbled pile in the slide-top cooler, paying for them with pockets full of piggy bank change.


The Big House

We moved to a different city, twenty minutes away, when I left elementary school. It was a split-level style, with a garage, and a huge backyard for Dad to mow and Mom to plant gardens in. Each of the three kids got our own rooms – mine was gigantic – and there were two living rooms to watch TV in. So much space, in such a classy neighborhood. But it wasn’t a happy place. There was too much anger, contempt, and bitterness in that home. Parents on the brink of divorce, and teenage kids feeling the pressure and acting out in different ways. My parents eventually split up and we had to leave the big house behind. I don’t remember very much about the big house, now. The carpets were blue. Mom planted Wisteria by the fence. I cried in my closet a lot.


The Loud Apartment

Dad went to live with his mother for a while during and after the divorce. Mom held the rest of us together and found us an apartment that we could all squeeze into. My sister moved out, and then back in when things didn’t work with her roommates. It was a second-floor apartment on a busy street. The downstairs neighbors hated us; they screamed at us through the floor, banging brooms against the ceiling, threatening us with bodily harm. They said we were too loud, but I think they hated us because we spoke English. We kept the TV quiet, went barefoot, and it was never good enough. The apartment wasn’t really big enough for us all, and my sister was sleeping in the living room. I was going to college by then, and I decided it was my duty to give everyone more space by moving in with Dad for a while, until I could get my own place.


Dad’s Place

But Dad didn’t have a place. He was still in my grandmother’s basement while he looked for a condo. I was given one of the upstairs bedrooms and I stayed a few months, but everyone’s personalities clashed and I couldn’t stay. Dad let me get a cat, to cheer me up, but it didn’t help. I had to get out, and moms being moms, I found myself immediately welcomed back to the Loud Apartment. I slept in the living room. Mom let me bring my cat.


The Nice Apartment

Mom left the Loud Apartment as soon as she was able to. It wasn’t a healthy place to live. She found a wonderful third-floor walk-up on a quiet street, a block away from a bus stop and a grocery store. We had a parking space and a square of backyard big enough for a patio set and a garden. We had big windows with wide sills for the cat to sit on and pretty views of winter sunrises through the trees. The neighbors mostly minded their own business. My brother and I each had a room, and my sister had moved out again, so we had enough space to breathe. We were happier in that apartment. Mom redid the kitchen, put up flower boxes on the balconies. She’s still in that kitchen or on those balconies with her coffee every morning. This is the place that’s brightest in my memory.


My First Apartment

When I moved to Maryland, I didn’t do it the easy way by moving in with my boyfriend. I needed my own place, to prove that I could do it alone. I got an apartment near the hospital I’d be working at, and adopted a cat so I could blame the strange night noises on his prowling. I felt safe enough there, despite the loud foreign-language fights in the parking lot at night and the time a drunk guy banged on my door asking to be let into what he thought was his friend’s place. There was a solid deadbolt on the door, and I had a vicious attack kitten to protect me. I set up cable and internet. I paid bills. I did groceries and cooked for myself every night. I dragged laundry down three flights of stairs to the dingy laundry room and wrestled with the coin slots. I did very well there on my own, but I was lonely in between my boyfriend’s weekend visits.


The Townhouse

I moved in with Dave when my lease expired. A year on my own was long enough. I loved his townhouse. We were happy there together. Parking was a creative endeavour because of how few spots were available and how many were taken up by assholes who had driveways and garages they didn’t feel like using. We tripped over the three cats or sat trapped under them on the couch while watching TV. I tried to girl the place up by planting lavender outside, but it grew to monstrous proportions, crowding the walkway with purple stems that were so heavy with bees that we were nervous about walking past. I attempted to cut and dry some in the oven… lavender is thus now forbidden from all gardens, all soaps, all candles, and pretty much everything that comes into or near our home for the rest of eternity.


Our Home

We chose this house, together, for our forever home. It’s too big, and it’s too old, and it needs too much work, but we love it. I joke that it’s made of bathrooms and built-in bookshelves, with some bedrooms and a kitchen thrown in. We’ve been here almost three years now and we’ve made incredible progress turning it into the home we want it to be. The mint green and burgundy paint is gone. The jungle in the backyard is under control and the sick trees were cut down. The silver wallpaper is gone, and the stained blue carpet is now beautiful hardwood. It’s familiar now, and comfortable. It feels like us. It smells like us. It’s home.

Plate it out

This is the 22nd of my “Advent Calendar” Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I’m challenging myself to complete it, see here.


This week, I got a brand new ornament for my tree. My friend Natasha, who sent it, also contributed a great guest post for my blog, explaining why she bought it for me. When she saw it, she was reminded of me, and of microbiology, and thought it would be a nice way to connect us across a distance. I am very touched by the gesture.

But… it’s wrong.

Not that Natasha chose badly, of course. I love it for what it is and what it represents. But the pattern on the petri dish, as pretty as it is, would likely flunk the artist right out of med tech school.

Microbiology is different from some of the other laboratory sciences, because it’s about identification more than about quantitation. When you get a blood test done, you’re getting a count of types of cells, or a measurement of the concentration of cholesterol or iron you’ve got in your body. With microbiology, it’s a murder mystery, a whodunit. The aim of the game is to label the bug that’s giving you trouble, so the doctor can deal with it properly.

I’ll get into the details in a later post (I promise) but you should know that when bacteria are put onto tasty food like what’s in a petri dish, they grow like crazy. Each individual cell stays where it lands and divides like mad, making a little spot. When you have a ton of bacteria, the spots smush together into a smear of goo. To identify the bug, we need a pure colony. Which means a spot that was made by one original bug, isolated from all the rest. We need to spread out the specimen so thin that we’re planting single bugs at a time. That’s not easy.

We use a technique of “streaking” across the quadrants of the plate.


The idea is to smear a little bit of specimen on the plate, then use a new, sterilized tool to drag a tiny amount of it over to the next quadrant. By the end, you’re dragging thinner and thinner concentrations of bacteria across the plate, and you’ll get isolated colonies that you can then run tests on.

So, while the ornament gets the gist of it, I suspect it was created by an artist who was inspired by the amazing beauty of microbiology, rather than a microbiologist who was moved to create art. Watercolor isn’t the best way to go if you’re trying to recreate the streaking pattern. A thicker paint, dragged across the page like you’d do with the bacteria, might work.

But that doesn’t mean I love it any less.