Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Valentine's Day Crafting

Valentine's Day is only a couple of weeks away - it's time to start thinking about starting those holiday crafts with the kids! Here are some of my favourite finds this year:

Happy Valentine's Day!

Valentine's Day Heart Crafts

Little Love Bugs Valentine Craft


Monday, 26 January 2015

Winter Crafting

My creative little middle child and I have been whiling away our winter afternoons with some fun cold-weather crafts these last few weeks. He loves coming up with ideas for crafts on his own and trying out different materials and methods to make them work or putting his own unique spin on a craft project he did at school or saw in a book or on a show. Winter is a great time to stretch his imagination when the cold keeps us stuck indoors anyway and since Christmas vacation he's been keeping his crafting winter-themed.

Kitchen Foil Winter Trees

kitchen foil winter tree craft, crafts, kids crafts, winter crafts




















Winter Wonderland Painting


winter wonderland painting, crafts, kids crafts



Snowman Chalk Drawing


snowman chalk drawing, crafts, kids crafts












Paper Snowflake Winter Trees

paper snowflake winter trees, crafts, kids crafts















marshmallow snowmenAnd what better snack to serve my creative little guy in his winter wonderland of crafts than some marshmallow snowmen?

Welcome winter - and happy crafting!




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Friday, 23 January 2015

Indoor Winter Activities

It's easy enough to keep kids entertained outdoors on wintery days: skating, sledding, snowforts, snowball fights, building snowmen, winter walks or just playing at the park - as long as everyone is bundled up well there's plenty to keep little ones entertained outside during the long winter months.

But what of those days when it's just too damn cold to go outside? When the windchill drops down below -20 or -30 degrees and the air hurts your skin and the cold seeps through your clothes no matter how many layers you put on?

Curling up on the couch for a family movie together is always fun, and the kids love playing video games - but we make an effort to limit screen time. Board games and card games are always lots of fun - but there are only so many times you can play Scrabble and Uno and Monopoly before you've Just. Had. Enough.

Lego projects and construction toys are lots of fun and a fantastic way for kids to use their imaginations and keep busy all day long. My older boys and I have always been into crafts and we love to take our projects to the next level, taking little craft ideas and adding to them and building them up into epic, multi-phase, all-day projects. These epic crafts a great way to keep kids engaged and creative.

science at home
My eight-year-old is still very into creating and crafting and coming up with cool projects of his own, but my oldest, at ten, is growing out of that interest. These science kits were an awesome alternative activity. We broke them out this week and spent a happy several hours putting together our aquariums and studying earth and environmental science.

science at home
Middle Child is growing his own prehistoric triops pets from eggs and learning all about their characteristics and habitats. Oldest Child is growing an underwater rock crystal garden and studying crystals and how they grow.


What a fun little project to keep the kids engaged and having fun while learning during those cold winter days stuck indoors!


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Under the Sea Pom-Pom Creature Craft

Monday, 19 January 2015

Wallet-Friendly Winter Fun

We've had pretty decent weather this winter so far - just cold and snowy enough for outdoor winter fun, but not quite cold enough to be miserable. It's still winter, though - none of us really want to be outside unless we absolutely have to.

It's tempting, as we try to entertain our children through these long winter months, to pull out our wallets and plunk down our dollars for indoor playplaces, movie theatres, trips to the aquarium and the science centre, weekends away, and even to plan out extravagant vacations down south.

But it's not necessary.

Children, somehow, don't feel the cold if there's fun involved. I am most definitely not a winter person. I hate the cold, I hate the slush, I hate the wind; hats and scarves make me itchy and no matter what boots I wear my feet always freeze; I don't ski or snowboard or snowshoe or ice skate. For me, outdoor fun means swimming and biking and hiking and sitting in the sun, preferably with a nice cold drink. Slush is for margaritas, and frost is for a glass on a hot summer afternoon.

My children disagree.

So, dutiful Mommy that I am, every day with snow on the ground finds me braving the winter wonderland that is this part of Canada in January, bundling up the boys in their snowsuits, hats, mitts and scarves and heading out for some outdoor winter fun.

And there is a lot of free winter fun to be had.

Head out into the backyard and build a snowman. We have a "snowman" hat, scarf and mittens on a shelf in the closet saved just for that purpose. Build a snowfort or an igloo, then have a snowball fight.

Snow "grafitti" is always fun - fill up a spray bottle with water and food colouring and let the kids go crazy "painting" the snow in the yard.

Further afield than your own backyard you can have lots of fun with the same activities that fill the summer days - playing at the park, hiking through the ravine, and climbing at the playground.

Sledding is a perennial winter favourite. My boys can happily spend three hours trooping up and down our favourite local hills with their sleds and never feel the cold.

There's skating year-round at community arenas, of course, but during the winter months most communities maintain free outdoor rinks as well.

And of course no day of outdoor winter fun is complete without a big mug of steaming hot chocolate at home by the fire to finish off the afternoon.

There really are so many fun, wallet-friendly activities to do outside with the kids in the winter - it's just that it's so cold out there! But an active afternoon outdoors without spending a penny is a lot healthier and more beneficial for our families than hibernating indoors and inactive, spending a small fortune on unnecessary activities.


Originally published as "Wallet-Friendly Family Winter Fun" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com

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Friday, 16 January 2015

Back to Reality

January means back to reality.

As the temperatures drop dramatically from the mild early winter days of December when we cozy up for Christmas break into the breath-catching iciness of January and we're left staring down months of bleak winter weather, we're slapped with the reality that the holidays are over for another year and it's time to slip back into the regular routine of life.

It's hard not to feel a sense of letdown at this time of year as we abruptly switch gears from the holiday season back into our ordinary everyday.

There's such a build-up to Christmas - the neighbourhood houses strung with twinkling lights, the garland and red ribbons wrapped around every porch, the glittering ornaments dripping from trees and decorations crammed into every corner, the cheerful carols piping through every speaker.

There are weeks and weeks of fun activities for the kids - Santa Claus parades and storytime with Mrs. Claus, the Christmas play at the community theatre and the town tree lighting ceremony, the ritual of picking out and bringing home the Christmas tree, writing and posting letters to Santa and visiting him at the mall, Christmas crafts and Christmas baking and Christmas movies and specials on tv.

There's that cozy-warm feeling of family. There's the children's excitement. There's the anticipation of something big and special just around the corner. There's the sparkling magic of Christmas itself.

There's the utter joy of having the kids home all day, every day - lazing around in jammies until afternoon, hours of board games and card games and movies, snowforts in the backyard and sledding at the park and skating at the outdoor rink, playing with all the new Lego sets and video games, staying up late for movie nights and slumber parties with popcorn and hot chocolate.

And then - snap - it's back to reality.

Back to school, back to work. The tree is down, the decorations are packed away, the lights have been unplugged. The cozy-warm glow of December has given way to the stark, glaring white of January and a new year.

Another holiday gone, another year passed.

I'm trying to live in these moments and cherish this time making memories and living and loving. But it's hard not to feel wistful as time keeps marching on and my babies just keep growing up.


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Monday, 12 January 2015

Vacation Planning

It's that time of year. The flurry of activity leading up to Christmas has passed, the mild December days have frozen over into January iciness, winter is here with a vengeance and seems to be settling in for a good long stay. The holidays are over and we're staring down seemingly endless months of cold, bleak, wintery weather without a break.


It's time to start planning a vacation.

For our family, this time of year is spent planning and organizing and building up excitement for our annual March Break trip to Walt Disney World.

We started this tradition when our eldest children were four and six years old. At the time, it was a very big deal. I had spent years rebuilding my life post-divorce - re-entering the workforce, paying off debt from my previous marriage, raising the boys on my own, beginning a new relationship - sorting out leftover problems from the past while trying to plan for the future and still be a hundred percent in the present for my boys. It took a long time and a lot of work, but I finally arrived at the point where we could live our lives in the present and look toward the future; my divorce was finalized and I'd paid off my debts from my previous life, I'd started my own business that was flourishing and was work I actually enjoyed, my husband and I were married and we were saving to purchase our first home together and planning for another child. Life was pretty much perfect.

Because for the first time in my children's lives I was able to provide more than just the basics for them, I wanted to do something amazing and special that they'd remember for the rest of their lives. I hadn't been on a vacation in over ten years, and my boys had never been further from home than their grandparents' cottage.
Those Disney commercials always reduced me to tears - the families surprising their kids with an early Christmas present of a trip to Walt Disney World, the parents and kids hand in hand in front of Cinderella's castle, the little girl in a princess costume seated high up on Daddy's shoulders, the little boys with the pirate swords jumping up and down with excitement meeting Buzz Lightyear. I wanted that so much for my boys.

And finally, after years of struggle, we could give it to them.

My husband and I spent months planning that first Disney trip. We ordered the vacation DVD and sat down to watch it with the kids, poring over the brochures and maps and guidebooks that came in the package while the kids pointed and exclaimed at everything they saw on the screen. We spent hours every evening curled up in front of the computer exploring every inch of the resorts, the theme parks, the restaurants, the rides, trying to narrow down our options and plan out the most perfectly perfect trip for our boys. As far as we knew, this would be a once in a lifetime trip. It had to be perfect.

We finally came up with the ultimate dream vacation for our family: a week at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort with its secluded white sand beaches, six pools, shipwreck splash pad, Spanish fortress with waterslides and cannons and caves, pirate-themed suites complete with pirate ship beds and the central Old Port Royale area themed after Pirates of the Caribbean. For our two little pirate-crazy boys and their sun-and-sand-loving parents, nothing could be more magic or memorable or quintessentially Disney. After months of planning out every last detail of the trip, weeks of shopping and packing, and daily discussions over dinner about all the amazing adventures we were going to have, March Break finally arrived and we loaded up the car for a long road trip and our first family vacation.

It was everything we ever could have hoped for and wished for and so much more.

It was a week of magic and excitement and endless treats and new experiences for all of us.

Even the road trip, twenty-four hours of driving with two little boys, was all part of the adventure and fun.
I kept welling up with tears all week - eating breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, watching the boys building castles on the beach, listening to them squeal with excitement when the bucket tipped over and soaked them in the splash pad, waiting in line for Splash Mountain, shaking hands with Buzz Lightyear and Woody, watching the fireworks over Cinderella's Castle as Tinkerbell twinkled across the sky above our heads. It was all just so magical, and so seemingly out of reach just a few short years earlier. My husband I kept looking at each other over the children's heads, reaching for each other's hands and grinning like goofs. We just couldn't believe we were really there - we couldn't believe we'd pulled it off, we couldn't believe how far we'd come, we couldn't believe we were able to do this for our boys. We were so proud of ourselves.

We've been lucky enough that we've been able to take them on this same magical trip almost every year since. It has become one of our family's traditions, and we love being able to spoil ourselves and our kids with such an amazing March Break. We all look forward to it for months and start the daily countdown right after Christmas. And though nothing will ever compare to the heart-aching happiness or the joy in our boys' faces that very first year, our annual Disney vacation is something we plan for and look forward to all year long - particulary during these long, cold months when the new year is fresh.

We have our Disney trip savings built right into our monthly budget so that there are no surprises when it comes time to pay for the trip. Last year we had a few financial bumps in the road and weren't able to set aside enough in time; but as tempting as it was to dip into credit to carry on the tradition, common sense won out and we skipped our Disney trip that year. We spent March Break at home, field tripping to Legoland and the Science Centre and the zoo, swimming at the community centre and skating on the pond and going to the movies, building snowforts and playing board games and having playdates with friends. It was a lot of fun - but it made the winter seem very, very long without that sunny break to look forward to. We increased our savings for this year, carefully budgeted and scouted deals and offers and booked our trip well in advance and are already busy planning out our sunny March Break days.

Originally published as "Vacation Planning" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com


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Friday, 9 January 2015

Home Daycare & Life Decisions

I'm offering this post by way of explanation and apology for how this blog has looked of late. Explanation for the "tired mom" and financial-related posts and "filler" posts to fill the gaps between posts where I actually have something to say.

I've been busy. Busier than usual, believe it or not.

In addition to all the other paid work I do - my part-time job, my freelance gigs, the personal training, the writing, the various blogs; in addition to managing two soccer teams and volunteering for school council; in addition to full-time at-home mommying my three boys; in addition to everything else I'm now running a full-time home daycare.

I know. I've talked about this. It's something I said I'd never do.

It sort of happened by accident.

Earlier this year, my neighbours were at loose ends trying to cut down their child care expenses between their various daycare and babysitting arrangements. Hoping to supplement my income until our youngest starts school next fall and I can return to work full-time, I offered to help out on a part-time occasional basis. Part-time. And occasional. I gathered information from other home daycare moms, I discussed arrangements with my neighbours, I prepped my own kids and wrapped my mind around the idea of taking someone else's kids into my home and caring for them part-time.

We arranged a start date and started. Then stopped. Then started again, after a while, then stopped again without notice. It occurred to me that these people were the flakiest human beings I'd ever met and I was probably better off not relying on any commitment they might or might not make.

Months passed, then out of nowhere last fall I got an email from them re-confirming prices and asking a bunch of questions. I sighed and responded, not at all sure I even wanted to bother anymore. But no harm in responding - no commitment - a day or two here or there wouldn't hurt and a couple of extra dollars in the Christmas budget would be great!

And then the bomb dropped - my neighbours were splitting up, the house was for sale, they were trying to cut costs everywhere and oh hey, would I mind starting full-time daycare for their two kids all day every day starting that Monday?

What the hell could I say at that point? I didn't want to run a home daycare. I certainly didn't want to do it full-time. But I didn't really feel like I could say no.

We struggled with the decision, my family and I. My older two boys wouldn't like having the kids here - the neighbours' kids are younger, and very young for their ages. We'd lose some of our family time together - and family time is very important to us. And I might just absolutely hate it. BUT, the income would ensure that I could stay home with my baby this one final year before he starts kindergarten and we'd still be able to afford our spring break Disney trip, the boys' hefty rep sports fees, a couple of home renos we've been waiting on, and all the little treats and extras we love to spoil our family with. And I didn't feel like I could say no.

Fast forward a couple of months - and I guess it hasn't been the worst thing ever.

But it hasn't been the greatest.

I've appeased the older kids by moving a small TV and the Playstation into their bedroom and buying them their own tablet to share - and relaxed the "no videogames on weekdays" rule during the hour and a half after school that the little ones are still here. Most days they just hide out in their bedroom reading and playing until the neighbours' kids clear out, or I set the little ones up in the playroom and play a board game with the older ones - it's a pretty small trade-off for treats like a Disney trip, rep sports, and having Mommy home every day. As far as our family time goes that hour and a half when all five kids are here are really spent so busy with snacks, homework, dinner prep and getting organized for our evening sports that there's not all that much of a difference.

The time during the day with the youngest boys - my son and the neighbours' - is different. I definitely miss my alone time with my baby - and he with me. I'd hoped, since the boys are so close in age, that they'd make perfect playmates; but though the little boy I'm watching is six months older than my son he's a year or more behind him developmentally and my boy is often frustrated by him. It's been an adjustment. A big one.

And as for me - well, I don't hate it; but I don't love it. I don't know how long this will continue - the neighbours could flake out tomorrow or next week, or I could just finally reached the end of my patience - but at the absolute most it could conceivably carry on until the end of the school year. My baby boy starts kindergarten next year and I will be returning to more full-time work. I will not be doing any daycare. This summer will be the last before all three of my kids are in school. I will not sacrifice my summertime with my boys.

But in the meantime - I'm a little extra tired every evening, I'm up a little later meeting deadlines and catching up on work I don't have time to do during the day. I'm operating on even less sleep and even fewer hours than usual and a few things have been falling by the wayside - but I will still be here, at least twice a week, and I will do my absolute best to make each post a post that actually means something. Because this blog means something to me.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Holiday Spending Hangover

Christmas has passed and the holidays are ending. The grown-ups have gone back to work and the kids are on their way back to school. The new toys have been organized into the playroom, the boxes and gift bags and wrapping paper have been put out with the recycling and the tree is at the curb. The decorations have been taken down and wrapped in tissue and packed away until next year.

Unfortunately, now is when the Christmas bills are coming in.

You know, for those dozens and dozens of toys that were piled under the tree on Christmas morning? That great big bag of gifts you brought to your parents' place Christmas night for all your brothers and sisters and their kids? Those couple of last-minute things you picked up because your nephew loves Thomas and your niece would adore that princess doll and you couldn't decide between serving sets for your mom so you just bought both? That last-minute flurry of shopping you did because your eldest changed an item on his wish list and it messed with your carefully-planned balance of gifts between kids so you just threw your hands up and bought them all more? Those bills.

The best way to avoid the post-Christmas bill nightmare, of course, is not to overspend in the first place. Careful planning will help keep you from spending more than you should - but only if you stick to the plan. Probably the most critical is not to use credit to finance your holiday shopping. Unless you have the cash to pay that credit card bill sitting in your bank account right now, don't pull out that card.

This is a lesson I learned the hard way over a decade ago when I was a twenty-something just starting my family and living outside my means to finance our lifestyle.

Credit can be such a temptation - the trick is to stop viewing it as money available to spend. Once you get in that cycle of relying on credit to fill the gaps or get you ahead it seems almost impossible to dig yourself out - but it can be done. Put yourself on a tighter budget for your other expenses and force yourself to stick to it. Throw the rest of your disposable income at your debt until it's eliminated. Once it's gone you won't believe how much extra money you suddenly seem to have each month or how much better you feel without that worry hanging over your head.

So take those January credit card bills and open them up. Draw in a deep breath and look at the frightening figure at the bottom of the page. We've all been there. Now take out your pen and paper and figure out - realistically - your monthly budget. Mortgage, house insurance, household bills, car payments, car insurance, gas, groceries, clothes, spending money, bank fees, savings. Add it all up. Write your monthly income in a column next to it. Reduce your variable expenses wherever you can - groceries, clothing, odds and ends. Then take the surplus and throw it at your debt. You'll need to commit to keeping yourself within that tight budget for however long it takes to pay off all the debt - but once it's gone you'll have all that extra money to reincorporate into your monthly budget.

And next Christmas, plan ahead by setting aside a little bit each month to be used for gifts. I set my gift budget in advance for the year and put aside what I need every month all year long. It's a wonderful feeling when January arrives without any extra bills!

Originally published as "Holiday Spending Hangover" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com

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