How To Start Seeds Indoors Better Than Me

One of my personal vices is that I spend way too much time on Pinterest imagining what my perfect organic, homesteading life would be like.  My chickens would happily produce big beautiful eggs not at all covered in dirt or chicken gunk in their Martha Stewart-esque coop that I built using wood I reclaimed from an HGTV reality show build  site.  I would grow heirloom tomatoes in my quaint raised bed vegetable garden conveniently free of  all pests because I dutifully planted marigolds at 6 inch intervals along the edge and scattered pepper on the ground below.  After a sunny afternoon of gratifying work I would pick a handful of perfect green beans off of the vine, go into my airy, sunlit kitchen, and create a beautiful and delicious vegetable dish that my entire family will eat without bribing, cajoling, or any other form of coercion.

Now, in reality I’m pretty sure that the chickens would try to kill me, I would kill the tomatoes for sure, no matter how many vines I planted I would still only reap one actual green bean, and no matter how much butter I put on it my children would still refuse to eat it and throw back in my face my own rule  about not eating things you pick up off the ground.  That’s just how my world works.  However early every spring I do get the opportunity to feel just a little bit like the gardening, pioneering, natural food loving person I want to be when I get the chance to start seeds inside.

Starting seeds is a totally accessible and even kind of fun activity you and your family can do to help those last winter weeks go by just a little faster.  Other than being a little dirty it’s not hard and there are a bunch of different ways to go about it so that you can be as easy and economical or as crazy sophisticated about it as you want. Here’s what you need:

Something to Plant In

You can buy special containers at the store but there are so many things that you can do with stuff around your house that there’s really no need.  Egg cartons are great for starting seeds, all you need to do is use a needle to poke a couple drainage holes in the bottom of each cup and you have a 12 seedling container right there.  Some people even use 1/2 of an egg shell itself and bury it right along with the seedling at planting time (you can do this with half of an orange or lemon cored out as well).  I’ve also seen a toilet paper roll cut in half (or paper towel roll in thirds) then put in a jelly roll pan used as a seed starter. Whatever container you use just fill it with a good quality potting soil, plant your seed and spritz with water.  Wicked easy!

egg carton

Something to Plant 

Different plants need different germinating times so here’s a handy chart I found online.  You base your time off of when you think the last frost of the spring will be so that you can grow the plant enough to be sustainable without it getting to big before you can plant it.  The last frost date in this chart is early May, which sounds about right for night temps in New England but you can fudge it a little either way depending on your neck of the woods.


I won’t plant cabbage if you won’t

Someplace to Put It

These things need lots of sunlight, like 6-8 hours a day, so in proximity to a window is good.  Some people buy special lamps but I don’t go there myself.  I have a big bay window and they get good light from there while not getting too cold.  If you put them in an outdoor sun room or something though they’ll freeze so find a good spot indoors.  My grandma used to lay them on a plastic tablecloth on one of the guest bedroom beds because it was the sunniest spot in the house.

Now Don’t Kill Them!

This is usually where my carefully laid gardening plans fall apart.  It’s actually a mild source of amusement tinged shame to me that I can keep four cats, two children, and a dog alive but give me a bunch of plants and it’s a horticultural massacre.  After trying this over and over for years though I’ve noticed that the carnage tends to occur because I either over or under water the seedlings.  They can be touchy about that sort of thing, either dying of thirst or growing all sorts of interesting fungus from being to wet.  I heard a great tip though from a friend of my mom’s who told me to water the seedlings once, then loosely wrap them in plastic wrap.  That keeps the moisture in and creates it’s own sort of ecosystem that sustains them with no further watering until it’s time to plant outside.   I’m going to give this method a try this year and see how it goes.

If this works I'm going to be so excited!

If this works I’m going to be so excited!

Planting seedlings with your family is fun and easy, even for young Tiger cub aged kids.  They feel like they’re helping spring come faster while you can talk about stuff like photosynthesis and environmental stewardship with older children.  And if it helps me feel a little like those fabulous homesteading moms that I’m so jealous of, then it’s good for me too. 🙂

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How To Build A Fast Pinewood Derby Car (or: a great way to sneak a science discussion into your car building bonding time)


One of the really neat things about America being such a large country is that seasonally, February and March look very different depending on where you live. Here in Boston we’re still looking at feet of snow still on the ground but down in Florida (where everybody in Boston wishes they were right now :)) they’re prepping for flower festivals at Disney and throwing on jackets if it dips below 60. No matter where you live though, in the Scouting world February and March mean the same thing: Pinewood Derby season.  And Pinewood Derby season means the need for speed.

With Camp Sayre in full prep for STEM Camp this April vacation (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in case you were wondering) and NASCAR driver Scotty Lagasse bringing his race car to the camp in order to teach scouts about automotive science, I thought this might be the perfect time to talk a little about the science of building a faster and furiouser pinewood derby car.  P.S.: If you’re not into the sciencey part skip ahead to the cliff notes. 🙂

The Sciencey Part

If you want to start tweaking your car to get the most possible speed you first have to know what makes the car go fast in the first place and the name of that game is energy transfer.  When a car is sitting at the top of the track, ready to go down, it’s full of potential energy (or stored energy).  Technically potential energy is mass times gravitational force times height (Ep=mgh) but essentially in pinewood derby speak it’s the weight of the car times the height of the drop.  The higher up on the track the weight is (ie the more towards the back), the greater your potential energy.

Once the race starts and the car begins to move the potential energy is transferred into kinetic energy, 1/2 the mass of the object times the speed.  Of course, the optimal word in that sentence is speed.  The more energy transfers, the faster the car goes.  That means that the more potential energy you start with the more you have to transfer to kinetic energy during the race.  Now that means that all you really have to do is put all of the weight in the back of the car and you’re a shoo in to win, right?  Nope.  Let’s talk about center of gravity.

A model balancing on it's center of gravity point

A model balancing on it’s center of gravity point

A car can be super speedy but if it’s unstable it won’t make it down the track.  You’ll crash, you’ll flip, stuff will happen and even if it doesn’t somebody who is smarter about their weight disbursement will still be faster.  All the science stuff above tells us that we want the weight towards the back but if it’s too far back you’ll pop a wheely somewhere on the drop and then it’s all, “Good try maybe next year.”  You need to place most of the weight far back enough to make a difference but forward enough to still be stable.  To help with that and translate the rest of this sciencey stuff into useful tips.  Let’s check out the cliff notes.

The Cliff Notes

To build the fastest car possible you’ll want to do these specific things:

1. CHECK THE RULES!!!  BSA has official rules but a lot of Packs add their own and you don’t want to get disqualified because you did something that you thought was OK but your Pack doesn’t allow.  That would stink!

2. Max out the weight of the car.  That’s 5 oz in the official rules and tends to stay standard.

3. You want the most weight somewhere between 1-1.5 inches from the rear axle of the car.  That will keep you stable and make you fast.

4. Create a streamlined profile.  You might not think aerodynamics would matter but this crazy physics professor out in California did a huge set of experiments with pinewood derby cars and found that an aerodynamically cut profile will beat the standard block of wood by over 5 inches (you can watch the whole thing here:


Very aerodynamic design on a cool car


Slightly less aerodynamic but still wicked cool

A low profile might not look exciting but it takes a lot of the weight of the wood out of the car and that allows you to control more of the weight and center of gravity while also reducing air resistance.  If you’re competitive enough to be reading this post, it’s totally worth it to put some thought into how you cut the car .

5. Graphite.  Graphite is a smoothing agent and reduces friction.  By now we all know what that does. The cool think about graphite is that it doesn’t really matter what type you get, they all do the same thing, so you don’t need to bust your wallet on special stuff, you can just get the cheaper kind and it will still work.

6. Raise one of your wheels. In a perfect world all of the potential energy converts over to kinetic energy during the race but unfortunately we lose some of it to friction, that’s the wheels turning on the track.  As an example think of a regular train verses one of those crazy Japanese high speed trains.  Those high speed ones work using electromagnets that suspend the train above the track, eliminating friction, that’s why they go so fast.  When you raise one of your wheels you reduce the friction points from 4 to 3 and that means less energy is lost to friction.


7. Straighten and polish your axles.  The straightening helps you keep a straight alignment so that your wheels don’t wobble as they go down the track and the polishing, again, reduces overall friction.

Now there are a  whole bunch of other things you can do in order to increase the speed of your car but really that depends on how crazy you want to get.  The most important thing though is to have fun with it.

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My (Kind of) Ode to Carabiners

Gratuitous carabiner photo

Gratuitous carabiner photo

Twas the night before Winter Camp,

And all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring,

Not even a….wait, who am I kidding? The night before Winter Camp in my house is like a twister meeting an outdoor yard sale. Swimwear and snow pants strewn across the living room floor, Walt running through the house waving two left gloves because he can’t find a matching pair, cats dashing for the bedrooms (like those are safe), and long, surprisingly engaging debate about the merits of a fluff sandwich over a fluffer-nutter. I hold the line that you can’t only have fluff in a sandwich – therefore we ended up with a bagel.

Then, right when the snow pants and swimsuits had been squashed into a backpack, the lunchboxes were made up and I’d finally convinced Grace to at least put a brush in her backpack for after the pool it comes. “Mooooooooommmmmmmm, I can’t attach my boots to my backpack!” This is a problem in my family because my children will immediately and irretrievably lose anything not physically attached to their backpacks. Lunchboxes? Lost. Water bottles? Lost. Boots last year? You betcha! So we attach everything to their backpacks. But there’s no need to fear lost boots on this trip (at least not because they weren’t attached) because of my favorite accessory in the whole wide world…the carabiner.

I love carabiners. Really, really love them. Carabiners, for those of you yet to be introduced to this most wonderful accessory, are round clippy things made of metal. A portion of one side swings in so that you can attach things to…well…other things. Technically they’re for rock climbing and they still get used by rock climbers everywhere but really they’re so, so SO much more. Quite simply the carabiner is the secret weapon of the modern world. I think that Rick Grimes could rebuild civilization after the zombie apocalypse with carabiners and duct tape. Here are just a few of the things that I have done with carabiners in the short time I’ve known them:

  • Attach a plastic bag with boots in it (or anything else) to a backpack
  • Carry multiple grocery bags at once without a huge mess
  • Pit hairbands on it and keep it in the bathroom
  • Put it in the end of a dog leash and you can use it to tie the dog if you need to for a minute. I was doing this back before I knew it was called a carabiner. I still called it a clippy thing. And LOVED it.

carabiner1 carabiner2

Today carabiners come in all sorts of colors and sizes. I even have a friend with a beautiful sterling silver bracelet that’s got a carabiner for a clasp (she’s a ropes course instructor). You can find carabiners at Home Depot, the grocery store, even Target and it’s totally worth it to pick up a few. Along with extra boots, because you all just know how this is going to end….

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How To Build A Quinzee Snow Fort In Your Back Yard

So here in the Boston area we got 2-3 feet of snow this week.  There’s so much snow on the ground that I’m measuring it by how far the kids sink into it when they go play outside.    At Camp Sayre the snow is fantastic news for those of us who have been waiting all season to show off the winter program.  Snurfing, sledding, ice climbing, it’s all open and to kick the weekend off we’re out building Quinzee snow shelters tomorrow.

A quinzee (say it kwin-zee) is kind of like an igloo made of snow instead of ice.  You start by stomping out your spot.  Use your boots to stomp out a circle big enough around to hold a couple of people.   Then you start shovelling up a big pile of snow in the circle.  And I mean BIG, think taller than an adult.  As you pile it on shape it sort of like a dome. Once you have your dome-pile you…….do nothing!  You have to let it set for a couple of hours to firm together or it will fall apart when you start to hollow it out.  Personally, I think of this as blackmailing time.  You know, “Ok kids lets go clean our rooms while we wait for the snow to set.  We’ll come back out as soon as we’re done.” (insert innocent cheery smile here)

Yeah, THIS was a good idea an hour ago in the warm house with my coffee...

Yeah, THIS was a good idea an hour ago in the warm house with my coffee…

Ok!  So a couple of hours have gone by, the rooms are clean, and the snow is all set.  Time to….get a bunch of sticks!  You don’t want to accidentally create a tunnel instead of a snow fort so you need to have a way to measure out the thickness of the quinzee walls.  Get a bundle of sticks all around the same size.  Think the distance between a grown up’s fingertips and elbow.  Then stick them all around your  dome-pile of snow at regular intervals with just a few inches of stick poking out of the top.  It should look like a giant stumpy mutant snow porcupine.  NOW it’s time to hollow out the quinzee!  A word of caution though, never do this alone.  It’s not normal but sometimes the snow can collapse in on you during construction and you’ll want a friend nearby to help you dig out if that happens.

See what I mean about the stubby mutant porcupine thing?

See what I mean about the stubby mutant porcupine thing?

Start with an entry tunnel.  If you’re super cool you can actually dig this part a little lower down and the tunnel up into the main dome part but if it all comes level that’s OK too.  Then start hollowing it out from the top down.  As you’re hollowing out the snow dome start to be careful when you can see some daylight through the snow and keep an eye out for those porcupine sticks, they’re your signal not to hollow out any more, your wall is thin enough.  This part is going to take a while, a couple of hours or so.


Oh No kids, the quinzee ate daddy!!!

Oh No kids, the quinzee ate daddy!!!

Once you’re hollowed out enough use the last of the inside snow to make a snow bed or two for you to put your sleeping bag on (this is totally optional and if you are not the Martha Stewart of snow fort builders the sleeping bag can go on the ground or a pile of snow just fine).  Keep the bed to the side and pack it down hard.  Next carefully make a few holes in the quinzee for fresh air.  Removing the porcupine sticks and carefully making one or two bigger is a handy way to do this.  One right at the top is great and sometimes people do another one or two further down on the side.   Then shovel a path all the way down to the ground leading to the opening, this will funnel cold air from your air holes out of the quinzee and away from you.  With the insulation from the snow  walls your trench for cold air the quinzee can maintain around 30 degrees even on nights that are much colder.   If you’re feeling fancy you can even carve out a shelf or so to put your lantern and snacks on.

And the Oscar for best use of air holes goes to....

And the Oscar for best use of air holes goes to….

Now you have a great backyard fort for playing and overnight camping.  If the weather stays cold it can last for the whole winter until the snow melts.  Have fun and stay warm!


Totally worth the work!

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Ice, Ice, Baby

Yes, it’s a throwback Thursday Vanilla Ice Title.  Deal with it. 🙂

After an unusually warm holiday season in Boston winter arrived with sub zero temps this week.  Now, I’m not a fan of the cold myself but for Camp Sayre this is awesome!  After weeks of waiting for it to get cold enough we were finally able to start prepping our winter weekend program and today the snow maker was running, the ice skating rink was solidifying, and ice is thickly coating lookout rock for ice climbing.  By the time we open for the weekend our full menu of winter weekend activities will be ready to go!


Snow may be the headliner for winter activities in New England but there’s a ton you can do with ice as well.  In fact ice climbing is one of our most asked about program offerings.  There are a lot of great things that you and your family can do with ice at your own house as well and you don’t even need a humungous rock.  For example, you can make ice marbles!  Here’s what you need:

  • a bunch of balloons
  • some food coloring (it won’t disperse evenly but it will look pretty)

Have your little ones drop the food coloring in the empty balloon first, then fill it with water, tie it off, and leave it outside overnight.  By morning you’ll have a solid frozen ice marble.  Check to be sure it’s frozen solid by shaking it gently and listening for liquid sloshing, if you hear anything let it set out some more until you’re sure it’s solid all the way through.

Once you know it’s solid just unwrap the balloon from around the marble and the children have made a beautiful yard ornament that will last all winter.  They can play ice marbles, try out some ice bowling, and when they’re all tired out they can just leave them in the yard and everybody thinks you went all Martha Stewart with the natural winter decorations.  If you want to get really fancy you can use a 1″ drill bit to drill out the bottom of the marble and insert an electric candle in the space.  It will glow from within when it gets dark and looks really great!

Ice marbles 1-1 icemarbles2icemarbles

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Look! Up In The Sky! It’s Some Major Astronomical Events of 2015!

A few days ago a page I follow on Facebook posted a great pic highlighting the major Astronomical events of 2015 and asked people to share with friends and family.


I thought it was pretty cool so I’m happy to oblige but before I posted I did have to look up what some of this stuff means.  In case you’re like me:

Conjunction (being in conjuncture) is when two objects in the sky look like they are passing close to each other in their orbit.  In actuality they aren’t really that close, they’re light years away from each other in some cases, but because of how we see them in the sky they look close and that can be interesting to see.

In this photo Mercury and Venus are in Conjuncture above the moon.  At least that's what Wikipedia says.  Personally I like to think it was taken on Tatooine and that little bump on the observatory is really a young Luke Skywalker..

In this photo Mercury and Venus are in Conjuncture above the moon. At least that’s what Wikipedia says. Personally I like to think it was taken on Tatooine and that little bump on the observatory is really a young Luke Skywalker.

 Opposition is when an object is at the opposite end of the sky.  In the case of most objects, including planets, this means opposite the sun and often closer than usual to earth in it’s orbit. The effect of that is the planet gets bigger and brighter in the sky.  As an example, when the moon is full it is in opposition to the sun.  If it is exactly in opposition then the earth gets in the way of the sun and moon and there’s a lunar eclipse.

You know you automatically superimposed ET and Elliot on his bike over this picture.  You know it.  I know it.

You know you automatically superimposed ET and Elliot on his bike over this picture. You know it. I know it.

In 2015 the smallest full moon of the year will be on March 5th, called a micro moon.  The largest full moon of the year will be on September 28th but it will also be in the process of a lunar eclipse, wicked cool!

Here’s a little more detail from Scott Dance at the Baltimore Sun, who added some descriptors for each event and meteor shower dates as well.

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Make New Year’s Resolutions With Your Children This Year!

Ahhhh, New Year’s resolution time.  The most well-intentioned week and a half of my year.   Over the course of my adulthood I’ve resolved everything from the standard “lose weight” to the more adventurous “write a novel” but I’m afraid I remain more pounds than pages at the close of 2014.


New Year’s resolutions aren’t bad though, in fact they’re great.  One of the things that the Boy Scout Handbook talks about -in the Leadership section no less- is that goal setting is a huge part of learning to be prepared.  After all, you can’t achieve a goal without planning out how you’re going to do it. Essentially, without being prepared to succeed.

For children though, goal setting can be a big and sometimes scary thing (come to think of it, for adults as well) so I was super excited to see that Modern Parents / Messy Kids created a free downloadable worksheet to help kids remember the great things they did in 2014 while making their own resolutions for 2015.

resolutions for kids

This worksheet is just begging to be done together with a parent and then kept stuck to the fridge with a gold star sticker next to each accomplishment.  Kids start recapping the 2014 year and remembering goals they accomplished that they might have forgotten about.  That builds confidence and helps you remember the great parts of 2014. Then it’s on to 2015 and all sorts of big plans!

What I really loved though was how it helped me open a conversation between myself and my children.  When I gave it to Grace she shocked me by saying, ” I want to stop having pizza every Friday.”  That started a conversation that was really about her wanting to spend more time cooking dinner with me and her dad. Fantastic!

So have a wonderful New Year in 2015.  May your resolutions last and your next December be full of smiles and good memories.

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How To Identify Different Evergreen Trees

Yesterday it snowed! Not the very first snow of the year but one of the firsts and it was gorgeous.  It frosted the top sides of the tree branches and, even more beautifully, covered the ugly pots left on the back porch after I killed the plants in them.  The white on evergreen combination is one of my favorite natural color pairings and now that the last of the leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees (that’s fancy-sciency for trees that lose their leaves in the winter) take a moment to show off the variety of evergreens left to your family (conifers, in case you were wondering).

Use the charts below to help you identify evergreens at a glance (Massachusetts has a lot of Pine, Cedar, and Juniper).  Make a game out of it with your little ones and before you can say I-totally-looked-up-decidouos-just-for-this-post your whole family will be able to identify evergreens for their own friends.



The Usual Suspects. Number 4 is all over my back yard. Number 1 is the murderer, and I’m pretty sure number 5 is Kaiser Soze

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Tis the season…for bird migration!


“Hey, Bob! Pull it in a little bit on the bottom, we’ve almost got it looking like Disney’s Pocahontas singing ‘Colors of the Wind’!”

Just about everybody who’s turned an eye to the sky in the past few weeks has had the opportunity to see those familiar V-ish shapes of migrating birds flying south for the winter.  But why do they do it? I mean don’t get me wrong, right about every February I’m wishing I could fly south myself to somewhere nice and warm but birds have even more complex reasons for needing to move on.  Here are just two of them to share with your family the next time you see a migrating flock.


With hearts that beat anywhere from 300-600 times a minute (the smaller the faster) birds need to eat their weight every day just to survive.  Migration allows them to find new food sources and gives depleted plants and insect populations time to recover.


You can have some great fun with the kids and help out our migrating by making birdseed molds. Get: 3/4 cup flour, 1/2 cup water, 1 envelope unflavored gelatin, 3 tbsp. corn syrup, and 4 cups birdseed Then you know the drill. Mix it, squish it in the mold, let it set, then pop it out and hang outside!


The warmer, more plentiful areas in the south often prove to be a safer place for birds to have and raise babies.  Birds often abandon their young as soon as they can fly so leaving them in a safer place with more available food is actually smart bird strategy.  (Party birds abandon their young at the University of Miami).

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30 Second Follow Up: Orion Launch Video

In case you missed it you can check out information about the Orion here:

NASA’s Orion Page

And see the launch itself here:

Orion Launch

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“Mom! The Orion Is Launching At 7:05am Tomorrow Morning!!”

That’s the excited shout that greeted me when I picked up my 7 year old little boy from school today.  It’s what he, bouncing up and down with excitement, proceeded to tell everybody he met with huge optimism  for the remainder of the afternoon as well.  “The Orion is launching at 7:05am tomorrow morning!!  We can watch it on a live stream!  Mr. V told me!!”

Just to clarify a couple of things, the Orion is a spacecraft that NASA hopes will someday take astronauts to Mars. It will be the first launch of a craft designed to carry humans outside of orbit since Project Apollo. Mr. V is our school’s gym teacher and resident space expert.  He’s met with NASA specialists, organized a Train Like An Astronaut physical fitness program at the school, and chatted online with astronauts.  Walt is fairly certain that Mr. V will someday send him POW! To the moon (though I think there may be a Honeymooners reference in that comment that’s going over his head).  In short Mr. V is awesome. He’s that dedicated and passionate teacher that excites kids enough to run up to people and exclaim, “The Orion is launching at 7:05am tomorrow morning!!”

So in honor of Mr. V here’s the link to watch the Orion launch live from Cape Canaveral, Florida. And in case you missed it, the Orion is launching at 7:05am tomorrow morning.


Look at this thing, it’s got CRAZY rocket boosters! That alone makes it one of the coolest things we’ve ever launched into space!

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What’s That In The Sky? Let’s Check The Star Chart App!

While I’m not a huge fan of cold winter nights even I have to admit nothing beats a clear winter night sky for seeing the stars.  They just seem clearer and brighter somehow in the crisp evening air.  A lot of times when I’m out with the kids though I’ll say, “Look at those stars!” and get a lackluster reply that goes something like (looking up for half a second), “Yeah, that’s cool mom.”

Then I found this app called Star Chart.  It’s a FREE app (though you can buy upgrades) and once you download it you can do something really cool.  Point your phone at a group of stars or even a cool looking part of the sky and the app will map out constellations and even provide information about their location, history, etc… for you.  In 30 seconds you can turn, “Yeah, that’s cool mom,” into, “Cool, what’s that one!”

starchart1 starchart3starchart2

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A Thanksgiving Necklace Idea

Boys Life Magazine had a great craft idea for families to make using the leftover bones from the turkey carcass this Thanksgiving, make a necklace!  Full instructions are at the Boys Life site but here’s the 30-second rundown:

Use Thanksgiving leftovers to make a turkey necklace — Boys’ Life magazine

What You’ll Need

  • Turkey bones
  • Hacksaw or coping saw
  • Stiff wire or wooden skewers
  • Dish detergent
  • Saucepan
  • 3% hydrogen peroxide
  • Knife
  • Leather lace
  • Sandpaper
  • Glue
  • Pencil or fine-tip market

What You’ll Do:

First, choose two vertebrae from the back bones and the three largest wing bones.
Add one teaspoon of dish detergent and the bones into a saucepan of water. Boil
for about an hour, rinse and let cool.  While the bones are still wet, saw the ends
off the wing bones and cut the bones as shown in the picture on the left


Next, use the wire or skewers to clean out as much marrow as possible. Scrape the outside of the bones with a knife. Boil again as in Step 2.

You can brighten the bones by soaking them overnight in 3% hydrogen peroxide. (DO NOT use bleach, which will weaken the bones.) Rinse the bones, and let them dry completely.

Sand the two vertebrae flat, glue them together and set aside to dry. Clean and sand all the necklace pieces, and slide them onto a length of string or leather lace. To keep smaller-diameter beads from sliding into larger ones, tie an overhand knot between beads.

Using your knife, carefully scratch your initials or a pattern into the bone beads. Color with pencil or marker and rub off excess, leaving a tint inside the scraping, which will make it look like scrimshaw. Seal with a thin layer of white glue.

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Making Textured Paintbrushes

Well I just sent 30+ little boys home with their own catapults and hard candy “ammunition”….

I’m thinking ahead to Thanksgiving week and the inevitable question that many parents ask themselves right before the holiday, “What can I do with the kids when they’re off of school?”  Thanksgiving itself it pretty easy, there are a ton of great ways that kids can help with cooking, but what about Friday?  And that pesky half-day, Wednesday? Enter, a great page chock full of recipes, crafts, and ideas for fun and interesting activities, like making textured paintbrushes.

All you need to do is find some differently textured materials like a bit of sponge, some wadded up plastic wrap, a bunch of leaves from outside, or yarn.  Then clip them together with clothespins and Presto!  Paintbrushes that let kids explore texture and patterns through a variety of materials.


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Engineering Some Fun

I’ve been tasked with running a STEM activity at Walt’s Cub Scout meeting this Friday. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.  A lot of people think that scouting is all about camping and fire building and knot tying but there are a ton of STEM concepts and activities that kids do through scouting.  Game Design, Robotics, Inventing, and Programming are all merit badges available to scouts interested in STEM.  However my task isn’t nearly that involved, I just need to teach a basic STEM concept through a fun activity that takes 5-10 minutes.  With that in mind I decided to do the only logical thing: rip off an idea from Camp Sayre’s STEM activity menu, specifically the plastic spoon catapult!

spoon catapult

So much yes!

This is just as awesome as it looks and even more so because it’s a requirement for Webelos Engineer Activity Badge. (On a side note, if any of you readers are on the fence about joining Scouting may I just point out that building a catapult as a family activity is a requirement in this organization!)

Here’s what you need:

  • 9 wide as you can find craft sticks (you can use Popsicle sticks but wider is better for little hands).  You didn’t hear this from me but if you’re bored at work you can also do this with pencils and torment your co-workers.  In the name of science, of course.
  • 6 rubber bands
  • 1 plastic spoon
  • mini marshmallows
  • a target.  We make towers out of plastic cups at Sayre but there are a ton of things you can use.

How to do it:

Take 7 of the sticks and rubber band them together at both ends.  This is going to be the middle part of your catapult.

Now take the remaining 2 sticks and band them together but only on one side.

Next insert the 7 stick bundle between the two sticks and slide it down as far as you can.  The further down you can get the more power your catapult will have. It should look something like this:

spoon catapult 3

Now rubber band the whole thing together and then attach the spoon with a couple more bands to the business end of the catapult.  Like this:

spoon catapult 4

Voila!  Now you have a working catapult and a budding engineer!

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Talking Turkey

A couple of years ago we had a flock of turkeys appear in our back yard on Christmas Day.  It was awesome!  For about a week.  The flock took up residence in the woods in back of the house through the winter and by February they had broken our bird feeding tray, educated us on the finer points of poultry poop, and scared off all but the most aggressive squirrels (those little red ones).  By the time they left us in March even the cats were sick of them.

Turkeys in our back yard.  I totally fed them and they stayed for three months.  Learn from my mistakes, people.

Turkeys in our back yard. I totally fed them and they stayed for three months. Learn from my mistakes, people.

All in all though turkeys are interesting creatures with some great history.  For example, contrary to popular belief, Ben Franklin never actually proposed that the turkey be considered for National bird. Instead, what he said was that the bird on the National Seal looked like a turkey and that he was “not displeased” about that because the Bald Eagle was, “…a bird of bad moral character”, whatever that means for a bird. Today 45 Million turkeys are eaten over Thanksgiving, which I suppose makes it a good thing that we chose the Eagle because I’m not really sure how I’d feel about being a country that ceremoniously eats its national bird every November.

Wild turkeys, which you might see here in New England this time of year, travel in flocks and can fly for short distances at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. They roost in trees at night to stay safe from predators.  They can be very hard to catch because not only do they see in color and sense movement from over 100 feet away but they have great hearing.  If you happen to see a turkey while driving, slow down or even pull over if you can safely, there will often be more close by in the treeline.  Look for a large feather sticking out of the chest of the turkey, it’s called a beard and only the males have it.  The males are the ones that gobble, too.  They also have brighter, more iridescent feathers and their heads can change color.  Really!  When they want to fight their head turns bright red and when they are excited it turns blue.  In fact a good rule of thumb is pretty much that if the turkey looks cool it’s a guy.

Check out this guy being all bearded and iridescent and gobbly.

Check out this guy being all bearded and iridescent and gobbly.

As cool as they can be though they are destructive in large numbers, kind of like zombies.  Don’t feed them or encourage them to hang out in your back yard.  Even if the photos of cats going crazy over them are pretty funny it’s not worth it, trust me.

"Take a good look Mittens, this is why we have the humans prepare these things for us."

“Take a good look Mittens, this is why we have the humans prepare these things for us.”

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Giving Your Child A Love: 10 Experiences You Can Give Your Child Instead of Stuff


I was in the mall yesterday, November 1st, and I saw Santa. Yes, Santa. And I thought to myself, “not yet!” I love the thankfulness and family togetherness of Thanksgiving before all of the commercialism that invades December every year and I’m just not ready for mall Santa and holiday ads yet. Granted, the irony of me thinking this while in a mall does not escape me either.

Shopping and commercialism is kind of like overeating, it’s a bad habit I don’t want to pass on to my kids. In fact this year Steve and I have been talking a lot about giving the kids experiences instead of things for Christmas. My kids have tons of things. They have dinosaurs, and dolls, and I’m pretty sure Gracie has 5 pairs of sparkly shoes. They have a million Legos and books which I’m actually ok with until I step on a Lego, but I don’t want to have another crazy Christmas with tons of presents under the tree that get ripped open over an hour or two and then played with a couple of times and forgotten about until I clean the playroom six months later. No more useless stuff! A lot of parent friends tell me the same thing. They want to give their kids a love. A love of nature, a love of science, a love of art or sports or history but a love of something that will last a lot longer than a dinosaur with a motion sensor in it that roars when you walk by. So after a ton of parental brainstorming I’ve compiled a list of ten experiences that parents can give their children this holiday season.


  1. A Special Visit To A Show

There are a ton of shows that play during the holidays and you can often get a great deal if you keep an eye on Groupon or Living Social. Don’t feel like you have to go all big fancy theater either, we scooped up two tickets to The Light Princess this season for $15 each at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, MA.

What they unwrap: The tickets and a printout of the show poster wrapped in a clothing box. I love it when they think they’re getting a crazy –don’t-make-me-put-on-the-bunny-pajamas outfit and then they don’t.

  1. Cooking Utensils And A Cookbook

Gracie loves to cook and really enjoys the feeling of presenting a meal that she has made to the family to eat. I think she also likes being in charge of me –the sous chef. This year she’s getting cooking utensils and a coupon saying “I would like to learn how to cook _________ with you this weekend.”

What they unwrap: Some brightly colored cooking utensils (you can get rainbow hued whisks, spatulas and more at places like TX Max and Kohls), a cookbook (with stuff I know I can make), and 6 coupons.


  1. School Vacation Package

My husband and I are both full time professionals so I know I’m going to be looking for fun school vacation options this February and April. I can kill two birds with one stone by registering early for Winter Camp and STEM Camp at Sayre and get $75 off on the combo registration (after all, it’s money I’m going to spend anyway). Camps in your area will also be opening registrations for school vacation options right around now and it feels really good to get that squared away before December.

What they unwrap: Tuck the registration into something small that represents the camp they’re going to. A sketch pad and colored pencils work for an art themed camp or a new bathing suit or towel for a camp that has swimming. Mine are getting the camp registration tucked in mittens for Winter Camp and I have to admit I’m going to splurge on the all female Lego Research Institute for Grace to unwrap for STEM Camp, but that’s because I want it as much as she does. The parental law of equal gifts dictates that if Gracie gets a Lego set Walt is getting a r/c race car for STEM then because NASCAR car and driver Scotty Lagasse are coming to STEM camp.

And in a selfish vein, if I do the combo, Walt is entered to win a ride to camp with Lagasse IN the racecar.

And in a selfish vein, if I do the combo, Walt is entered to win a ride to camp with Lagasse IN the racecar.

  1. A Day With An Adult Relative Of Their Choice

Ok, you’re going to have to rope in geographically close relatives on this one but sometimes it’s as much about who your child gets to spend time with as what they do. Movies with Grandma? Build a birdhouse with Uncle Rick? Once Walt got to spend the afternoon with Grampy at work (a landscaper) and he got to press the button that tipped the back of Grampy’s dump truck. Made his summer!

What they unwrap: You can do this one a few different ways but I really like the idea of making a scratch off ticket for it. On the top is the person –Grammy, Aunt Sarah, Uncle Rick and underneath is the thing they said they would do with your child –Go to a movie, visit the dog park, build a birdhouse. The child scratches off the part underneath to discover what they will be doing together. You can get some pretty simple DIY scratch ticket instructions here.

  1. A Class In Something Cool

Everybody has things that they’d like to try, even kids. Horseback riding? Rock climbing? Ice skating? There are a ton of experiences you can book as one-time things without making a huge time and money commitment.

What they unwrap: All of these places have pretty brochures. Take a couple and wrap a small gift in the brochure paper. Hand warmers in the ice skating brochure, for example. A couple of carabiners in the rock climbing brochure (these are useful everywhere. Seriously, everywhere).

Some everyday uses for a carabiner.  I hear you can climb rocks with them too.

Some everyday uses for a carabiner. I hear you can climb rocks with them too.

  1.  A Camping Trip To Look Forward To

Some of the most popular camping sites book way in advance but if you snag one now for a weekend next summer your child will have something to look forward to for months!

What they unwrap: Here’s where you can go big! Wrap up a sleeping bag and a pillow (they’ll need them anyway) in tissue paper tied at the ends like a giant piece of candy. If your child is a little older -and ready- you can make it even more special by giving her a first time responsibility. For example, wrap up a flint and steel and write a note with it that says, “This year YOU get to build the campfire!”

  1. A Museum Membership

It can be a little expensive but you’ll use it all year and there are a ton of cool options to choose from. A really reasonable one is the Peabody Essex Museum. It has a lot of family friendly exhibits including a house from southeast China that you can walk through. They also offer (insert shameless scouting plug here) half day merit badge and belt loop programs for scouts in a bunch of cool areas like sculpture and Indian Lore.

What they unwrap: I say on this one, go for it! Museum of Science? Microscope. Peabody Essex Museum? Kids paint by numbers set or a mini pottery wheel. Have fun with it!


  1. Something They Can’t Get Anywhere Else

All areas have this thing. Here in Massachusetts we have a place called Battleship Cove. It’s an experience museum on a big WWII battleship and destroyer. They have a helicopter collection. You can eat in the mess hall and sleep overnight on the battleship in a hammock.  They have Veterans come to talk to visitors during special weekends. Crazy history coming alive type stuff! Your town is going to have the same thing and chances are that if you don’t know right off the top of your head what it is your other parent friends will.

battleship cove

What they unwrap: This is going to be a kind of specialized thing. If I were doing the Battleship Cove experience as a gift I’d wrap up a Battleship board game that we could play together as a family. You should be able to find something similar that will represent the experience and be more to unwrap than a ticket printout.

  1. A Trip

This could really be any family day or weekend together but I like a ski trip because I can get them a lesson, which gives my husband and I a chance to do a little more than the bunny slopes, and I can drink cocoa in front of a fire back at the lodge. Wachusett Mountain is a good family ski area and Attitash is really nice too and in a very family friendly area. If you just want to do an it’s-my-first-time-be-gentle thing, try something small like the Blue Hills Ski Area in Milton, MA.

What They Unwrap: Hats, Mittens, boots, you can outfit their whole winter here and they’ll be wicked excited about it! Put a copy of one lift ticket in each boot, the reservation for the lesson in the hat, and the brochure in the mittens and they’ll be unwrapping the whole outfit to figure out their itinerary!


I know it sounds like a cop-out but it’s totally true. I work a lot of hours and sometimes when I get home all my kids want is time with me. This year I’m giving each of them a day when I’ll take off of work, keep just that child out of school, and have a special day together. They can each pick the day’s plan, we’ll eat at a restaurant of their choice, and I’ll make their favorite dinner. No work allowed. Only special family time. I know I might catch some flak for this and if they weren’t keeping up in school we’d do a weekend day, but it feels off to get them all excited about this (because they will get all excited about this) and then say, “Not till summer.”

What they unwrap: I’m making a Mad Lib where they fill in the story of our day (see below) and getting a frame from the dollar store to keep it in their room until the day, when we’ll take a photo together and put that in the frame instead.

Gracie and Mommy and the Story of January 15

On January 15 Gracie and Mommy are spending the day together! We will have lots of ________________(thing). In the morning we will have ____________________(food) for breakfast. Then we will not do the dishes! Instead we will go to ______________________________(a place) and do ______________________________________________________________(an activity). Then we will have lunch at _____________________________________________________(Gracie’s favorite restaurant). Dessert will be served! After lunch we will _____________________________________________(an activity) and if we have time we might even ______________________________________________ (another activity). Then we will go home and we will make _________________________________________________________(favorite food to make) together for dinner. After dinner we will all ________________________________________________________ as a family before bed.

Now we won’t be doing all of these this year and I’m pretty sure that there will be some useless stuff under the tree but it’s a start.  If one of the kids develops her love of cooking or discovers that he loves to ski it will be worth so much more than any toy or sparkly thing.  It will be priceless.

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Make a Swedish Torch For A Warm Campfire on Cool Nights!

At Camp Sayre one of the big debates we hear among the boys (and adults) at the Ax Yard and Outdoor Cooking areas is about campfire construction:  log cabin versus teepee style.


It’s a little harder to construct but with the TeePee style the cone takes advantage of the rising heat produced from the lit kindling.

Log Cabin Campfire

The log cabin campfire is a classic structure and pretty easy to put together. It allows air flow and elevates kindling above the initial flames of the tinder placed within the structure.

Personally I was a DuraFlame Log kind of gal until Walt joined scouting but last spring a great older scoutmaster introduced me to something new: the Swedish Torch.  A Swedish Torch takes one large round and splits it 6 ways, with a chainsaw if you have it but an axe works too. The trick is to try not to cut all the way through but if you do you can use a pulled-apart wire coat hanger to bind the pieces together.  Once you have the cuts made you can use tinder or even a small candle placed in the center to start the wood burning and it will burn from the inside out.  Very cool!  Since it’s all one piece it’s also super easy to transport and fits compactly even in a backyard fire pit.  It also usually has a flat top so you can even cook on it!

swedish torch           swedish flame

Swedish Torches can even be found sometimes pre-cut in grocery stores and if you have the chance to try one out it’s a cool way to do a fall campfire or even a little backyard outdoor cooking.

Good Scouting!

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Days Getting Shorter, How About Shadow Animals?!

If you looked at a picture of the earth in space it would look pretty straight floating there, right?  Well, it’s not!  The earth actually tilts in relation to the sun at an angle of about 23 degrees.  The result of that is that as the earth orbits the sun over the course of a year there are to be times when one side is exposed to the sunlight a little longer and the other side is dark a little longer.  In the summer time our side of the earth is exposed to the sun longer, making for longer (and warmer) days.  In the winter, our days get shorter and colder. 

There’s still alot of great stuff you and your family can do during shorter days though, like making shadow animals!  Take a look at the chart below and have a great time one evening after dinner making shadow animals with your children!


Can't get it just right?  That's ok, let the kids imagine that it's a brand new type of animal.

Can’t get it just right? That’s ok, let the kids imagine that it’s a brand new type of animal and make up a name for it!


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Watch the Partial Solar Eclipse Tomorrow With Your Family

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and Earth so that the Moon blocks out all or part of the Sun.  Tomorrow the northern hemisphere, and the West Coast especially, will have good viewing of a partial eclipse. The North East will have best viewing around sunset, and you can expect to see about a quarter of the sun blocked.

partial eclipse

Experts recommend not looking at the sun directly but there are several types of viewers that you can make with your scout in order to see this event safely. To make a 30-second pinhole camera, punch a small hole into a piece of cardboard or heavy, dark paper that will block out most of the light. Hold a white piece of paper a few feet away, altering the distance in order to focus the eclipsed sunlight.

pinhole camera

Here a tiny hole in a piece of cardboard serves as a fast and easy pinhole viewer. You’ll need to play around with the angle a little to get it to focus.

If you have a little more time you can make a more elaborate version still using items from around the house.  You can check out a step-by-step method for making a pinhole camera out of a toilet paper role here from

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Why Does Popcorn Pop?

Popcorn is one of the most popular snacks in America and movie theaters have been selling it since 1912!

A kernel of popcorn contains just a small amount of water. When these kernels are heated, the water turns to steam and the kernels “pop.” Popcorn is different than many other grains because its shell is not water permeable, making it possible for pressure to build up until the kernel finally explodes. A kernel will pop, on average, when it reaches 347° Fahrenheit.

photo (3)

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Picking A Perfect Pumpkin -Six Easy Tips

One of the best parts of Fall is picking out the family’s fall pumpkin.  Farms, Fall Festivals and nurseries all offer a wonderful variety of great gourds to choose from.  Here are a few tips to help you make the perfect pumpkin pick:

  • Choose a pumpkin that feels firm and heavy for its size.
  • Choose a pumpkin that has consistent coloring.
  • Turn the pumpkin over and place pressure on the bottom with your thumbs. If it flexes or gives your pumpkin is not fresh.
  • Look for soft spots, mold, wrinkles or open cuts that would indicate damage or early spoilage.
  • Choose a pumpkin with a solidly attached stem, a green stem indicates a freshly harvested pumpkin.
  • Place your pumpkin on a flat surface to check to see if it will sit flat after being carved.

Fall festivals offer a lot of great family activities like pumpkin mini golf, pumpkin bowling, and hayrides. Pumpkin Fest 2013 at Camp Sayre gave away over 1,000 pumpkins to visitors!

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Spider Identification -Who’s That Guy On The Windowsill?

-Great for Nature Merit Badge or Making the Collage in Wildlife Conservation Belt Loop

Spider  identification is a fun way to engage your child in the nature around your house and yard.  The next time you see an 8-legged friend, pull up the chart below and try to figure out what kind of spider he is.   Kids who are afraid of spiders will be less likely to get scared when you engage their curiosity and arachnophiles will love getting a closer look.


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Orionids Meteor Shower Peaks October 21-22

The Orionids is a meteor shower produced by dust grains left behind by Halley’s Comet, which has been known and observed since ancient times. The shower runs annually from October 2 to November 7. It peaks this year on the night of October 21 and the morning of October 22. This will be an excellent year for the Orionids because with the new moon on October 23 there will be no moonlight to interfere with the show. Best viewing is after midnight but if you have school-aged astronomers waking up early (around 5am) might be better. Meteors will radiate from the upper right area of the constellation Orion, but can appear anywhere in the sky.


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Why Do Leaves Change Color In The Fall?

A great conversation for Boy Scouts earning Environmental Science Merit Badge and Cubs learning about nature.


Chlorophyll gives leaves their green colour and is so dominant it hides the other colours in the leaves.  But in the fall, chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down due to lack of sunlight and that breakdown allows the other colors to come through in beautiful reds, yellows, and oranges.

Have your Scout (Cub or Boy) identify some of the leaves in the backyard.  If he’s older he might pick up on the fact that different species of tree change to their own particular shades, making it easy to identify trees in fall, even from far away!

 leaf chart leaf chemistry
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Shark Tracker

Track Sharks With OSEARCH
A fun tool for Science Belt Loop or Oceanography Merit Badge


The OSEARCH Global Shark Tracker tracks close to 50 sharks as they swim in real time across the ocean, teaching researchers about shark swimming patterns, currents, and even the effects of Global Warming! Search for Katherine and you can see her progress up the East Coast over the past few months to Welfleet just last week.  sharktracker

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Egg Carton Nature Walk

A Fun Activity for Cub Scout Families

The next time you have an empty egg carton take it with you on a nature hike around your neighborhood. In the bottom of each cup, write a description like hard, smooth, rough, prickly, etc.  The your children can look for something on their hike to put in each cup.

The Blue Hills, home of Camp Sayre, has many great trails for weekend family hikes.

The Blue Hills, home of Camp Sayre, has many great trails for weekend family hikes.

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