15 Ways to Make Your Backyard a Perfect Park for Kids

15 Ways to Make Your Backyard a Perfect Park for Kids

These are the ways that we have transformed our backyard into a super fun and engaging backyard haven for our five young children. We have about an acre of fenced in land behind our house, and with everything we have created, built, and purchased, we are very content to just stay home and enjoy ourselves. This works out especially well right now seeing as how we have a newborn this summer!

I believe that children should be free and have autonomy to choose their own activities and be independently entertained. I also believe in giving kids as many natural settings and experiences as I can to help them develop their creative and imaginative minds. By incorporating these things into our yard over the past three years, I think we have done just that.

Here’s a video of our yard as we gear up for summer.

1. Sandbox

When we moved into our house three years ago, building a sandbox was the first thing we did, and our children LOVE it! They play in it every single time we are outside.

Our Sandbox

Our Sandbox

2. Stock Tank Swimming Pool

We wanted a durable swimming pool that all of us could fit in that wouldn’t break the bank, and this stock tank swimming pool has been perfect! Learn how we made stock tank pool here.

Stock Tank Swimming Pool

Stock Tank Swimming Pool

3. Garden

Our kids love every aspect of gardening from preparing the soil, to planting the seeds, to harvesting the garden. It’s a lot of work to put it in, but I love maintaining it and reaping the benefits. Read about the benefits of gardening with kids as well as to see the gardening tips and tricks I have here.

Ruby Picking Beans in Our Garden

Ruby Picking Beans in Our Garden

4. Obstacle Course

Our kids love challenging themselves with this simple obstacle course put together with nothing more than some old tires, boards, and a few screws.

Our Backyard Obstacle Course

Our Backyard Obstacle Course

5. Teepee

I got the idea for this teepee from the one my mom made in their field and from the one at Blanford Nature Center in their natural play area. Every year we add more sticks, stalks, old vines, etc. to it, and the kids love using it for imaginative play.

Our Backyard Teepee

Our Backyard Teepee

6. Stepping Stumps

This was another idea I got from Blanford Nature Center. Whenever we see someone chopping down a tree, my husband races over with his pick up truck to collect the stumps. The kids love walking back and forth on them and jumping into the sand that is piled below.

How to Make Stepping Stumps

How to Make Stepping Stumps

7. Hills

The first hill we made was unplanned. As we were digging up the sod for our sandbox, we decided to pile it up making a little hill. We were surprised at how much our little ones loved running up and down it, so we got some dirt and added a few more. This slide has also been a really fun touch.

Our Big Hill

Our Big Hill

8. Tent

I love setting up an outdoor tent in the spring, summer, and fall as both a holding tank for blankets, toys, and books, as well as a retreat for anyone wanting to duck away from the wind, cold, sun, or people.

Our Backyard Tent

Our Backyard Tent

9. Sports Equipment

I love having a basket with a variety of sports equipment that the kids can use freely. We have soccer balls, jump ropes, hula hoops, frisbees, baseball bats and balls, rubber kick balls, and more.

Sports Equipment

Sports Equipment

10. Swing Set

We initially got a swing set like this at our local shopping market, but we always wanted a big wooden structure like this. As luck would have it, we knew someone getting rid of one for free! It took three guys seven hours to take apart and put back together, but it has been perfect for our older children.

Swing Set

Swing Set


Wooden Play Structure

Wooden Play Structure

11. Electric Cars

For a brief time in my childhood I remember having electric cars, and my brother and I LOVED them! We now have an electric dune buggy, jeep, and mini four wheeler for our kids, and they get used every time we go outside. This is the 3rd summer we’ve had them, and with the exception of some new rechargeable batteries, they have held up very well.

Julian and Ophelia in an Electric Car

Julian and Ophelia in an Electric Car

12. Water Pouring Station

In the winter, I have been brave enough to bring this inside, but in the summer, it is so nice to have the mess outside! My little ones play with this water table every day. I like having some kind of table (like this tool bench) nearby to hold the cups, teapots, buckets, and other pouring supplies. I also love having it near the sandbox so they can incorporate sand into their water play.

Water Pouring Station

Water Pouring Station

13. Playhouse

Having a playhouse encourages all kinds of imaginative play. The kids love this one especially because of the little seats, windows that open and shut, and small door. We usually pick a spot for the house to stay for the season because it kills the grass underneath, but you could always move it around.

Playhouse

Playhouse

14. Mini Kitchen

With the mini kitchen, we also have a kids sized picnic table, mini grill, and baskets of play food and plastic dishes. The kids love preparing pretend meals and feeding us hungry adults.

Elliot and Julian Playing with Our Mini Kitchen

Elliot and Julian Playing with Our Mini Kitchen

15. Basketball Hoop

Our daughter Ophelia has particularly enjoyed this basketball hoop. She stands on a little stepping stool and the balls are collected in this little wagon. And of course we have an adult sized hoop as well. We debated laying some concrete, but have enjoyed simply having the ability to shoot baskets.

Basketball Hoops

Basketball Hoops

In Conclusion

Occasionally, we do like to go places, but mostly we just enjoy staying home. Between the 26 learning stations we have inside and the fun we’ve created outside, our kids are never bored and neither are we.

Here’s a video of us getting our yard ready for summer last year. You can really see how much things have changed!

Setting Up an Outdoor Play Tent Sanctuary 

Setting up a tent outdoors isn’t just for camping! Every spring, we set up a tent in our backyard to use as a sanctuary and a holding tank, and it has been a very beloved location, especially when we have little babies.

In Michigan, we get REALLY excited when spring arrives! The problem is that even though the snow thaws, it’s still pretty chilly (and windy) until June. Having this permanent tent set up ensures that we always have a warm place to play that will allow us to enjoy the fresh outdoor air while staying protected from the elements.

 

Materials Needed

  • Tent – We usually just go to the nearest box store and pick up whatever is cheapest. (We learned the hard way this year, however, that it’s very important to make sure the tent has a window so you can get a cross breeze.) We’ve been setting up outdoor tents for the past 4 years and have never had a tent that lasts more than one year. By the time snow falls, the walls of the tent are so worn, they just rip apart. Because of this, we usually go with a cheap tent like this. This tent would be a a bit more luxurious and if you’re looking for a really permanent tent, you can go with one of these canvas tents.
  • Padding – Some foam padding like this 1-inch king size mattress topper (or this 4-inch mattress topper) will turn your tent into one big comfy bed!
  • Waterproof Cover – There is always a bit of water getting into the tent for one reason or another, so it’s a good idea to cover your foam padding with something like this.
  • Sheet – I like to put a fitted king size sheet over the waterproof cover.
  • Blankets – I don’t think we can ever have enough blankets in this household, so I am always on the lookout for good blankets like this at garage sales and thrift stores. I put one blanket down under the pillows and baskets of books and another blanket loosely on top. This second blanket can easily be taken out and shaken if it gets covered in sand and debris. This is also the blanket I’ll use if I want to have a blanket on the grass.
  • Pillows – Having about 3-4 pillows makes it really nice to stretch out for a little snooze.
  • BasketsWicker baskets like these are really nice for holding books and a shallow basket like this is really nice for holding toys.
  • Books – I love having a wide assortment of books, but I don’t keep my best out here in case of water or other damage.
  • Coloring Supplies – This is the first time I’ve included coloring supplies like coloring books, workbooks, blank notebooks, pencil boxes with pencils and crayons, and the bigger kids really enjoy it!
  • Toys – Because I have kids ranging from newborn to elementary school age, I have a variety of different toys that everyone can enjoy.
  • Little Chair – The kids especially love this little chair when I put it out on a blanket in the grass. Reading is always more fun when you’re in a little chair!
  • Diapers and Wipes – Because our tent is a little ways from the house, it’s nice to be able to change a diaper without having to go inside.
Outdoor Tent in Use

Outdoor Tent in Use

Directions

  1. Find a good location. It’s nice to have something that can be in shade or partial shade so it doesn’t get too hot in the summer. It’s also nice to have the opening of the tent facing an area of high activity so that you can see what’s going on when you’re in the tent and vice versa.
  2. Set up the tent. We keep our tent in the same spot every year, so after the grass died and it was all dirt, we leveled it with a rake to make it flat.
  3. Put some sheets of wood in front of the tent. You could also use a big rug or Astro turf, but basically you want something to keep grass and dirt out of the tent.
  4. Fill it with fun stuff. Based on the ages of your children, location of the tent, and the purpose of the tent, you will want to fill the tent with things to suit your needs. I like filling my tent with books, coloring supplies, toys, and pillows and blankets.
  5. Play inside the tent. I like to keep the tent closed if it’s going to rain, but as soon as we head out to play I like to open it up and let the kids come and go as they please.
  6. Use the tent as a holding tank. If we want to hang out outside with babies, I like taking a blanket out of the tent and putting toys, books, and the little chair on it.
  7. Keep it clean. When our tent gets full of sand, dirt, grass, and leaves, I am so happy that I keep my extra blanket nestled lightly on top so that I can easily shake it out. If it gets really dirty, I’ll take everything out and either sweep or use the leaf blower.

In Conclusion

We enjoy setting up our tent as soon as the snow is gone and leave it up until snow threatens to fall again. We have enjoyed having a tent every year for the past four years and will probably continue to enjoy one for many years to come.

*Update: We had a big windstorm that ripped our tent to shreds, so we opted for a bigger more expensive tent, and boy am I glad we did! My husband recently spent the night out here with our two older children, and they all loved it!

Our New and Improved Tent

Our New and Improved Tent

Everything You Need to Know About Essential Oils

Everything You Need to Know About Essential Oils

Essential oils seem to be all the rage these days. People are looking for safer and more natural ways to take care of their bodies and homes and essential oils have a very strong allure. But are essential oils really all they’re cracked up to be?

When I get to talking with my friends about essential oils, two things always come up: 1) What are you actually supposed to DO with essential oils? and 2) What is the safest way to use essential oils? So I set off to do some research, and do you know what I learned? I learned that while essential oils aren’t the be all/cure all for everything, they are just like the spices we use for cooking. The more you play around with aromas and healing properties, the more you will be able to add a drop here and a drop there to positively effect the health and well-being of your entire family. So come learn with me!

What ARE Essential Oils?

Essential oils are basically the distilled and concentrated oils of a plant. But interestingly enough, they are not really essential and they are not really oils.

They are called “essential”, not because we need to get them from our diets (such as with essential amino acids like lysine or essential fatty acids like omega-3s), but rather because they contain the essence of the plant’s fragrance. Also, they are not really “oils” like olive oil and coconut oil because they do not contain fatty acids (although they are both hydrophobic and repel water).

If you look at the two examples below, the first one is a picture of oleic acid (up to 83% of olive oil is comprised of oleic acid), and is basically a long chain of carbon atoms (with a bend) surrounded by hydrogen atoms.

Oleic Acid (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, D.328, 2008)

Oleic Acid (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, D.328, 2008)

This next picture is of eugenol (about 20% of clove oil is comprised of eugenol), and it has more of a hexagon shape that is made of mostly hydrogen atoms and hydroxide diatomic anions.

Eugenol (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Fuse 809, 2013)

Eugenol (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Fuse 809, 2013)

So the term “oil” is used to reference the highly concentrated part of a plant that has been extracted. The oils extracted from plants are basically stored as microdroplets in the glands of plants.

Lavender Oil Glands and Trichomes (Lavandula Dentata) - Photo Credit: Power & Syred, 2008

Lavender Oil Glands and Trichomes (Lavandula Dentata) – Photo Credit: Power & Syred, 2008

The droplets diffuse through the walls of the glands and spread over the surface of the plant evaporating and creating the fragrance of the plant. According to Encyclopedia Britannica,

The function of the essential oil in a plant is not well understood.

Some postulations are that it protects the plant from parasites, or maybe it attracts bees, but since very few essential oils are actually involved in the plant, some people say that these materials are simply a waste product of plant biosynthesis. At any rate, they sure smell good!

How Are Essential Oils Made

Most pure essential oils are extracted from plants using steam distillation. Freshly picked plants are placed in a still and suspended over boiling water. The steam saturates the plants for fairly short about of time (about 15-30 minutes), and then it is rapidly cooled causing the steam to condense back into water. The water is drained from the still, the essential oils float to the top, and are then collected. The remaining water is sold as floral water, otherwise known as a hydrosol.

Another method is known as expression and is typically reserved for citrus peels such as orange, lemon, lime, or grapefruit. It is made in a similar way to olive oil by pressing the oil from the plant’s flesh, seeds, and skins.

Some plant material is too delicate and must be extracted with solvents (as is the case with rose oil). The oils that are extracted with solvents are called absolutes.

The Concentration of Essential Oils

I find it absolutely fascinating to think about how much of the raw plant is needed to make a small bottle of essential oil. I’ve found a few examples here that may vary slightly based on each oil company producing it, but will still blow your mind nonetheless.

Lavender Fields in France (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Marianne Casamance, 2011)

Lavender Fields in France (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Marianne Casamance, 2011)

  • 27 square feet of lavender are needed to make one 15 mL bottle of lavender oil
  • 75 lemons are needed to make one 15 mL bottle of lemon oil
  • 1 lb of raw peppermint material is needed to make one 15 mL bottle of peppermint oil (source)
  • One drop of peppermint oil is the equivalent of 26-28 cups of peppermint tea (source)
  • 200,000 rose petals are needed to make one 5 mL bottle of rose oil (source)

What Makes a Good Essential Oil?

Choosing the best high quality oil can take a little bit of research. Here are some of the things to look for when selecting an oil.

  • Special Note – There is no classification in the aromatherapy world for “therapeutic grade” oils. So any oil company who say, “no other oil company can say…”, it’s probably because their company has trademarked these words. (Read more about The ‘Therapeutic Grade’ Essential Oils Disinformation Campaign here.)
  • Growing Methods  – Look for oil companies that use sustainable and ethical farming practices free from herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals. Note that the “organic” certification is great, but may not be available in some countries where the plants are grown.
  • Label – The label should include: the botanical plant name (i.e. lavandula angustifolia for lavender), plant part (flower/stem oil, flower oil, peel oil, etc.), and common sense caution (i.e. keep out of reach of children, consult a health practitioner if pregnant or nursing, etc.). Country of origin is also nice to know as well.

    Clove Oil Label

    Clove Oil Label

  • TestingGC/MS (Gas Chromatopography/Mass Spectrometry) testing identifies the different substances within a test sample.
  • Cost – If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. For example, jasmine oil and rose oil are very concentrated, hard to make, and will therefore run about $80 – $100 for a mere 5 mL. But higher cost does not always mean higher quality when it comes to price comparison.

Essential Oil Safety Guidelines

  • Is it safe to use undiluted oils? – It is generally recommended that you can use oils like lavender and tea tree “neat” without any dilution, but if you repeatedly use an essential oil without dilution on the skin for a period of time, you can become sensitized to it with an adverse reaction that will appear “suddenly” and may possibly never go away. It’s always safest to dilute essential oils using this guideline:
    • For Young Children (6-24 months) – 1 drop plus 1 T. of carrier oil
    • For Children (2+) and Sensitive Skin – 1 drop plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
    • For General Daily Use – 2 drops plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
    • For Periodic Use – 3 drops plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
  • Which carrier oils are the best? – Carrier oils are the best way to dilute essential oils. Here is a list of the best carrier oils with notes about why you might consider each one.
    Carrier Oils

    Carrier Oils

    • Sweet Almond Oil – This is my favorite to use for skin care because it’s very light, reasonably inexpensive, has a sweet smell, and is very nutritious with lots of vitamins including A, B, and E.
    • Jojoba Oil – This oil is a bit thicker, has a longer shelf life, and has pretty much no odor. It mimics collagen making it great for people who suffer from any skin conditions.
    • Fractionated Coconut OilFractionated coconut oil has almost all of the long chain fatty acids removed leaving it with mostly medium chain fatty acids making it very saturated and very stable with a long shelf life. It will also stay in liquid form, is less likely to clog pores than regular coconut oil, and has the antioxidant and anti-mircorbial properties of capric and caprylic acid.
    • Olive Oil – This can be the most convenient carrier oil to use because you probably have it in your cupboards! It also contains lots of proteins, vitamins, and minerals that really help with skin and hair.
    • For Aging Skin – Apricot, Aragan, and Rosehip are all really great oils for aging skin.
  • Can young children use essential oil? The safest way for babies and young children to use essential oils is through diffusion, hydrosols (floral water left over after steam distillation), and application to the feet – the least overwhelming place for the senses (if they won’t put them in their mouth that is). Plant Therapy makes some great blends for kids over 2 like this Nighty-Night blend.
    • 0-3 Months: Avoid all essential oils, their skin is too sensitive and permeable
    • 3-6 Months:  Very little contact with essential oils with the exception of: Chamomile, lavender, dill, and blue yarrow
    • 6-24 Months: Can safely use a variety of essential oils including: citronella, grapefruit, orange, and tea tree
    • Children 2+: Can safely use an expanded array of essential oils including: clary sage, clove (for teething), frankincense, lemongrass, myrhh, oregano, spearmint, and vetiver
    • Avoid: Stay away from peppermint with children under 6 and eucalyptus and rosemary with children under 10 because they contain the constituent (1.8, cineole) which has been known to cause breathing problems (so this also means no thieves oil). (source 1, source 2)
  • Can pregnant and nursing women use essential oils? – Even though many pregnant women enjoy the benefits of essential oils, there haven’t been any studies to determine their absolute safety (ethical reasons), so pregnant women should use with caution. Here are a few general guidelines:
    • Avoid the use of essential oils in their first trimester
    • Only them use periodically – not daily
    • Avoid absolutes because of the trace chemicals
    • Avoid adding oils to the birthing pool because it could be harmful to the new baby
    • Avoid clary sage, all eucalyptus, lemongrass, myrrh, and oregano to name a few (source)
  • Is it safe to ingest essential oils? – When you think about how oil and water don’t mix, it is weird to add even just one drop of lemon essential oil to your water because not only is that the equivalent 1 lb of lemons, but it could cause burns, blisters, and lesions in your mouth, esophagus, and stomach lining if the undiluted droplet comes in contact with your sensitive tissues.
    • If you really want to get the health benefits of lemon in your water, I would just squeeze half of a lemon into your water and leave the oils for diffusing and skin care.
    • You can also find lavender tea, peppermint tea, and chamomile tea made from dried herbs that is a much safer method of ingesting.
    • Enteric coated capsules that will not release until they reach the small intestine (like these peppermint capsules for IBS) are also safer than trying to ingest essential oils.
    • Unless there are extreme circumstances (i.e. you are suffering from a debilitating illness and NOTHING else is working) and you are under the specific guidance of a trained aromatherapist, I would NOT RECOMMEND INGESTING ESSENTIAL oils. (source)
  • What should I do if I get some essential oil in my eyes or it burns my skin? – If you get some essential oil in your eyes or on your skin and it burns, the worst thing you can do is try to rinse it off with water. The best thing you can do is wipe the area clean with a carrier oil, some whole milk, or cream which will bind to the oil and rinse it away (source).
  • Other Precautions – Keep undiluted oils away from airways (nose and mouth) and avoid essential oil use with people who have respiratory diseases such as asthma because they can inflame the airways (source).

Best Uses for Essential Oils

Once you get past some of the basics about essential oils, I think that the most common question that I have heard (and thought myself) most often is,

“How do I actually use essential oils in my daily life?”

So here are some of the ways to use essential oils that are safe, practical, and things we could all use in our daily lives. Everyone has different smells that they find either intoxicating or disgusting, the best advice I have is to just get your nose in front of as many essential oils as you can until you find the fragrances that you really like.

  • Diffusing – Our sense of smell is very powerful at triggering emotions and memories and by diffusing essential oils, it can create very significantly alter your mood in a positive way by inducing anything from peace and calm to vigor and energy. Look for a cool air diffuser that uses high frequency vibrations to create an ultra fine mist. Check out this list of amazing diffuser blends that will fit just about any mood you might have. There are also a lot of pre-made blends you can get for different purposes. As a beginner just testing out my own blends, I like using a few drops of orange and clove oil or lavender and vanilla.
  • Rollerballs – Preparing rollerballs with your favorite essential oils and a good carrier oil can help you to enjoy your favorite scent on the go or give you a healing mixture at the tip of your fingers. Just apply to your wrists, neck, or feet. Check out this list of some great rollerball blends.
  • In the Bath – DO NOT add essential oils directly to the bath…they will not evenly disperse in the water. Make sure to add them to a surfactant (soap), carrier oil, or even some cream or whole milk first.  Sugar scrubsbath salts, or bath bombs if you want to get really fancy, are great ways to get essential oils into your bath experience.
  • Skin Care Products – I like making my own toothpaste (using peppermint oil), my own deodorant (using tea tree and lavender oils), my own body butter (using whatever essential oils I want to enjoy), and my own lip balm (using eucalyptus oil). You can also make your own massage oil (lemongrass, marjoram, and peppermint soothe muscles) or any other number of skin care products using essential oils. (I love all of Wellness Mama’s recipes.)
  • Cleaning – By mixing white vinegar, dish soap, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus oil, you can make your own tub and tile cleaner.  You can also make your own all purpose cleaner by mixing together vinegar, lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, oregano, and tea tree oil. Check out more cleaning recipes here. Just make sure you’re using amber spray bottles if you need your cleaner to have a long shelf life.
  • Compresses – Hot compresses are typically used to help muscles and tissues while cold compresses are typically used to constrict blood vessels and control swelling. To make either one, fill a pan or large bowl with either very hot or very cold water, add about 6-12 drops of oil (examples: clary sage for menstrual cramps, peppermint for headache or stomachache), swirl a cloth through the water, wring it out, and apply it to the affected area (source).
  • Cotton Balls – Put a few drops of an essential oil on a cotton ball and place in the bottom of a trashcan, behind the toilet, in some stinky shoes, or in a drawer to help eliminate odors and leave behind a fragrant aroma. You can also add a few droplets on dryer balls to make your clothes smell really nice.
  • Spray Bottles: Mix your favorite oils in water, make sure to shake before use, spray on clothes, to freshen up a room, as a bug spray or to keep cats off from things (citronella, tea tree, eucalyptus, rosemary, lemongrass).
  • Inhaler: Add about 25 drops of essential oils (eucalyptus, fir, cypress, etc.) to a cotton ball and stuff into one of these inhalers. (See more on how to make one here.)

Healing with Essential Oils

If you can think of an ailment or condition and type that into google next to the words “essential oils”, I am sure that you will find a TON of ideas. Some of the most healing oils that come up over and over again for different ailments are: tea tree, oregano, chamomile, and lavender. You can make a really good healing salve (better than Neosporin) using: Coconut oil, tea tree, lavender, frankincense, and helichrysum essential oils.

Keep in mind that if you’re using essential oils to treat a physical symptom (i.e. skin condition), you’ve got to treat the underlying cause or the symptom will keep reoccurring. That being said, if you’re feeling any of the symptoms below, I have listed some of the best essential oils for eliminating them (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4, source 5, source 6).

  • Insomnia: Lavender and chamomile, maybe a little bit of orange are the best choice, also marjoram, ylang ylang, lime, bergamot, neroli, and lemon (spray the room, pillow, or diffuse in room 30 minutes prior to bedtime)
  • Headache: Peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, or rosemary (roller ball, compress, diffuser)
  • Cold and Flu: Tea tree, pine, lavender, peppermint, thyme, lemon, eucalyptus, or rosemary (diffuser, roller ball, inhaler, compress)
  • Chest Congestion/Cold: Eucalyptus (or fir and cypress), frankincense or bergamot will help kill germs too (inhaler, diffuser)
  • Skin Fungus: Tea tree, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, and lavender (roller ball, carrier oil, lotion)
  • Tooth Pain: Clove oil – only use over the age of 2, numbing agent, so don’t swallow (external compress, with carrier oil in the mouth)
  • Eczema: Lavender and chamomile are very soothing (mix with Renew lotion)
  • Bug Bites: Basil, lavender, tea tree (carrier oil)
  • Morning Sickness/Nausea: Ginger, spearmint, lemon, grapefruit, orange, or lime (inhaler, rollerball)
  • Back Pain/Sciatic Nerve Pain: Marjoram, lavender, cypress, chamomille, and black pepper (massage oil)
  • Stretch Marks and Scars: Chamomille, orange, and rosehip mixed together (carrier oil, lotion)
  • Stress/Anxiety/Fear: Lavender, chamomile, citrus scents, geranium, ylang ylang, petitgrain, and neroli (diffuser, inhaler, rollerball)
  • Fatigue: Spearmint, grapefruit, lime, and sweet orange mixture (inhaler, diffuser)
  • Menstrual Cramps: Chamomile, clary sage, lavender, peppermint, rose, or rosemary (hot compress)

In Conclusion

I do not think that essential oils are the be all and end all to all things related to health and beauty, but I do think that they are an integral part of every natural household. The attraction to essential oils seems to be such a buzz these days, and I’m glad that now I have a pretty strong understanding of what essential oils are, how they are made, how to find high quality oils, the proper safety precautions that should be taken when using essential oils, and have some practical ideas for how to use essential oils in my home. I am excited to continue using essential oils and learning more about each of their individual properties, aromas, and uses. Thanks for learning with me!

*I recently used these Essential Oil NOTES for an essential oil presentation. Feel free to print them out and use them for your own purposes. If you would like the Word document so you can make changes, please contact me.

Additional Resources

What's So Bad About Phthalates?

What’s So Bad About Phthalates?

I’ve done a bit of research about phthalates to know that they are bad, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to see just how bad and learn more about the possibilities for exposure.

My Health Journey

As a health conscious mother of four (soon to be five) and also on a pretty strict budget as a stay at home mom, I’m always trying to balance out health and cost. I first of all try to serve my children as much nutrient dense food as possible while at the same time try to eliminate as many toxins as I can. That being said, stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol which leads to inflammation, free radical damage, and a weakened immune system, so I try to avoid that too by not getting too paranoid about things that can affect our health.

That being said, I believe the best health journey is one that is continuous and involves baby steps. Once, I tried throwing out everything processed and only purchased organic whole foods, but the cost was overwhelming and something we couldn’t support on one income. So now, we do what we can, and I’m always trying to just focus on the next step rather than the final destination.

In this series of articles, I would like to explore some of the toxins that are lurking in our everyday lives, explain what they are, how they are hurting us, and discuss how they can be avoided. I hope that this research will serve our family as we continue our health journey, choose better and safer products, and try to live the best life that we can every day for both our current and future health.

What are Phthalates?

Most phthalates (pronounced f-THAL-ates) are plastcizers that are added to plastics (such as vinyl flooring, raincoats, shower curtains, plastic toys, and IV drip bag tubes) to make them more flexible and harder to break. They are also added as a dissolving agent (solvent) and fragrance carrier to many personal care products including soaps, shampoos, deodorants, and laundry detergents.

*On a side note, phthalates are not commonly found in things like plastic wrap, food containers, and water bottles…although these plastics do contain other dangerous chemicals that can leech into your food and beverages that I will discuss in future articles.

Finding Phthalates on Labels

If you’re a label reader (like me), the scary thing about phthalates is that under current law, they can simply be labeled as “fragrance”, even if they make up to 20% of the product.

If you’re looking at your labels, you may notice different acronyms and names:

  • DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) – used in nail polish and other personal care products
  • DEP (diethyl phthalate) – used in personal care products, such as deodorants, perfume, cologne, aftershave lotion, shampoo, hair gel, and hand lotion
  • BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate) – used in vinyl flooring, car-care products, and personal care products
  • DMP (dimethyl phthalate) – used in insect repellent, plastics, and solid rocket propellant
  • DEHP (di-phthalate, bis-phthalate, or 2-ethylhexyl phthalate) – used as a softener in PVC products, such as IV bags, tubing, and other medical devices

*In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law calling for the phthalates DBP, DEHP, and BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate) to be banned in all toys (including teething toys) and bedding intended for children 12 and under. There are, however, no regulations on phthalates in toys made in China, and they have been tested to have very high levels (28%-38%).

Why are Phthalates Dangerous?

While most studies reflect the effects of phthalates on animals, the results have been disturbing enough for people to start taking notice. Most adults will metabolize phthalates through the digestive system and excrete them via feces or urine, but this isn’t really possible for fetuses in the womb and particularly dangerous for the immature digestive system of infants and young children, so they are most at risk.

While more research is needed, animals studies show that low exposure to DBP phthlates (found in most grocery store cosmetics) can damage the reproductive system of males and that DEHP (used to soften plastics) is toxic to the developing fetus (especially at high exposures such as experienced by those undergoing medical procedures). Other studies show that,

“there is a potential for phthalates to impact birth outcomes, including gestational age and birth weight, fertility (lower sperm production), and anatomical abnormalities related to the male genitalia,” states Maida Galvez, a pediatrician and director of the Mount Sinai Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit in New York City.

Phthalate exposure is also linked to asthma, the timing of puberty, childhood obesity, and other health conditions such as breast cancer.

How to Avoid Phthalates

While I don’t think it’s practical or possible in this day and age to chuck every man made material possession and move deep into the woods to be free from human influence or innovation, there are some ways that we can start to eliminate our phthalate exposure both gradually and practically.

  1. Look for phthalates or fragrance on labels. Avoid anything with “fragrance” or any mention of any type of phthalate. Instead of using air fresheners, just put a few drops of essential oils into a spray bottle filled with water.
  2. Look for phthalate-free labels. This may seem like kind of a no-brainer, but it is a pretty good way to find things that are free from phthalates. 🙂 Look for phtalate-free labels on cleaners and cosmetics especially.
  3. Check the bottom of plastic bottles and choose those labeled #2, 4, or 5. Avoid #3 and #7 because they may contain phthalates.
  4. Use a french press for coffee. The plastic tubing and high heat in coffee pots are a recipe for high phthalate exposure.
  5. Don’t buy plastic toys from China. If you buy children’s toys in the U.S. (made after 2008), they cannot contain phthalates, but even still, you might want to steer towards wooden toys like these wooden teethers that my friend makes! And don’t buy plastic toys from China (or other countries) where there are no regulations on phthalates.
  6. Know where your milk comes from. Even organic milk may have passed through plastic tubes (with DEHP) on the way from the cow to the bottle. The fatty acids in milk basically pull the the DEHP out of the plastic tubing and into the milk. We actually get raw milk from a farm (that we have visited) where the milking is done by hand and never touches plastic of any kind.
  7. Sweat more. Sweating helps your body to eliminate phthalates twice as effectively as elimination through urine. So, adults can exercise more or visit the sauna!
  8. Be careful when painting. Most paints have DBP to help them spread better, so make sure there are no children are around and the room is well ventilated, or look for natural paints without DBP.
  9. Choose non-vinyl options if possible. For example, you can check out these non-vinyl shower curtain options and these PVC and phthalate free raincoats at Puddlegear that will not produce chemical off-gassing bringing phthalates into your environment. *These options are expensive and things I would save for more advanced elimination.

Conclusion

The people most at risk from phthalate exposure are unborn babies and infants (especially males), so it’s especially important for pregnant mamas and parents of young children to be aware of things that contain phthalates. During human studies, women have tested higher for the type of phthalates found in cosmetic products, so women are typically at greater risk as well. So before slathering lotion on yourself or your baby, spritzing on some perfume, or washing your clothes, check your labels and know what you’re putting onto and into your body.

Like I said before, I don’t think it’s worth the stress to get super paranoid about every possible danger in life because we’re all going to die one day anyways, but by taking thinking of it as a health journey instead of a health destination, we can continuously choose one thing at a time to improve in our lives that will help not only our current health, but our future health, and the health of future generations as well.

13 Tips for Creating Your Own Website with Blog

13 Steps for Creating Your Own Website

While there are a lot of companies out there that can create a website for you (like my sister Andrea at Curly Host), there are many benefits of creating your website yourself…especially if you don’t have much of a budget. Yes, it is quite a bit of work at first, but by creating your own website, you’ll be able to test out a variety of ideas, customize everything to your specific needs, and manage updates according to your schedule.

I’m not claiming to be the guru of all areas of web development here, but I have learned A LOT about what to do (and what not to do) when it comes to creating my own website. I started out just wanting a platform to blog about motherhood with a specific vision for my organization, and now I’m actually making some money with Amazon Associates and with my Embracing Motherhood Shop.

So without further adieu, here are my 13 steps for starting your own website.

1. Brainstorm Ideas

Grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and just start creating a mind map of all words that you would use to describe your website. (You could also use a mind mapping application like this.) Don’t worry about organizing your ideas at this point, just free associate the first words that pop into your brain when you think of your website.

For me, my initial brainstorming web included words like: pregnancy, birth, natural birth, healthy food, nutrition, recipes, food science, fitness, teaching, parenting, lesson ideas, homeschool, young children, stay at home mom, and so on.

2. Find Your Niche

Once you have a broad idea of where you’d like to go, find some other websites or blogs out there that are covering the topics that you are hoping to explore. I enjoyed finding several mothering, nutrition, and education websites and following them on social media to get their latest content. I would read their latest blogs, peruse their sites, notice things that I liked and didn’t, and thought about how I would try to define myself in my own way.

You will be constantly honing your writing style and finding your voice as you write. It is not something that will happen overnight. If you look at some of the earlier blogs I’ve written (mainly about health and nutrition), you’ll notice that my voice and style are different than they are now. Once I started getting an audience, getting feedback from others, and seeing my content live, I was able to see what things were working better than others. I learned how to create a certain flow that people could skim and scan through by adding quotes, headlines, lists, numbers, bolded and italicized text, and images so that a reader could get the general idea without reading every word.

3. Come Up With a Name

Now that you’ve brainstormed some ideas and done your research, it’s time to start thinking about a name. Same as the original brainstorming session, get a piece of paper and a pencil and just start writing down every possible name you can think of, no matter how crazy or silly, just get it out there. I think it’s a good idea for your name to be a pretty obvious representation of what you want to write about, but you can just go ahead and make up a new word too. Basically, you’re looking for something short, simple, easy to share with someone verbally, and something that has a nice ring to it.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a few favorite names, start doing a Google search to see what comes up. After I had my heart set on Embracing Motherhood, I discovered that the domain name embracingmotherhood.com was only available if I wanted to spend $4,888 so I did what you really shouldn’t do, I used a hyphen…embracing-motherhood.com.

LeanDomainSearch is a great way to brainstorm ideas with available domain names. Once you have a name you think you’d like, run it through Domainr to see if it’s available. Also check out social media platforms like FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter to see if your name is already being used. *Check out some more great tips for coming up with a name here and here.

4. Purchase Your Domain and Hosting

Now, because my sister is helping me out, she helped me buy my domain name and does my hosting for me. She uses a company called BlueHost. This company is great, and I would recommend going with the plus package that gives you unlimited storage and will run you $5.95/mo. When you sign up for hosting, it will walk you through registering your domain name as well (for free). For an extra $2.99/mo. you can get Site Backup Pro that automatically creates a daily backup copy of your entire site. If you’re creating a lot of content, this is a good idea.

5. Design a Logo

This might be something that you want to save for later, but I enjoyed getting mine done early on. My sister Andrea knows a freelance artist who helped me design my logo, but there are many different logo makers online. This one is pretty good and will cost you from $20-$100 and this one is pretty great too and will only cost you $39. (Beware, many sites that claim “free logo design” will actually make you pay for the high-res image.)

As you pick a logo, keep your color scheme in mind. Because I was wearing a purple shirt in the profile picture I chose, I ended up using purple for my main color. Then I used green as my accent and went with a rainbow pattern of colors because I like rainbows! I hope to keep working on my design in the future, but right now I’m more focused on content. 🙂

6. WordPress

I recommend going with WordPress.org over WordPress.com. Once you secure your domain and hosting, you can download WordPress and get started. They have some free themes ready to go, but after checking out many many different themes, my sister highly recommended going with Enfold for $59. This is what I use, and I love it! Everything is drag and drop and there is a great online support forum. (Just log in with your WordPress info and search for your question or write a new one. I have used this many times, and always gotten excellent support.)

If you go with WordPress.com, it is free and a one stop shop for your basic blog, but only if you plan on hosting less than 3 GB of data ($99/year for unlimited data) and you’re not allowed to connect to affiliate’s programs like Amazon Associates and have very little options in terms of design.

There are two ways you can get familiar with WordPress. You can just dive in (like I did), and look online when you have questions (just do a very specific Google search). Or, you can check out this WordPress for Beginners Blog or watch this great tutorial series to learn everything you’ll need to know before or while you’re playing around with your own site.

*You can also check out Squarespace (7 pages for $12/month), Webflow (20 pages for $20/month), Weebly ($8/mo. for unlimited pages or free with limited services), or a free blogging platform like Tumblr or Blogger.

7. Customizing

Once you get your theme, you’ll want to customize it to work for you. This part can seem really overwhelming and is probably where you’ll need to do the most amount of learning/research, so you might want to skip this step and come back to this later.

  1. Hide Your Site: As you’re building your site, you might want to hide it from search engines. To do this, go to the “Settings” option on the left toolbar, select “Reading”, and the click on the box that says, “Discourage search engines from indexing this site”. You might also want to install a plug-in like this that will give a “Coming Soon” message.
  2. Theme Options: On the left toolbar, you’ll see a gear shaped icon with the name of your site. You will want to go here first and click on every option to set things up and get familiar with what you can do. When I was learning about WordPress, I spent a lot of time here changing one thing at a time, looking at things live (on the top toolbar, click on your site name with the home icon, and click “Visit Site”), and tweaking it until I liked what I had. This is where you’ll add your logo, set up your social media icons.
  3. Widgets: On the left toolbar, under “Appearance”, you’ll find “Widgets” (along with themes, menu, etc.). Widgets are a great way to customize the look of your blog. For my sidebar widget, I have a search tool, my picture, my affiliate’s disclosure, a subscribe widget, popular posts, and recent posts. In my footer widgets, I have four columns for my social media profiles.
  4. Plug-ins: Whenever you want to add something specific to your site, there’s a plug-in for that. Just like with everything else, you’ll want to play around with different plug-ins to see what you like/don’t like. *Now, don’t get crazy with the plug-ins, sometimes they can be the reason your site starts acting crazy, and you’ll have to deactivate them one at a time to figure out the problem. Here are the plug-ins I love:
    1. Askimet: Stops spam
    2. Broken Link Checker: Tells you on your dashboard page where all of your broken links are
    3. Pinterest Pin It Button: I always pin my own articles and have gotten a lot of hits this way.
    4. Print Friendly and PDF: Provides a button that allows users to easily print your blogs.
    5. Stop Spammers Spam Control: Prevents spammers from leaving comments
    6. Woocommerce: What I used to build my Embracing Motherhood Shop

7. Organizing

If you’re like me, you’ll want to have a framework of organization for your content before getting started. It’s a bit time consuming to do this on the front end, and so you may just want to write 20-30 blogs or build your content before you worry about organization, but then you’ll have to go back to each blog to add categories, etc. So, here’s what I recommend, but as with everything, you have to do what works for you.

  1. Create Pages: You’ll first of all want a home page (some people like their blog to be their home page, but not me, it feels too random). Then create pages for all of your main ideas and link them to your home page. (Mine are: Home, All Blogs, Parenting, Teaching, Mom Talk, Health, How To, Guest Bloggers, Etsy, and Shop) Start by using the “Advanced Layout Editor” to create a “Page Template”. Basically, everything needs to be in a layout box, then you can put a “Text Box” (under “Content Elements”) inside of a layout box to create a header. Then, you can add a “Magazine” or “Blog Post” layout to put under that and it will automatically put all blogs with a matching category there. Watch this tutorial to learn more about creating pages.
  2. Create Categories: These are how you’ll organize your blogs. Under “Posts” on the left toolbar, select “Categories” and just create categories for all of your main ideas. You can also create subcategories by selecting a “Parent”, but I wouldn’t recommend doing this at first. Now, when you write your blogs, just select which category they belong in and you can sort them to the appropriate pages.
  3. Create a Menu: Now that you have your main pages, you can organize them into a menu. Under “Appearance”on the left toolbar, choose “Menu”. There, you can add what pages will be on your main menu.
  4. Write Some Content: Once you have a general layout, you can start writing some posts! It may take awhile to find your voice and your writing style, but don’t worry about that at first, just start getting some content out there so you can see how everything works together.

8. Adding Images

When I first started writing a blog, I was so sad that I couldn’t just do a Google image search and use whatever photos I wanted. 🙁 How easy would that be??? But thanks to Creative Commons, there are lots of free works available to use.

  1. Use Your Own Pictures: It can be so tempting to buy stock photos, but using pictures that you have taken gives your blog a much more personal touch, and it won’t cost you any money!
  2. Attribution: When you use someone else’s photo, even if it’s “Creative Commons”, you should give attribution according to the specifications of the image. If I use an image within my blog, I’ll put the attribution right under the photo saying something like: Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pearson Scott Foresman, 2008. I’ll also link my photo to the original source. You can also credit the image source at the end of your blog. Here’s a good article with more information about giving image credits.
  3. Canva: Canva is a very simple photo editing program that allows you to custom design images with text. This is what I use to create my featured images for my blogs (845 x 321 pixels are the dimensions you want for a featured blog image with sidebar). I like it because there are suggested dimensions for a variety of social media and other outlets many basic templates available, simple tools for adding text, and basic tools for modifying your image. You can even search for a particular image and purchase it for $1.
  4. Photo Pin: Here, you can search millions of Creative Commons photos and easily add them to your blog posts. A photo attribution link is provided for each image.
  5. Flickr: Start by clicking on “Explore” and then search for the type of image you’re looking for. Look at the image description to see if it is “Creative Commons” or free to use, if so, attribute the image according to the author’s request.
  6. Wikimedia Commons: This is my favorite place to go for free photos when I need them…usually to place within my blog. Just search for what you’re looking for and make sure to attribute according to each photo’s request.
  7. Pixabay: This is a great place to search for free photos, and they don’t require any attribution!
  8. Shutterstock: If you are willing to pay for some really high quality images (usually $1-2), this is a HUGE resource.
  9. Pexels: Great stock photos and videos for free use.
  10. Vimeo: You can find free stock videos here.

9. Search Engine Optimization

You probably won’t be concerned with this at first, but if you can keep these tips in mind as you create content, then you won’t have to go back and rewrite everything. :).

  1. Write Good Content: This is kind of a no brainer, but if your writing is good, easy to follow, and useful, you’ll have a higher chance of people reading it, sharing it, and linking to it. The more popular a blog post is, the more likely it is to show up on a search engine.
  2. Make Your Topic Clear: Clever titles (and click bait titles) aren’t as useful as clear titles that emphasize the main idea of your blog post. Then, make sure to state the main idea of your post in the first sentence and repeat key words throughout.
  3. Alt-Text: When you upload photos, make sure they have an accurate name that describes the image (this can’t be added later), then set the alt text so that it spells out any text used in the picture as well as gives an accurate description of what the photo is. This helps webcrawlers to find your content in search engines more easily.
  4. Categories: If you group similar content based on content, category names are a great organization tool that recommends similar articles in your website.
  5. Tags: As you create tags for your posts, think of what people will type into their search engines. Also, include your categories.
  6. Link Building: The more people who link to your site, the higher search engine ranking you’ll get.
  7. Networking: By having guest bloggers, doing guest posts for other websites, and teaming up with others selling similar or complementary products/services you can increase your traffic as well.

*Read more about search engine optimization here.

10. Social Media

Social media is a great way to get your content out there and advertise your website.

  1. FaceBook: This is a great place to network and share your content.
  2. Twitter: Another great platform to share your content.
  3. Instagram: A visual platform to share your pictures associated with your website.
  4. Google Plus: Helps your content to show up in Google searches more often.
  5. Pinterest: A great way to get your content shared in a visual format.
  6. YouTube: Think about starting a YouTube channel to share your content.

11. Amazon Associates

If you are going to be linking to products that people can buy on Amazon, you’ll want to start an Amazon Associate’s account. Watch the tutorial here to learn about the program in more detail, but basically, you can earn a percentage (which starts out low, but gets higher when more items are purchased) when people click on your links and buy your recommended items. The really cool thing about this program is that if people search for and buy other items once they’ve entered Amazon via your site (even items you haven’t recommended), you’ll still earn a percentage. This is called a “third party sale”. *On a side note: the cost of the product remains the same as if the customer would just do a regular Amazon search.

Amazon approves accounts on a case by case basis, and you’ll need to get a certain amount of clicks on your links in order to remain in the program. You also have to make sure you clearly disclose your affiliation or they could terminate your account. (Check out my disclaimer here. I also have a disclaimer link on every blog.)

12. WooCommerce

Woocommerce is the best way to set up a shopping platform. It’s free, easy to set up, and easy to use. Once you install the plugin, it will walk you through the install. I recommend creating your own shop page so you can customize it, but if you don’t, it will automatically create one for you. Once everything is installed, all you have to do is set up your products. If you have any questions along the way, check out Woocommerce Docs.

Setting up shipping was the hardest thing for me. I tried setting up a variety of shipping options, and in the end just decided to include the cost of shipping in my product and offer free shipping on everything.

Another option if you’re looking to have all of the work done for you (calculating shipping, printing shipping labels, sending customers tracking information, etc.), you might want to consider opening an Etsy shop and linking to it on your website. The benefit of using Etsy is that it can provide a platform for you to share your product, but the downside is that it doesn’t offer as many options if you plan on growing. Check out my Etsy shop here, and feel free to copy my shipping policies, etc.

13. Nitty Gritty Stuff

  1. Cite Your Sources: This isn’t English 101 requiring MLA format, but be courteous and find a way to link to the sources that you can use. You can link to the name of the author and/or title of their work, link to some key words in your text, or have a link called “source” in parentheses at the end of the information you’re paraphrasing. If you’re citing something word for word, make sure you put it in quotes and thoroughly cite the source.
  2. Grammar Police: Think about what tense you want to write in (past, present, or future) and stick with it. Find a pattern for personal pronouns (“you” is informal, “one” is really formal, or you can stick with your experiences and just say “I” or “we”). When referring to gender pronouns, you can try to make the plural form work, alternate between he/she, or take turns with each gender.
  3. Policies and Disclaimers: You might not want to worry about this until later, but it’s good to cover your butt and have these thing covered. Check out my terms of use, disclaimer, privacy policy, comment policy, and more in my About Me section.
  4. Make Yourself Present: Find a good picture of yourself to post and have a place for a personal bio. People like to know who is creating the content.

In Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, having my sister as a web developer has definitely given me an edge as I’ve created my own website, but I hope that by offering these tips, I can help to give you that edge too. I certainly don’t know everything and have a long ways to go before I reach my final goals, but I hope that by sharing my experiences with creating a website, I can help others out there who were once starting out just like me. If you’ve got a budget, I highly recommend getting ahold of my sister Andrea at Curly Host, and she will not only set you up, but teach you how to manage your own cite along the way.

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Mudpit for Summer Fun

How to Make a Mud Pit for Summer Fun

“You want to make a mud pit…on purpose…in our yard?!?” I can imagine your spouse yelling as you try to present the idea of creating a mud pit in your backyard, but hear me out…

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

Having Fun in Our Mudpit

We kind of made our mud pit on accident when we were trying to cover a dirt hill with sod (which is a story for another blog post), and in the process, I noticed how much the kids absolutely loved playing on a hill of pure dirt. They would climb up it, roll down it, dig tunnels through it and holes in it, and basically get really, really muddy. We would have to strip them down before they entered the house, and it created a lot of messy laundry.

Well, the hill was eventually covered with sod, and the parts that weren’t covered sprung up with grass and other foliage, but the hole that we dug the sod out of still remained, ready to be used. We originally were going to make another sandbox on top to mimic the one we liked at Blandford Nature Center, but well, we kind of ran out of money and were looking for a cheaper alternative.

I had a bunch of leftover seeds and plants from planting our summer garden and the kids were still begging for another dirt hill, so I went to work digging and made a dirt hill surrounded by a moat, surrounded by a path, surrounded by some plants. We stretched three hoses connected together to allow water to flow to the furthest regions of our yard, and walla! Mud pit!

Materials

Directions

  1. Plan It. Find a space in your yard that will be just perfect for a mud pit…preferably away from any pools you have, not right near the front door, but close enough to a water source.
  2. Dig It. Using a pointy shovel, dig out small squares of sod. You can use them to build a small grassy hill if you’d like. Just place the sod pieces on top of each other. Eventually they will settle in and make a nice little hill. Our kids love playing on ours!
  3. Shape It. Try to give it your mud pit some character. Build it up high in some spaces, level it out in others, use your imagination, and try to visualize how your kids will use it. I really think having a moat type structure is a good idea because it traps the water in and makes it more usable.
  4. Use It. I highly encourage all play in the mud pit to be conducted with bathing suits on! This way, kids can be sprayed off with a hose, jump through a sprinkler, or jump into a kiddie pool to get clean afterwards! With a few shovels, buckets, and watering cans, this mud pit has entertained our kids and their friends for hours.
Playing in the Mud Pit

Playing in the Mud Pit

Conclusion

Yes, making a sandbox is probably an overall cleaner project, and one that our kids have enjoyed just as much, but there is just something so primal about a mud pit that I think all kids should have a chance to experience. Being able to interact with nature, feeling the cool mud with its abundance of free electrons boosting your immune system, getting completely filthy, and creating, digging, and exploring the properties of mud are all hallmarks of any good childhood.

How to Make Stepping Stumps

How to Make Stepping Stumps

Making stepping stumps is a fun and easy project that will provide a fun and natural play area for your children (and a fun little place to sit and rest as well).

Children love things that are just challenging enough with an appropriate amount of risk and danger. They also need to be able to play unsupervised and interact with nature. These stepping stumps may become an ongoing yard project that you continuously add to (like it has for us). We are always on the lookout for more stumps. It makes for a fun scavenger hunt while we’re driving! 🙂

Materials

  • Stumps: When I was driving my husband’s pick up truck out on some country roads, I found several stumps of varying height that had been nicely cut from a fallen tree. Then, when we were coming home from Ruby’s spring concert, we spotted a few more, loaded them in the back of our van, and brought them home!
  • Shovel: You want one with a point that you can really step on.
  • Gardening Gloves: These are optional, but be warned, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails!

Directions

  1. Make a Plan: Try to envision the full potential of your stump arrangement. If you’re like me, you’ll want to leave room to keep adding on as you find more. I am hoping to copy Blandford’s meandering circular pattern that starts with shorter stumps and works up to taller stumps, but there are many other things you could do like placing the stumps haphazardly in one big configuration or making a straight path that’s very symmetrical. You might even make them almost flush with the ground and use them as a pathway from one place to the next. I encourage you to type “stepping stumps” or even “stepping stones” into Pinterest for some more ideas.

    Blandford Nature Center's Stepping Stumps

    Blandford Nature Center’s Stepping Stumps

  2. Dig a Circle: You’ll want to dig a circle larger than each stump. If you leave the sod intact, you can use it for another project like making a hill or making little grass stepping circles. After taking out the sod, dig down enough to bury about one-fifth of the stump. Make sure the dirt underneath is nice and soft to level out the stump.
  3. Level the Stump: After placing the stump onto the loose dirt in the hole, wiggle it around until the top is level. Then sit or step on it to help it settle in.
  4. Fill in the Dirt: Pack the extra dirt around the sides of the stump and step on it to really pack it in.

In Conclusion

Having stepping stumps is just one part of creating a backyard full of natural and fun ways to play. Once you see how your kids interact with the stumps, it might give you more ideas for extensions in the future. I hope to gather some shorter stumps so that it extends much further and begins and ends with descending stumps like a staircase.

Our Stepping Stumps One Year Later

Our Stepping Stumps One Year Later

Check out some of our other backyard projects:

Embracing Motherhood How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

This backyard obstacle course is the simplest thing I have ever put together, but the kids LOVE it and play on it constantly. I’m always rearranging it, changing it, moving it, and adding new components to keep it fun and interesting…all using things that we have lying around or that I can find on trash day. 🙂

Children love things that are just challenging enough, and they need opportunities to play unsupervised with just the right amount of risk and danger. That is why I like setting up my obstacle course in an arrangement that isn’t too easy or too challenging. While I do enjoy cheering them on from time to time, I am happiest to see them play with the obstacle course independently. If I notice that it isn’t getting played with, I know it’s time to move it around.

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course Embracing Motherhood

How to Make a Backyard Obstacle Course

Materials

  • Tires: When we get new tires, I save the old ones. I also keep my eyes open on trash day to pick up any old tires that might be thrown away. *We cut holes in the sides of the tires so that they won’t hold water (which can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes).
  • Long Skinny Pieces of Wood: These are for the balance beams. It’s nice to have them varying lengths and thicknesses. 2’x4’s work great, but you can make anything work.
  • Blocks of Wood: These are for the base of the balance beams. You’ll need 2-3 that are the same height for each balance beam.
  • Wide Boards: These are for placing on top of the tires. You can make any size work. I like using long and narrow pieces. We had particle board laying around, so that is what we used, but you can use any type of wood. You can treat the pieces of wood if you’d like them to last longer.
  • Drill: This is for drilling holes in the tires. We added a circular attachment to our drill to make a bigger hole.
  • Screws: You’ll use these for the balance beams.

Directions

  1. Balance Beams: Attach blocks of wood to the ends (and middle if the board is long or weak) of your long skinny pieces of wood with long screws.
  2. Preparing the Tires: If you leave tires out without drilling holes, they will collect water and it will become the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. By drilling 3 large holes on the side, it will prevent water from collecting. We drilled holes on both sides so we wouldn’t have to worry about which side was facing up.
  3. Set Up: There is really no right or wrong way to set this up. You might want to have everything in a straight line, arrange it in a circle, or place individual pieces scattered throughout the yard. I like arranging the pieces in a circle because it encourages children to complete the course repeatedly. By putting tires underneath the edges of the long boards, it becomes a fun platform for kids to stand on and it also doubles as a bench for sitting and can even be used as a makeshift table during an outdoor picnic. I’ve also had fun putting a tire in the middle of a board to create a sort of teeter totter and on one end of a board to create a ramp.
  4. Rearrange: Whenever the kids stop using the obstacle course (or every 2-3 weeks, whichever comes first) I like to rearrange everything. This helps to prevent the grass that is underneath from dying and keeps it fun and interesting for the kids.
Rearranging the Obstacle Course

Rearranging the Obstacle Course

In Conclusion

The sky is the limit with this style of backyard obstacle course! I hope to keep collecting more tires to make some stepping tires and add some teeter totters (by placing one tire or two stacked up) in the middle of a long board. You will want to tailor your obstacle course to meet the specific dimensions of your yard and abilities of your kids, but the important thing is to make it just slightly challenging and have fun!

Check out how we’re getting our backyard ready for summer with our sandbox, stock tank pool, garden, teepee, stepping stumps, and more!

The Importance of Growing Up with a Garden

The Importance of Growing Up with a Garden

Gardening is a fun way for the whole family to eat nutrient dense food and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Neither my husband or I are professional gardeners by any means, but by growing our own garden for the past few years, our entire family has learned a lot, enjoyed some good food, and had a lot of fun in the process!

Last Year's Garden Embracing Motherhood

Last Year’s Garden

I am excited to write this article as I reflect on our past gardens and start planning our garden(s) for this year! (We’re thinking about having three gardens this year: The area above for tomatoes and peppers, an area next to the house for herbs and lettuce, and an area by our teepee for corn and beans.)

My Brother Jarrod and I Enjoying a Garden as Kids

My Brother Jarrod and I Enjoying a Garden as Kids

Benefits of Gardening for Kids

There are many different benefits of gardening with kids. These are some of the benefits that we have noticed.

  • Learn About Life Cycles: Why read about the life cycle of a plant when you can grow one? By planting seeds, watching them grow, and caring for the plants, children become heavily invested in the life cycles of their plants.

    Elliot Planting Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Elliot Planting Seeds

  • Learn About Photosynthesis: Photosynthesis (how plants get energy and grow) and cellular respiration (how humans get energy and grow) are two of the most basic and primary functions of life, yet we gloss over them very simply or hardly even mention them at all. If children can learn about such concepts in depth at a young age, they will build a lifelong understanding that will prepare them for even greater scientific understandings in the future.
  • See Where Food Comes From: No, food does not come from the grocery store! By seeing the time it takes for the plants to grow and finally harvesting the fruits of their labors, children will have a deeper appreciation for where their food comes from.

    Ruby and Elliot Picking Beans Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby and Elliot Picking Beans

  • Helps a Picky Eater: Even the pickiest eater can’t resist a tomato warmed from the sun or a freshly picked bean. I love watching my kids devour the fruits and vegetables they pick from the garden.

    Elliot Loves Eating What He Picks from the Garden

    Elliot Loves Eating What He Picks from the Garden

  • Connect with the Earth: If simply going barefoot on the earth’s surface (earthing or grounding) can boost the immune system by providing the body with an abundance of antioxidants (free electrons), imagine what actually digging in the dirt can do?

    Ruby Barefoot Picking Beans Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Barefoot Picking Beans

  • Get Some Sun: Sunshine provides the body with much needed vitamin D, boosts the immune system, helps skin conditions, gives you more energy, and boosts serotonin levels, just to name a few of the benefits. So get out there in the sun! If I’m not worried about sunburn, I don’t worry about sunscreen, but if we’re going to be out for a long time and I think that by kids might get a burn, I like to use this sunscreen.

    Ruby Getting Some Sun in the Garden Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Getting Some Sun in the Garden

  • Help with Chores: Kids really do love to help with chores, and this is pretty much one of the funnest chores to do! By working in the garden, they will learn the joy of helping out around the home in a very fun and hands on way!

    Elliot Putting Scraps in Our Compost Bin

    Elliot Putting Scraps in Our Compost Bin

  • Get a Green Thumb: In my experience, gardening is a skill best learned about by doing. By jumping into gardening without much knowledge, we have learned about the best planting times, different varieties of plants, what plants grow best together, how to prepare the soil, and so much more. By gardening with our children from a young age, they will enter their adult years with this knowledge tucked securely under their belts and a joy to accompany it.

    Ruby Planting Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Ruby Planting Seeds

How to Grow a Garden

Now, I’m sure you can find a better expert than me to learn about all of the intricacies of gardening, but for what it’s worth, here’s how we garden. 🙂

  1. What to Plant? I like planting things that are easy to grow and that the children will have fun picking and eating. I like planting lots of tomatoes to make my tomato purée that I will freeze and use year round, many different kinds of beans that the children love picking, lettuce and herbs (cilantro, parsley, oregano, basil, and dill), peppers, cucumbers, carrots, sunflowers, corn (new this year), and maybe a few carrots and green onions.
  2. Start with Seeds: Starting in April or May, we like to start growing some seeds indoors in pots. Seed packets are fairly cheap (I picked up some organic seed packets at Walmart for 97 cents a piece.) and are way more cost effective than spending a few dollars per established plant. Once it’s above freezing at night, they can stay outside. I hear beans like to be planted when it’s still a bit frosty out.

    Sunflower Seeds Embracing Motherhood

    Sunflower Seeds

  3. Choose a Location and Prepare the Soil: Our original garden location (as seen below) is nice because it’s close to the house, but it is very damp which caused many of the plants to get a fungus last year. It also doesn’t get the best sunshine. This year, we are going to get a long hose, bury it, and set up a garden in the far corner of our yard near our teepee. For our original location, we used a rototiller, but in our new location, we’re digging up all of the sod by hand, so we’ll see how we manage without a tiller over there! I’m sure there’s lots you can do with fertilizing the soil, but we don’t do more than dumping the contents of our compost bin into the mix.

    Preparing the Soil for the Garden

    Preparing the Soil for the Garden

  4. Planting: I have made the mistake of planting things too close together (they’re so little at first), but then they grow too close together and compete for nutrients, so this year I will spread them out a bit more.
    Planting the Garden

    Planting the Garden

    Tomatoes from Last Year

    Tomatoes from Last Year

  5. Watering: In the past, we have used an arc shaped sprinkler, but I’ve since learned that it’s not good for the plants to get so much water on their leaves (because of the fungus) so this year, we will be putting in a soaker hose system (hopefully).

    Watering the Garden

    Watering the Garden

  6. Weeds: Weeding is really my favorite part of gardening. It’s very therapeutic and calming. I usually just pull out the weeds by hand, but every time my husband mows with the bagger, I collect the grass clippings and spread them out over the garden floor. This really helps to prevent weeds from growing.

    Using Grass Clippings to Prevent Weeds

    Using Grass Clippings to Prevent Weeds

  7. Composting: This is an excellent way for children to learn about recycling and to really see first hand what decomposition looks like. We dug out a square in our yard, added beams and boards around the sides (just like making a mini sandbox), and covered it with hinged doors with handles.

Getting Kids Involved

We don’t ever force our children to work in the garden. Whenever we’re going out there to work, we always invite them along, and if they refuse, that is perfectly fine. In the past, our kids have mainly enjoyed the planting and the harvesting process, but now, our oldest daughter Ruby (6) has been VERY helpful preparing the soil and getting things ready. She really enjoys talking about the planning of the garden now that she has seen it through to completion a couple of times. 🙂

In Conclusion

Growing a garden is truly a family event that is bonding in so many ways. I love working in the garden with our kids during every single stage. And when it’s harvesting time, the children see first hand the benefits of all of their hard work.

Happy gardening!

Check out some of our other backyard projects:

Embracing Motherhood How to Make an Outdoor Teepee

How to Make an Outdoor Teepee

Making an outdoor teepee is a fun and easy project that will provide a natural play area for your children. Who needs expensive plastic playground equipment when there’s old free tree branches lying around anyways?

There are lots of different variations and ways to embellish your teepee once you get the frame up…anything from being completely covered with bark to having living walls with something like beans or flowering vines!

Ruby and Elliot Playing in the Teepee

Ruby and Elliot Playing in the Teepee

Materials

  • Long Sticks: I drove around in my husband’s pick up truck and stopped along the side of the road whenever I found some really good long branches. Look for a few that have like a “v” at the top so that they can interlock and form the base when you get started.
  • Shovel: You want one with a point that you can really step on.
  • Gardening Gloves: These are optional, but be warned, you will end up with dirt under your fingernails!

Directions

  1. Make a Circle: Stand in the center of where you want your teepee and using a small to medium stick, draw a circle around yourself. Mark the edges of the circle by scoring it with your shovel.
  2. Plan Your Opening: Consider the position of the sun (if you want to have shade or not) and the location in relation to the rest of your yard. I wanted my opening to face the center of the yard so that I could always see who was inside, even though this meant that it would be really sunny inside all the time.
  3. Dig Holes: You’ll want to start with three holes for the anchor sticks. Dig a circle (much bigger than your stick…about 8-10 inches in diameter) and take out the piece of sod intact. Continue to dig down about another shovel’s depth. Make sure you leave a lot of loose soil at the bottom.
  4. Anchor Sticks: You might need some help to steady the three anchor sticks as you place them in at the same time. If you can find at least one stick that has a “v” at the top, it will really help to lock the sticks together at the top. Position the sticks in the ground, and lean them into each other until they are steady.
  5. Bury the Sticks: Fill in around the stick with all of the loose dirt that was taken out, and then place the piece of sod back on top. Stamp it down with your feet.
  6. Fill in with Sticks: I buried about eight more sticks, and then I just started leaning the rest of the sticks against other sticks. My little ones liked weaving in and out of the stick openings, so I left some spots more open than others.
  7. Cover: You can choose to leave the sides somewhat open, continue layering with sticks until it is filled in more, or find some other material such as pine needle branches or bark to fill it in completely. You might even want to grow something like beans or morning glories along the sticks to create some living walls.

In Conclusion

I probably had as much fun building this teepee as the kids have had playing in it. Once the weather starts to get nice, my husband and I like having outdoor projects to work on. It’s a fun way to be outside, get a bit of physical activity, and accomplish something! We are currently working on making some big dirt hills covered with sod, stepping stumps, obstacle course, and preparing our garden as we try our best to transform our 1 acre of regulated city land into as natural and fun of an environment as we can. (Here’s a little video of our backyard projects.) It’s going to be a fun summer!

Our Teepee One Year Later

Our Teepee One Year Later