Texas winters confuse my Northeastern sense of seasons -- we basically jump from 80 degrees one day to 60 the next, for several months between the winter holidays and sometime in April, before the real heat kicks back in -- but spring is nonetheless unmistakable. Friends shared photos on Facebook of a snowy Brooklyn sunrise this morning while we stepped outside into a gentle, misting Texas rain. I adore rainy days and am usually disappointed by their brevity here in Austin, but today's rain picked up and found its steady rhythm right up until the time Kaspar came home from school. Then, the birds began singing, the breezes smelled of watered earth, and we headed outside for a walk, to hunt for the many signs of spring. 

Kaspar, like all kids, loves seasonal activities; reading books about the seasons, talking about what distinguishes them, and making time to experience their changes together helps him to connect with his environment, and to expand his understanding of his world (not to mention his vocabulary). Now three years old, he has the motor skills and attention span for more complex activities -- like origami or fairy-house construction (see below) -- and he's still filled with wonder at this planet's every detail. Spring is a particularly magical time of natural regeneration and growth, and celebrating the season as a family reminds us adults, too, of the wonder that's all around us, just outside our door, and within our homes and hearts. Read on for ten ways we're celebrating springtime with our preschooler; I hope you and your kids have fun with these ideas, and expand upon them. Please feel free to share other ways you've found to celebrate spring, too, in the comments!
Kaspar discovered a "Daddy snail and baby snail" while searching for signs of spring.
1. Take a walk in the woods (or just around your neighborhood) and search for signs of spring: Spring can be found through all five of our senses. The sounds of birds singing; the feeling of warm breezes or cold mud on our skin; the smell of thawing (or just-rained-on) earth, the taste of seasonal produce and the sight of daffodils, earthworms and budding trees all speak to us of springtime. Walking without a physical destination or a time commitment, but instead with the express purpose of paying attention to one's senses and surroundings, helps kids cultivate mindful awareness in the here and now, which is oh-so-enjoyable at this time of year. 

2. Do some spring cleaning: I've been clearing out my closets (and bringing in the house-cleaning pros) for a couple of months now, and have been enjoying every inch of my less-cluttered, spic n' span space. There's really something to be said for getting rid of what you don't need, on a physical level, but also on mental and emotional levels, as well. All three mark important -- and easily-shafted, when things get busy, so it's all the more important to make a point of prioritizing them -- practices for parents... and all people, really. You'll find, in this practice, those shoes you haven't worn in two years, but also the secret to sanity. As it happens, kids love to clean, too. But let's be honest; they're not always all that effective at it. Don't let that stop you from cleaning house as a family; giving kids real jobs to do provides them with a sense of independence, accomplishment and capability that's worth so much more than properly-folded laundry. Expand upon the definition of 'real jobs', too; Kaspar held a car wash in our driveway last week, and proceeded to "clean" all of his Hot Wheels cars for over an hour. Materials? One container, some water, two wash cloths and a few toys. Cost? Zero dollars. One hour of outdoor, TV-free, self-directed entertainment? Priceless.
3. Celebrate the solstice: Last year, we celebrated Easter, because I missed the solstice entirely and Easter was a (totally successful) backup plan. But this year, we're on our game! The solstice is officially March 21st, but we're going to do our thing on the 23rd, since the latter date is a Saturday. We're planning a picnic with friends complete with some outdoor playtime, and perhaps with a bit watercolor painting thrown in. At home, we'll plant some flowers in our backyard (our zinnias ended up thriving last year -- they got HUGE -- and they needed exceptionally little care), read some springtime books -- here's a good one for kiddos about the equinox itself, with lots of ideas for ways to celebrate, and here's another lovely one about a little boy's anticipation and enjoyment of spring -- and start a few new family traditions: making a springtime altar and having a treat hunt around the house are definitely happening. 

4. Grow and bloom: This idea comes from the book I Love Dirt!, a wonderful resource for outdoor-oriented activities with kids. It's pretty simple, but preschool-aged kids love it; younger toddlers will, too. When talking/learning/exploring on the topic of plants growing from the earth, suggest to your kids -- and believe me, if you DO this, they will too -- that you and they act like new blades of grass, or new flowers. Crouch low to the ground, and then grow! Bloom! Slowly stand up and stretch toward the sky. Then do it all again. This will bring out your kids' inner yogis (who, trust me, aren't very hidden at all), and get their physical-activity endorphins pumping. 

5. Start a garden: Whether you're re-potting a few countertop-container herbs, starting vegetable seedlings that'll eventually move outside, or putting a whole bunch of stuff in the ground itself, gardening is a wonderful way to get kids working with their hands and connecting with their food. 
Source: Gardening Adventures with Alexis
6. Install a bird feeder: By which I mean, hang one up on a branch outside your house. (Or, if you don't have branches, from your fire escape or whatever!) This doesn't have to be expensive; you can make a bird-feeding craft, or go for something more permanent (hummingbird feeders are cool), but be sure to involve your preschooler in every step of this project. They'll love it, from start to finish. And, if you build it, they will come -- birds, squirrels, and all manner of endlessly-fascinating wildlife to watch for weeks and months to come. 

7. Make origami butterflies: Kaspar's Montessori class recently learned about -- and made -- origami for an entire week, and the kids loved it. They learned to make frogs and butterflies; you can find lots of kid-friendly origami instructions online. We attended an art opening/open house event at Kaspar's school and admired all of the folded-paper butterflies, which decorated his classroom's windows: a wonderful, colorful decorating idea for crafty preschool-aged kiddos in the mood for spring. 
Kaspar's butterfly
8. Visit a nursery, and/or your local botanical gardens: Prompted by my recent (vertical) nesting instinct, our family headed over to a local nursery last week, and returned home with two new houseplants. One is now hanging in our kitchen, and the other's a floor-plant in the living room. Before we left, however, we explored the heck out of the place, which boasted a balmy green house, a koi pond, a funky little cafe, and plants everywhere. (Obviously, right?) It felt like some kind of car-free, super-green alternate universe to me, anyway, not to mention Kaspar, who was out of his mind with happiness, high on fresh oxygen and free to roam without recourse... within eyesight and earshot, of course. We were there for well over an hour, and although -- after multiple reminders that it was time to leave -- we finally carried a kicking-and-screaming Kaspar back to our car (THREE years old, y'all, is a bit of a challenge at times), it was time well spent. Little man slept like a baby that night, and has been asking to go back ever since. We certainly will, but we might revisit our local botanical gardens first. We've been before, but not since last spring, and rumor has it the place is about to be filled in beautiful blooms.
At our local nursery. (Kaspar carried that flamingo around the whole time.)
9. Jump in puddles: This is another simple one, but it's not overrated. Kids love, love, love puddle-jumping, as we've all noticed. It's pretty fun for grown-ups, too. It really doesn't rain very frequently here, so when it does, I insist on going outside immediately and running around like a lunatic. Kaspar can never quite believe his luck, and jumps right into the action. Best rain-play follow-up activity? Get out of those wet clothes and into a warm bath, kiddo and all. 

10. Build a fairy house: while you're out in the woods, the garden, or your backyard, why not build a house for some springtime fairies? It's like fort-building, only in miniature: your kids will re-imagine sticks, moss, wildflowers, rocks and other natural materials into walls, beds, roofs and chimneys. This is fun on one's own (watch kiddo concentrate) or as a collaborative project among friends or siblings, and it's a great way to spend a weekend morning outdoors. 

Happy Spring!

We ventured to Yellow Springs, Ohio this past weekend. Aaron has family in Dayton and its surrounding areas, and his sister's starting her first year at Antioch College, so we went to give her a proper send-off and to see some folks we haven't visited since Kaspar was just eight weeks old. As it turned out -- and you'd never guess this from the surrounding towns leading in to Yellow Springs -- the town itself (with only 4,000 perma-residents) is a little hippie-slash-hipster oasis of awesome coffee, great restaurants, super-cute houses and community-oriented spirit the likes of which one rarely encounters between the coasts. We were smitten. 

We play a hypothetical "we could live here" game almost compulsively when traveling; Asheville certainly came under consideration, and Concord, New Hampshire even got a few tentative votes this past August. (Two days in, however, after I'd run into a classmate from middle school who told me I 'looked different' without blue hair, I changed my tune and told Aaron I can never move back to the place I grew up in... but it is a really nice place for those of you who might be scoping.) We're both mostly-freelance at this point -- though Aaron might also take up with an animation company in the coming year -- so we're actually semi-serious in considering relocation possibilities. Despite its very-small-town shortcomings (I'm assuming they exist), we were pleasantly drawn in by Yellow Springs' uber-liberal, and surprisingly international, flare. 

Indy movie theater in the center of downtown? Check.
The town has a cool history. Besides being comedian Dave Chapelle's childhood home (and an off-the-beaten-path weekend spot for celebs who prefer low-profile hangouts to the Hamptons), Yellow Springs was founded by about a hundred aspiring utopians back in 1825. Many Quakers also took up residence there, and it was one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad; some of the town's historical homes still feature their original hiding spots that helped deliver American slaves to freedom. In keeping with its activist roots, the town was also a civil rights and anti-war hotspot during the 1960s. 

We stayed at the Springs Motel just outside of town. It was clean, campy and cheap, and included a mini-fridge, which is a necessity when traveling with Kaspar; the first order of business, wherever we go, is to stock up on non-allergenic edibles for him. We were lucky to stay in a house when we hit up New York City this past summer; some friends who live right around the corner from our old place gave us the keys and told us to make ourselves at home. A few things had changed but our intimate familiarity (born of walking everywhere too close for the train) with the lay of the land -- combined with a full working kitchen -- made keeping Kaspar well fed during our stay extra easy. In Ohio this past weekend, it was a bit of a different story. We stopped at a supermarket on the outskirts of Dayton and couldn't find one piece of organic produce. (I was astounded, which Aaron found amusing.) We did find some "fruit squeezies," yogurt, frosted flakes, some organic hot dogs (score-- Kaspar's fave, and free of wheat fillers) and some Kraft string cheese (cringe) -- because hey, artificial hormone-laden dairy products pale in comparison to the crazy that is a hungry travel-weary toddler; I'd suspected Kaspar's diet would not exactly be 'balanced' while we were away, so I'd made juice the morning we left and determined to suck it up and feed him what we could find when we arrived. As a nice surprise, though, when we visited with Aaron's grandmother (see Josephine, pictured here), she directed us to the apple trees she'd planted decades ago, in her backyard. Our boy tried his hand at apple-picking for the first time ever, and piled up a serious stash. Thus, we were ready for motel mealtimes, which at the very least included some non-toxic fruit. 
Yellow Springs = pro-boobies.
Luckily for us, Yellow Springs' restauranteurs were more than happy to help our kiddo (and us) to delicious, satisfying fare. The guy at The Spirited Goat coffee shop gave us a steaming mug of hot water to heat Kaspar's hot dogs in for a two-hot-dog breakfast on our first morning in town... Which was promptly followed by some brown rice, steamed broccoli and a buffalo burger (cooked, unadulterated, in its own pan) at The Sunrise Cafe; Aaron and I had a rockin' breakfast there, too, and returned for dinner the next night (also excellent). I always take it as a good sign when a town's population of restaurants is disproportionately large, and each of our choices in Yellow Springs brought with it friendly, knowledgeable waitstaff, local, organic yummies and a personal, family-friendly vibe. 
Aaron's sister, Sylvia, gave us a tour of her dorm at Antioch College; its lush campus closed briefly a few years ago, but the college has re-opened, paying its first few waves of students' tuitions for them (free college?? WHAT? Had we died and gone to Sweden?) and kicking things off with a bang. Its buildings are being completely re-renovated, and Sylvia's dorm was suh-weet. Also, entirely forward-thinking as far as renovations go, complete with solar panelling across the entire roofline, filtered-water fountains with little tickers telling passers-by how many plastic bottles their usage has saved, and various other green features that promise to make a big impact. The town, too, boasted lots of bike racks (very much in use), public recycling receptacles, and -- as the dude at The Spiritied Goat told me -- a public water supply that, by popular demand, is completely flouride-free. This level of broad municipally-encouraged environmental responsibility definitely reminded me of Asheville; I hope these small-scale experiments in city-wide greening (not just greenwashing) will provide working examples for bigger cities to follow. (I recently wrote about Toronto's extremely advanced city-wide composting system; my friend who turned me on to it -- who recently relocated from NYC herself -- noted that Toronto is far greener in general than American cities are.)
Anyway, Aaron's aunt borrowed a tricycle from a friend, and we walked up and down the paved bike path running through town (and, evidently, all the way to the next town over, Xenia) as Kaspar got the gist of pedaling. We also hit up the playground at the local elementary school just after the end of the school day; Kaspar hung out in the sandbox and we chatted with a mom who relocated, with her family, to Yellow Springs from Las Vegas several years ago. (She was also originally from New Hampshire.) We wandered around the neighborhoods a bit, too, drooling over several stucco houses and noticing a certain art deco architectural bent. For such a small town, there were a lot of people out and about, both downtown and in their front yards, which mixed one of the pros of metropolitan living (people, and the energy they give a place) with the sleepy, safe feeling only a small town can offer. Paired with vibrant fall foliage, it was no wonder Yellow Springs is a popular place. I was shamelessly, every bit a tourist, but felt welcomed, and very much at home.
Whether we'll actually move to Yellow Springs remains to be seen. I'm not sure how I feel about the size, and about all that conservative dull-i-tude in surrounding Ohio. Our list of potential home bases is long and our preferences are varied; returning to our Brooklyn digs this past summer reminded us of all that we adore about big-city living, but we didn't feel called to return to it, exactly. San Francisco and Vancouver are both on our radar. (Aaron also loves LA, but I'm not so sure.) Asheville was fun but ultimately felt kind of gimmicky and been-there-done-that, as a small college town and all. I love the idea of Santa Fe, but so far it's only an idea. I also like the idea of going very rural -- of a barn home, or a yurt. And we've done some collective, far-flung daydreaming of Buenos Aires. (No idea how that would be on the food allergy front, but hey -- a step at a time.)

All told, we're in Austin right now, and actually, it's just right for our current collection of work-life puzzle pieces; I was semi-worried for both myself and Aaron, before returning to New York, that we'd both feel leaving there had been a mistake, and I was relieved when neither of us did. But I was completely shocked when Aaron said he was glad I'd had the foresight to suggest we move to Austin when we did. (He loved living in New York.) We get to have a house and a yard here, but we haven't gone straight-up suburban. Our friends are diverse and interesting and cool, and very real; they hail from all over and they aren't all parents themselves. The ones that are parents are also great people, and we're able to do the family thing without feeling boxed in. I've lived in small towns before (and even small cities) and it's hard to fall into multiple categories in them, or to grow up and change (because yes, my hair is different now than it was in 7th grade); I loved that New York allowed me to simply be myself, in my many manifestations. Austin allows for this, too. (Or maybe I just don't feel the need, these days, for some kind of outward approval.) Austin's been good to our family, for sure. We're here for now, and it's home. We like to travel and we like to play our what-if game. And if work and weather eventually lead us elsewhere (I adore Seattle's rain), we have a list of "we could live here's" to guide us well. 
Asheville’s always been on my list of places I’d like to visit – it’s known for being a pretty hip town, and a lot of nomadic 20-somethings who land in Portland, Austin and similar cities also stop over there. It’s not really close to anything else, though, or on the way to anywhere in particular, so it was my mom’s 60th birthday that finally gave us a real reason to go. She and my dad live in New Hampshire, but she chose Asheville as a celebration rendezvous spot. (I actually have no idea why.) In any case, my brother and his wife, and our little crew all landed late last Thursday for an extended weekend vacation-birthday-celebration-get-together. Our little Newman branch of the family stayed in a small cabin about fifteen minutes outside of town, and everyone else made themselves at home in a luxe little house a few miles up the same road. (There aren’t all that many roads in Asheville's surrounding towns. We did manage to get lost between the airport and the cabin upon arriving, but getting around after that was a piece of cake).

As far as sightseeing goes, we went to the Biltmore Estate, we walked around downtown Asheville (cute enough, touristy, typical college town), we discovered West Asheville to be much cooler (more diverse businesses and a more permanent population), and we romped around our cabin’s grounds and ogled the breathtaking landscape. Aaron and I have chronic wanderlust of the ‘Where could/should we move?’ variety, and discussed Asheville’s potential, mostly because our cabin and its location were so idyllic, and Asheville does have its reputation.

Ultimately, however, Ashevile’s very small, and while the word ‘serene’ doesn’t do its countryside justice, that countryside is also (if signage is to be believed) heavily populated by Republican Baptists… This didn’t stop me from pointing every which way and squealing “Look! Cows! BABY cows! We could put up a yurt here and freelance from the hills!” but, well, Aaron doesn’t actually want to live in a yurt (I do), and we don’t really want to live in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of Republicans, even if there is a small city center that organic-food-eating, bike-riding liberals call home.     (Oh shit, wait…)

Travel time with a toddler: preparation is everything.
Make that preparation and snacks.
It’s a great place to visit, though! And if we were loaded I’d put up a yurt there and go on retreat once in a while. Meanwhile, I definitely recommend Asheville as an easy, 100% satisfying, toddler-friendly vacation. We didn’t wait in any massive lines, or drive for hours, or search for parking. The West End Bakery, where we grabbed a cheap, delicious and locally-sourced lunch on our first full day in town, featured a sweet, sunny seating area with a big rug and appealing toys that kept Kaspar occupied, and in full sight, while we enjoyed our meal. The cabin-place people were totally kid-prepared (baby gates and children’s books in the cabins). Even the staff in the Asheville airport doled out coloring books and crayons.

My mom’s birthday was, for all of Asheville’s novelty, the trip’s main event, though. We ate breakfast and lunch at the big house every day we were there (my family's big on family meals... and why not?), where Kaspar got everyone to read books to him, and spent many happy hours running around on the lush lawn. My sister-in-law brought along one of those cutout-letter “Happy Birthday” banners and hung it by the dining table outside, and Aaron and I got a cake at a local shop for my mom's birthday dinner. We had “Happy Birthday Lizzy” scrawled on it; It’s the nickname my dad calls her, and always has. He’s been diagnosed in the past year with early-onset dementia, and I know it’s been an emotional and challenging time for them both.  My dad’s still doing pretty well; he’s not the ‘same’ as he was several years ago (his memory, obviously, is unreliable), and his verbal and conversational capacities have at this point been most impacted, but seeing him, and my mom, light up, surrounded by family, doting on their grandson, and celebrating something really worth celebrating (60’s a big deal!) – together -- was wonderful. My mom sure knows how to throw herself a party! And if anyone deserves to party, it’s her.

Happy Birthday Mom! We love you.

 We're in Asheville, North Carolina right now, on a little mini-vacation. We're actually staying in a small house about fifteen minutes outside Asheville's center. We've been wandering the city itself (lots of shops downtown, but the West side seems to be where the interesting action is), exploring the outlying areas (ridiculously scenic... and it's baby cow season! Yes!), and even acting like proper tourists from time to time (hit up Biltmore early this afternoon). I'll fill you in and unload my good camera once we're back at Newman HQ, but for now here's a sampling of what we're up to right NOW, courtesy of my phone.

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One of my favorite things to do when visiting other cities (and one of my key size-a-city-up practices) is to wander around its neighborhoods and take note of its public art. Sculptures, graffiti and shop signs are all fair game; a city's visual flavor betrays a great deal about its inhabitants. Our home features framed photos of particularly inspiring pieces we've seen -- some of which disappeared soon after we admired them -- and my memories of places I've lived all feature public art that gave otherwise characterless expanses (concrete tunnel bridges, windowless brick walls) permanent prestige in my mind's eye. Of course I appreciate street art's political power -- Banksy is legendary, and JR is visionary -- but I also just love one-of-a-kind signage, or simple messages scrawled on a wall. Austin's got lots of all of it. Here's a small sampling, hot off my phone.

What are your favorite cities for street art sightseeing?
It's full-on springtime here in Austin; we're awash in wildflowers (Bluebonnets, yes, but also orange and red and yellow and white blossoms I can't name), sprayed along the sides of the highways and blowing in the breezes behind our back fence. And it's warm. Sure, over half the population is allergic to this heady pollen mix, and we all know what's coming as far as summer's heat is concerned, but it's a magical season nonetheless.

We've been taking evening bike rides, as a family. Kaspar loves his little trailer. He didn't at first, so we kind of stepped off it for a while, but now he's super enthused; he waves to me as I ride alongside him, and, after a while, his gaze drifts and settles, soaking in the scenes we pass as we make our way to the playground (surprise!), or up and down neighborhood streets. I'm reminded, riding my own bike, of the freedom I felt zipping around my neighborhood when I was a kid. One can actually get places, quickly, on a bicycle, and there's a thrill to hills and back-alley shortcuts that enclosed car-transport lacks. I can relate, riding now, to the passion some (grown adult) cyclists I know express when it comes to riding. When we're out, going places (or not) and talking with each other, deciding which way to go, I wonder why more people aren't getting around this way. Some cities are better set up for it, certainly (Portland, OR, for example). And in some other cities in the world, cars just aren't an affordable or practical option for the masses, so cycles outnumber autos on the roads. Austin's laid out more for pickup trucks than bicycles (it is Texas, after all), but we're discovering that it is possible to bike around here, and I'm feeling newly committed to choosing this option whenever we can. It's fun! It's also free... Gas, as you may have noticed, is not.

Do you use a bicycle for actual transportation, rather than just recreation? Are you a cycling family? Any tips as we take to the roads in this way?
Long Live Life on Earth
For those of you who’ve been following along on Parenting.com for the past couple of years, you may remember my formal announcement of our departure for Texas. You may also recall that my feelings about fleeing the city were, uh, pretty strong. Anyway, we did up and move, and we did get a whole lot of what we were seeking, like accessible outdoor space, a less compulsively competitive culture (I didn’t have to write any essays to get Kaspar into childcare, so there’s that), and a dishwasher (love is in the details, people).  We also, however, got something a few of the commenters cautioned me about but that I didn’t truly understand until reality hit the… road: lots of car time. Lots. 

Seemingly minor errands on an average Saturday (farmer’s market, pharmacy, friends’ houses, etc.) add up to me feeling like I’ve spent most of the day driving, even when we’ve stayed fairly close to home. Throw a weekday in the mix and I’m swearing up a storm as I sit in traffic on the highway, asking “What is this, LA?” of the car-studded landscape. I don’t actually like driving very much (sorry, was that obvious?), and I’m also aware of the very real fact that this planet’s rapidly running out of oil—as well as seriously heating up from the things we do with it—so it strikes me as odd that we’re all still so dependent on our cars. With that perspective, I take the bus to work each day, and we try to live as locally as possible, consolidating our driving needs and refusing to turn into a two-car family. Ever. 

We realized as we looked ahead to our hectic fall schedules, however, that while Kaspar’s morning start-time will work perfectly with mine—I’ll drop him off (by car) and then head to class myself—I’m still going to have the car up in central Austin when he’s ready to be picked up. By Aaron. Who’ll be without the car. 

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