Category Archives: summer

Forest kindergarten

Imagine being at a school where you look up and see, not a ceiling, but a canopy of leaves and branches high above you.

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Or being told you can shout all you want – just shout out into the forest. Where you can climb trees, use a saw or pocket knife to cut wood, fashion your own seesaw out of a rope and logs, and watch the lifecycle of bugs and birds in real time.

That's what it's like for children at a "forest kindergarten," where I spent a serene morning one day last week when I visited Germany. 

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The way into the forest was magical, with birds singing everywhere. The trees were high, stately, and utterly humbling. I really felt as though there is practically no better way to spend your days as a child than this. 

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I was in Europe because I got a book deal (hence the recent silence on this blog – I have been busy!) to write a book about parenting around the world. I went to Germany and also visited Finland, where I met friends, spoke with children of all ages, and was able to speak at length with many teachers. I also enjoyed the food (berries! bread! porridge!) and the beautiful Nordic summer sunlight.

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Visiting schools gave me a fresh perspective on how different children live all around the world. For instance, the primary school students I spoke with in Finland told me that they have only four hours of school on Fridays, and that they get a LOT of recess.

I enjoyed seeing the children's artwork as well. Below are a few pictures of primary school art from the schools I visited in both Germany and Finland. I love the birch tree representations below – they bring back memories of the beautiful birches I saw in Finland. 

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I took my two little girls with me on this trip, and while my schedule was really busy, we had time to take long walks.

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If you have something to share about what life is like for parents and children where you live, let me know via email or a comment – I'd really love to hear from you!

 

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End-of-summer sewing

Being in-between countries like this, the end of summer seems to have slipped past me before I've had a chance to catch my breath….We had time for a brief vacation back home, connecting with relatives, and a day or two of bliss at a late summer beach.

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There were unexpected treasures, like pine cones on small bushy trees just off the ocean.

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I hear it's cooler back home – here in Japan it's still quite warm and muggy. I'm longing for fall. I hear a friend is going apple picking soon. How I miss that! 

Towards the end of the summer I did manage to get a lot of sewing done. It was extremely addictive.

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For many of these projects I splurged on Liberty print fabric, which is beautiful, and quite popular in Japan. I feel like it's not too bad of a splurge when you're making something for such a little person, because you really don't need a lot of fabric.

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I used the small grey flower print as a lining for this little vest and then as the material for a dress for A.

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and also made managed to make several items out of this:

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The girls wore some of the things I'd made for them earlier in the summer, too. The little top on A was very simple – just 3 rows of elastic smocking on a tube of fabric, then I added straps.

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And I've started making a few Oliver + S patterns. I LOVE these. Each pattern is like a personal sewing lesson. This, below, is from the Puppet Show Tunic and Shorts pattern. I made a halter top out of the trim fabric to go with these.

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I actually made several halter tops and dresses for both girls. These are very fast! I think you can complete an entire one in about 20 minutes if you're not constantly interrupted by a baby! Faster than going shopping for clothes, no?  My go-to pattern is from my favorite Japanese dress pattern book of all time, Koharu no fuku. I love how simple, yet infinitely adaptable, the lines and patterns for all the clothes in this book are. I adore this book and often find myself recommending it to other friends who are just learning to sew. Perhaps a giveaway is in order?

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There was sewing for boys too, but I think might discuss those in a separate post! Until then, here is a quick glimpse of some double gauze pants which D lived in this summer:

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Now I'm feeling ready to try a few projects for myself. I'll start with this book, and see where it takes me.

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It's also time to break out the knitting needles in earnest. I got a few small projects done, and am now hoping to tackle Never Not Knitting's Playful Stripes cardigan. As if life weren't busy enough – but small portable projects, along with an abundant supply of dark chocolate, are what get me through these hectic days. Casting on today!

What fall projects are you hoping to get to?

Tutorial: Water Fountain

I've been wanting to post this since last summer, when I learned it in a parent-child class, but then time went by and it didn't seem a very wintery sort of craft to post about. Now a year has passed and it's summer again. Where does the time go?!

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All you need is a plastic water bottle and tape or markers to decorate it. The plastic bottle must have a cap. Oh and the grown up uses some sort of awl, nail/hammer, or something else to punch holes in the bottle. 

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(Note: about plastic bottles, we try to avoid buying them, but if you do have any lying around or find any as trash, it feels better to give them a second life as a craft project before recycling them.)

Have your child decorate the bottle as s/he sees fit.

Then you, grown up, use an awl, or nail and hammer, to punch holes in it either at random or in a pattern. 

After that, fill the bottle with water and put the cap on. Take it outside. When your child starts to unscrew the cap, the water will flow out of the holes. This makes a great science experiment too for the little ones: what happens if you unscrew it part way? all the way? 

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Such a simple quick project, but it provides a lot of fun on a summer day.

Salsa summer

In the summer I make a lot of dishes that have a cool, light vibe. For instance, last night we made a terrific chicken satay dish from a blog with the delightful name My Kids Eat Squid. When I read the recipe, I knew I had to make it immediately because not only was it full of spice and flavor, it was accompanied by a delicious sweet-sour cucumber relish. Relish, salsa, sauces – these make a dish shine and make a simple meal seem a lot more exciting. I made the satay (substituting vinegar for the lime juice and adding coconut milk to the marinade instead of basting with it) and it was a complete, satisfying meal alongside jasmine rice.

Today I'm sharing two really simple recipes with you. One dish I make pretty frequently is somewhat similar in principle to the chicken satay recipe. I marinate salmon, grill or broil it, and then top it off generously with a flavorful salsa. It's the dish below on the right, served along with a potato gratin and some roasted asparagus.

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Broiled Salmon with Tomato, Red Onion, and Cilantro Salsa

Ingredients: 

Salmon fillet

Ripe tomatoes

Red onion

Cilantro

Lemon or balsamic vinegar

Olive juice

White wine

Salt and pepper

1. Marinate the salmon for several hours in a small glass or ceramic dish in a quarter cup of wine and a few tablespoons of olive oil.

2. Chop up the tomatoes, red onion, and cilantro. Add some olive oil to moisten, season with salt and pepper, and add a splash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar if desired. Toss lightly, and chill until serving time. 

3. Take the salmon out of the marinade, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill or broil until it's done. Top with the salsa and serve. 

Here's another recipe for a summery side dish that would be great with a main dish of broiled steak or chicken. Even though the ingredients are commonplace, it's the presentation that makes this appealing. And of course, using the freshest ingredients you can (think just picked, sun-warmed tomatoes) makes this sublime.

Chopped Cucumber and Baby Tomato Salad


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Ingredients:

Baby tomatoes

Onion

Cucumbers

Dressing ingredients (use what you have on hand and want to use – it can be as simple as olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. Some chopped basil would be good too. Or sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar for an Asian-style meal).

1. Cut baby tomatoes in half. 

2. Chop cucumber and onion as fine as you can. Top the baby tomatoes with the cucumber/onion mixture, then sprinkle with dressing right before serving. 

Do you have any favorite recipes that are similar (a grilled or broiled main topped with or accompanied by a fresh, chopped vegetables?) I'd love some new ideas!

Water Safety

One of the things I find overwhelming as a school parent in Japan is the sheer amount of paperwork that comes home. In front of me I have an info sheet reminding me that today is the annual "fall into the swimming pool with all your clothes on" so the children can learn how to save themselves if, well, they ever fall into water with all their clothes on. Isn't this interesting, that they do this with the kids every year? My husband says he only practiced doing this when he was training to become a lifeguard.

Here's the list of things the boys need to pack in their swimming bags:

navy blue school swimsuit 

swimming cap

flip flops 

swimming card (on swimming days we are supposed to take their temperature and record it and sign it and send it in. No signature, no swimming. This is a challenge for me since I almost never take their temperatures and hate having to add one more task to the morning rush)

an extra set of clothes

Shoes (this will be a tough one, as the boys only have one or two pair of shoes each and only one of those are sneakers. They're not allowed to wear crocs to school – too much running around/recess/gym class)

a two-liter empty water bottle (to use as a float?)

an empty plastic bag with no holes in it, plus one or two more for carrying wet clothes home

Swimming is taught in Japanese school, and during summer vacation the pool is open for swim class during the morning as well. Kids take swim tests to move up through fifteen different levels. I think this is generally a good thing, although the water is freezing apparently. My Japanese friends are surprised to hear that most schools in the US don't have their own pools (I don't know of any at all, in fact). Swimming is a part of the national curriculum here.

Here's a photo from the annual "pool opening day" – every year there is a little ceremony with speeches and skits (including role playing what NOT to do around the pool – some of the older kids pretend to fool around, much to the delight of the little ones), then the kids go into the pool for the first time that school year. The ones in yellow hats are first graders – they're the only ones who don't go into the pool on the first day.

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The first graders are wearing their gym uniforms, too – white tops with navy bottoms. Usually they wear a red cap instead of the yellow hats. There's a fondness for hats here!

Notice the lovely urban backdrop? That's what life is like in Tokyo. I am envious of those of you who have a nice view out your windows. Enjoy it.

Here's a photo of some kids walking home on one of the quiet narrow streets that abound here, on their way towards the bigger streets. The first graders (in the yellow hats) also put a yellow cover on their backpacks so that they'll be more visible. The little tiny bags hanging off their backpacks are bags containing their lunch mats (placemats) and a toothbrush. I don't remember carrying either of those to school when I was little. 

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Our boys learned to swim from us (in fact, I remember teaching B to swim when we went on a vacation in Japan and my husband remarked on how many little toddlers he saw who were able to swim). I once tried to enroll D in a Japanese swimming class that several friends were taking their children to. There were so many children, and so few teachers, and it just wasn't a gentle approach – felt more like a factory. I pulled him out because I felt in my gut that that particular class wouldn't at all suit him. Now he swims like a fish, and I'm wondering how we'll teach our daughter M to swim. She's 3 1/2 and she seems fearful of the water, but water is one of the things I feel really worried about until I know my kids are able to stay afloat on their own. 

Tell me about swimming where you live – how do most children learn to swim? How do you talk to your kids about staying safe around water? Any thoughts on helping my daughter learn to become more comfortable as she learns to swim?

Summer sewing

Sewing is a huge challenge for me right now (how do those of you with babies do it?!!!) but the intense craving to sew something quick and summery just would not be satisfied until I did it. So I did! I made summery little dresses in subdued Fourth of July colors for my girls.

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I'm always torn about whether I'm better off using a pattern or not. I'm such a sloppy sewer! I'm really much better off knitting because yarn is more forgiving. For some reason my sewing shears always get dull right away and the fabric I cut looks all chopped up, with crooked edges. I don't measure very well – I can't find my ruler right now. I made bias trim without any tools, just kind of slashing away at the fabric on the diagonal and then sort of folding it together under an iron. So if you take a close look, it's really quite crooked. Also, my sewing machine is fading away on me – the zigzag doesn't work, so these have been put together quite precariously – if I put them through a washing machine I'm afraid the delicate seams won't hold up! So impractical!

But anyway, I decided to try to make the camisole from a pattern (though I had the same problem with the bias trim), and I'm very glad I did. I have a small but growing collection of Japanese sewing books, which I look through for inspiration more than anything else. This is from one of them. 

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One concrete thing I learned from actually cutting out and using this pattern is that the cloth has to be cut deceptively wide, much wider than I'd ever imagine it has to be (as you can see in the below), to get a nice swingy look that, in the end, isn't that wide at all.

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The pillowcase dress is a bit too narrow all around because I didn't follow a pattern. Would be OK on an upright, walking child, but on a crawling baby, it's too constricting and would have been better off as a little top. So now I know what to do next time!July4Dresses-110

My goal last summer was to work through at least a few patterns from my Japanese sewing books…..this year I'm going to be less ambitious and more realistic and just see what I can do. I'll be happy with any small bits of sewing I manage to do. 

The clearest river

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We're back now from our trip to the countryside. We were in a village called Gujo-Hachiman, which is where DH and I first met years ago. It's famous for clear rivers, fishing, and rock jumping.

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Afternoons were spent at the river, where soothing water sounds and glistening rocks were the best therapy for our city-weary selves.

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I was amazed by the simple beauty of rocks under cold river water. I gazed at them all afternoon and the children gathered them for their little games and pretend play or just skipped rocks in the river.

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We stayed in an inn where my husband did his homestay when we first lived in this village. We always stay in the same beautiful room facing the mountains.

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I lugged along some of my handcrafting (of course!) and completed a few little "sarubobo" (courtesy of Mairuru), which I've since found originate right near this village, in a city just north of here called Takayama. Such an apt coincidence.

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The boys had their summer Japanese homework to do, and Mia always drags out her "work" when they are studying or drawing. It's really adorable to see 3 little heads bent down in concentration like this.

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Now we are back, and getting ready for end-of-summer guests and the start of school. Hopefully that means I'll have finally have time again for a new origami or recyclable tutorial for you soon!