Go wild

Go wild

July 1, 2013-MN. Parent Magazine
By: Kelly Jo Mcdonnell
Reconnecting your kids with nature

My son has a fort. It’s wedged between two evergreens in our backyard, and houses such treasures as slabs of wood and other knick-knacks. An old green army tarp hung by bungee cords serves as a wall. And while I sometimes sigh loudly at the amount of items that find their way into my son’s fort, I leave it alone. A few years ago my father told me that a boy’s fort in nature is his sanctuary and refuge. “Treat it as such,” he warned.

I would never argue that point, as my own childhood memories are steeped in the great outdoors. Many of the most cherished recollections I have involve either a vacation up north or my own fort nestled in a thicket. I want my son to have those memories, too, but I worry the experience won’t be the same. And I’m not the only parent thinking this. There is a growing disconnect between our kids and nature.

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, it’s a phenomenon—and not a good one. It was Louv who first came up with the term, “Nature deficit disorder” when his Last Child in the Woods book came out in 2005. His hypothesis is basically that people, especially children, are spending less time outdoors.

Why is this happening? The reasons are myriad, and a few, obvious. One I can relate to is “stranger danger,” or as Louv calls it in his book, the Bogeyman syndrome. “Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young,” he explains. “Fear is the emotion that separates a developing child from the full, essential benefits of nature. Fear of traffic, of crime, of stranger-danger—and of nature itself.”

My boundaries growing up included the entire town. Admittedly, my son’s boundaries are tighter. In a 2002 survey by TNS Intersearch for American Demographics magazine, 56 percent of parents in the U.S. said that by the time they were 10 years old they were allowed to walk or bike to school, but only 36 percent of those same parents said their own children should be allowed to do the same.

Restricted access

The loss of wild surroundings is another factor. In more and more cities and suburban neighborhoods, it can be tough to find green. But it’s worth looking for: a team study by researchers in Sweden, Australia, and the U.S. found that when children played in an environment dominated by play structures rather than natural elements, the kids established social hierarchy through physical competence. But by offering a grassy area with a few shrubs, and the kids engaged in more fantasy-style play, and their social standing became based less on physical abilities and more on language and creative skills. And a bonus: open play also provided greater opportunities for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways.

Even if you find a park or nature preserve, kids are seeing more restricted access. “Do not walk off the trail” one sign recently warned me at a neighborhood park. Everyone understands that the natural environment must be protected, but Louv questions the cost of that protection in some instances, and the direct impact it has on a child’s relationship with nature. Even environmentalists and educators, he points out, say, “look but don’t touch.” But sometimes that’s the only way to learn, especially for kids.

And a third obvious cause, of course, is the increased draw to spend time inside looking at screens, including computer, video, and television. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with some form of electronic media.

The effects of this are sobering. Our kids have a limited respect for their natural surroundings. Louv points out that this will be an even bigger problem down the road. “An increasing pace in the last three decades, approximately, of a rapid disengagement between children and direct experiences in nature…has profound implications, not only for the health of future generations but for the health of the Earth itself.”

Then and now

Research has shown that people who care about the earth now spent time in the natural world as children. GreenHeart Education stresses that we owe it to our children to give them unmediated time in nature, so that, as one native elder explained, “the land will remember them.” That is, they will feel grounded and have a sense of “home” that they care about.

Another impact of nature deficit may be the development of attention disorders. Louv suggests that going outside and being in the quiet and calm can help kids. “It’s a problem because kids who don’t get nature-time seem more prone to anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit problems.” As a mother of an ADHD son, this research is worth watching. Some tips include encouraging your child to play in outdoor green spaces, study or play in rooms with views of nature, or plant and care for gardens and trees at your place of residence. Louv explains that although the impact of nature experiences on attention disorders and on wider aspects of child health is in its infancy and easily challenged, it’s not to be brushed over. “Yes, more research is needed, but we do not have to wait for it. If, as a growing body of evidence recommends, contact with nature is as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep, then current trends in children’s access to nature need to be addressed.”

Childhood obesity is another issue, and about nine million children ranging in age from six to 11 are overweight or obese, according to The Institute of Medicine. It’s time for kids to move more, which means getting off the couch and heading outside and away from screen-time. Blogger Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today says it may be an uphill battle for parents, but “we need to rewild our children before it’s too late.”

While my generation may have been the first to experience Atari and MTV, we also played kick the can, fished in creeks, and had more free-roaming boundaries outside. While some good works are already taking root, such as an environment-based education movement, a simple-living movement, and schoolyard greening, there’s always more work to be done.

With luck, our kids will realize their sense of purpose in this cause. After all, I can only hope that, someday, my son will want his own children to have an outdoor fort. A refuge, a sanctuary. Army tarp and all.



Here are some fun ideas to get things going with the cause.

Got dirt? A truckload of dirt costs about the same as a video game, so how about buying a load and throwing in some plastic buckets and shovels?

Plant some native plants, or maintain a birdbath. Invite some native flora and fauna in your kid’s life.

Revive some older family traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, and release them at dawn. Collect feathers or leaves. How about crawdadding? (Tie a piece of bacon on a string, and drop it into a creek or pond. Wait until a crawdad tugs.)

Encourage kids to go camping in the backyard. Put up a tent (you can rent them inexpensively through REI) or help them make a canvas tepee and leave it up all summer. (For some other great ideas, go to nwf.org.)

Tell your kids stories about your special childhood places in nature, then help them find their own. Encourage kids to build a fort, hut, or tree house.

Combine tech with nature and go digital—with nature photography that is. Digital cameras save money on film, and are decreasingly expensive.

Go on a moth walk. It sounds weird, but it’s worth it. Mix (in a blender) overripe fruit or wine, and blend in honey, sugar, or molasses. Go outside at sunset and spread the goop on a few trees or untreated wood. Go back when it’s dark, flashlight in hand, and see what you’ve lured. With luck, you’ll probably find moths, ants, earwigs, and other bugs.

It’s Minnesota, so in the winters build an igloo or snow cave, or go sledding, snow tubing, or snowshoeing. Stay outside!

The Grieving Child-MN. Parent Magazine


As I stood in the quiet Iowa cemetery, I watched my 10-year-old son as he flitted around my Father’s tombstone.  Grandpa had suddenly and unexpectedly had an aortic aneurism this year, and before we knew it, was gone from our lives.  My sons Grandpa was a larger than life personality, and while I wrestled with my own grief, I worried about the large void left for my son, who was 10 and had been very close to his Grandpa. The whole experience was so sudden and a blur, and I wondered if I had traumatized his grief process since I was still running to catch up with my own.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Hayden catching the glowing fireflies that had popped out during the twilight hours. He was cupping them to his mouth, saying something, and then releasing them into the air. As I shuffled closer, curious, I over heard him whispering to the fireflies “Protect Grandpa”, before releasing them.  That bittersweet moment is etched into my memory, and for some reason, left me feeling a bit more peaceful. Perhaps Hayden was coping better than I had thought. Better than his Mother, anyway.

Grief is a tricky business, for both adults and children. And let’s face it; nothing prepares you for this business until your knee-deep in it.  But don’t make the mistake in thinking that kids don’t grasp the grieving process. Kids can grieve at any age, and it depends on their age, developmental stage and life experiences.

Inez Bersie-Mize, a licensed family therapist with Midwest Center in St. Paul, agrees that the child’s age makes a big difference. “Their cognitive abilities, and the ability to understand and comprehend makes a big difference,” she explained, “around 7 and 8 they still have that magical thinking, that the person could come back, or that ‘Grandpa looks like he’s sleeping’. It’s very common for that age to have that thinking. Their capacity to tolerate pain, and whom they have around them also makes a difference. Their relationship to the person who died comes into play.  Kids are very tuned into their sense of pain, and if they think the person died, had a great deal of pain or trauma, then they’ll have a harder time getting over it then someone who died in their sleep.”

Come to think of it, son Hayden’s first questions about Grandpa’s passing was pain-related.  Questions such as “Did it hurt?”  “Did Grandpa know what was happening to his heart?” Other kids, who have witnessed someone battle an illness, deal with different questions.  When Molly Sproull lost her Father to bone cancer, her son was 6 and daughter was in 3rd grade. “My Father was in hospice, so we all knew it was coming,” Sproull remembered, “So Ben got to say goodbye. I didn’t really pay much attention growing through the process. He was on his best behavior (during the illness) because of what I was going through. But after the funeral, that’s when he really started acting out.”

Sproull said the calls from teacher started coming soon after the funeral, and involved throwing objects and reacting to other kids. “I look back, and I realize he was grieving,” said Sproull, “he was just not himself.  I always tried to answer his questions (about Grandpa) without scaring him. It was hard. My daughter Abby had more tears. She understood a bit more, and I didn’t really see any negative reactions with her. She was more Mothering to me, asking if I was OK. She recognized I was grieving, even as a 3rd grader.”

Bersie-Mize said that’s the fine line that parents must walk while going through their own grief process. “It’s better to explain it then to hide it,” stressed Bersie-Mitze, “they need to know what’s happening, what the wake will look like, and have a choice to go or not to go. They need to be informed. A lot of kids fear crying, but when everyone else is crying, it helps them make that decision. They need to be informed.”

Brent and Christie Cuttell, Cottage Grove, are advocates of being informed. Brent lost his Father last year after an extended illness, and the couple’s three children range in age from 7 to teenagers.   “Kids grieve in a similar sense that we do, but it’s more pronounced. Everything a child does is more pronounced…they are louder and faster than we are, and their minds are sharper,” said Brent Cuttell, “youngest son Camden was 7 and a half when Grandpa died. He’s a visual kid, so whenever he sees a red hat, like his Grandpa Cuttell used to wear, he gets emotional. He’ll say ‘I miss Grandpa’, or “That guy in the red hat looks just like Grandpa’. They figure out that stepping stone – you have a Grandpa, you might even have a Great Grandpa. Now that Grandpa’s gone, that void is filled with Dad or Mom. That stepping stone and known, rock solid entity is gone.”

Christie Cuttell, who is a social worker at Psyche Recovery, Inc. in St. Paul, says her knowledge of the grief business helped her cope with her own family’s journey. “Americans are horrible at death and dying,” she explained, “we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t plan for it, yet it’s the only thing that is absolutely sure. It’s very frustrating when you work on death and dying. The more open we are with our kids and each other, the smoother it is going to go.”

She said youngest son Camden’s grief comes and goes in short waves and bursts, usually associated with visual triggers. “At first he was very careful not to grieve in front of us,” remembered Christie, “he didn’t want to upset people more. But when he went back to school and the teacher had given him an assignment to write about feelings, Camden could only get through 2 sentences, before he burst out crying.  I do think kids generally grieve better than adults. They are not at all selfish. Their genuine, and to them, it’s very literal.”

The Cuttell’s said their older teenagers took on a different grieving pattern.  “Myles, being the boy, was more non-verbal,” remembered Christie, “but his actions were kinder. He was not causing trouble, and would let things go that he usually wouldn’t. He was just quieter. Daughter Abby just cried her brains out, night and day. The teenaged kids had a very difference connection with Grandpa, as they are so much older than Camden. They saw Grandpa healthy, and he wasn’t sick in their memories.”

“Some of it is really just talking with them,” explained Bersie-Mize, “it really is. It’s OK that it hurts or that it’s scary. It’s OK to say those things to kids. The more they are involved in the planning, the better. It’s important not to exclude them from your own grief. Explain how you feel inside, so they don’t feel alone or isolated.”

Through the whole process, watch for warning signs of something deeper than “healthy” grief. “Watch how long they are staying in grief,” explained Bersie-Mize, “and if they are functioning in school and with friends. Are they isolating, or getting angry. Things like that should not be ignored, and sometime professional support is needed.”  Other factors to watch include inability to sleep, or loss of appetite, acting much younger for an extended period, repeated statements for wanting to join the dead person, or excessively imitating the deceased family member.

She went on to explain that it wasn’t until around the 1950’s or later that children were included at all in the whole grieving process, and until then was kept very separated from the whole ordeal. “Including them in the process, perhaps picking out flowers, or writing poems to put in the casket, are all closure activities. Talk about how sad it feels, and the hurt inside. Let them see the tears.”

With our family, we included all the grandsons as much as we could in the planning, and communicated what would be going on during the wake and the funeral itself. Hayden had the choice of viewing Grandpa during the wake. He sat in the back of the church in the last pew for a short time before making up his mind and marching up the aisle resolutely next to me. We also let each of the grandsons choose a “Grandpa treasure” from his dresser, and they all carried them in their pockets during the funeral. I noticed Hayden rubbing his Grandpa’s favorite pocketknife during the funeral.

After our visit to the cemetery that day, Hayden asked if Grandpa had known we were there visiting him, or if he was too busy up in heaven.

I guess only the fireflies and my dad really know the answer to that question.

Side Bar:

Kids books that help cope with grief:


The Fall of Freddie the Leaf – Leo Buscaglia


The Next Place – Warren Hanson


The Old Coyote by Nancy Wood


Papa’s New Home – Jessica Lynn Curtis

Polo is the sport of kings….and kids!

Winston Churchill famously once said, “A polo handicap is your passport to the world.” When someone brings up Polo, one may have visions of sleek horses thundering down the grassy fields in London, England, or even Santa Barbara, California and Greenwich, Connecticut. One associates the sport with kings, not kids.

So it came as a surprise that this sport can also be a passport right here in good old Minnesota.  We have our own Twin Cities Polo Club in Maple Plain, and there was a Polo Classic match right around the corner. And surprise! I saw numerous kid events on the roster. I was sold. After all, the sport of Polo has been played for centuries; it was time to experience the thrill of the sport. And the proceeds go for a wonderful cause-the Leatherdale Equine Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

Explaining this to my 9-year-old son, Hayden, was something else. “We’re heading down to Maple Plain,” I explained, “we’re going to a polo match!”  Hayden stared blankly back. I continued. “It’s a game played on horses, and they hit a ball around with a mallet. It’s like hockey on horseback.” He seemed to accept that explanation. “Is it like the guy on those one shirts?” he asked. Ah- Ralph Lauren. Sold.

While the polo matches are played May through September, we caught the 22nd Annual Polo Classic the end of July. It was going to be a hot one, temperatures in the low 90’s and muggy. It was a beautiful drive though, and the polo field wasn’t hard to find among the sprawling pastures. Hayden enjoyed watching the polo players prep their horses in the heat, while I grabbed some bottles of water from the horse trough.

There were many things to keep the kids entertained, from face painting, to jumping in the bouncy tent, to riding a horse-drawn carriage around the grounds. The U of M Raptor Center was on hand, and there were several games set up, all horse related. If your kids are into horses, this was the place to be. Several retail tents were peppered along one side of the field; St. Croix Sadderly, Pink Equine, and Refuge horse farms. There was even a Ralph Lauren “Big Pony Collection” cologne booth, with bright colored bottles with taglines such as “Be a winner! Be part of the team!” Before I could stop him, Hayden had sprayed himself with several of the samples.

The schedule of events seemed foreign to us non-polo people, but sounded fun all the same. Gates opened at 11:00 a.m.; At 12:00 was the Twin Cities Polo Club Youth Match. Hayden loved seeing kids from age 12 and up on the field warming up the polo greens.

“It is wonderful,” said Craig Robbins, Polo Classic Co-Chair, “Our Youth Polo Group, ages 12 up to 20 play in the youth program. The kids learn about the sport, and the youth polo match showcases some of the kids that play. It gives them an opportunity to show what they can do!” I was pleased to see several long ponytails streaming in the wind behind a few of the players helmets. I poked Hayden. “Those are girls!” I exclaimed. He rolled his eyes. “They haven’t scored yet, Mommy”. As if on cue, one of the girl players thundered passed us and chucked a ball right in the goal.

After the Youth Match, we witnessed the Long Lakes Hounds Demonstration at 12:45. We learned that the Long Lake Hounds club was founded in 1959, and is Minnesota’s only hunt. No worries-it’s a “drag” hunt, meaning it doesn’t hunt or involve live foxes; a fox scent is dragged on horseback to simulate the path a pursued fox might take over the fields or through the woods. Hayden enjoyed watching the numerous hounds being corralled by riders around the field. The opening ceremony was at 1:45, and as Hayden put it, “it was time for the big guy polo.” “The Polo Gods are smiling on us!” exclaimed the announcer. Smiling? It was 94 degrees. But I suppose that meant that it wasn’t raining. We were learning.

Robbins directed us to the large Equine Center tent. “It’s a fun community event,” he explained, “ It gives you a change to meet one another, and helps build that community effort.” We nestled ourselves in the shade of the large tent, which had perfect seats along the side of the polo field. It was organized with tables of information on the Equine Center’s programs, which are for teaching, research, clinic care and community outreach for advancing the health, wellbeing and performance of horses. The Center boasts a 60,00 square feet facility that supports the growing University of Minnesota equine program.

Home to nearly 500 state and local horse clubs, Minnesota has more than 155,000 horses- the ninth largest horse population in the United States!

The polo match was fast paced and downright exciting, even though we were still learning the rules of the game. Hayden thought it was a blast to run out on the field at half time for the divot stomp. (I reminded him to stay clear of the steamy divots) I was impressed with the athleticism of the riders. Talk about multi-tasking. And the agility of the polo ponies was equally impressive. It’s not uncommon for the horses to reach speeds of 35 mph while still being able to turn on a dime. By the end of the match, Hayden announced that he thought Polo was “cool.”

As we drove back to the cities, I reveled in the feeling that my son and I had enjoyed something completely new…and we learned a thing or two along the way. I could still smell the faint scent of Polo in the air.

The Polo God’s had indeed smiled on us.Image

MN. Parent-April Issue

It’s my party :: Hayden and Harry

By Kelly Jo McDonnell

My son is a party-planner, and I have no one to blame but myself. I love a party… and a theme party? Even better. Best: my son is with me every step of the way during our party planning process. Hayden, now nine-years-old, chooses his “theme” each year. When he was really little, I chose for him, trying to match the theme to whatever my son was “into” at the time. At age five, it was bugs, so I booked Dr. Bruce the Bug Guy for a live bug demonstration complete with edible bugs and a strange looking bug cake (gift bags included rubber bugs and bug tattoos). By six and seven, he was in the Pokémon phase (I tracked down Pokémon-themed games including Pin the Tail on Pikachu). By eight, George Lucas had his hold and Star Wars ruled. Invitations stated, “Invited you are, on a Galactic adventure with Hayden,” and Yoda Sodas were a hit (lime sherbet with sprite). All the boys brought their own light sabers, and they proceeded to destroy the death star piñata, which was really just a painted soccer ball. The force was with them.

So that brings me to the ninth year. I assumed that perhaps the Star Wars theme might hold strong. Did I have it in me to plan a Transformers party? Or, heavens, a Bakugan or Ninjago party? I’m still trying to figure out how to pronounce Ninjago. But a few months before his ninth birthday, Hayden proclaimed that Harry Potter would have the theme honor. Let the planning begin!

I booked the party at Grand Slam, though the venue threw me off a little bit: a Harry Potter theme amidst laser tag and mini golf? I was out of my comfort zone, but I figured I would just bring all things Potter to our party room. While ordering a themed cake would have been easier (but expensive; my local bakery only offered one huge Harry Potter cake for the wee price of $100+), I decided to bake my own and add the characters myself (courtesy of Hayden’s LEGO Harry Potter collection).

The treats were even more fun. On the menu was Magic Color-changing drinks and Honeyduke’s Wizard’s treat mix. I found out how to do “color changing” on the ivillage site: basically you place two to three drops of food coloring at the bottom of each party cup and let it dry. Just before serving the drinks, fill each cup with ice to hide the food coloring. When you pour the drink over ice (helps if it’s a clear liquid), it magically turns into a color as the cup fills. I used a lot of different colors, so none of the boys knew what color they were going to get. For our Honeydukes treat mix, I used the standard Chex mix recipe (minus anything that might trigger a nut allergy), but added large gummy and novelty candies.

All of the party favors were on display on the Harry Potter table, decorated with wands, potion jars of “gillyweed” and “truth serum” (green chives for gilly and lemon water for the truth serum). We had some Harry Potter magic right smack in the middle of Grand Slam, and it went over well.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the look out for what birthday number 10 will bring. And who knows, perhaps this will lead to a future career for my son. I wonder what an entertainment director’s salary will be in the year 2024?

Real Life: MN. Parent Magazine

Real Life :: Tony Carr

Tony Carr knows all about bridging the tough issues. Just one look at the Stillwater native’s collection of memorabilia and it’s easy to see why. It’s a part of history that’s tough to view for both kids and adults—and even tougher to talk about.

Carr, a former professional basketball player, and currently a professional diversity speaker, began collecting black memorabilia about 20 years ago. Every piece of Carr’s collection has a story, and he knows every word of it.

What was your first piece of memorabilia?

My first piece was an Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shaker [set]. I bought it down in northern Illinois for [about] 50 cents. After that, I started paying attention and researching memorabilia. I’d see an ashtray and wonder where it came from. That got the juices flowing. It’s history, but there’s no finger pointing. It’s not about that. It’s about everyone’s struggle.

Has having kids changed how you collect and display?

Once my daughters began arriving, I changed my collection a bit. I rotate my artifacts in accordance to my daughters, and what I think is appropriate to display based on their ages.

Without a doubt, the piece that children (and most adults) notice first is the Klansman statue. It’s an eerie thing…period. My parents could not even look at it. They had personal experience. I had to put it away when they were visiting.

How has your collection affected your children in a positive way?

One thing I’ve found, each time [my daughters] become more aware of my memorabilia pieces, it’s a history lesson. When it was Martin Luther King Day, they would see videos at school and see the KKK…they would come back to me and say, ‘I saw that (he gestures toward the Klan statue) in a video!’ This gives them an opportunity to talk about it.

I try to give my daughters positive role models to gravitate toward. All my girls love the Muhammad Ali doll from the ’70s, for example. They saw him on a video and it gave me an opportunity to tell them what he stood for, and how active he was in the civil rights movement.

What is it that you hope this collection conveys to your girls?

Two things: the first is to understand their ancestors, and how their blood, sweat, and tears gave them the privileges they have today. And number two, I tell them no matter what kind of day you have at school, it’s never going to be as bad as it was back in those days. It’s definitely a privilege to have that opportunity.

I would like to take all of my daughters to Mississippi. I’m waiting until my youngest is around seven or eight. I’d like them to touch the dirt. It’s a weird feeling to sit on your roots, to feel it—it does overtake you. It’s instinctual, and it’s home. I want to see if they feel the same thing. They’re just about ready.

Holiday Funk-

Putting the kibosh on the post-holiday funk

When the holiday season ends and January rolls around, this month in Minnesota can elicit disparate emotions like none other. Some of these feelings might be as warm and comforting as a cup of egg nog; and some may border on the … well, the funky. Parents perform like Olympic athletes during the holidays, yet once January hits and the “race” is over, some of us may sit on the couch and wonder—now what?

And it’s not just parents feeling the effects; kids do, too. For them, the anticipation is over and gifts have been opened; it’s cold outside; and worse yet, school is about to commence.

It’s time to be proactive in December. Consider some of these preemptive tips, with hopes that when January hits, the doldrums are just a bit less than usual.


Mothers, especially, can be unnecessarily hard on themselves. Maybe it’s because many focus on what they should have done—or should have done better—rather than just enjoying the season of giving and receiving.

Relax! Cherish the holiday and let the ‘not-so-comforting’ visions melt away. For example, why did our family-decorated gingerbread house look like something out of a Tim Burton film? Not sure. Did the snowman, built during a snowstorm, look like the perfect rendition of Frosty? Not by a long shot—but my eight year-old son and his cousins were proud of that snowman, replete with antlers and a grimace, no less. The whole family was involved in the creation, which is a gift in itself.

The answer to re-training your holiday ideals is above. Do you see it? Our children answer it for us. My son wasn’t preoccupied with having the perfect snowman, or with having a cookie-cutter gingerbread house. Nor should we. Shift your mindset a bit … flex-vision if you will. The funk we sometimes feel in January can be partly due to those ideals we still hold about the having perfect holiday season. I say, plug in A Christmas Story and watch the Bumpus hounds annihilate the Christmas turkey. That will get your head in gear.

My son talks excitedly about his presents, time with his cousins, and of course, his horned snowman. Hold onto memories like these—they are warm and comforting if you just look closely enough.

Organized funk

The daunting task of putting away the holiday decorations is enough to make any parent and child feel the funk. This does not need to be a sad and painful task for all involved. How about throwing an “Un-Decorating” party? Try to make it fun for yourself and your kids. My son used to hide in his room when this task was set before us. He didn’t want to see his favorite ornament stashed away, or all of the Santa figurines boxed up for another year. Once we made a party out of it, however, it helped him understand that while the holiday season was over, he didn’t have to be sad about it.

Set a date to un-decorate, and get everyone involved. Make sure your plastic bins and containers are out and ready to be filled up. Extra bubble wrap and tissue paper should be laid out. My son enjoys wrapping up his ornaments and putting them in his “special” bin where they will await him next Christmas. After everything is secured, enjoy some food, music, and games.

Green funk?

No, not the Grinch: “green” living—an important lesson for our kids to practice. The holidays abound with learning opportunities related to recycling. Trying to keep a little “green” in mind will help you feel responsible and organized at the same time.

Stacking the holiday boxes carefully will help them retain their shape when they are in storage. My son and I like to keep using bows until they literally fall apart. Once they begin to lose their shape, combine them with new and smaller bows to make an arrangement for next year. Once they are too far-gone, recycle them—they are paper, after all.

Don’t forget all those holiday cards that have stacked up, either. Most can be used in scrapbooks or made into nametags for gifts or even a paper ornament come next December. Our favorite is laminating a captivating image. Then we punch a hole in the corner, and add a colorful ribbon to hang it on the tree.

While it can be hard to grasp in the midst of cold, short days and long, dark nights, January heralds a reason to celebrate. For parents, it can be looked upon as the beginning of a new year, full of possibilities. For children, it’s the anticipation of baseball, bike riding, and the wonderful gifts that the changing seasons offer them. So get into that mindset in December. Before you know it, the New Year will be here!

Kids & bikes – 101

MN. Parent Magazine- May Issue

Kids love to ride bikes. And Minnesota loves bicycles. Minnesota has been ranked among the top “bicycle friendly” states in the country by the League of American Cyclists. The season is short, yes. So it’s time for families to take full advantage of the bicycling seasons. But before you dust off your bikes from their winter storage place, it’s a good idea to make sure your kids are aware of some basic safety concerns. It’s not rocket science, just learning how to stay safe on the road while on two wheels.

Safety 101

(note: children less than 10 years of age are not mature enough to make decisions necessary to safely ride in the street. Sidewalk riding only is recommend-Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Head – Brain – Helmet

Although everyone has already heard the safety stats on wearing a helmet, here’s some more. It’s safety rule #1 for bikers, and there’s a reason that the safety stats are so prevalent. According to the Kids Health organization, 300,00 kids go to the emergency room because of bike injuries, and at least 10,000 kids have injuries that require a few days in the hospital.  Ouch. Whether you child is going out for a long ride, or just hopping on the bike to go to the neighbors house, make sure that helmet is on their head.

But don’t go buy any old helmet at the local garage sale. The U.S. government has created safety standards for them. A sticker should appear on the helmet saying it has met standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The helmet should also fit properly (not be too big or too small). The helmet should sit level on your forehead. Kids might want to tip the helmet back so it doesn’t hug the forehead. I’ve even been guilty of this, as it doesn’t pull my hair as much….but if the forehead is showing, the helmet isn’t doing the job. And a reminder to little boys who love wearing their Twins baseball hats in the summer. NO wearing your hat under your bike helmet. The strap also should be adjusted so it’s snug under your chin. They shouldn’t be twisted or loose. If the straps are hanging to the sides of the helmet, the helmet is likely to fall of your child’s head when they need it most.

And if your child still whines about wearing the helmet, remind them that bike helmets are WAY cooler now than they were back in the 70’s and 80’s. Today’s helmets are lightweight and come in super cool colors for both girls and boys. My son loves to personalize his with his favorite Transformers stickers. Better yet, how about reflective stickers since they will make your child more visible to people driving cars.

Be Seen – Be Safe

Kids should be riding only during the day.  Their smaller bikes and bodies are harder for drivers to see. Some precautions that can be taken either in early morning hours or dusk can include bright clothes and reflectors. Bright clothes and reflectors of all kinds can be found in most stores. It’s important that other people on the road see your kids.

And avoid riding at night. If you must ride at night, wear reflectors on the front and rear of your bicycle.  Most states have laws requiring bicyclists to use lights and/or reflectors during nighttime hours. The laws do differ from state to state on how bright the lights need to be and where they are located.  (note: MN. Statute 169.222- requires front-facing white light visible from 500 feet; attacked to the bike or the rider; rear-facing red reflector; reflectors on each side of both pedals; 20 square inches of reflectors on each side of the bicycle. A red-flashing rear lamp is optional)

Also, make sure nothing is dangling while your child rides his or her bike. You don’t want things to get caught up in the bike chain, including loose pant legs, shoelaces or backpack straps. Kids shouldn’t wear sandals, or worse, flip flops when riding. NO bare feet, please. Take it from this author, who broke her leg by getting it caught in the bicycle spoke when she was 6…no dangling.

Rules of the Road- not just for cars

Bicycles are considered vehicles in many states, and have the same rights AND the same responsibilities to follow the rules of the road as motorists. Especially if your riding in a more populated area (a busy Minneapolis park), or riding on a busy city street versus a bike path. Kids should be aware of these basic rules, and be sure to follow them yourself if your all out on a family bike ride:

  • Go with the flow of traffic, not against it.
  • Obey all traffic laws, including stop signs, signals and lane markings
  • Attention kids-  watch out for those parked cars! Ride far enough out from the curb to avoid the unexpected, like the door opening suddenly, or the car pulling out.
  • Look before you turn. When turning right or left, always glance behind you for a break in the traffic, then signal before making the turn. Keep an eye out for left or right-turning traffic.
  • Keep an eye out for possible path or road hazards. Potholes, rocks, gravel, leaves and broken glass are everywhere. All these hazards can cause a wipe out.
  • Control your vehicle…or bike. ALWAYS ride with both hands on the handlebars. Older kids who ride frequently can graduate to just one hand, but never 0 hands! You might even suggest your child wear riding gloves, it will help them grip the handlebars better. And they’ll look like a professional. Cool.
  • Carry your books and other items in a bike carrier, or a backpack.
  • No crazy driving! Be predictable, not unpredictable. Ride in a straight line and not in and out of cars. Signal your move ahead of time.
  • And last but not least….no wearing headphones while riding the bike. Music can distract kids from the noises around them, such as a car honking its horn so they can get out of the way.

Armed with safety information, your kids will be able to enjoy the Minnesota biking season. Did I mention it’s short? Get out there and enjoy!

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Too Much too Soon?

April-Cover Feature Story MN. Parent Magazine

Photographer: Cy Dodson (www.cydodson.com)

It was a perfect summer evening. The sun was just starting to set behind the trees framing the baseball diamond. All of the players were in their correct positions. All had their shirts tucked in. Hats straight. Red belts matching red socks. For a moment, if you squinted perhaps, you might think you were watching high school players — soon-to-be-men focused on the task at hand. But then the shortstop bends over and begins to draw a circle in the dirt. About the same time, the first baseman takes off his glove and begins tossing it into the air.

“No playing in the dirt! There’s someone at bat!” barks the coach, adding, “first baseman! That glove needs to be on your hand!” These were not upper level players. These were little boys — boys in first and second grade.

I smiled as the shortstop stood back up and got into his defensive stance, his eyes still focused on his unfinished artwork. Yes, the shortstop is my boy, and yes, he loves to play baseball. I didn’t cringe inwardly when my son told me a few years ago he wanted to play T-ball. I wasn’t sure of the time commitment, but I figured he was only a kindergartner, so it couldn’t be that extensive. I have noticed, though, after watching my son advance through T-ball and now coach-pitch baseball (a technique where players under nine years-old bat a baseball safely pitched to them by their own coach) — the time and price commitment only grows with the child and the choice of team play.

Molly Sproull’s son is involved in hockey in Lino Lakes. “It started, really, with his skating lessons. He skated for fun, just a Saturday morning type arrangement. He was probably three at the time.” Her boy is now eight, out of the Mite Program and into a more organized club. “Hockey is also triple the cost of soccer,” says Sproull, whose son also participates in summer soccer. “All of that equipment. We’ve taken advantage of skate leasing programs, and we’ve used Play It Again Sports to try to cut back a little bit. We’re cutting corners where we can.”

Minnesota offers an array of sports through the changing seasons. Between all of the community rec, school, and private club programs, the number is almost dizzying. While sports such as lacrosse and golf are increasing in popularity, the sports commanding the numbers are hockey and basketball in the winter, and baseball and soccer in the summer.

When a parent hears, “I want to play hockey” or “I want to try baseball” the first reaction is usually “Great! This could be a lot of fun,” followed with more pressing questions such as, “where do I sign my child up for this? How much will it cost? What is the time commitment? Will my son/daughter be good enough?”

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (sgma.com), about 15 million children play baseball. This makes it the third-most popular sport, right after basketball and soccer. A smidge over 14 million kids play outdoor soccer; however, if you factor the indoor soccer participant numbers, it bumps ahead of baseball into second place. Basketball outpaces both of them, boasting 26.2 million youths six and older. In the Midwest, hockey also rules. After all, Minnesota has produced more U.S.-born professional hockey players than any other state.

which sport? when?

By late winter, baseball and soccer leagues and clubs are already organizing the teams and coaches, having meetings and getting uniforms ordered. Practice usually begins indoors in mid-March. Outdoor practice starts up when the fields are dry enough for play. Molly Sproull takes off her hockey mom cap then, and turns to soccer. “My son has played soccer since age four,” she says. “We started with indoor soccer, and he played March through the beginning of July. It’s relatively easy to pick up. The equipment is minimal at this level; there aren’t a lot of expensive things needed. That’s been a positive. We’re moving into traveling soccer this summer.”

Christie Cuttell, Cottage Grove, has two boys in baseball. “Summer baseball is easier on the whole family,” she explains, “there’s not as much going on, and it’s a lot easier getting to the venues. School is wrapping up; it’s just better financially.” She adds that she enjoys baseball more, since it’s outside. “With basketball and hockey, you are confined … holed up. I have friends who have kids in hockey, and they’re inside five months straight.”

Cathy Hults, Circle Pines, also enjoys her fourth grade son’s involvement in baseball. “When my son was little, we tried to get him into a few sports,” she explained. “He’s very active. He’s been in baseball forever.” She also added that the sport doesn’t require as much of a financial commitment, beyond registration fees and basic baseball gear.

Tony Grubbs, Ham Lake, has coached in the Centennial School Program for five years. He said both his kids showed interest in baseball at an early age. “I started [coaching] T-ball and worked my way up. I’ll be doing coach-pitch one more year. I have a good time, and I love doing it. Our draft begins earlier and earlier, however. I noticed our baseball league [also] offers more clinics in December and January.”

Grubbs says that while all parents want the best for their kids, he feels many parents judge success on simply winning the game. “I see success when the player gets better,” he stresses. “The player learned to throw the correct way — that is success. Yes, people want to see wins. But I love to see the kids do well and improve and understand the game.”

And there’s nothing wrong with keeping your child in a less competitive league. “The in-house league is nice for folks who don’t want [the time and cost commitment of a] traveling league,” says Grubbs. “You still get play experience. The traveling kids usually live and die their sport, however, and can be better players.” He said that traveling teams bump up the time commitment and financial levels. “With a traveling team, you might be practicing every night all week, with games on weekends,” he says.

Cathy Hults’ baseball-playing son also plays basketball in the winter. “This is his second year of basketball,” says Hults, who says this is considered a late start in basketball. “But he picked it up really fast. He’s a tall kid,” she added. She said she hasn’t noticed a big difference with the financial and time commitment with basketball, but that she and her husband are checking out the traveling basketball team for next winter. “Traveling basketball, I understand, is around $400.”

Coach Brent Cuttell, Cottage Grove, confirms. “Stay in-house for as long as you want, it’s much cheaper. If you go the traveling team route, it gets more expensive: tourneys, travel, and hotels. Financially, traveling teams are five times more expensive than in-house. [With] traveling, you probably pay $400 or more and in-house is only $80 to $100.”

All of the time commitment and financials on baseball, basketball, and soccer seem to pale in comparison to hockey.

Grubbs said he is learning about hockey firsthand through his younger son. “This is his first year,” says Grubbs. “It’s a lot more expensive. You can find used stuff pretty reasonable, but I about fell over when I saw the bill.” He added that the registration fees alone can be financially challenging.

Coach Cuttell, who attends several coaching clinics a year, including the Glazier Football Coaching Clinic in Minneapolis, said he has noticed a trend in Minnesota youth hockey. “Some communities you’ll have 800 kids playing, but in a matter of years you’ll only have 15 still playing. They burn out. They quit playing. In this state, there are summer hockey clinics, skate clinics, goalie clinics — they create a 12 month commitment … and soon you have the kid saying, ‘I don’t like it anymore.’”

Molly Sproull seconds the concerns regarding financial commitment, but chooses to look at some positives. “In hockey, at least in the age six and seven group, parent coaches are so enthusiastic. You don’t always get that in other sports. There are so many more time and money commitments, and the coaches are so willing and able to share their skills.” She adds that she has an older daughter, and worries about balancing her activities and schoolwork with her son’s hockey practices and games. “I worry also a little bit about him moving up into the upper grades, and going to practice a couple hours a night. He will have homework, too. Cramming it all in … it concerns me a bit.”

Barclay Kruse, chief communication officer at the National Sports Center in Blaine, said there are a lot of hockey programs available. “We run our own hockey programs, where parents can sign their kids up on teams,” he says. “Though in the world of youth hockey, the community-based club is king.” He added that most folks don’t know that some of the biggest hockey tourneys are in June and July. “We run an event for seven weekends … different age groups on different weekends. We keep ice in six of our seven sheets, all the way through the summer. There’s enough demand in the summer for that.”

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too young?

Finally, the most pressing issue of all: are we starting our kids too young? Like it or not, all of the parents and coaches interviewed for this article said they believe children are being introduced to sports at younger and younger ages, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” says Coach Cuttell, “when kids are starting at three and four and five years old. I think if we begin putting goals [in place] for what measures a success or not in a specific arena … it’s a lot of pressure.”

Yet, all the parents and coaches agreed on one thing. If kids don’t start young, they are “behind” by the time they hit fourth and fifth grade. “It’s only going to get worse,” says Grubbs. “I don’t think I’m fine with starting kids so young. My older son, in fourth grade, wanted to try hockey. [With his inexperience] he’d stick out like a sore thumb, and I don’t want him to go through that. It’s hard to say no. But if you’re in fifth or sixth grade, you’re behind already. It has become so specific. This is your sport, all year around. Coaches want kids to know what they’re doing, and who know how to play. My younger son is the oldest player on his team and he’s in second grade!”

Says Sproull, “I think it’s a little disappointing that if you don’t start them young — and they would like to do another sport later — they’re going to be at a disadvantage. It’s part of a life lesson, I suppose. It’s sad that that’s the reality now.”

Coach Cuttell sums it up with one of his favorite Cal Ripken Jr. stories. “When asked how many little league games Cal Ripken Jr. played every summer as a kid, do you know what he said? Eight. That’s all he played each year. Then I got to thinking about how much I played when I was a kid. Maybe 10. They have kids playing 40 to 50 games a summer now. Same age. What I think is wrong: when a kid plays too many games … the games don’t mean anything. It’s just another game or tourney. When you only have eight games a year, they mean a lot. Kids want to be kids. They want to go in the yard and kick the ball around. We’ve created such a game environment for young kids, that they don’t know how to play pick up games anymore. They can’t play without an official or umpire. Kids these days think they have to document the game. You just don’t see kids playing pick up anymore. ‘Oh, we don’t have nine players? I guess we can’t play.’ That’s sad.”

“Whatever the season,” Christie Cuttell adds, “sports teach about socialization, camaraderie, teamwork, taking direction from authoritative figures — and that’s a good thing. Just don’t let it become too much.”



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