Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer gear for happy outdoorsy kids

Ready to have fun outside! Photo by C.G.
My kids like to test outdoors gear as it gives them a great excuse to have fun and play around when we go out for hikes or camping. When you're 6 and 7-years old, a pair of green translucent binoculars beats the spy set or the Star Wars lightsaber any day - especially if you look through the right end. This summer we field tested a number of items that I wanted to share because 1) the summer is not over yet, 2) after the summer comes the Indian summer, California perk, and 3) who needs an excuse to check out a fun gizmo? Err, I don't. Plus, REI and Sports Basement are like candy stores to me so here. Read on.

GeoMate Jr.
Find this if you can! Photo by Episphere
If you don't know about geocaching, it's a treasure hunt gone wild - as in, a treasure hunt that takes place outside to find mystery markers with a handheld GPS device. Geomate Jr. is the brainchild of a a Berkeley company called Apisphere and the only kid-friendly GPS on the market. It's so kid-friendly I had my 6-year old test it on a field trip at Coyote Point.

After her class came out of CuriOdyssey (formerly Coyote Point Museum), the kids all walked around the point down to the Magic Mountain playground by way of the beach. I gave the Geomate Jr. to my little girl and 5 or 6 kindergartner joined her in a search for the nearest geocache. They were super excited about the kid-size GPS - thought it was the coolest thing ever. My girl looked at the screen after it locked on a geocache position and followed the arrow, saying out loud how many feet were left.

Twice the Geomate Jr. went haywire and redirected us to another geocache that was farther away but I told her to keep to the trail as I knew there was one around the beach where the amusement park used to be. I'd hiked the trail in reverse to make sure. In the end we were 3 feet away from the geocache and the kids left it at that, distracted by the beach. Even if the experience was not a rousing success, the Geomate Jr. is now a staple in my hiking backpack because you never know - there could be a geocache near your picnic spot. And my girls love the design of their own GPS.

Note that it doesn't come with a mapping system so it basically only points your child in a direction - it doesn't tell you how to get there. If you want to cheat and check ahead of time to know what to look for, use the search engine on geocaching.com. It has descriptions and back story. Good luck!

Can you hear me? Photo by Frog Mom
Motorola Two-Way Radio
My girls got their first walkie-talkie set when they got into the "spy" thing. It was all about "Can you hear me?" "Yes I can hear you. Can you hear me?" and more spy-worthy conversations. Then I wrote an article on camping and hiking gadgets and Motorola sent me the Motorola MR350R 2-Way Radio (for a kid format, the Motorola 2-Way Radio MC220R is great) to field test. That was a huge improvement over our spy toy walkie-talkie.

In addition to being the real thing, this 2-way radio was shock-proof and user-friendly. Too user-friendly if you ask me as the radio was used as a trail toy! My girls didn't communicate with it - they chit-chatted with their friends. Ironically that motivated some of their hiking buddies to run up the trail to be away from hearing range so they could indulge in some more "Can you hear me?" Now that's a hiking incentive!

The real reason I like this 2-way radio, as a mom, is that if our group gets separated for XYZ reasons, we can still keep in touch in the wilderness even if there's no cell phone coverage. That's the beauty of having a gadget that uses radio frequencies. Thanks to that, you're covered for 35 straight miles between both radios. Of course there's not a chance I'll ever hike 35 miles away from my kids in the wilderness, but a few miles is not unlikely. They're now part of my emergency kit.

Kid binoculars
My girls got their first pair of kid binoculars a couple of years ago. It was right after we went to see the snowy white egrets in the redwoods at the Martin Griffin Preserve and my daughters were both thrilled about the supersizing effect. "Look mom, it's bigger!" At the beginning, I got them a cheap Backyard Safari pair that turned out to be ... well, cheap.  They didn't get much use because the focus was flimsy but they were still part of their day packs because they looked cool. My girls are all about birds on hikes and their first binoculars were a good idea but poorly executed.

Recently while in France, my girls received these swanky green binoculars coming from a store called Nature & Découvertes. Now, you can really see through these. Once you set the focus, it's all good! A shame they don't exist in the US but I googled around and the Barska 10x25 Pink Borro Binoculars look very similar in terms of design and even better in quality. If you wanted to get a pair, these would be a good bet. With their new binoculars, my girls are ready for the next Great Backyard Bird Count.

These cuties are the answer to "my kids' sunscreen tube is too big. How do I find a smaller refillable container they can squeeze?" GoToob it is! When I bought mine at REI, I planned to use them for mushy trail snacks - applesauce, condensed milk, honey. However when I talked to my friends, I realized they were using theirs only for non-food items: sunscreen, shampoo, liquid soap and the like. Aha!

So in fact they were as much a trail nicety as a travel accessory. The problem is: if you squeeze them too hard, they start leaking around the lid. Picture the tubes in your suitcase and you get the idea. If you use them for travel, make sure they're separated from the rest. On trails, my kids like to use them but they still prefer their big sunscreen tube. Go figure. I like them.

Mini Swiss Army Knife
Last but not least, the mini Swiss Army Knife! OK, so you have to be aware: it's cute, it's a mini thing but it's still a knife with sharp edges. Use only with parental supervision. Whenever I go hiking I always have a Swiss Army knife in my backpack. I use it for everything: to cut cheese, to quarter apples, to slice saucisson, to cut ropes. It's my response to every quandary.

When I offered my girls their first mini Swiss Army knife this summer, it was like I had given them the pin code to my bank account. Or better yet, unrestricted access to Netflix on TV. They couldn't believe how much I trusted them. They felt so big! Well, I figured they got to learn how to use knives one day so I'd rather they be mini.

The beauty with these minis, is that they come in tons of fancy colors and translucent or opaque. You can definitely customize the gift. So far my girls have mostly used the scissors, to cut strings around a package, to cut the tablecloth at a restaurant (to see if they worked) and to equalize their doll's hairstyle. They've also sliced a nectarine with the mini-knife. Can't wait to see how they'll use them on our next hike!

At The End of The Day
These gadgets are gadgets. Meant to improve an outdoors experience for kids, they're neither necessary not vital. However, they can turn a so-so hike into an incredible adventure and get unwilling kid hikers to get excited about the idea. For that reason, I'd say they're perfect birthday gifts. Whenever an item motivates a child to spend time outdoors, it's well worth considering!

What about you, what are your fave outdoors gadgets for kids?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vote for Frog Mom on Circle of Moms!

NEWS FLASH! Out of the blue, I just discovered today that Frog Mom is on the SF Bay Area Mom Blog list of Circle of Moms. Second nomination this year after the Red Tricycle best mom (and dad) blog list.

Yoohoo! Triple somersault, hurrah! The catch is: you need to vote for me so I make the short list or whatever it is that's going to keep me up there doing the Snoopy dance. If I stay on the list, I promise I'll find a cool frog swim cap to swim another Alcatraz this fall. You'll get the photo and a chilling story full of adventure and waves to read in your comfy bed at night!

Here is how:
-  Click on this link
- Scroll down the list - you'll find me somewhere around my friends FriscoKids, Coquette Maman, Rookie Moms, A Little Yumminess, Amy the Family Chef or Silicon Valley Mamas
- Vote by clicking on the icon next to Frog Mom
- Vote tomorrow too
- Tell your friends how much their life would improve if they read Frog Mom too and have them vote. Promise a night out if you must!

The good news:
- No need to register and give away all your precious info
- You can still peruse the Circle of Moms website because they've got cool stuff
- You deserve a guilt-free dark chocolate bar on my behalf

DEADLINE: yes, there is a deadline. There always is. You have until July 29, 2011 @ 5pm PST to vote. All clear?

Thank you readers, without you I wouldn't be writing this blog!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Our experience at Camp Galileo: Part 2

Building structures. Photo by Camp Galileo
Last week I wrote about our experience at Camp Galileo: Part 1 and the general infrastructure of that summer camp. My two girls, future 1st and 3rd grader, attended at the Hillsborough location. This week I'd like to share what my girls actually did there - and what they remember of the experience.

Art class. Photo by Camp Galileo
The entire week was planned around the theme Lost in the Forbidden City and my girls learned different things according to their age group. Honestly I wasn't sure what they could learn at their age (what's the Forbidden City to a 6-year old?) and the first days were indeed on the fuzzy side.

First day
On the first day as I picked them up from camp I was more excited than they were about the theme and asked: "What did you do today?"
"We played!"
Sure, that's what they always answer through the school year but are you kidding me? I wanted more details so I pressed on.
"Did you learn anything about China?"
I insisted: "How about the Forbidden City?"
"Well there was this scary guy with a chicken on his head, he wants to steal our fun."
Hmm. Chicken?

Turns out Camp Galileo teachers made up a story about the emperor Zhu who was away from his palace because Chicken-fucius had taken all the fun away. Yes I know, a weird way to introduce kids to Chinese art and architecture but since we also did Camp Galileo last year, a good guy/bad guy story is part of their usual spiel. My girls initially said it was boring but at the end of the week they enjoyed the story.

My daughter's work. Photo by Frog Mom
Second day
On Tuesday, I got the same answers as Monday and was starting to wonder if I had the theme wrong when I looked at the Camp Galileo News - a one-sided paper you get daily that describes the highlights of the day and tells you about the morrow.

Ha! Looked like my future 3rd grader / Supernova (in Galileo lingo) had omitted to mention she made a Chinese landscape watercolor painting. And not even a bad one! I discovered it on the last day and I'm now looking to frame it because, hey, ain't it cool?

Now I knew something was going on and it had to do with China.

Third day
Recycle art. Photo by Camp Galileo
Wednesday was Team Color Day. Camp Galileo has certain features that you're bound to have each week and Team Color Day is one of them, as is Crazy hat (or crazy hair) day and in sunny places, Water day. On Tuesday night, my girls spent 30 minutes picking matchy-matchy outfits that were full-on red or  purple. On the face of it, it's a good idea to create a team momentum but since not all kids participate, I'm not sure what the real impact is here.

The one thing that got me excited on Wednesday was an announcement in the Camp Galileo News. It read: "We need your recyclables! Campers use recycled materials for a variety of projects at camp. We'd appreciate donations of any of the following items: cardboard egg cartons, paper shopping bags, bottle caps, food boxes..."

Cricket castle. Photo by Frog Mom
By chance, our recycling bin is collected on Wednesdays and I had a box full of the right items. Off they went to camp Galileo! I also added cereal boxes I'd been saving for months without finding a purpose for them.

On Friday, my 5-year old showed what they built with it in her class: a cricket castle complete with cricket house and play structure! She was so proud of it, it was darn cute.

Fourth day
Thursday was Water Day and kids show up with a change of clothes, sunscreen and swim suits. Down on the lawn they enjoy water slides, water games and all things water. That's when I knew that choosing Hillsborough over San Francisco was a smart choice. They don't have Water Day in San Francisco. Too cold and too foggy! I'm not going to argue that the commute is not the same but if you can, better pick a place under the sun.

The camp director dressed as a pirate. Photo by Frog Mom
Fifth day
On the last day of camp on Friday, it's pirate or princess day. To me, that was confusing. Here we are closing a week on Chinese art and architecture and kids can dress up as their favorite pirate or princess. Hold on, what's that got to do with China? Nothing - unless you specify Chinese princess or Chinese pirate but then camp needs to provide  the costumes and that's not going to happen. So pirate day? As much as I love pirates, aaaaaaaaaarg not so necessary.

Friday is also the last day and as many camps, it ends with a closing ceremony. Some camps put up skits, shows or small exhibitions. Camp Galileo in Hillsborough coordinated a parade of all teams, followed by a presentation by each teacher of the camp curriculum (that's when I finally understood what they had been going), and then parents were sent off to sign out their kid and visit each classroom to collect the art and science work.
Parents at Friday Closing. Photo by Frog Mom

It was more fun than I had anticipated and I had the opportunity to chat with my neighbors. The mom next to me had signed up her 5-year old for her first summer camp ever and she couldn't believe that her daughter had turned down a birthday party invitation that week so as not to miss any day at Camp Galileo. Wow, that's camp dedication.

Others had several kids signed up like me, including "alumni" 5th graders who received a sweatshirt as a reward for their last year of Camp Galileo.

At the end of the day, I was happy to be led through the classrooms by my girls who boasted about this pagoda or that cricket house or this Chinese character domino or that lion mask. Clearly, they had had fun.
Drawing pagodas for fun. Photo by Frog Mom

Two weeks later
That's what I did not expect. Waiting for our food at a restaurant, my 7-year old asked me for a pencil and doodled away. I didn't pay attention until I realized it was a Chinese pagoda. "What are you doing?" I asked her.

"I'm not done yet, I still need to draw a dragon."

The perfect symmetry of the Chinese pagoda was there as well as the sweeping gabled roof of the structure. Interesting.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Our experience at Camp Galileo: Part 1

Kids at Camp Galileo. Photo by Camp Galileo
Summer camp season! The irony is, summer camp fun starts as a winter conundrum for parents when they start thinking about registration. The eternal questions: where? what? how much? You want the kids to have fun but you also want them to learn something. Well, if it’s an option anyway. You also want them to feel on vacation but how is that possible when their camp hours copycat school hours? Most important for me, I wanted my girls to experience summer fun away from our beloved fog. This is called summer camp for a reason. Right?

When Camp Galileo offered a free week of camp for my girls provided I blog about it, I was hesitant because my girls did two weeks of Camp Galileo last year and didn't love it. It was fine but not their favorite. However a free week of camp is a pretty cool offer and it came with extended care which was great for my writing schedule. I checked the camp themes and two tickled my curiosity, Lost in the Forbidden City and Inventor's Workshop so I signed up. Here's my review based on  our experience, broken down in part 1 - the practical details and part 2 - the program content and how my girls interpret it a few weeks later.

The location
Crystal Springs Uplands School. Photo by Frog Mom
On the sun radius, San Francisco was not an option but anything south of San Mateo was a reliable bet. I picked Hillsborough and couldn’t have been happier about the location. My girls used their sun hats every single day. That campus, oh my, I want to be 12 again!

This year the Hillsborough location was Crystal Springs Uplands School, a manicured property whose offices are headquartered in a 1917 mansion built for Templeton Crocker. Roughly 10 minutes off the Black Mountain Road exit off 280, the school is nestled in a neighborhood of beautiful houses and a maze of curvy streets (easy to get lost there). It felt clean, safe and had a great outdoors space, features that count to a parent. A-OK on the location.

On the first day we were late (I got lost in Hillsborough) and once at the school, I couldn't even find the building where my girls were going to be doing camp. There were two options and I walked up to the wrong one first! Fortunately someone redirected us quickly to the right building and we found the camp staff who signed us in quickly. They had our names, checked it and walked my girls to their morning classes.

With extended care, I could drop off my girls starting at 8am and pick them up until 5.30pm. I did take advantage of the early hours and parked the car to walk my girls to the front of the school. It was not even a hundred yards to walk and I was back in my car on my way to work.

Afternoon pick up bins. Photo by Frog Mom
For standard hours (8.45am - 3pm), I tried once the morning drop off that takes place between 8.45 and 9am. It was an easy drive through experience where you just drive up to the front of the school and camp teachers open the car doors to welcome their campers – by name.

In the afternoon, it was easy to sign out my girls downstairs. All their backpacks and lunch bags were neatly stacked in bins (the teachers threw a "tidy bin" contest and the kids really took to it) and we didn't even lose a clothing item the whole week!

As far as hours, I'd say that a 9am start is standard but 3pm is really early. It's only a 6-hour day and that doesn't leave much time if you don't take the extended hours option.

Personability and staff
This was something that totally blew me away. At the end of the first day, the camp teachers and one other teacher knew my girls’ name without looking at their name tag. On the second day, they looked up their names at morning drop off but after that, none of the Galileo staff needed the name tag at all. I understand the ratio of students to teachers is pretty low but still. How do they remember so many kids’ names?

As far as the staff, they all looked on top of their game, knew the kids, knew what to do and were energetic kids (teachers are mostly in their 20s or so it seems). Good vibes!

The art class for Stars. Photo by Frog Mom 
At Camp Galileo, camp weeks have themes and each age group (Nebulas, Stars, Supernovas) studies the same theme with age-appropriate activities. During our week the theme was "Lost in the Forbidden City" and kids spend roughly half the day in classrooms studying Chinese culture, architecture and science techniques.

The facilities were spotless and there's nothing I didn't like about them except ... in all honesty, I'm not particularly fond of kids in rooms with ceiling neon lighting when it's bright and sunny outside. Ah well, that's what happens when camps set up shop in schools.

To counterbalance the school classrooms, the campus had a fantastic large grass area where a lot of activities took place, a heaven for any kid who wants to practice somersaults or cartwheels. My girls said they spent a lot of time there or in the trees so I was happy.

I was lucky that I got treated to a free week but for my girls' age, the standard rate is $519 per child including extended care. In my experience, that's pretty high. Camp Galileo does offer scholarships (a friend of mine sends her son there thanks to  scholarships each year) and there are various ways to get discounts (referrals, three weeks of camp...).

Lunch and snacks
Have grass, will play games. Photo by Frog Mom
And I thought we were done with sending kids with lunch bags when school finished! Alas Camp Galileo is one of those where you have to provide lunch and snacks. Not so. Lunch bag is my least favorite chore of the school year. Wouldn't it be nice if summer camps took care of that so parents felt on summer break too?

According to my girls, Camp Galileo handed out fruit snacks a few times  to kids whose lunch wasn't enough to get them through the day, but it didn't seem to be regular. I would love if Camp Galileo could at least take care of snacks.

End of part 1
I think I've covered the practical side of Camp Galileo. Part 2 of the review will have all the lowdown on the contents, camp songs, activities and learning process. If you have specific questions about it, drop me a note and I'll try to reply.

Disclaimer: in case you were wondering, this is my honest opinion.