Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holidays at the Golden Gate Park

Miles and his friend. Photo by Frog Mom
You know Dasher and Dancer, and Prancer and Vixen. But do you know Miles and his charming date from the North Pole? Well, not exactly the North Pole because they're at the California Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park and under the clear roof of this venerable institution, accuracy of the essence. These two reindeer come from southern California are a small fraction of all the winter holidays fun now waiting for kids at the Golden Gate Park.

'Tis the Season for Science
Until January 16, 2012, the California Academy of Sciences invites you to come and learn what makes winter such an exciting season for kids and adults alike. I took my girls last week because they wanted to enter the reindeer naming contest. You see, the older reindeer has been named Miles by public vote. Fitting for a reindeer who can travel up to 3,000 miles a year.

The younger one, the female, yet remains to be named and the winners of this contest will get an up-close and personal reindeer experience at the Academy. The contest closes on December 5 so you still have a few days to go see what the reindeer looks like so you can think of a scientifically appropriate name.You can enter here.

Snowman theater at the Cal Academy of Sciences.
Photo by Frog Mom
After the reindeer - an exciting sight for young ones - we lined up to get inside the Snowman Theater where a short movie told us about the science of snow. I was impressed at how this small dome could seem a lot bigger with the surrounding images of snow landscapes, earth in space and snow crystals.

Other holiday activities planned at the Cal Academy include the California Revels' Solstice Ensemble, Yuletide Caroling, a Dance-Along Nutcracker and Eskimo traditions. You can check the full list here.

Naturally this was a Cal Academy visit so we had to stop by the Galapagos exhibits and play the interactive "squash the bug" games. Don't try this in state parks.


  • California Academy of Sciences: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park
  • Hours: Monday - Saturday 9.30am - 5pm, Sunday 11am - 5pm
  • Exhibit runs until January 16, 2012

Playland at the Conservatory of Flowers
Find the repurposed materials! Photo by Frog Mom
Every year the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers puts up an impressive miniature train display with buildings and decor made entirely out of recycled and repurposed materials. This year's new exhibit, "Playland at the Conservatory: A Garden Railway Celebrating San Francisco's West End" runs until April 15, 2012 and recreates a scaled and simplified version of the popular amusement park that drew so many families along Ocean Beach from 1928 to 1972 - Playland By the Beach.

Old timers will immediately recognize their favorite rides (Big Dipper, Diving Bell, the Fun House) but newbies will have fun just imagining what the park must have been like in its heyday. The majestic Cliff House and the Sutro Baths are still standing and thriving, a nostalgic view of the western lands.

To enhance the theme park experience, the exhibit room features arcade classics such as Laughing Sal, Zoltar the fortune teller, funky mirrors and a real Dodger bumper car that makes a revving engine noise when you push long enough on the pedal.

My 8-year old spent close to 30 minutes looking at Zoltar and reading her fortune over and over again because "mom, look, what it says it's all true!". There you go. For 50 cents you can learn everything true about yourself and not need to worry about tomorrow.

Mesmerized. Photo by Frog Mom
We couldn't resist the 1960s vintage photo booth where we did 4 different portraits on one strip - and it came out with a Playland signature. Other winners with kids were the "test your strength" hammer and bell game as well as the bumper car. I've always found Laughing Sal creepy at the Musee Mecanique, I'm not going to think it's any less creepy here but kids seem to like it.

Now move over to the garden railway and look at it - open your eyes. First the buildings - play a guessing game. What parts can you identify? Do you have any at home? Can your kids tell what they are?

We found old wooden rulers on a mill, playdough containers on buildings, pencil sharpeners on the ferris wheel and a chess board above the Fun House. Don't miss the trolley above the red slider turtle pond, it's a tad lonely on the left end but it's a nice surprise! Man, the designers have been creative this year again.

Once you're done admiring the decors, you can check the TV screen in the far right corner of the railway model. It doesn't take long to realize there's a live camera on one of the trains. Awesome! Now kids have to figure out the best spot to see their hands or face on TV. Mine found a pretty good spot around the curve and spent 10 minutes making faces and waving their hands way too far above the tracks.

Cliff House. Photo by Frog Mom
It was good fun and I almost wished Playland was still around, just to see how it really was. And the Sutro Baths while I'm at it. And the old Cliff House too. San Francisco's seaside was a gem in the late Victorian era and what remains today is mostly memories. Thank God for exhibits like this one that revive Ocean Beach's glory days with lush miniature landscaped gardens.


  • Conservatory of Flowers: Golden Gate Park 100 John F. Kennedy Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118  
  • Hours of Operations Tuesday - Sunday: 10 am -4:30 pm. (Last entry is at 4 pm).
  • Exhibit runs until April 5, 2012.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Win 2 Tickets for Deck the Hall at the San Francisco Symphony!

Yes, even reindeer! Photo by the SF Symphony
Drum roll and get your musical ears please. I am happy to announce that one lucky Frog Mom reader will win 2 tickets to attend Deck the Hall on Sunday December 4, 2011! If you have never been, Deck the Hall is one of the most beloved holiday traditions of the San Francisco Symphony and an amazing experience for families. After an hour-long show that blends music, dance and stage performances, kids and adults alike mingle in the lobby where craft tables, cookies and refreshments await them. Kids can even get to meet favorite holiday characters!

Crafts. Photo by SF Symphony
The first time we took our girls to Deck the Hall, they were respectively 1 and 3 years old. Though the 1 year old clearly didn't get to participate much, she kept silent during the music part and clapped with me at the end. My 3 year old, on the other hand, was in awe. All these kids dressed to the nines, the festive atmosphere, the tall decorated trees in the lobby, the cool crafts after the concert - she didn't want to leave, ever.

That year we enjoyed a particularly charming reading of "Twas The Night Before Christmas" with puppets and we cracked up at the holiday songs by the Beach Blanket Babylon cast - ah, the dancing Christmas trees! It was my kids' first "classical music" experience and a fun one to boot. As you can guess, I loved it.

Very high five. Photo by SF Symphony
Now it's my pleasure to be able to offer this amazing experience to my readers. I'll add that the show sells out every year so these tickets that I got are extra precious tickets. Plus, they're upper orchestra tickets (value $72), a fantastic seating section where kids can enjoy the show fully right in front of the orchestra and stage.

How do you win?
Share your favorite holiday music in the comments below this post and "Like" the Facebook page of the San Francisco Symphony. Please do not comment anonymously otherwise I'll never be able to contact you. Elementary, my dear Watson. Tell your friends and get them to participate - if they comment on Frog Mom giving your name, you double your chances!

Deadline: Sunday November 27, 2011, 11.59pm PST.

I'll pick a winner using a random system on Monday November 28, 2011, giving the lucky person just enough time to plan for a incredible Sunday December 4th with their special little person. Keep a weather eye on the Frog Mom Facebook Page as it's where I'll announce the winner on Monday morning.

Good luck everyone and for the record, my favorite holiday song is "White Christmas" with a glass of champagne!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ladybug Hike at Redwood Regional Park

Colonies of ladybugs. Photo by Frog Mom
To the many mysteries of winter and animal survival techniques, you can now add colonies of ladybugs clustered on trees like holly berries on a frosty December morning. Each year from November through February, thousands if not millions of the kids' favorite red bugs converge to Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, surfing the right winds to exactly the spot their folks converged to the previous years. And then they throw massive "pajama parties" - spoon position everyone! This winter you can schlep the kids to Oakland and guarantee they'll see something they've never seen - handfuls of ladybugs. Here is how I found them.

Getting started. Photo by Frog Mom
I'd heard about Redwood Park's ladybugs but didn't want to disappoint my young hikers. After all, it's a 3-mile round trip to see these little creatures and I had to get the info right. A ranger at the East Bay Regional Park District suggested I check the junction of Stream Trail and Prince Trail, starting from the Skyline Gate. That's exactly what I did.

Equipped with my "hot cocoa" kit (thermos of hot water and tiny marshmallows), I hit the trail with 3 girls between 6 and 8 years of age.

From the Skyline Gate parking lot, Stream Trail gently goes down as a wide dirt path into the canyon surrounded by oak and pine woodlands.

Playing nature bingo and checking off boxes with nature icons, the girls walked effortlessly though one element wanted to know if we were close. "Soon," I said, "but not yet - keep looking for ladybugs."  I looked at my trail map but since there's only one trail, it was hard to get sidetracked.

Nature bingo. Photo by Frog Mom
Just before Eucalyptus Trail, we saw our first ladybug colonies. "Where are they?" asked the girls. It's like when you look at a pointillist painting up close. You don't know what the painting is all about until you step back and take a second look. With ladybugs you look at a regular stump surrounded by dried grasses and blink twice before you realize the grasses are swarming with ladybugs. Yes, swarming is the right word - they are literally everywhere you look.

The girls giggled and couldn't believe their eyes. They started singing "Ladybug, ladybug, oh lady-ladybug" and scoured the area to find more bugs. Good, I had their attention now. "Wait, we are going to find more. Keep walking!"

In redwood territory. Photo by Frog Mom
We just had another half mile to go to the junction of Stream Trail and Prince Trail so that was easy. Plus, now we were thick in redwood forests by the creek and the girls were chasing each other on the trail. Oh, it was so pretty.

Finally we reached the promised junction. At first, we didn't see anything. "Where are they?" OK we might be candid but we were really expecting to find them waiting for us with a big ladybug banner at the junction.

That's when we looked towards the creek. The fence posts and gate had a reddish coloration. We stepped closer. Bingo!

Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Passing hikers told me this was just the beginning, that there would be much more as the winter got colder. I was dumbfounded.
Look closer. Photo by Frog Mom

This was way more than the square foot patch I had anticipated. Wow! The girls were going "ooh" and "aah" and "ooh" and "aah" again, pulling on my sleeve to show me their findings. Ah the excitement!

To celebrate, we popped the "hot cocoa" kit and sat on the bench (at the junction) to refuel before our hike back. Rare are the opportunities you can go in nature and expect to see wildlife at a given point. It makes you appreciate the Bay Area even more.

Getting cozy. Photo by Frog Mom
For our hike back, we opted to go the ridge route to add variety to our scenery. We turned left (north) up Prince Trail, spotted mushrooms on the way up - including a really cool orange jelly fungus called Witch's Butter - and at the top turned left (north-west) on East Ridge Trail.

The views were beautiful and a few well thought benches provided perfect vista points on the redwood mountains.

As winter afternoons go, the day was getting darker and I knew the sun would set in less than an hour. I encouraged the girls to hurry up and after they found pine cones to kick, it was a literally a walk in the woods.

Witch's Butter. Photo by Frog Mom
"Mom, I know what I want to do on hikes - kick pine cones!" said the 6-year old who kicked the same pine cone on the last quarter mile.

We made it back to the car just around twilight, making the ladybug hike a 2-hour affair including  hot cocoa and ladybug breaks. Not bad to uncover a winter mystery.

Practical details

  • Redwood Regional Park
  • The Skyline Gate is roughly half way between Joaquin Miller Road and Sibley Volcanic Regional Park on Skyline Boulevard.
  • Free parking
  • Do not collect ladybugs.
  • November through February.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guest Post: Advice for Photographing Children in Nature

Nature child. Photo by Sarah Deragon

I met Sarah Deragon of Portraits to The People at an event organized by A Little Yumminess and Smitten Ice Cream last month. Casually speaking, making it look ridiculously easy, Sarah was taking photos with her big camera - pictures of kids running around, of us adults waiting for our ice-cream, and of the liquid nitrogen ice-making machine. Meanwhile I chatted with her sister who's a mom of 2 and writes a cool design blog called Lucite Lavender

After the event, I was completely impressed by the photos (you can view them here and go "oooh" "aaah") and I mentioned it to the Little Yum girls during a banana slug hike. "That Sarah girl, she's gifted," I said. They put us in touch. Sarah offered to write this guest post on a topic that's dear to me since nature is my second home and photography my biggest weakness (second to tech-smartness according to hubby). Long story short - voilĂ !

Before you start to read her tips, check out Sarah's awesome Holiday Cards 2011 Special if you want to book Sarah for your family pic. I know it's that time of the year and many of us are wondering what card we'll send our family and friends so they put it up above their fireplace in December - it had better be a good one! 

Thanks for the photography tips Sarah, I'll practice them this week in the East Bay where I'm going hunting for hollow trees, candid moments and ladybugs - with kids.

Advice for Photographing Children in Nature
by Sarah Deragon

Does getting a good photo of your child in nature seem daunting? It shouldn’t! I’m here to help you out with a few helpful tips. I am a local San Francisco photographer and I take photos of children all of the time. I mostly photograph in natural light, so I know what I’m talking about. Ok, here we go:

Photo by Sarah Deragon
  1. Get a camera that you just love and keep it with you at all times. I am a huge fan of Canon Power Shots because they shoot quickly (which is great when you’re trying to capture kids cause they move a lot and fast), they are super lightweight and Canon has excellent customer service (inevitable if you’re clumsy like me and drop it from time to time).
  2. Read the instruction manual and/or watch videos to learn about the various settings. Sure, full auto is comfortable and easy, but why not experiment with the fish eye or perhaps the macro setting. 
  3. Follow the sun. Try not to position your little ones in direct sunlight if you can avoid it. Direct sunlight causes really harsh shadows on little faces. Put the sun behind them and get down on your knees if you have to.
  4. Be patient when trying to capture candid moments. I can’t tell you how many photos I just have to delete before getting to the one that makes you go ‘wow’! Snap away and remember that this is one of the benefits of using digital technology!
  5. Place the little ones in unexpected locations for interesting shots. See a hollowed out tree? Ask your son/daughter to peek through the end at you and snap a few pics. Have them all lie down on the grass with their heads together and look up at you. Try a few jumping photos – those are always fun!
  6. Think about photographing the small details that will help you remember the day. Did you have a picnic? Take a few photos of the food. Find a new favorite hiking trail? Take a photo of the trailhead sign. Were there particularly fluffy blue clouds? See what I mean?
  7. Practice the self-portrait. Stretch your arm out as far as it will go, flip your camera around, grab one your kids and say cheeeeeeese!
  8. Have fun! Photography should be something that’s enjoyable and the memories you’re making for your children are going to last a lifetime.
Photo by Sarah Deragon

Of course, I would highly recommend hiring a professional photographer at least once in your life because it is a fun experience for all. Besides, you want a killer photo for your holiday card this year, right? Theres’s a ton of super talented photographer in the Bay Area you’re bound to find someone that you just love working with!


Monday, November 14, 2011

Frog Mom turns 4!

Look ma, I'm 4! Frog Mom (the real one) at age 4.
Frog Mom turns 4 today and counting in bloggy-years, I feel like a cyber-granny. Thus in true granny fashion, today I'll reminisce about this blog's history in 14 bullet points even if you don't give a hoot. That's what you get for dropping in on a birthday.

Four years ago to the day, I wrote a post titled Toddler Attack, a forgettable 200-words about - surprise - my toddler attacking another child. Fortunately it quickly fell into my internet oblivion and were it not because it was my first post, I'd be tempted to give it the ax. Without pomp or fanfare, Frog Mom was born but it didn't really take shape until I realized that people other than my mom and dad were reading it.

Frankly, I was surprised and it gave me much food for thought. If other people were reading my blog, then maybe I could write about other stuff, stuff that I liked. Today I'd like to present a selection of Frog Mom "Mosts" in no particular order, highlighting this blog's milestones.

Most Popular: Perfect Family Campgrounds in the Bay Area. After years of camping left and right with friends, it was about time I shared my favorite spots. Fifteen campgrounds within a couple hours from San Francisco. Even on the verge of winter when everyone gears up on skis and triple-fleece layers, it's a hot topic. Go figure.

Most Obscure Topic: The Boring Dinner Concept. Nobody went crazy on that one and I think I know why - nobody read it. A pet peeve of mine though - throwing a genuinely boring dinner. Tough to execute and most likely will result in alienating tons of friends. Thus a practical challenge.

Most Fun to Write: Oh it's hard to pick my favorite blog posting so I'll give you three. Meet the 501st, Vader's Fist was a hoot to write, as well as The Stars of Harry Potter. Both appealed to the inner child in me and my love of fantasy worlds. Exploring The Redwoods the Star Wars Way - that one was not only fun to write but to plot.

Most Non-Mom World: Across Tenaya Lake - Open Water Swimming at 8,150 Feet. Ahem, that was my indulgence for open water swimming and it has NOTHING to do with kids. Why it's on my blog, a self-described mommy blog, is simple: I just don't have any other blog where I can share my non-mom interests. So bear with me when occasionally I stray out of the mommy course and have fun telling you about my life.

Most Outdoorsy: there has to be one, right? Saddlebag Lake: Twenty Lakes Basin Hike and Hiking to Maple Falls in the Forest of Nisene Marks were two great hikes that I thoroughly enjoyed with my kids.

Most Controversial: It's surprising given what I write but there was a controversial Frog Mom post. Just one. Open Studios: Hunter's Point Shipyard Artists and Beyond was a review of a day at the open studios at Hunter's Point and I received some heat on my "romantic" definition of art. I still stand by what I wrote. Still not a big fan of pretty flowers in pots.

Most Commented Upon: Best Hikes with Kids, San Francisco Bay Area - My Book is Out! 19 comments to day, all encouraging and heartwarming on my hiking adventure. You guys rock!

Most for Fans of The Outlander: have you read Diana Gabalton's Scottish series? If yes, you'll love the kilt and tartan feel of The Scottish Highland Games in Pleasanton.

Most Nostalgic: Hoffman Farm: The Last Walnut Orchard in the Napa Valley. In October 2009 I wrote about a 93-year old farmer named John Hoffman who had an incredible orchard in Napa. He passed away in 2010 and my photos of his ranch were published in the book Napa Valley Farming that came out a few months ago. I've been in touch with the Land Trust of Napa County to preserve his ranch as the last example of Napa fruit orchards but it hasn't happened yet. Yet.

Most Thai: Bang Krachao - Biking Through Bangkok's Green Lungs. I partially grew up in Thailand and my mom still lives there, hence the "Thailand" and "Cambodia" posts on Frog Mom. This post was a fun biking adventure on elevated and dangerously narrow pathways through swamps and forest - right in Bangkok. A great memory. I still can't believe we didn't topple over and end up in the swamp.

Most Literary: in the literal sense, actually. Fairy Tales: Fact or Fiction? was a foray into the origin of fairy tales and the true historical facts behind some of them. Grim, not Grimm.

Longest Life: Tarantula Treks at Mount Diablo was such a popular post that it was reprinted on Sono-Ma and it inspired me to write the piece Arach No Phobia for KQED.

Most For Me: New York - Morgan Pierpont Library and Museum. What can I say? I like old books.

Most Sweet Tooth: After School Sweets & Treats. After that post, I had to write a hiking guidebook - or change the entire wardrobe.

No less than 264 posts later, I'm here today wondering who and where you are. It always intrigues me, knowing who you are on the other side of that screen and what keeps you reading because let's be fair, I'm a wordy writer. My google stats are too dry and they only tell me that the big bulk of my readers comes from the US and that doesn't surprise me. But the second country in terms of audience, right after the US, is Ukraine. Now that baffles me. Ukraine, really? Proof, if any, that my family has been outnumbered by regular readers because I don't think I have any relatives in Ukraine. Third and fourth place go to Germany and the UK. Thanks you guys!

On this 4th birthday, I'm working on remodeling Frog Mom and make it into a proper website that's user-friendly. Finally. That's my current project and I'll work hard at it so you don't have to sieve through the archives to know what's out there.

Til then, happy 4th birthday Frog Mom! I'll raise a glass to that tonight.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Holiday Activities for Kids

Gingerbread living, critter style. Photo by Frog Mom

When Thanksgiving is only weeks away, I start thinking about all the holiday events I’m going to take my girls to. From Hanukkah to Christmas with winter solstice sprinkled in between, the Bay Area is an incredible showcase of family-friendly events to brighten the shortest days of the year – with cups of hot cocoa, skating afternoons and cookie exchanges. I started taking my girls to holiday celebrations when they were about 1 year old and each year added new ones. Some have become family traditions over the years, others we’re looking forward to discovering, but mostly we’re just looking forward to the joyous spirit and friendly reunions of the holidays. Here’s what I like.

Father Christmas "taking orders" at the Great
Dickens Fair. Photo by C.G.
Right after Thanksgiving we usually look into visiting the Great Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace. With its hundreds of actors and dancers in Victorian costume, its old-fashioned games and sugar-coated warm almonds, the fair is a day my girls look forward to with anticipation – also because they get to encourage their dad at playing darts to blow a balloon and activate the Candy Machine!

When we’ve had our Dickens fix, we look for an afternoon when we go ice skating at the Embarcadero Holiday Ice Skating Rink with friends. When my girls were little, we were happy just going to the Embarcadero and watching skaters glide by before grabbing a hot cocoa. The sight of the palm trees decked up with white lights, the holiday-themed F-trams and Ferry Building, those were all good reasons to get out of the house and feel the kiss of winter. Then when darkness falls, we enter the warm atrium of the Hyatt Regency and hit the second floor bar for drinks - I always have a maitai.

Holiday tea t the Burlingame library.
Photo by Frog Mom
Tea and gingerbread men, now that is something we’re not giving up any time soon. My girls have too much fun doing that! We’ve done the Nutcracker Tea at the Fairmont Hotel, the Teddy Bear Tea at the Ritz, the Gingerbread Tea at the Secret Garden Tea House, the Holiday Afternoon Tea at the Palace Hotel and the holiday tea at the Burlingame library with author book reading. All are nice and this year we’ll be trying the Gingerbread Tea at Crown & Crumpet!

Strolling through neighborhoods we also like to admire street decorations and as dorky as it sounds, we love going to Fisherman’s Wharf around early December. For a total experience, we board the F-tram in the Castro and go all the way to the end of the line. If we’re lucky, we catch a free show on the Pier 39 boardwalk, otherwise we just do a little people-watching, tree-watching and we always end up bread-watching at the window of the flagship store of Boudin Bakery where skilled bakers shape lobster breads in 10 minutes flat.

Evergreen moments at Muir Woods.
Photo by Frog Mom
At home we don’t have TV so we can’t really partake in the holiday screenings but we read a different holiday-themed book every evening. On our list of favorites are Eric Carle’s Dream Snow, Eric Kimmel’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Allen Say’s Tree of Cranes, Lemony Snicket’s The Lump of Coal or Chris Van Allsburgh’s Polar Express.

Did I mention my girls are train nuts? So of course, there’s a holiday train somewhere in our holiday planning, Sacramento winning our votes on par with Felton’s Roaring Camp.

Eventually the holiday craze gets too much and we feel the need to escape to quieter shores such as the majestic redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument.Decembers can be rainy in these woods but I like the hushed sound of shoes on the pine needle ground, the hazy quality of the light, the stark green foliage and rugged red bark of the trees. Muir Woods is always a good place to wind down and sometimes you can get the canyon by yourself in the winter. Now that is a great holiday gift.

This blog posting was written for the Fog Blog, the blog of the Golden Gate Mothers Group where it was published on November 9, 2011.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: TOTEM by Cirque du Soleil

How do they do it? Photo by Cirque du Soleil
After the show, my girls clapped wildly though it was 11pm and way past their bedtime. The smile on their face said everything - what an amazing evening! Totem by Cirque du Soleil opened in San Francisco last week and I took my mom, my 2 girls (6 and 8) and my husband to the premiere. First thing I did when I got home was to Google "Olympians Cirque du Soleil". That's how good the performers are - what they do just doesn't seem humanely possible. Totem is definitely a top notch circus show in that unconventional Cirque du Soleil glam-steampunk-world way. Take the kids!

Crystal Ladies. Photo by Cirque du Soleil
The show
Spectacular. Really. We all had our favorites and ironically they were almost identical! My girls' favorites were the Crystal Ladies and their sparkly material spinning act, as well as the Trapeze Trio and the Unicycles and Bowls. They really enjoyed the clowns too and laughed hard on several occasions.

I'm usually not a clown fan but the sad clown who rowed on a boat to catch some fish and ended up pulling a giant plug emptying the sea - that guy was hilarious. The "Italian" macho skinny guy was very funny too though as a parent, I would have preferred less sexual innuendo in his pantomime.

Hoops Dancer. Photo by Cirque du Soleil 
Us adults were blown away by the Fixed Trapeze Duo (the photo I chose at the top of this post), an act that was both completely novel, funny and poetic. The mini-roller skating rink was also quite stupendous as well as  the Hoops Dancer (my husband's favorite).

In the non-physical category, we were all floored by the magic and beauty of the glow-in-the-dark juggling act with the guy in Victorian scientist costume. Hello Jekyll and Hyde fans! He performed in a human-size beaker and when we thought the bluish balls flying around the clear walls in the dark were a treat, the balls started changing colors. Wow. Can you do that again please? The trailer below will give a brief overview of the prowesses you're about to see.

Sets and Costumes
"Mom, do you think we'll see anything that's happening on the other side?" That was the initial reaction of my 8-year old when we took our seats in front of a giant fabric turtle blocking the whole stage. She breathed a sigh of relief when the canvas was lifted to reveal a jungle gym skeleton structure and squealed at the visual effects on the "marsh/beach" slanted area connecting stage to backstage. The sets definitely gave a more theater feel to the show, something the kids enjoyed.
My favorite. Photo by Cirque du Soleil

The costumes and make-up were beautiful, covering a wide range of ambiances from the Bollywood glitzy to the Native American symbolic, the earthly African savannah or the futuristic Moebius-inspired Russian acrobats. Not a dull moment on stage!

The Story
The show is self-described as "a fascinating journey into the evolution of mankind." If you want to understand how the acts are connected to the storyline, by all means get a program. I didn't and a week after the show, I still have no clue what the possible links could have been. That's fine - not  knowing takes nothing away from the beauty of the show but if you want the deeper meaning, then the program is a must. I doubt the kids will insist on knowing the story. The show is riveting enough without the subtitles.

Just For Moms
Lots of scantily-clad cute hunks on stage. Yay!

Unicycles and Bowls. Photo by Cirque du Soleil
As much as possible, get seats facing the stage not on the sides. Most of the show group scenes are best seen only for the front audience. If like us you sit on the sides, well, you'll only get a slice of the scene. In terms of high or low, I think higher seats would be better for kids, particularly smaller kids, because a lot of the action takes place in the air.

Roller skates. Photo by Cirque du Soleil
If you sit in the lower section, your children will spend their entire time craning their necks to see what's happening. Whining alert. Best sections: 200, 201, 202. Good sections: 100, 101. Not as good: 103, 104, 203-206.

Food and Drink
Abysmal and expensive. For a show of that quality and price I was expecting better snacks, not your local movie multiplex selection. Just popcorn, pretzels and hot dogs? With prices through the roof and no healthy kid option, I say - eat before and BYO intermission snack!

On the upside, adults can enjoy a cold beer or glass of champagne during the show since drinks are allowed in the tent. It really makes you feel like you're out without the kids. On the downside, when your neighbor accidentally drops his cup of Coke between the seats, you're in for wet sticky socks. Yes, cup holders would be a nice extra touch.

Age Recommendation
The tent. Photo by Frog Mom
Based on the fact that:
  • The show is 3 hours long (with 30 minutes intermission)
  • The evening show starts at 8pm, the matinees at 1pm, 4pm or 5pm
  • The show includes loud music, some pyrotechnics and constant movement
I'd say - this is not for the preschool crowd. But guess what? There were babies in slings as well as a handful of toddlers at the show. What do I know? All I know is that my kids at age 3 would never have been able to sit still a full 2 hours and 30 minutes. 

Bonus Tips
  • Skip the $20 parking fee by finding free street parking after 6pm (Tuesday - Saturday) or taking MUNI (T or N lines).
  • For emergency potty breaks, head directly to the last rows of porta-potties for shorter or no lines.
  • Dress in layers. It might in cozy and heated inside but you're still right by the bay. As soon as you get out, burrrrrrrrrrr.
Big Top, AT&T Park, Parking Lot A
74 Mission Rock St., San Francisco 

$55 to $360 online. Get a 20% discount on all seats with this link. You can find discounts at Goldstar too.

Official Website

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fall Hikes for Kids in the East Bay

Playing in leaves. Photo by EBRPD
"It's one of the common misconceptions about the Bay Area. We do have an autumn here," said Ranger Mike Moran of the East Bay Regional Park District when I asked him about places to find heaps of dead leaves in the East Bay. Now that cold temps have settled in, the sea has gotten rougher and trees are baring their branches happily, it's time to take the kids out for a good fall hike! Never mind the weather, kids just love kicking some leaves and experiencing the changing season. I interviewed Mike, who currently works at Black Diamond Mines,  on the best spots to take kids out in the East Bay this fall. Here is his selection.

Tilden Park, Jewel Lake 
The area of Tilden Park next to the Little Farm is amazing for kids. They can go to Jewel Lake and use the boardwalk to go through willows, see Wildcat creek and the little pond. Around the lake parents will find a trail that's great for jogging strollers and kids can spy turtles in water. Last year we even got the rare sighting of a wild river otter.

Point Pinole
With a playground right by the entrance, a fishing pier at the tip and dog-friendly trails, Point Pinole is a gem waiting to be discovered. As it's paved right through the center, kids can ride their bike a lot through the park. Going to the pier is about 2 miles long and you can stop at the big turf area with a tot lot on the way back. Plus - where else do you find a eucalyptus forest with a dynamite past?

Marsh exploration. Photo by EBRPD
Big Break
One of our newest parks, Big Break Regional Shoreline offers a fun Delta discovery experience for kids and is stroller accessible. The park's all flat and includes one of the best access areas to the delta of the San Francisco/San Joaquin Delta estuary, together with a great birding opportunity. Kids love the 1200 square foot map of the Delta that they can walk on. You can pour water on it and see the water flow through the rivers! It even has all the cities marked on it. To hike, check out the Big Break Regional Trail that connects with the Marsh Creek Regional Trail.

Diablo Foothills
Walnut Creek
At Diablo Foothills, I love walking along Pine Creek past Castle Rock Recreation Area going towards the dam. Kids will encounter neat rock outcroppings in the canyon as well as wild grape, oak trees, alders and maple trees. Walking on Stage Road Trail, the creek sets you right along the valley for a 1mile in 1-mile back hike. If you feel up for more, you can even walk all the way to Pine Forest and Mount Diablo.

Rock City, Mount Diablo
Walnut Creek
For kids who love to climb rocks, Rock City on the south side of Mount Diablo has a lot of big rock shelters and is fantastic for scrambling around. [Check out this piece by Ciao Bambino on a post-Halloween visit at Rock City with kids.]

Lindsey Wildlife Museum
Walnut Creek
The Lindsey Wildlife Museum is a precious rainy day spot in Walnut Creek where kids see live owls and hawks as well as bring injured critters that needs help. This place is a hospital for wild animals and kids will be able to learn a lot while seeing mammals and raptors up close.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hugo: A Reading Contest for Kids of All Ages

Unlock the secret of reading
Update November 8, 2011: After two readers let me know they went to the Richmond branch and the Noe Valley branch where librarians were not aware of the contest, I investigated with the San Francisco Public Library this morning. It looks like all branches in San Francisco have received a packet with the entry forms and instructions but since the reading contest is linked to a promotion of the movie "Hugo", libraries can decide not to set it up. If you express interest at your local branch, they might decide that it's worth it. Regardless, you should call your local library to make sure they are participating. I thought that all public libraries were in on this but I was wrong. Happy reading anyway!

Initial post
Incredible news for our budding and experienced readers: kids of all ages can enter a reading contest until November 23, 2011 and enter to win prizes as exciting as a private screening of the movie Hugo for 100 people. When I say "kids of all ages" I mean it - even kids who can't read can participate if their parents will read a book to them. Now, my blog is not connected in any way to this contest but as a mom and a fierce book advocate, I was so elated about a movie contest getting kids to read books that I made it a point to share the news. Plus, the movie can't be all that bad - based on the award-winning Brian Selznick middle-grade historical fiction "The Invention of Hugo Cabret", it has been adapted on screen by Martin Scorsese. Nothing less.

Photo courtesy of San Francisco Public Library
Here is how I learned about the contest: hanging out at the library. Last Saturday at the West Portal library in San Francisco, I was in the room for kids with my 6-year old who was playing on the computer. Waiting for my husband to pick us up after our other daughter's soccer game, I was browsing the shelves for picture books when a green xeroxed paper caught my eye: "Unlock the Secret of Reading! Read and Win!" Oh, such a tease, I couldn't resist.

There was an illustration of an old-fashioned key. I read quickly for details and all I could find was "See librarians for details!" Obediently, to the librarian I went. Though the child librarian wasn't aware of the contest, another librarian at the front desk knew everything about it and brought me two entry forms with a smile. Gotta love the public libraries!

Here is what I found out and I would love it if you sent that to all families where you know children - especially boys. I keep reading that boys don't like to read and it'd be great if this contest could motivate a handful to get out of video games to pick up a book.

Rules of the contest (drum roll please):

  • Go to your local library and find a small white entry form for the contest. At West Portal, it was by the check out machines. Your library might be set up differently. Good luck.
  • 2 entry forms are allowed per child
  • Fill in the info: child's name, city, contact details, library
  • Turn the entry form over and write down the name of 4 books your child has read for the contest or 4 books that you have read to your child - no cheating! But I know kids love a good story so I'm trusting you on that one.
  • The book can be any book but I'm thinking the phone book wouldn't be much fun to read - better ask your librarian for recs that are age-appropriate
  • Return to your library and drop the forms in the little box before November 23, 2011. That's the day before Thanksgiving, in case you were wondering if you could drop it late. The answer is "not likely".
  • Book cover art
  • Optional but recommended by Frog Mom: pick up The Invention of Hugo Cabret and read it before the movie comes out.
As soon as I explained all the contest rules and prizes at stake to my 3rd grader, she couldn't wait to get back home to start a book. This weekend she read Judy Moody: Around the World in 8 1/2 Days. This morning she picked up the copy of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief I had taken out of the shelves for her. She's completely stressing out about not finishing on time but I know she'll be OK. She's a total book-eater. My 1st grader is a lot more relaxed since she cannot read so she's asking me to read books to her.

At the end of the day, I told my girls it didn't matter whether they won or lost the contest because by reading the 4 books at home, they've already earned a right to watch the movie with me when it comes out. Win-win situation, I can't wait to read the book and see the movie myself!

Related events
Brian Selznick is currently touring the US for his new book Wonderstruck. I'm bummed I missed him in San Francisco last week. Try to catch him along the way, I bet he's fantastic.