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Playground Equipment Blog
Friday, January 25, 2019

Making Play Spaces Safe for Winter

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you know by now that winter can be one of the best seasons to get outside and enjoy getting exercise. Winter can offer so many fun opportunities with just a little bit of preparation.

At the same time, there’s no denying there are added risks to be considered. In the northern half of the country, winter means freezing temperatures, snow and ice. In the South and the West, winter brings with it chilly downpours and wind. In either case, spending time outdoors means dealing with what is usually the most inclement season of the year.

However, winter doesn’t mean you have to close your park or play areas until the spring thaw arrives. There’s plenty of ways to make sure your play equipment is safe for use and your parks are full of activities throughout the season. Use this list to make sure visitors of all ages are able to enjoy winter safely.

Make Sure Your Surfacing Is Holding Up

Surfacing is perhaps the blandest aspect of a playground (particularly for the kids), but it is central to the safety of everyone playing in that space.

Let’s begin with the kids of surfacing you ought to already have installed for play. There are a lot of options to provide an attractive, protective covering for your play area, and each option has its own positives and negatives. Finding the right playground surface to keep kids safe is integral in any season.

However, even with the best surfaces, there’s always the risk the weather reduces their effectiveness. If your surface is not level, water, snow, and ice can pool, creating a slick space children may slip on. Engineered wood fiber can also pool water under the surface and create slick areas you can’t immediately see.

Extreme cold weather can cause some surfaces to crack or become unlevel, increasing the chance a running child trips and falls.

To reduce these risk, start by clearing any pooling water or snow anywhere on the play space (as well on walkways that lead to your playground). You should also carefully walk the whole surface to give it a thorough inspection whenever possible. Additionally, if you have mats or tarps to cover the surfacing before storms, use them whenever possible.

See How Your Structures Handle the Plunging Temperatures

The first thing you can do to check your structure is to look out for any icy buildup. You don’t want children playing anywhere covered in ice because it seriously increases the risk of slips and falls. Since much playground equipment involves climbing, there’s a greater chance of significant falls.

Even if ice isn’t present, there may still be other risks. Playground equipment is designed to be durable, but that doesn’t mean it won’t begin to wear down in rough weather over time and without regular maintenance. Take particular care to inspect wooden structures, since wood is more susceptible to weather-related deterioration than either plastic or metal.

That doesn’t mean you can just assume plastics and metals are holding up, though. Given enough time, use, and troublesome weather, any object will wear down and become less sturdy. This can be particularly dangerous with children playing on these structures. Bolts may loosen in changing temperatures, leaving slides or bridges less secure than they should be. If metal, wood, or plastic splits it can leave sharp edges exposed.

Bring in a Professional

There’s only so much you can do as someone who is untrained in playground safety. The best course of action—particularly for those who have play spaces in areas with rough winter weather—is to bring in professionals to check over everything and make sure it’s safe for children.

A Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) will be able to inspect every aspect of your park or playground and note all the serious risks you have to look out for. Knowing what can go wrong helps you prepare so it never goes wrong, so having a CPSI come even before winter sets in can be a real benefit.

If you don’t have a CPSI in your area, courses are available, so you may be able to train yourself, adding that extra bit of protection every time you walk out to look at your structures.

Add Winter-Friendly Activities as Alternatives

Winter could definitely use a PR boost. While people often feel it’s the season that restricts outdoor activities the most, there’s actually plenty you can do indoors and outdoors.

So, take heart. Even if your playground for some reason needed to be closed for the winter, that doesn’t mean you can’t offer plenty of activities to keep people happy and active.

If you have open fields, consider creating a cross country skiing track. If your area is more hilly, open those hills up to sledding. With the purchase of a few sets of snowshoes, you can introduce people to their first snowshoe walks through park paths.

Some areas get a lot of snow, and you can take advantage of all that powder. Build snow mazes or snow forts where kids can play and explore.

Some activities actually improve in the winter as well. Find out if your area has any birds that stay through the winter weather. If so, you can organize bird watching tours.

With all those outdoor activities, you’ll want to have a place for everyone to just get warm. So, set up outdoor heated areas. Build bonfires and set up some outdoor heaters. You can have a little bar in the same area where you can serve hot cocoa and hot tea.

Winter does not have to be a season that keeps people indoor. You can provide your community with a safe, fun, and adventurous outdoor experience. Whether you’re facing chilly rains or foot upon foot of snow, there are ways to keep your equipment safe for use and provide winter-only activities that will leave your community looking forward to winter instead of fearing it.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Making a Hobby of Your Health

Next week is National Healthy Weight Week, which conveniently falls within January, which is
National Hobby Month. Those two things may seem completely unrelated to some, but any health expert will tell you that they actually have to go together.

This is an important point because, too often, we associate getting healthy with getting skinny, and getting skinny with short-term, reckless diets.

If you really want to trim inches from your waist or just get up the stairs without having to catch your breath, the best way to do that is by making a hobby out of healthy living practices. This isn’t a single, short-term life change but a whole revolution in how you approach your diet, your fitness, and your life. By making a hobby of your health, you transform a seemingly impossible and much dreaded task into a fun challenge you look forward to every day.

Your Diet Hobby

Many of us have a bias when we think about eating healthy. We conjure in our minds all the disgusting veggies our parents made us eat as children. Or else, we think about those abortive efforts earlier when we fixed salads for dinner and went to bed hungry every night.

But eating healthy doesn’t have to be unpleasant or a chore. In fact, it can be an adventure. Have you ever pondered taking a cooking course? Eating healthy can be as much fun as any Italian cooking class you might take.

Challenge yourself to find recipes that are tasty and filling without requiring unhealthy ingredients and cooking practices. There are plenty of great guides that show the parameters for a healthy meal and healthy diet. Take it as a creative challenge and find ways to make your favorite meals in a way that meets those limits.

If you need some help, there are tons of cook books focused on healthier diets out there and also more healthy recipe sites than you can imagine. Browse a few and introduce a “healthy dinner night” to your household. You can start once a month and expand from there once you’ve found a few recipes you like enough to cook over and over again.

Your Exercise Hobby

If there’s anything that keeps us from pursuing healthier lives, it’s exercise. The concept itself feels like such a burden. We’re already tired (more on that in a bit); we’re already busy. Who wants to take time away from our rare and limited free time to run five miles in the cold at 5 a.m.?

Here’s the thing, though: exercise doesn’t have to be a bore, a chore, or a burden. It can be fun. Remember when you were a kid and all you wanted to do was get outside and run around? That running around, that play, was exercise. The problem you may have is not a hatred of exercise but a lack of play in your life.

There’s nothing wrong with indulging in some video games and TV binging sometimes, but you may find you feel better and have even more fun turning off the screen and getting outside to play.

But isn’t that ridiculous? Adults playing kickball and tag on the playground, you just don’t see that, right? It’s not actually as ridiculous as it sounds. In fact, play is a highly recommended way to get into shape. To begin with, there are plenty of adult sports leagues for people of every level of experience, skill, and fitness. Did you love shooting hoops as a kid? Find an adult team in your community and get back to it. Miss the days when you could play soccer every weekend? Go find a team. You’ll be surprised how many indoor and outdoor adult sport activities are available. You can even find kickball leagues without much looking at all.

The same goes for playgrounds. While you shouldn’t be pushing kids off their swings and getting stuck on their slides, a lot of parks are now offering adult fitness equipment that you’ll be surprised to find out is basically kids’ equipment built for our bigger, adult selves. You can swing across the monkey bars, climb ladders, and spin a ship’s wheel like a real sea captain, all while getting healthier and stronger.

This is why you want to make exercise a hobby instead of a routine. Hobbies are fun, and exercise can be fun. Once getting in shape feels like fun, you won’t have to force yourself to do it. You’ll look forward to it.

Your Sleep Hobby

Any overworked, exhausted person out there is going to love this one. Make a note to remind yourself: you deserve and you need more sleep.

Common sense and experience tell you that more sleep means more productivity at work and in your personal life, but health experts have also long known that overall body and mind health has to incorporate sufficient sleep. Not getting enough sleep can mean more appetite, which leads to more weight gain.

Unfortunately, more than a third of us are sleep deprived. That’s not just making us hungrier, it’s also sapping us of the energy we need to get to that exercise that we require and to find the creativity for some of that healthy cooking.

Of course, when you’re tired you can feel like it’s hopeless to get back to getting enough sleep. Thankfully, there are some great sleep improvement tips out there.

Try, for instance, setting a stricter sleep schedule so you don’t stay up later than you should. You can also cut back on foods and drinks (and smoking) which keep you awake. Introducing a relaxing bedtime routine can also work wonders.

Your Stress-Free Hobby

If you can say anything about modern adults, it’s that we’re stressed. We work a lot. We don’t get paid enough. We have a lot of bills. And our brains never turn off thanks to 24/7 technology at our fingertips.

You know you’re stressed.—you don’t need us to tell you that—but you may not know that stress has a lot to do with how overweight and unhealthy you are.

So, if you want to lose some weight and feel better, you need to address your stress issues. Unfortunately, we can’t recommend you just up and quit your job and become a yoga guru (unless that’s really already up your alley), but there are plenty of ways to reduce stress in healthy and fun ways.

Here’s a bonus at the outset: just picking up the other hobbies on this list will already work wonders to reduce your stress. Eating healthy, working out, and sleeping more can put a serious dent in your stress levels.

That doesn’t mean you won’t ever have to deal with stress. Some parts of life are just stressful. Being a parent of young kids is stressful. Work can be stressful. Difficult family relationships can be stressful. Bills, debts, and other financial obligations are stressful.

In short, you’re going to feel stressed sometimes, even if you work out, sleep, and eat right. However, there are still a lot of ways to reduce even that unavoidable stress. Consider taking up meditation or getting into yoga (guru or not). You could also start journaling (getting out stressful thoughts is really helpful) or leaning into some quiet relaxation time. Put on quiet music (or enjoy the silence), light a candle, and just relax in a comfy chair or bath.

You can also cut out some high-stressor elements in your life like caffeine and smoking.

If you combine all these fun and healthy hobbies, you’ll find, perhaps much to your surprise, that your healthy weight becomes a far more achievable goal.

The key to all of these is that being healthy doesn’t have to feel like you’re taking on a new job. Being healthy can be fun. It can be a hobby. If you look at it the right way and follow the right strategies, you’ll be looking better, feeling healthier, and enjoying slimming down before you know it.
Written by: Ben Thompson

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Letting Kids Be Kids

Every parent knows the term and dreads being called it: the helicopter parent. And yet, for as much as we all intend to take a hands-off approach to parenting and encourage independence as soon as the little ones can walk, we still catch ourselves hovering above, watching every step, worrying over every little daring play choice the kiddies make.

That isn’t just bad for our stress level as parents, it’s bad for the kids, too. There’s tons of research that proves kids need free play.

That means play that isn’t guided by nervous wreck Mom and paranoid Dad. Kids have to play and play independently in order to learn and grow up. It’s a crucial part of development. Letting kids explore the world helps them get to know it on their own terms, in their own way. In other words: we’ve got to back off and let kids be kids, for their own good.

While it’s no excuse to be neglectful, most modern parents could stand to teach themselves a few lessons for once, namely, how to chill out.

And that’s what we’re here to do. If you want to cool your helicoptering jets, try to follow the advice below to calm your worries and prepare your kids for the work they need to do in their free play.

Build Up Their Survival Skills

We’re not talking about teaching them to survive in the woods alone for a week (although, it doesn’t hurt to know how…maybe when they’re a little older), we’re talking about the basics of how we adults get through our day-to-day lives.

If we’ve got one basic job as parents (beyond just keeping the kiddos safe), it’s teaching them how to live without us. So, make it a focal point in your parenting.

Kids need to know how to talk to other people, how to speak respectfully, how to react to bullies, and how to deal with dangerous situations. They also need to know how to behave responsibly, how to respond with words instead of violence, and how to play in a safe manner.

The better you teach kids lessons like these, the more you can feel comfortable that they can handle the tough situations that come up when they run off to take on the world on their own.
Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. Just as you aren’t going to stop watching your kids like an obsessive hawk overnight, they aren’t going to absorb these skills right away, especially at a young age. This is a process you work through together over the long-term, but as you start seeing improvements, you may also see a general relaxation of your sense of vigilance.

Draw the Bigger Picture for Them

Here’s something we tend to forget about kids these days: they understand far more about the world than we give them credit for. We don’t have to dumb everything down.

Of course, that isn't an open invitation to spill all the dark secrets of adulthood into their ear all at once. There are moments they will need the harsh realities of life softened, but you can be confident if you patiently show them the general contours of the world, they will understand, and they will respond. In fact, they’ll respond better because you spoke to them honestly and on a more mature level.

So, while you’re teaching them how to survive in the big bad world without you (for at least five minutes), you can also teach them why they need to know all that. Explain to them how accidents can happen, why you worry about accidents, why it’s important they follow all the lessons you’re teaching them.

In general, just learn how to talk to your kids in an effective manner that relates how you feel, why you worry, and why they should behave in a certain way.

Again, they won’t get it all at once. They will make mistakes in their learning, as we all do, but they will respond to this approach over time.

Find the Parks You Can Trust and Trust Them

Many of us have nightmares about letting our eyes off the kids for an instant when we get to the park. Our protective (and over-protective) minds race to find all the potential dangers within reach of our little darlings. There are streams that aren’t blocked off where kids could tumble in. The playground equipment hasn’t been maintained and there are areas where you worry a kid could fall. There’s no border between the park and a busy street.

How on earth can a loving parent take their eyes off their kids when there are so many threats?

Well, if nothing else, that kind of environment certainly makes it harder. So, make your life easier and find a playground and park that you feel more comfortable and safe in. If your area has multiple parks within a reasonable distance, give each of them an audition.

Look for high quality and safe playground equipment and areas that meet all your safety concerns. You can use a playground safety checklist to see if one of the local parks makes the grade. If they do, you should be able to relax a little more.

Take a Seat on a Park Bench

Here’s the best part of landing your parenting helicopter for a bit: you get to take a break. If you’ve taught your kids to play safely, behave well and safely, and checked the play area for safety, then give yourself a hand (and a nice cup of coffee) and take a seat on the park bench for a bit.

In other words, just let the kids play. Importantly, that doesn’t mean to just leave them to their own devices and abandon them for hours in the park. You should still be near and keeping general tabs on them. Learning how to actively watch while still backing off is an important part of your parental education at this point. You want to be close and aware, in case there is something that goes wrong, but you can also take that crucial step back that gives kids the chance to experience some of that free play on their own and with their friends.

It may not seem like much, but getting that extra bit of space between you and your children can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic. That little extra time to yourself, that little extra time for their play, can make it easier to manage your stress while helping them develop. And, as a bonus, the kids may even start behaving better and respecting their boundaries more. Once you put a little trust in them and in your park, they’ll feel the extra responsibility and respond to it.

It may not be easy breaking a long and deeply ingrained habit of helicopter parenting, but committing to letting your kids be kids is possible, with just a little extra focus on helping them grow up.
Written by: Ben Thompson
Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Getting Excited to Get Outside In Winter

Winter may be the most beautiful season of the year, and yet, it’s also the season we feel the most distant from nature. Instead of getting out to see the snowy hills or the rain-drenched fields, we huddle inside, living on artificial light, and trying to scratch our nature itch by looking at photos someone else took of the great wonders of the outside world.

It’s a new year, folks, and it’s the time of resolutions. If last week’s resolutions weren’t enough for you, it’s time to resolve to get out into the world again, getting some exercise, getting healthy, and getting rid of that seasonal depression. It’s not as intimidating a prospect as you may think. We’re here to show you how to get started and how to stick with it.

Get the Right Gear

It’s time to go shopping! If there’s one excuse that keeps people inside during the winter, it’s that they don’t have the right clothes. People will take one look at the thermometer, give a little fake shiver, and say they just don’t have the coat or the boots or the thermal underwear for a trek out into the woods.

So, your first step is to just remove that excuse from your life.

Not sure what you need? There’s a whole winter hiking checklist already set up for you. Go out and enjoy a good shopping spree so you get the clothes and equipment that fit your style and needs. Organize everything so it’s there and ready to go so it takes as little prep as possible before your next trip out.

Not only does this help you avoid delays in the future, it will inspire you to go out because of the investment you’ve made. You’ve bought the stuff, it’s organized and ready to go, begging to be used. Why not go for a quick hike so it stops laying about, accusing you of winter laziness?

Bring Good Food Along

Here’s a great tip most people don’t think about when they want some extra motivation for winter strolls: bring food and drink you really like. It can feel a little unappetizing, walking the trails, munching cold granola bars and sipping cold water. It makes you cold just thinking about it.

So, motivate yourself by preparing warm and healthy food and drink that you will be looking forward to munching on after you get going. Bring some warm corn tortillas and healthy taco options and then deny yourself the right to eat them unless you get outside. Don’t just hydrate on water, bring some delicious green tea or coffee, all prepared however you like it.

If you’re short of ideas, here are some suggestions for trail food that can be healthy, delicious, and motivating while you tackle the wintry wonderland outside your doors.

Once you’ve got a nice hiking menu in place, your stomach will motivate you as well as anything else.

Set Times that Work and Stick to Them

The famously hearty postal service lives by this motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

It’s time you took a page (or letter) from that robust spirit and start making plans to tackle nature, no matter what it has to throw at you.

Set a scheduled time each week that you are always free, and then make sure you get out there into the elements, whatever those elements happen to be. Make sure the time you choose is one in which you’ll be as well-rested and free of commitments as possible. For most people, that’s a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but choose the time that is best for you.

Barring blizzards and dangerously low temperatures, you should just learn to ignore the weather completely. Prepare to meet anything and then just get out there. You should have all the gear you need for standard weather issues, so you know you can stay warm, safe, and relatively dry. So, just go. Don't let the weather offer you an excuse.

Take Photos and Share and Print Them

These days, we’re used to taking a hundred photos a day, thanks to our smartphones. That has somewhat degraded the motivational power of taking your own photos when you see something beautiful out in the wild.

For all that, having a photo that you took of something beautiful that only you (or you and your group) saw still offers a one-of-a-kind thrill. Further build on that motivation by not just taking photos but sharing them on social media and even printing them out. Nothing is going to get you out in the winter weather quite like a photo on your wall that shows just what nature has to offer in its coldest months.

Pick Someone to Explore With

Hiking, like anything else, is usually better when it’s shared with others. While there’s nothing wrong with private, personal, introspective hikes (those can be incredibly wonderful and therapeutic), when you’re trying to build some motivation up to make your hikes a habit, having others there to motivate you is incredibly helpful.

A word of advice, though: partner up with people who are at least as motivated as you. You don’t want friends dragging you back to bed by lending you their excuses for staying in. If it’s possible, partner up with people who are already in the habit of getting outside in winter. If you can attach yourself to people who will be out anyway—and who will make a point of getting you out—then you’ll find yourself getting out far more often.

Even if you just have another novice nature lover to go with, though, setting your schedules to meet up, hang out, have fun, laugh, and spend time in nature, will make you more eager to shuffle into the warm clothes and get out the door.

For Parents: Choose a Park with Kid-Friendly Options

If there’s any legitimate excuse to skip the winter activities and stay in, it’s kids. Kids are harder to organize and to inspire to get out and walk on a trail for a few hours. They’re cold, they’re favorite shows are on, they’re tired, they want to eat. Kids are experts at complaining and making life tougher for you.

Getting the little ones outside takes a lot more effort and can zap the little bit of motivation you have for yourself.

To overcome this, try to look for outdoor opportunities that will combine what the kids love with what you love. If there’s a nice playground in the area, and the weather allows for it, make a deal to get them to walk for a bit, have a nice lunch, and play on the equipment. If they know there’s a carrot at the end of the stick, they’ll be more willing to go. And, if they have a particularly good time, they’ll start demanding to go back!

Some playgrounds are even especially inviting in winter—consider those that have wintry components like the Pine Tree Topper, if they’re available in the area—with designs that will draw on your kids’ imaginations and build up their enthusiasm for turning off the TV and turning out into the local park.

Winter doesn’t have to be an indoor season. Some of the most refreshing, inspiring, and healthy outdoor experiences of the year are available only in the winter. You may discover a secret cross-country skiing enthusiast inside you or a latent winter-time camper. Getting into the habit of getting outside in the winter also allows you to build up steam to stay healthier and more engaged with nature throughout the rest of the year.

If you just approach it right, spending your winter outdoors doesn’t have to be a hassle, a chore, or a failed resolution. Just plan for it properly, tend carefully to your motivation, and prepare to get out into the great wintry outdoors.

Written by: Ben Thompson

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Parenting New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep (And How to Keep Them)

The new year is just about upon us, and we’re all about to take part in the long, grand tradition of making a resolution we know we’re going to break at the first possible opportunity. Many of us with kids clink our glasses of champagne at midnight with a thought spared for how we can be better parents now the slate is wiped clean by the changing of the calendar. For all that bubbly good intention, though, resolutions about parenting and our kids are just as likely to go flat as those we make for ourselves.

Or, that’s usually the case. Here, we’ve taken the opportunity to put forward a few resolutions for your kids in 2019 that you can be sure to keep...because we’ll show you how.

Resolution #1: Less TV (and phones and video games and…)

It’s as old as the boob-tube itself: the fight over TV time. Nowadays, that’s expanded to phone time, tablet time, and overall screen time. A little time spent on the screen is fine, and can even be very positive (family movie time should never be on the chop block), but we could all stand to cut back.

So, here’s a tough but very good idea: introduce a screen ban. After a certain hour, every evening, all phones are plugged into chargers in another room, all TVs are turned off, all computers put in Sleep Mode. Exceptions can be made for homework or the previously mentioned family movie time. Otherwise, no calls, no vegging, and no video games.

You’ll have an easier time with this if your kids are younger, but you can still establish some boundaries with teenagers as well. Try to entice them into this arrangement by getting ideas from them for how to spend those screen-free hours. You may find they have a lot of things they’d be happy to do with the family if they’re allowed to occasionally decide.

Resolution #2: Stick to Your Schedule

This one is for both the parents and the kids. We all say we plan to spend less time at work and keep the kids on a schedule that includes plenty of family activities, time for homework, and the right bedtime. Then life happens.

We aren’t always masters of our own work schedule, but we can still make a few positive changes to improve our scheduling at home. Start with expanding the screen ban to yourself. No email or texting once you’re home until the kids are asleep. Unless you have a job that absolutely requires you remain available throughout the evening, getting off your phone will leave you more engaged with your family and more able to manage everyone’s schedule successfully.

Not just that, studies have found the best way to curb those screen urges in the young is to demonstrate the discipline yourself. Now, you’re tackling two resolutions in one! To further this effort, post an actual schedule for evenings and weekends in a place everyone is going to see it (like on the fridge). You may not always hit the schedule points every evening, but the constant reminder will keep encouraging you while you slowly build the family evenings into a regular routine.

If you aren’t sure what your schedule should look like, the CDC has some examples to start with.

You can also increase the likelihood you stick to your schedule by getting input from your kids as you create it. When they’ve agreed to certain hours for homework instead of being forced into it, it’ll be easier to remind them this is the time they wanted reserved for that work. You may also find they actually do their work when they get to choose the time they’re most engaged and eager to study.

Resolution #3: Less Junk, More Health

Kids and junk food: one of the ultimate consternations of every parent is trying to improve family diets just to see the kids hone in on the one container of Pringles in the house and pop away. However, the truth is, cutting down on junk is easier than you may think.

Start with where you can do least: you probably can’t keep your kids from snacking on junk food at school. If they get money for lunch, they’ll have a certain amount of control over what they eat. Some schools limit those options, others don’t, but you’re a little at the mercy of that school’s decision. (Unless you want to lobby the school to change their policies, but that’s a major resolution buster right there.)

It’s best to just accept this limitation in your powers. Pushing kids too hard on their food and behavior can have more negative effects than positive.

Instead, make the most obvious choice and just stop buying junk for the house. Simply making junk food less easy to get to often reduces the problem significantly. If there are no Pringles in the house, the kids won’t find them and eat them. This, of course, requires some sacrifice on your part but it’s undeniably effective.

What about all the fast food and pizzas? Well, a little of that is probably okay too, but trimming the frequency of such events is probably for the best. You can curtail the family fast food binges by spending some of that new family time meal planning. Find healthy recipes that sound good to the kids and make them together as a family. Once again, incorporating their thoughts and their tastes will make them more enthusiastic about the choice.

If you’re too busy to cook regularly, you can research some healthier fast food options and try to commit to at least one home-cooked meal a week.

Resolution #4: Finding Time for Fun with the Little Ones

One of the best ways to improve overall family health: get outside. One of the best ways to spend more time having fun (and less time fighting, lecturing, punishing, sighing, groaning, and slamming doors): get outside.

Whether you’re just going for a walk around the neighborhood or training the family up for a mini-marathon in the summer, getting outside as often as possible brings families together, improves health, and increases family time.

If you are searching for a way to accomplish this, we’ve got a suggestion: go to the park. Plenty of parks now incorporate equipment for visitors of all ages. There’s toddler playground equipment, preschool-aged playground equipment, school-aged playground equipment, and there’s even fitness equipment for teens and adults.

Playgrounds and parks make it fun being outside with the family. They encourage imaginative, creative, and physical play. The also get everyone breathing fresh air and enjoying a bit of nature (even if it’s just a few trees and a lot of grass). You may also find that a little exercise and nature help get truculent kids to open up a little more and reopen some dialogue with the parents.

The beauty of these resolutions isn’t just that they’re important for your family or that they’re eminently achievable with a little work, it’s that they work together so you can achieve all of them within the same calendar year.

If you can find a way to settle on a better work/school/play schedule, cut back on screen time, cut out the junk food in the house, and get outside more with the kids, the changes will reinforce each other.

We don’t want to overemphasize how easy this will be. Parenting, as we all know, is hard, and we’re going to fall short and make compromises no matter how hard we try. But if by next December 31st you’ve got the kids spending one hour less on a screen, one more hour outside, eating one more healthy meal a week, and spending even a little more much begrudged time with their dear old parents, you can pat yourself on the back for a great job very well done.

Even if the effort is doomed to failure, though, just trying to make these changes at the dawn of 2019 will yield a little more quality time spent being healthy with family. And isn’t that worth giving a try?

With that thought in mind, Happy Resolution Making and Happy New Year. We’ll see you in 2019.

Written by: Ben Thompson

Friday, December 21, 2018

How to Turn Christmas Into an Active Holiday

There’s plenty to love about Christmas. It’s full of magic for all ages, it can bring families together, and who doesn’t love giving and getting presents? If there’s one thing Christmas lacks, though, it’s an active component.

Everything we do at Christmas involves sitting. We’re sitting for the big family meals. We’re sitting around the fireplace drinking hot cocoa. We’re sitting watching Christmas movies. We’re sitting opening presents. Add to that, many of us sit in the car or on the plane for hours in order to visit family and friends.

All of the above sitting and relaxing can be fun, joyful, and extremely necessary after the long year, but there’s the problem: sitting can be very bad for you.

Add to that, most of us are eating a lot of cookies, pies, and heavy meals. There’s a reason people associate the Christmas season with weight gain.

To protect your children from the unhealthy side of Christmas and New Year’s, you need to keep your kids active. They may tell you they want to watch A Christmas Story again, for the third time, but their bodies are screaming to run and play. If you were wondering why your kids can never sit through a full Christmas dinner, think about how much sitting they’ve already been doing all Christmas break.

Finding a safe and effective way to play, then, is one of the big secrets to a successful Christmas for everyone. With that in mind, we’ve put together some helpful tips to get your kids playing this holiday season, whether the weather outside is frightful or not.

Just Get Outside (Weather Permitting)

With the winter being unseasonably warm in many parts of the country this year, Christmas may be a great day to hit your local park. Many parks leave their playground equipment open for play the whole year. So, if it isn’t snowy, icy, or wet, head over and let the kids run wild on Fargo or another of our play structures.

Like Fargo, all of our equipment is all built with weather-resistant materials that can withstand standard temperature variation, so generally speaking, if it’s warm enough for the kids to be playing outside, it’s warm enough for them to be playing on our equipment.

Once they’ve had a go-round on the slides and swings, consider doing a tour of your local area on foot instead of in the car. Lots of families like to take in the local light displays in town or in different neighborhoods. Either way, find a place to park the car and get out to put foot to pavement. Bring some warm tea instead of hot cocoa to keep everyone warm without the extra calories.

Find an Active Volunteering Experience

Christmas is the season of giving. It’s wonderful to give money to charities or help out someone you know who is struggling. By all means, keep up those traditions in your family! This year, though, why not add an active component to your giving by incorporating some volunteering activities that get the kids moving while they’re doing good for the world?

Many communities have local charity run and walk events throughout the festive season. Joining up and jogging a few miles with the kids can raise money for an important cause while also keeping them on their feet. You could also contact your local animal shelter to find out if they need volunteer dog walkers. Kids can get a little extra time with friendly animals that need a little extra love, and everyone gets a good workout. Older kids will also enjoy volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. They’ll learn important building skills, spend time with dedicated volunteers, and help make sure more people stay warm and safe next Christmas. If the weather is particularly nasty, consider some indoor activities that still keep kids moving. Many homeless shelters will also have opportunities to volunteer making food, serving food, or cleaning up. No matter the weather or your community, there are sure to be opportunities aplenty to share your Christmas cheer with those who need it most in a fun and physically engaged way.

Give the Kids Active-Focused Toys

Your kids have probably made it very clear just what gifts they hope to see under the tree this year. While you want to make them happy this Christmas, you don’t have to limit your giving to what appears on their lists. Wherever possible, you can add active-focused toys that help keep your kid healthy at Christmas and throughout the year.

If you live in a snowy and hilly part of the country, consider getting your kids their first set of skis. You’ll have plenty of opportunity this season to get out on the bunny slopes and teach them (or learn together) how to ski safely. You could also consider snow boots or hiking boots so you can take in the parks while keeping feet warm and firmly placed on the ground. Long underwear and other warm clothes might get a laugh come Christmas morning, but that’s a great way to lengthen how long the little ones can play outside this winter.

You can also get your kids some very cool gifts that get them active indoors. Martial arts or dance lessons can really make your child’s Christmas, all while you ensure they get that extra energy out constructively all winter.

If you live in a place with an earlier thaw (or you don’t mind waiting to use the gifts), a set of bicycles for the family or a basketball hoop can also be big hits at Christmas that will encourage family play for years to come. You might also consider finally giving in and getting the kids scooters or skateboards this year.

The good news is: no matter where you live or what your Christmas budget looks like, there are toy options out there that get kids up and moving instead of sitting in front of one screen or another.

Use Indoor Spaces

Christmas is the shopping season, and while that can feel like a pain sometimes, it’s also an opportunity for your kids. Bring them to the mall during your shopping trips, and you’ll likely find some activities. Many malls set up winter activity areas, giving the kids the chance to play and engage productively in the holiday spirit. There may be playscapes in the mall, giving kids that playground experience they can’t get in the snow. Even if these things are lacking, the kids will get a good walk in even if the snow is piled high outdoors. Also, consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator if that’s an option for your family.

If you’ve moved on to getting all your shopping done online, check out your local community center to see if they have indoor playscapes and other indoor activities to match the malls. There may also be movement-focused activities hosted regularly through the festive season and throughout winter at libraries, schools, and other places in your area.

Finally, if you have to stop and eat fast food during this hectic season, make sure to use those inside playscapes and help your kids burn off the extra calories of energy they’ve amassed.

Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be a stressful and unhealthy one. While we can’t do much about the stress, there’s plenty that can be done to make Christmas a healthy as well as joyful time. And hey, getting some fresh air and activity may help relieve that stress as well.

In other words, just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you have to reconcile yourself to a long winter full of cabin fever and unhealthy habits.

Written by: Ben Thompson

Friday, December 14, 2018

From Our Family to Yours: Cookies from Around the World

With the quickly approaching holidays, it seemed an appropriate time to bring in a guest poster to share some of their family traditions on the blog. Family is at the center of the holiday season and all families have their unique ways of celebrating. That's part of the beauty of being a parent. It's an opportunity to form your own traditions that could be based on your culture, other cultures, or even incorporating elements from regions all around the world. This post will guide you in discovering what family traditions create your holiday memories.

In our house, like many midwestern homes, the month of December is all about cookies. One of our biggest holiday traditions, Cookie Sunday, revolves around baking and family, in that order, and we’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. Every year, on one Sunday in December, we all gather at Grandma’s house to bake through the morning and late into the evening. Everyone comes together to make more than a thousand treats and when we’re done we assemble our cookie boxes to take or send to family, friends, and neighbors. Year after year the staples remain the same: peanut butter balls (the favorite, last year we rolled over 1000), chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal raisin, Christmas crack, puppy chow, no-bakes, and snickerdoodles, but every year we each bring a new recipe to the table to try our hand.

This year we each chose a holiday cookie recipe from around the world. We thought it would be fun to look up the history behind the recipes, as well as each country’s holiday traditions.

The history of cookies is well documented and originated out of the discovery and trade of sugar. According to historians, the first record of cookies was their use as test cakes, a small amount of batter was baked to test the temperature of the oven. The earliest cookies date back to 7th century Persia A.D. With sugar originating somewhere in Southeast Asia, it then spread along the developing spice trade to Persia. From Persia, cookies and other portable sweet treats spread to Europe with the Muslim conquest of Spain, and along all the major spice trade routes. Sugar is one of the best documented products of the Middle Ages, which means cookies are, too! By the end of the 14th century one could buy cookies and pastries on the streets of Paris and Renaissance cookbooks were filled with countless cookie recipes.

In the present day, there are now hundreds if not thousands of cookie recipes in the United States alone. With the US being a veritable melting pot of cultures, it has been fun and interesting to look through popular cookie recipes and find their origins. This led to my family’s choice this year to choose holiday cookie recipes from other cultures. Many countries have traditions around cookies made during the holidays, just like us. We thought it would be fun to explore the food and culture of other countries and regions by learning about their holiday traditions and the cookies tied to them.

Our list includes recipes from:
Finland, Germany, China, South America, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Scotland.

Finnish Pinwheel Cookies (Joulutorttu)

*Makes about 24 cookies and 1 cup of preserves

There are lots of different versions of recipes available for this particular treat, but they all incorporate the iconic star shape of the season with a bright fruit-filled center. The recipe posted here is by Elizabeth Stringer-Bake from Scratch Holiday Cookies 2018. The traditional recipe calls for a prune preserve filling, but our recipe has a bright cranberry and ruby port preserves reduction. If you would like to know more about the history of the cookie and its origin, the Curious Cuisiniere has a wonderful article about it.

Cookie Recipe

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • ¼ cup whole milk

  1. In the work bowl of a food processor, place flour, cold butter, and salt; pulse until mixture is crumble. Add ricotta cheese and whole milk and pulse until the dough comes together. Divide dough into 3 equal portions. Shape each portion into a disk, and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line 3 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Working with one dough disk at a time, roll dough to ⅛ inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Using a 3-inch square cutter, cut dough, and place on prepared baking sheets. On each square make 4 (1-inch) cuts at the corners diagonally toward the center. Place 1 teaspoon of the fruit filling in the center of each dough square. Fold every other tip over toward the center, forming a pinwheel. Dab the ends of the tips with water to help adhere and prevent separation in the oven.
  4. Bake until the edges are barely golden brown, 11-12 minutes. Let cool on pans. Dust with confectioner’s sugar if desired.

Cranberry Port Preserves

  • 2 cups frozen cranberries, thawed
  • ¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup ruby port wine

In a medium saucepan, bring all ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat. Mash cranberries, and reduce heat to low; simmer for 10 minutes. Pour mixture into a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and let cool completely. Refrigerate any leftover cranberry preserves for up to 2 weeks. (Leftover hot preserves can be transferred to sterilized jars, water bath processed for 10 minutes, and stored for up to 6 months.

German Almond Crescent Cookies

*makes about 24

This crumbly, almond-scented cookie is not just a Christmas classic, but a staple in the Austrian and Germanic areas. The simple shape and size of the cookie makes it the perfect compliment for tea, coffee, or even a glass of milk. A slight variation of these is the vanillakipferl, which is the Austrian vanilla crescent cookie. For a this Austrian version of the recipe, check out The Daring Gourmet which also has wonderful pictures of Austria as well.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • ¾ cup confectioners sugar
  • ¾ cup almond flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat all-purpose flour, cold butter, confectioner’s sugar, almond flour, and salt at medium-low speed until a crumbly dough forms, 3-4 minutes. (Mixture will start out dry, but will come together.)
  2. Preheat oven to 350° F Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Divide dough into 24 balls. Roll dough balls into 4 ½ inch logs with tapered ends, and bend each one into a crescent shape. Place about 1 inch apart on prepared pans.
  4. Bake, one batch at a time, until the edges are just beginning to turn golden, not brown. 12-15 minutes. Sift confectioners sugar over hot cookies. Let cool completely and dust with confectioners sugar again. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Traditional Chinese Almond Cookies

*makes about 5 dozen

The Chinese, Korean, and Japanese areas are not often recognized for their cookies and other sweet desserts. Typically, that part of the world, is noted for the delicate balance of sweetness which allows them to explore textures that are rarely seen in Western cuisine. This recipe shines line on a cookie that could pass as a Western style cookie. China Sichuan Food has created a wonderful recipe that showcases the individual steps needed to create these simply delightful treats!

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ cup sliced raw almonds
  • 1 egg white
  • ½ teaspoon water

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg and almond extract.
  2. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl and mix well.
  3. Preheat oven to 325° F.
  4. Add the dry ingredient mixtures to the cream mixture gradually until the dough forms.
  5. Roll into 1-inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten with a fork, sprinkle with almonds.
  6. In a small bowl, beat egg white with water. Brush over cookies.
  7. Bake cookies for 14-16 minutes or until edges and bottoms are lightly golden brown. Cool for 2 minutes on pan, before removing to wire racks.

Latin American Alfajores or Dulce de Leche Cookies

*makes about 3 dozen 2 inch cookie sandwiches

The Latin American Alfajores aren't contained to a specific country in South America, because historically they were brought overseas when the Spaniards first came. However, time has changed them to become their current form.

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 ⅛ cups cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 ¾ sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar*
  • 1-2 teaspoons grated lemon zest, optional
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 350g (12oz) dulche de leche, for filling
  • ½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut, for rolling

  1. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter, sugar, and lemon zest on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla extract and egg yolks just until combined. Do not overmix or the cookies will be tough.
  3. Form the dough into a ball, then flatten slightly to form a disc. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours, until firm enough to roll.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
  5. Take the dough out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter for five minutes. On a lightly floured surface roll the dough to a ⅛ or ¼ inch thickness. Cut out into rounds using a 2-inch fluted or round cookie cutter.
  6. Place the cookies on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Place baking sheets with cookies in the freezer or fridge for at least 15 minutes, or until firm, so that they will be less prone to spread.
  7. Bake cookies for 7-10 minutes, until the cookies appear golden around the edges. Allow them to cool on the pan for 10 minutes, then gently transfer to wire rack for cooling.
  8. Spread the bottom half of the cookies with dulce de leche, about one teaspoon each. Sandwich together with remaining cookies pressing lightly so that the caramel oozes out the sized. Roll the sides in coconut.
  9. Store the cookies at room temperature in an airtight container for up to one week, or freeze for up to 2 months. To thaw, leave on the counter overnight.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

*makes 2 dozen

Featured in a New York Times article about traditional Christmas cookies in 1990, it has become one of the most popular versions of this recipe and we make it every Christmas at our house. Sometimes called Mexican wedding cakes, polvorones or Russian tea cakes, these are dead-simple to make and addictive to eat. This recipe is done entirely in a food processor so you can clean-up in minutes and get on to the most important task..devouring these cookies.

  • ½ cup pecan halves
  • 2 ½ cups confectioners sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • A pinch of salt

  1. Put pecans, 1 cup of the sugar and the pinch of salt in the food processor and blend until nuts are ground finely. Cut the butter into tablespoon-size pieces and add it to nut mixture with processor running.
  2. Scrape dough into a bowl. Cover tightly and refrigerate one hour.
  3. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  4. Scoop dough balls with tablespoon and form 1-inch balls by rolling dough between palms (lightly flour hands, if necessary). Place balls 1 ½ inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
  5. Bake 15 minutes or until cookies barely begin to brown. Cool for 2 minutes. Use small spatula to lift cookies from sheets. Roll the cookies in remaining sugar.

Czech Gingerbread Cookies, Pernik Na Figurky

This recipe for Czech gingerbread cookies or Pernik Na Figurky, is popular at Christmas time when they become a part of Vanonci Cukrovi or Christmas treats. There are quite a few ginger flavored Christmas treats out there. Ginger snaps is another one of them. MyRecipes does a great job explaining the differences between these two Christmas favorites.

  • 2 ⅓ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 ¼ cups refined sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ginger
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons honey (warm)
  • 2 large eggs (lightly beaten)
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, spices and baking soda until thoroughly mixed. Add honey, eggs, rum and zest and form a smooth dough. Wrap in plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 325° F. Between two pieces of parchment paper, roll dough to ⅛ inch-¼ inch thickness. Remove top parchment paper and cut out various shapes of your choice, leaving 2 inches between cookies. Remove scraps.
  3. Lift parchment paper by opposite corners and place on a sheet pan. Bake 15-20 minutes or until light golden at the edges. Cool completely on the pan before removing to a wire rack. Repeat with remaining dough and scraps.
  4. When the cookies are completely cool, decorate with icing if desired. Let icing harden before storing in an airtight container with parchment paper between the layers.

Traditional Scottish Shortbread

*makes 12 servings

Enjoy this delicious Scottish Shortbread recipe. Shortbread is the most popular cookie eaten traditionally around the Holidays as an essential part of the the traditional Scottish New Year. The success of shortbread is to handle the dough with care and as little as possible. Do not pound or knead heavily and make sure the dishes you use and your hands are cold. The resulting treat will be light and crumbly with a buttery taste.

  • 8 oz butter
  • ½ cup superfine sugar, and a little extra for dusting
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 ½ oz cornstarch
  • 1 tiny pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 325° F.
  2. In a large bowl cream together butter, salt and sugar until light and fluffy and pale in color. This can take up to 10 minutes. Use an electric or stand mixer.
  3. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together flour and cornstarch. Do not overmix as you will risk the danger of making the shortbread too warm.
  4. Tip the mixture onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead lightly and quickly to form a loose dough.
  5. Roll out the dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper to ¼ inch thickness. Prick the surface all over with a fork. Cut into desired shape or rounds.
  6. Place the Scottish shortbreads on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes or until pale golden brown and crisp. Sprinkle the warm shortbreads with superfine sugar and let cool completely on a wire rack.
  7. Store in an airtight container.

What are some of your family's favorite cookies? Please tell us in the comments below.

Written by: Erin Brown