Monday, March 30, 2020

A Hopefully Useful List of Things To Do

The kids started e-school this week. How strange to be at school and yet not at school. To be listening to lectures and taking notes in their own rooms and then emerging to meet each other at Arbitrary Lunchtime. To feel like the only student in their virtual classroom because so much of the teacher- interaction is one-on-one now. To miss the commute which, inconvenience aside, psychologically demarcated where and when school began and ended. Everyone is saying that this is the new normal now; we will surely adjust. Still, I miss Old Normal, don't you?

These are hard times, friends. No one will dispute that. It's a mad, mad world out there, and some parts of it are scary. But for some people, it's also a mad, mad world inside, particularly if you're not accustomed to working from home (or being at home full-time with the kids). I took stock today and realized I've actually been a stay-home Mom for 15 years. For 11 of those years, I have also worked at home, albeit by choice, not necessity, and in a self-employed freelance capacity. Now it was true that some seasons of those 11 years were more professionally stressful than others, such as when I was collaborating with publishers and clients of other organizations - I remember weeks of working through illness and fatigue to meet deadlines. But there was always the option to step away from commitments without any adverse consequences. It was a sweet deal - and a privilege I didn't take lightly - to watch my kids grow up while I dabbled in something I loved doing and sometimes got paid for.

However, I also remember that all that work - whether hobby or paid gig - happened on top of being a mom and wife, plus cooking, supermarketing and keeping house. And until the kids were intellectually engaged in their respective schools, they were home with me, underfoot and eager to learn, to see, to ask, to do. Those were wonderful days, but they were busy days.

This blog is a record of some of those days and the adventures therein. Many of the other blogs I followed at the time were of families with kids of similar ages, and it felt like we were a sisterhood of moms jumping off each other's creative springboards. Then, there wasn't Pinterest or Instagram, or even cameraphones, and all our activities were documented long form, with time-consuming DSLR photoediting. Completely inefficient, but hey, that was a time when the crafting blogosphere felt far more intimate - and leisurely - than it does now.

I've occasionally been asked how I juggled a household of toddlers and preschoolers while running a creative enterprise and I've typically replied with practical ideas, because those were what I imagined the askers wanted. Recently, though, my replies have been a little more existential. Perhaps it's from losing Dad and recognizing that since becoming a mom and an immigrant, I've moved through the last decade feeling not quite intact, in spite of all the other ways in which life is still full. When I look back at that transition from Singapore to Minnesota, I often think of the word derailed. That it coincided with leaving the workforce and having babies added to the madness, surely. At the time, I didn't recognize the inherent loss in that madness, so I lifted my chin and threw myself into acclimatizing and embracing my new and - rather exciting, if I am honest - normal. Three years into that new normal, however, I imploded. Several sessions of therapy later, I understood that grief was not limited to bereavement; it had many other names and swelled out of many other kinds of emptiness.

And here's what I've been suspecting for some time: normal life is a series of losses. Growing into adulthood, graduating, leaving home, marrying, finding a job, having kids, launching those kids, retiring and finally, saying goodbye to parents and partners: these are anticipated milestones but even the positive ones are inexplicably bittersweet because they are reached at the expense of leaving other things behind. I don't say that to be a downer; I offer the idea instead as a prelude to hope: if losses can be recognized, they can be grieved, and we can then move forward.

This week, as I scrolled Armaggeddon-esque headlines in my newsfeed and sarcastic social media captions of parents losing homeschooling battles, I recognized it: folks all over the world were reckoning with grief. The obvious ones - the literal deaths and fears of deaths - as well as the more subtle: non-routines and non-restaurants and non-freedoms and non-compartmentalized identities. Suddenly - and not necessarily by choice - we were all stay-home parents, separated from kith and kin, having to be all things to all the people in our single living/working space. Suddenly, travel to care for an elderly relative at a moment's noice was no longer a given - a half hour drive could just as well be a 29 hour flight across the Atlantic ocean, or until further notice. Suddenly, we could no longer rely on teachers, neighbors, daycare providers, the library. Suddenly, we could no longer step out of our homes and find ourselves in familiar places in which we knew what to do, where to go, how to buy. Suddenly, strangers on the street felt foreign, were no longer readable. Suddenly, we were bereft.

And if that is not the definition of loss, I don't know what is.

There was a NYT article about this last week. And here's another one on NPR and this longer one with practical advice here. I am so glad the media is giving words to this strange, ambiguous loss of what-was and the dread anticipation of what-could-be. There is an odd relief in being in this together, in hearing the vocabulary of grief on other people's lips, I think. We have lost much, friends, and no, you are not going crazy. 

As I was thinking of all the children suddenly being home with their parents 24/7, I reminisced about  when my girls were little and we would burn entire days playing and crafting. As so many of you had reminded me then, those years went by unfairly quickly and I am so, so glad we stayed in the moment and relished them. In the spirit of paying it forward, I thought I'd unearth some of those activities to share again here. Perhaps some of you are new visitors who have never beheld the mania that was ikatbag circa early 2000s. Or perhaps, suddenly faced with hours on your hands and small children climbing the walls, you're googling stuff to keep them busy. Here follow lists of things that my kids and I did back in the day, beginning with the simplest and moving toward the utterly insane. Some of you may be thinking, "These ideas sound like a huge time commitment," and you'd be right. I was always partial to activities that would independently engage the kids for days and days after the initial prep so I could do meals and other chores while they entertained themselves. Our pretend-play setups were often born of this strategy. This kind of time may not be realistic for many of you who are working from home, so use these ideas as you are able or so inspired. I hope some of it helps.

Intentional Learning

First up is a list of sneaky-learning things disguised as games and cardboard crafts. Quite a few of these we enjoyed particularly when the kids were preschool- and pre-preschool-little. Now, I am aware that cardboard packaging is currently not highly esteemed because of its non-immunity to the coronavirus. If you can sift through the confusing advice online about how long to let Amazon boxes and takeout cartons sit out in the garage before unpacking them so they're non-infective, more power to you. The hoarders farsighted among us might even possess a cardboard stash predating the outbreak, which is even better. One should always use cardboard with respect but especially now, is what I'm trying to say.

1   Cardboard shoes

2   Felt boards

3   Cardboard fractions

4   Marbling paper

5   Cardboard catapult (and projectiles!)

6   Bookmarks for coloring

7 Princesses for coloring

8   Alphabet copy books

9   Popsicle stick baskets

11   Activities with simple electrical circuits (batteries and bulbs)

12   Making a board game

13 Card Game

14   Cardboard Houses

15   Flextangles

16   Mystery Solving

17   Cardboard Spyware

18   Stand-up mannequins

Pretend Play Scenarios

I'll be frank: these require pre-planning and some serious prep work. That said, they are some of my kids' most-loved activities. Not only were they engaged for days and weeks after we first created them, the kids returned to them again and again and diversified them in other settings. Totally worth the time and effort.

1   Garden/Dirt

This is the first iteration, a stand-alone dirt bed made with foam.

A later iteration, using pool noodles in a cardboard box, was a faster build, and just as versatile.

2   Lemonade Stand (simple vendor stand)

3   Greengrocer Stand (more elaborate vendor stand)

4   Cardboard Box Aquarium

5   Carville

6   Cardboard Ships

7    Travel

8   Cardboard dollhouse

9   Germ Warfare

10   Swords

11   Transportation - Busytown

13   Art Museum

14   Vet Clinic

15   Portable Magnetic Bakery

16   Garden Center

17   Mini Mail Center

18   Maildrop & Postal Service

19   Pirate Ship

20   and add-on Treasure Chest

21   Pizzeria

22   Hot Dog Restaurant

23   Finger Puppets

Toys to Make

Unlike those in the first two categories, which the girls and I made together, and the process of which was as engaging for them as the ensuing play, the toys in this third list were made by me. They were deeply satisfying to design and render in their respective media, but they were not speedy projects. I included them here for those of you with little ones to whom to gift these and who have time - but perhaps not also those same little ones - on your hands.

1   Stick horses

The first iterations here, along with horse food,

the second iteration of the unicorn here,

and the detailed instructions here.

2   Felt confections -

Roll-and-cut-out cookies here

felt donuts and cookies with removable frosting here

and an idea for collapsible and portable baking trays here.

3   A tiered cake to stack and decorate here

4   Two projects to make with the small felt circles from the centers of the felt donuts:

wiggly caterpillars

and clowns.

5   A method for turning characters into softies

6   A rag doll with a removable dress

7   Tutorials on how to make bags without a pattern

8   Wooden confections -


an ice cream parlor

and a wooden bake shop

9   A doorway puppet theater


When the girls were little, tents and forts would keep them occupied indefinitely. Then, table tents were all the rage, so I made one. When I realized later that the ceiling of the table top was a limitation, I used a collapsible tube frame for our second tent. Finally, as our home grew more crowded with accumulated playthings, I made a space-saving hallway version with tension rods. The very last tent - a playhome for Jenna's bear draped over a kid's table - brought us full circle.

Table Tent

  Collapsible frame tent

Adjustable tension rod tent

Mini table tent

There are clothes tutorials all over ikatbag (choose the "clothes" label in the sidebar) but because I custom draft to fit my kids, many templates in those tutorials are size-specific. This is a series of simple skirts to make as we look toward the warmer months, and which are multi-fit.

(for want of a better label). These posts are about teaching kids to do stuff in general. A lot of it is philosophy but there are some actual how-tos. Most of this is what I learned from simply being with my kids and trying to help them achieve in their areas of interest. They ended up learning quite a bit, but not always the direct result of my instructing.

1   Teaching kids to sew

2   Teaching kids to run a business

5   Starting to sew in general

Self-portrait, 2009

6   How to mass-produce

Cardboard Ideas
This post has instructions on working with cardboard in general, as well as this inspiration panel, with links to some of my earlier projects.

For even more ideas, check out the Parties link (it's also under my blog banner). Not that I'm encouraging you to break rules by hosting large gatherings at a time like this (please don't), but each party is themed, and has links to games and activities, most of which are insane, naturally, (like this one), but some are also mildly educational (like this one) and even fun (like this one).

Stay well!