Green Living & Sustainability

Lego Play

It’s that time of year when people everywhere are mulling over gifts for children. I’ve been thinking a lot about it myself — especially the whole toys thing. Even with all of my efforts to keep them to a minimum and not buy into the commercial culture, it still seems like my girls have too many toys. But I know it’s not simply about volume, it’s the kind of toys they have as well.

One of the things relatives and friends have noticed about S and H is how imaginative they are in their play. This is likely due to the fact that, for the first four and a half years of their lives, they probably had no toys; instead, they would have played with whatever they found in their natural environment — sticks, stones, who knows what else. They now seem to be able to envision endless possibilities and create amazing scenarios with basic objects.

In this BBC News article, psychologist Oliver James says young children are better off “colonizing objects” in their environment because they discover their identity through fantasy play. “If their toys offer a limited repertoire, this process is eroded,” he says.

This is why I’m reluctant to buy a house or camper for my daughters’ little toy critters: Wouldn’t they be better off continuing to build such things with their legos and blocks? And while I’m not particularly thrilled that underwear and socks get used as baby doll head gear, I do like that froggy’s long spindly legs and arms get tied up so he can be used as a turkey for pretend Thanksgiving dinners.

Some toys seem like no-brainers — like wooden blocks and dolls, for example. In the article I mentioned above, author Liat Hughes Joshi says there are three factors that make a brilliant toy: “Social value — a dolls’ house allows children to play together, versatility — Lego bricks can be made into anything, and durability — such as a wooden train track that the child will use for years.”

Those seem like good guidelines for toys to me.

What are your guidelines for buying toys? Are there things you steer away from or particularly like?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Linocut Rejoice Card on Etsy

I love beautiful cards, and I think they’re particularly special in an age when so much of our communication is digital. There’s something about holding an artfully designed card in your hands, especially when it’s been handmade or selected just for you — or by you, for someone you care about.

As I mentioned recently, this year we’re planning to send photo cards for Christmas. We’ve never done it before, but so many people want to lay eyes on our little girls (and I don’t blame them one bit). Although I also love to receive photo cards during the holidays, there’s always a little thrill when a loved one sends a card that’s handmade or artfully created. The thought made me curious about what different Etsy shops might be offering this year… Here’s a small sampling of what caught my eye:

Owl in the Snow Card from Etsy

Owl in the Snow (watercolor and ink). This card makes me feel the peace and loveliness of a soft snow on a wintry evening. I love it.

Recycled Paper Card from Etsy

Recycled Card (black ink). This one comes in a set of 20, and I like how simple it is. (Gives me ideas for homemade cards of my own sometime, too.)

Brownstone Christmas Card on Etsy

A Brownstone Christmas (recycled paper and black pen). I love pen and ink renderings, and there’s something cool about sending a card with your house or another memorable building on it. If you live in a city with lots of brownstones, this might be right up your alley.

Yeti Card on Etsy

Yeti. This illustrated card makes me smile; it’s so darn cute!

Letterpress Cards from Etsy

Letterpress Cards: Holy Family Ornament and Let It Snow. I am a fan of letterpress anything, and Etsy carries so many lovely holiday letterpress cards.

Pudding Card from Etsy

Pudding card. There’s something I love about this one… It’s also letterpress, which might be it — or maybe I just love anything that makes me think of a delectable Christmas pudding. And then there’s that adorable little sprig of holly on top… I don’t know, but I dig it!

Linocut Sheep Card on Etsy

Linocut Sheep (oil based ink). This card is one in a set of four (another of which is the Rejoice card at the top of this post). The whole “deck of cards” style is great — different and fun.

Jodi Queenan Holy Family Card

Jodi Queenan Cards: Holy Family and To the World. I have one of Queenan’s limited prints of a mother and her twin daughters in my girls’ bedroom. I just love her work.

Jodi Queenan World Peace Card

And last but not least:


Peace to the World. This a 5×7 card, so it would be a lovely one to frame and use in a child’s room. I love its whimsical style; the entire illustration is just precious.

There are so many beautiful cards out there! Hope you get at least one in your mailbox this year. I’d love to know if any of the ones I selected above stand out to you, or if you’ve got any favorites you’ve seen online.

All images via from their respective Etsy shops


What Big Girls Do: Veritey

October 16, 2013

Amy and Adrienne

Say hello to Adrienne Peres (right) and Amy Ziff (left), two women who saw a need and did something about it. In January, they launched Veritey, an online resource for people looking for the best “clean” products for themselves and their families. The site caught my attention because I’m always looking for the healthiest stuff I can find, which is much easier said than done. Whether it’s researching natural makeup, non-toxic cleaning products, gifts for my kids, or water filters, I want resources I can trust that will point me in the right direction — and Veritey looks to be one of those places. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Adrienne about her mission to help people like you and me find the best products out there!


Zoe Saint-Paul: Adrienne, have you always been interested in health and wellness? Were you always diligent about the products you purchased?

Adrienne Peres: Yes, I have, although my interest has evolved over the years. Like many people, I spent a considerable amount of time incorporating a healthy diet and exercise routine into my life, as well as regular visits to the doctor. However, over the past few years, I’ve thought much more deeply about “product health” — what I use for me, my family, my home — and how it impacts our health and our environment. I try hard to be a conscientious consumer, but it’s so hard to understand what products are truly “good” versus just marketing hype (a.k.a. “greenwashing”).

Veritey’s mission is ambitious: You run a wide range of product reviews and are building a community on the site. What inspired you to launch Veritey, and what are your hopes for it?

Veritey was created because two moms couldn’t find easy, concise information about what products are good and effective. Amy and I worked together for 10 years, first at an e-commerce startup in New York and then at Travelocity. We would often talk about the issues we faced in researching products and how much time it took. In addition, my family has a long history of breast cancer, and I’m very interested in finding ways to reduce the likelihood of developing the disease. A healthy lifestyle — food, exercise, and smart product choices — all contribute to reducing risk. Our hope for Veritey is to build awareness that we are all responsible for being smart consumers and for what we allow into our homes and lives.

Veritey Founders

How does Veritey differ from other product review sites out there — such as Environmental Working Group (EWG), GoodGuide, Mighty Nest, etc.?

Great question! We look at ourselves as curators. Many of the sites out there are quite massive, and it’s difficult to find an answer to the question, “What should I buy?” Veritey does just that. We have a rigorous vetting process that involves researching, analyzing, and testing every product (we have 50 separate criteria, plus a Science and Expert Panel to inform our research), so that we can say with certainty that a product is not only good but effective.

What should I be most concerned about when I’m deciding on a product?

Be concerned about what’s not on the label! For example, cosmetics companies don’t have to tell us what all the ingredients are: flavor, fragrance, and “trade secret” ingredients are exempt. Even though the FDA does require certain facts and legal grounds for a company to have something considered a trade secret, the company can add “and other ingredients” at the end of the ingredient declaration. Ingredient disclosure laws don’t apply to products used at “professional establishments or samples distributed free of charge,” and companies don’t have to declare a “masking agent” (an ingredient used to cover up a nasty smell) if it is “in a product at an insignificant level” — although this level is not defined. (For additional clarification, see the FDA’s site.) We recommend looking for conscientious manufacturers that are very upfront about disclosing exactly what’s in a product, as well as their sourcing and production process.

Do you have a team of reviewers? How do you select the products you review?

Amy and I are the final reviewers and arbiters of what goes on the site. We do have a group of interns and volunteers who help us get through some of the vetting process, and we have a community of Veritey fans and followers who are always recommending new products that they love. We select products based on categories where we see a strong need. Veritey launched with product density in the categories of Baby & Kids, Bath & Body, Beauty, and Household Cleaners.

What goes into determining the rating a product receives?

We look at many different criteria, ranging from ingredients to sourcing to production process to labor practices to product efficacy. We’ve built a database of thousands of chemicals and ingredients, which helps us quickly verify whether an ingredient passes our screening. When we have questions about a particular factor, we contact the manufacturer. We also rely on our Science and Expert panel, which is composed of leading doctors, scientists, and researchers. This panel informs the way we think about some of the thornier questions that come up from our investigations.

Amy and Adrienne2

How long does it take between hearing about a product and getting a review up on the site?

It depends. Sometimes the process is very fast, such as when manufacturers are clear and upfront about their products and have been certified by upstanding entities (the Non-GMO Project is one example). Other times, it can take a while because we really dig in on ingredients and processes, and that research is time-consuming. It’s one of the reasons Veritey started in the first place: It’s challenging to do this research on your own.

Can you share some of your favorite products — the ones you think are the best of the best?

To be honest, we love all of the products on our site! We’ve tested and tried and used these products over time, so we’re fans of whatever we feature. And you can read about “Why We Love It” with every single product.

Where do you see Veritey in five years?

We’d love to spark a movement that shifts market share to companies who are pioneering a purer path. By voting with our dollars, we can make manufacturers accountable for their products. And that level of accountability needs to extend to our government as well: We want to see laws enacted that provide transparency and accountability for products — laws that are often found in Canada and Europe but not here in our own country. We’re entrepreneurs, so we see this combination of capitalism and idealism (what we’ve termed “Capidealism”TM) as the best way to move the needle.


Thank you, Adrienne, for not only telling us about Veritey, but for devoting your time and talents to helping us all find healthier products. Friends, I’ve signed up for Veritey’s newsletter and joined the site so I can ask questions and share information; check it out for yourself and keep Veritey in mind when you’re looking for the best stuff for you and your family!

By the way, this is the third installment of my “What Big Girls Do” series; you can read the other two here and here. The story behind this series is this: Whenever I’m about to do something that scares the pants off me, I whisper a prayer and say to myself, “Zoe, this is what big girls do.” And then I make the leap. It always helps! And that’s the spirit I hope to capture with this series. I interview women who are doing creative, courageous, inspiring things, and I hope their stories ignite your own dreams.

Images via Adrienne Peres


Real Food

It’s time to resurrect the Ask SlowMama series! This is where I get to don some of my favorite hats all at once: advice columnist, life coach, counselor, consultant, big sis, woman with an opinion. Ha! If you’ve got a burning question — whether it’s practical, personal, or even something about me or this site — please drop me a line. If I post your question on SlowMama, I’ll never use your full name — just initials, first name only, or a pseudonym (your choice) — so fear not.

Here’s a question I received recently on a subject near and dear to my heart:

Where you would tell someone to start who’s interested in eating healthier but isn’t sure where to begin? Should they go whole hog (er, so to speak)? Make small changes? Organic vs. local?  What is the single most important change you could make to your diet?

I wish more people asked this question! Changing your diet is one of the hardest things to do, because eating is emotional, cultural, habitual, and practical. It’s also one of the single best things you can do to improve your life.

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are dietary approaches, but if I were helping someone figure out where to start, I’d first ask a few more questions to better assess where the person is in terms of his or her diet. Some people are drinking three sodas a day and eating fast food; some rely on frozen entrees from the supermarket much of the week, or live with relatives who serve triple helpings of pasta every night; others may already be eating pretty well but want to take it to the next level.

If I had to give a single piece of advice that applies to everyone, no matter who they are, it would be the seven words that open Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That pretty much sums it up, and every reputable eating philosophy out there embraces it.

But so that I can keep blathering on about one of my favorite subjects, let’s go a bit further:

If you’re addicted to soda and eating fast food and junk food, my advice would be to start substituting your three worst habits with healthier options — so, instead of soda, choosing water, natural juice, or natural carbonated beverages; instead of late-night chip binges, choosing home-popped popcorn with a little sea salt; instead of the regular fast-food stops, brown-bagging it for lunch or finding new restaurants with healthier options.

If you’re already past that and are cooking at home and choosing restaurant meals wisely, I’d suggest you start significantly reducing your intake of refined sugars and flours. Elimination often doesn’t work without substitutions, though, so honey, maple syrup, stevia, and xylitol can be used in place of refined sugar, and whole grains can be used in place of white flours.

And if you’re already well on your way with all of these steps, the next thing you can start to think about is the kind of meat you’re consuming, the kinds of fats and oils you’re using, incorporating fermented foods into your diet, and paying more attention to super foods.

I don’t advise going whole hog when it comes to changing your diet. It almost never works; most of us need to make gradual changes so we can get used to eating differently, hang on to some of what’s familiar and comforting while we’re at it, and allow our taste buds to adjust.

I do think organic is better, generally. I wrote about the complexities of organic vs. local food a while back, and how I myself go about making these decisions.

While there are dietary principles that work across the board, I don’t believe there is one diet that works for everyone. For that reason, it’s important to pay attention to what makes you feel better as you make changes. Some people do okay with dairy; others do not. Same with meat, gluten, alcohol, etc. It’s also just as important to pay attention to the things that help you eat better, such as cooking at home, eating with others at the table, and dealing with emotional issues that cause cravings and binges.

One of the most helpful things you can do when trying to make dietary changes is to seek out blogs, websites, and cookbooks that can offer recipes and encouragement. One place you might start is Andrea Howe’s blog “For the Love Of…“: Andrea recently started a clean-eating lifestyle and is now writing a series, “31 Days of Clean Eating Made Approachable and Affordable,” on how she did it. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to her search for healthier eating habits and be inspired by her practical ideas.

Readers, I’d love to hear from you: What’s the single biggest change you’ve made to your diet, and how did it affect you? Where do you want to go next with improving how you eat?

And don’t forget to send along any questions you want me to address in an upcoming Ask SlowMama column!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


by Christine Nelson

Honey For Sale1

When I want a sweetener for myself or my family, honey is my first choice. It not only tastes great, it provides antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. I feel good serving such a wholesome product — and yet, once I became a beekeeper, I learned that the honey we often buy in stores isn’t always so wholesome.

First, the bad news…

Find any average beekeeper, and chances are good they use a range of chemicals on their hives. Pesticides are used to kill the varroa mites that can take over a hive and kill the honeybees; antibiotics are used to treat certain diseases. The type and amount of chemicals will differ from beekeeper to beekeeper: One Pennsylvania State University test on beehives in 2008 found 70 different pesticides existing in the hives they tested and unprecedented levels of fluvalinate and coumaphos — pesticides used to combat the mites. Not so wholesome. In addition, honey can be overly processed, destroying its health benefits (more on this later).

While there’s no scientific evidence linking these chemicals in honey to health problems in humans (which would be difficult to prove anyway), it makes sense to me to limit my family’s exposure to them. Just as I try to avoid unnecessary chemicals in foods like vegetables and meat, it makes sense not to have them in my honey as well.


What to Look For

The good news is, there are beekeepers that treat their honey well and use chemical-free methods to keep their bees and hives healthy. So how do you find their wholesome honey? It may require a little work up front, but once you find honey that is healthy and delicious, you can become a regular customer. You really want to look for two things in particular:

1) Honey should be raw, which means unheated and unfiltered. Did you know that honey is naturally antibacterial and doesn’t need to be heated to be a safe food product? Unfortunately, many beekeepers — especially those with lots of hives — will often heat their honey so it flows more quickly, which makes the processing faster, too. Heat can also make honey less cloudy and more clear — something consumers generally look for. But heat can destroy the beneficial antioxidants and enzymes in honey and change the flavor. Cloudy honey can be good honey!

2) Honey should be free of unnecessary chemicals, or as free as possible. You don’t want to choose honey where the beekeeper uses chemicals on the hives on a regular basis. The word “organic” is generally not used for honey like it is for other foods; instead, beekeepers who use no pesticides or antibiotics may call their honey “treatment-free.” The best way to find out is to ask the beekeeper if they use chemicals on their hives, and if so, how often. Depending on your area and its honey market, you may or may not have to pay more for “treatment-free” honey.

Raw Honey

Where to Find It

I first look to my local beekeepers (a farmers’ market is a great place to start). Many times, smaller beekeepers won’t use the terms “raw” or “treatment free” on their labels; you have to talk to them personally, just like you might talk to a farmer about his produce. Ask about what treatments, if any, they use for their honey, and whether their product is raw. Don’t be afraid to press if the answers are not forthcoming — in a friendly way, of course!

Local honey is a great choice, because you know more about the environment in which it was made: If a farm uses a heavy dose of chemicals on its produce, bees will likely pick these chemicals up as they collect nectar and pollen — and you might want to avoid the honey that results.

Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for foreign honey to have been tampered with: The FDA has found numerous cases where honey imported to the States from foreign countries included added sugar and other ingredients. (Manuka honey from New Zealand, famous for its health benefits, is often not the pure stuff being advertised.) And then there’s the report from a couple years ago showing that a great deal of honey in American grocery stores is not real honey at all.

Most mainstream supermarkets carry honey made by large commercial beekeepers and their bees. Even if it’s real honey, the larger beekeepers are more likely to use pesticides and antibiotics: With a large number of hives, they don’t have the time to inspect each one for disease or pests, so they simply treat them all. If you have a favorite store brand, call the company and ask how they take care of and process their honey.

It’s unrealistic to expect a 100% guarantee of pure unadulterated honey, because bees can fly far and pick up who knows what in the environment. But by being an educated and discerning consumer, you can find honey that’s much closer to the way Mother Nature intended.

Do you shop around for wholesome honey already? Where have you found it? Would you spend the extra time and money to find raw, untreated honey?

Images: Christine Nelson. Christine is a stay-at-home mom in central Massachusetts. She shares her home with one husband, two kids (ages 14 and 9), one dog, two cats, a rabbit, chickens — and honey bees.


When Stink Bugs Attack

August 22, 2013

by Margaret Cabaniss

When Stink Bugs Attack

This time last year, I was blogging about the hundred-plus pounds of tomatoes we harvested from my sister Amy’s garden and turned into tomato sauce. It was an epic haul, and we were expecting no less from this season’s crop.

Instead, we’ve been lucky to harvest maybe ten pounds of tomatoes this summer, and it’s all because of one little pest: the stink bug.

If you haven’t yet run into the brown marmorated stink bug in your backyard, consider yourself lucky — but don’t worry, they’re probably headed your way soon enough. They first hitched a ride from Asia to America sometime in the late ’90s, but in the last 15 years, they’ve spread to the point where they can now be found in 41 states.

And for those of us lucky enough to live in the mid-Atlantic, they’re particularly bad around here: They destroy crops, have no natural predators here in the States, multiply like gangbusters, and emit the foulest stench when you try to catch or kill them. (Seriously, it’s bad — sort of like a cross between cilantro and skunk.) The scale of some stink bug infestations can sound like something out of a bad horror flick — but it is really (really) real.

And, of course, they ruined all our lovely tomatoes — and the sweet corn, and the second crop of raspberries, and the peppers… So you can understand where I’m coming from when I say they need to die in a fire.

When Stink Bugs Attack

All of these pictures are from my sister’s garden right now — and they’re not even the worst of what we’ve seen out there. (If anyone was feeling any garden envy before, I bet you’re cured now!) Amy’s husband, Joe, has tried everything to keep them at bay, but it’s a constant uphill battle. Because the bugs are still relatively new in the U.S., scientists have yet to develop a really successful way to combat them: You can suffocate them with soapy water, but that requires drowning every bug one. by. one. — not the easiest thing, when thousands can live in a backyard garden — or you can use a heavy-duty, broad-spectrum insecticide that will simultaneously kill every good bug that might be living there, too. Not terrific options.

Meanwhile, the buggers continue to happily swarm over everything in the garden, most likely laughing at our pathetic attempts to defeat them while they lazily munch on the last good pepper in the whole garden. They are basically jerks.

When Stink Bugs Attack

I’ve tried to take the long view about all this — it’s a learning experience; there’s always next year; at least stink bugs don’t have stingers! — but it’s tough when all your hard work and lovely plans have been shot to pieces. I mean, we’re still eating the tomato sauce we canned last year; this year, we’ll can…nothing. (Well, no sauce, anyway; at least we got some pickles and jam put up before they really got out of hand.) I can’t image what we’d do if this were our livelihood at stake, as it is for so many farmers in the area — or if we didn’t have the option of simply buying the produce we need at the store. It definitely puts things in perspective.

Anyone else experienced any massive garden setbacks like this? Any stink-bug-killin’ tips to share? Leave them in the comments, and we can all cry into our (stink-bug-infested) beer together.

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


by Christine Nelson

Beekeeper at Work

Beekeeping first caught my attention about ten years ago. I was a mom living in the suburbs, and the thought of “free” honey sounded appealing. I was already raising chickens for eggs, so why not bees? I reminded myself I was a mom with young toddlers and put the idea on hold. Then, about three years ago, my normally productive vegetable garden was no longer productive. The plants were healthy, but there was little fruit to speak of—no cucumbers, few tomatoes, few squash. It occurred to me I hadn’t seen many honey bees or pollinators that year.

The drumbeat of media attention on the demise of the honey bee had already begun. Combined with my own experience, I realized that I needed to bring honey bees into my garden — and my sweet tooth loved the idea of a regular supply of honey. But I had to persuade my bee-phobic husband.

Equipment for Keeping Bees

With my husband’s eventual okay, last season was my first beekeeping season. Armed with an eight week beekeeping course and a smoker, I was excited to take on two hives. I loved watching my bees expand and grow throughout the season. Is there any creature on earth that works harder than a honey bee? I marveled how such a small insect could seem so intelligent. I fell in love with the honey bee. But my bees never survived the winter. I wasn’t alone; beekeepers across the nation were also experiencing huge losses. A local farmer who also keeps bees said to me this past spring, “Thirty years ago you couldn’t kill the honey bee; now it is a struggle to keep them alive.”

Honey Bee

I knew by January of this year that they were gone. And I had a moment when I thought this fun hobby was hard. It was time to dig deep. I spent the rest of the winter reading and then reading some more about what had gone wrong and how I could prevent it. I researched favorite nectar plants for honey bees and planned out which ones I could add to my yard.

To add to the challenge, I wanted to keep bees organically: I became determined that bees should not receive a potent cocktail of antibiotics and pesticides (which most beekeepers are taught to administer), all in the name of keeping them alive. I wanted to raise healthy bees, bees that could survive — and thrive. It was no longer about me and my need for honey and pollination, but about them. I wanted (and still want) to keep bees to help them survive.

Bee Hives

So how are my bees doing this season? I started with three new hives, but had to combine two of the weaker ones. One hive is particularly strong. It’s still too early to say if they’ll survive, but I’m cautiously optimistic. My dreams of honey will have to wait — for now, at least — and that’s okay.

Would you ever consider keeping honey bees?

Images: Christine Nelson. Christine is a stay-at-home mom in central Massachusetts. She shares her home with one husband, two kids (ages 14 and 9), one dog, two cats, a rabbit, chickens and, of course, bees.



Raising Nature-Loving Kids in the City

I grew up on 75 acres of oceanfront property on the north shore of Nova Scotia. There were fields and woods, brooks and marshlands all around me, and I was outside all the time. But here I am now, raising kids in the city and trying to find ways to foster a love for — and knowledge of — the natural world in my girls. While it can never be like rural living, there are simple, thoughtful ways to help children be in tune with nature amidst concrete and sirens. Here are some of the things I’m doing and highly recommend:

H Splashing in Puddle

Get outside every day. Even in less-than-ideal weather.

When I was a kid, we were outside all the time — rain, snow storms, and wind were just extra incentives for us to venture out. As adults, we tend to think we should stay inside whenever the weather isn’t pleasant. But why? Unless it’s dangerous, throw on the appropriate gear and head outside with your kids. Maybe you won’t be able to stay out very long, but let your children feel the elements: Let them get wet, feel the wind in their faces, tromp through the snow, and sweat a bit in the heat. To help them cope better, make sure you have plenty of water (when it’s hot), extra mittens (when the first ones get sopping wet from snow), and fun rain boots (to wade in the puddles). Believe me, this will be good for you, too.

Take walks along regular routes and point out the seasonal changes.

For the first four months our girls were home, we pretty much walked the same way to the same park every day. The girls watched the leaves change color and fall to the ground, the trees grow bare, the cold of winter arrive, and the signs of spring pop up; now it’s summer and everything is green. Every time we walked, I pointed out the changes — even when the girls probably didn’t understand what I was saying. Now they point out the changes they see when we’re out.

Insect Finding

Call attention to your natural surroundings wherever you are.

Your children will notice whatever you take time to notice. Look out your windows and mention what you see: What’s the weather like today? Is there a squirrel on the balcony? A bird sitting on the tree branch out front? Stop and smell a flower and encourage them to do it, too; bend down and look at the beetle crawling across the sidewalk; point out how green the grass is now; make note of any new flowers planted in your neighbors’ planters. Can you see the sunset? What about any stars or the moon at night? Nothing is too small or insignificant to point out.

B and Girls Hiking

Research the best parks nearby for hiking and take regular nature walks.

B and I have turned into hikers as parents. Who knew? We’re fortunate to have many parks within an hour’s drive with good family-friendly hiking trails. Our girls are small, so we stick to short and safe routes, but there’s always a lot to explore with them. They enjoy packing their backpacks (just like Dora the Explorer, of course) and discovering new trails. We discuss different kinds of plants, trees, and creatures along the way. We practice being quiet and listening for nature sounds. A couple of weeks ago, we got to experience a large buck barreling through the woods behind us.

If you don’t have nearby parks with hiking trails, you may live near bodies of water, mountains, or farmland. Whatever it is, take your kids out and experience it together. (And, of course, be sure to bring water and snacks for the kids!)

Create simple projects and activities that encourage exploration of nature.

I loved doing this stuff as a child — I think all kids do. I love this neighborhood tree guide project from KidWorldCitizen. In the fall, collecting leaves and making something with them will be a perfect craft. My daughters are petrified of bugs (not sure why, though we saw no bugs in Ethiopia except for the odd mosquito), so I’m planning an insect project of some kind with them soon. Butterfly nets are now on the girls’ birthday wish list after they recently used a couple belonging to some new friends. Just laying on a blanket and looking at cloud formations is fun on a lazy summer afternoon.

Bring the outside in.

Let your children bring home leaves, flowers, and things they find outside. There are limits, of course — no injured birds allowed in here (or poisonous things)! And we do teach them that some things should not be picked but left alone to grow and be enjoyed. My girls like picking little flowers and finding leaves.

Nature-Loving Kids

I like to keep natural elements in the house…a dish of seashells in the bathroom, wooden bowls, interesting rocks. I also make a point to keep fresh-cut flowers on the dining table and live plants in the house. Bringing natural things into the house, and letting the kids do the same, helps connect you all to the world outside.

Raising Nature-Loving Kids in the City

Plant something together. 

A couple months ago, we bought sunflower seeds and each of my daughters planted a few of them in two tiny pots and placed them on a sunny windowsill. When the seeds sprouted, I helped the girls replant them in a larger pot and we placed it in their bedroom. I remind them every couple of days to water it, and we note how it’s growing. Of course, if you have space for any kind of garden and can get your kids involved, all the better! Tending to something from the time it’s a seed not only teaches children about how things grow but instills in them a sense of responsibility for something living.

Plan vacations that get you out into nature, and take advantage of ways to learn about nature in your area.

Maybe it’s the beach, or the mountains, or a national park, but plan some trips that allow your children to explore and enjoy nature. And consider something new — even challenging — like tent camping or mountain climbing or sailing. Don’t forget little getaways that may be closer to home; overnight or weekend trips can be just as memorable. With young children, it’s always best to keep it as simple and stress-free as possible. Many cities have destinations like arboretums, aquariums, planetariums, etc. We’re fortunate to have the National Aquarium right down the street. It’s not cheap, but it was fun to take the girls recently and witness them seeing sharks, dolphins, jellyfish, and many small ocean creatures face-to-face for the first time.

At the Aquarium

How do you foster your children’s connection to nature, especially if you live in an urban area? I’d love to hear about it!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul 

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Architecture by studio OLKRÜF

Until I lived in a ten-foot-wide row house, I never thought about how the size of my living space affected my consumerism. With little room for much and no storage space, B and I had to get rid of a lot of stuff when we moved in, and we got used to looking away when an awesome piece of furniture caught our attention.

Now, after nine years in this little house, I realize that while my dream house is a little wider and has more shelves and closets, I don’t ever want a huge space. I don’t have people to fill it; I don’t want to spend time cleaning it or paying for the heat and air conditioning; and I don’t need to fill it with unnecessary things. Not that you have to do any of that with a large home, but what’s that saying…nature abhors a vacuum? We seem to fill whatever space we have.

Graham Hill, a wealthy serial entrepreneur, learned this for himself. In a piece for the New York Times, he describes how, before the age of 30 and flush with cash, he bought a large home in a tony Seattle neighborhood and hired a personal shopper to help him fill it. Before long, he was plagued with the stress of so much stuff:

My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for.

Hill says it took 15 years of travel and falling in love to cure him of his need for stuff. Still successful, he now lives in a small studio apartment with six dress shirts, 10 bowls, and a fold-down bed. He says his space is small but his life is big:

Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.

I like material things as much as anyone. I studied product design in school. I’m into gadgets, clothing and all kinds of things. But my experiences show that after a certain point, material objects have a tendency to crowd out the emotional needs they are meant to support.

Reading Hill’s words got me thinking again about what kind of house I want to live in next, and the kind of consumer I want to be. It also made me realize that the home we have now could be used more efficiently, and be less cluttered and better organized. So I don’t have to wait: I can learn to live better in the space I have right now.

What about you? Could you live in a much smaller space with much less stuff? Could you imagine pairing down as much as Hill did?

Image: Haus Rüscher (designed by OLKRÜF) in de zeen magazine


Coffee Making

I am not a coffee drinker and never have been. The sleep deprivation of motherhood hasn’t changed this, much to some peoples’ surprise. Even during my university years, I guzzled water to pull all-nighters (it really seemed to work!).

The weird thing is, though, I love the taste and smell of coffee. As a child, my favorite ice cream flavor was coffee. No other kid I knew chose coffee ice cream over chocolate or strawberry. Any chance I got, I chose coffee-flavored stuff. By any estimation, you’d think I would have turned into a big coffee drinker as an adult.

My big problem has always been the caffeine; it just doesn’t agree with me. It makes my already-fast ticker race out of my chest and gives me digestive problems. The caffeine in tea has a much milder effect, and I don’t notice anything when I eat chocolate. But coffee…it’s not a mutual love affair, unfortunately. (Decaf has never appealed to me because the process of making it usually involves chemicals.)

All that said, I’m suddenly tolerating coffee a little better in my old age, and over the past couple of months, I’ve been treating myself to a small cup or two on weekend mornings. I take it with cream and no sugar — but I like to drink it with something sweet in hand, like a pastry or even pancakes. I’m married to a big coffee drinker who’s experimented with more coffee makers and beans than anyone has a right to; his brews keep my house filled with a lovely coffee aroma, which also delights our daughters (who, true to their Ethiopian roots, love everything about coffee).

If you didn’t already know, Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. It’s the country’s pride and joy, as well as its biggest export. According to a fascinating (and gorgeously shot) travel piece in one of my favorite magazines, AFAR, Ethiopia has a greater variety of beans than anywhere in the world. By some estimates, 99% of the world’s arabica coffee can be traced to Ethiopia. When we were there, B and I drank coffee at various coffee ceremonies, which are an integral part of the culture there. He loved it — whereas I took small sips and then kept my eyes out for the bathroom.

Coffee Time

I’d really like to try more Ethiopian beans, and luckily they aren’t hard to find (though the best stuff remains in Ethiopia). I tend to like medium, nutty, full-bodied roasts, and because it’s such a treat when I do sit down to a cup, I want the best. My favorite brand is Counter Culture, followed by a local cafe’s Mexican coffee, and the beans from another local roaster — Zeke’s. Organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee is important to me, since beans can be heavily sprayed (which diminishes their health benefits and doesn’t help local farmers as much).

I am completely fascinated with this BulletProof coffee recipe ever since a good friend raved about it. Have you heard of it? Crazy stuff like this always calls my name. Likewise, this past weekend, I made a java quinoa smoothie. Coffee and quinoa? I know — but it was tasty. Since I still don’t know how to brew a good cup of coffee, mine was too weak, diminishing the coffee flavor in the smoothie, and I added too much quinoa. Nevertheless, it was a pretty yummy — and nutritious — alternative to a hot cup of Joe.

Are you a coffee drinker? An aficionado or just a grab-and-go person? Got any favorite coffee rituals to share?

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul