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Things I Love: Play Today DC

Things I Love logo Two things I love: tools that make my life easier and anything that makes me look like a fun mom! Play Today DC does BOTH!

There are many web sites that help parents find local events and family-friendly things to do and I love them all, but newcomer Play Today DC has a very clean sorting interface that allows you to choose the type of activity (i.e. sporting events, performances, educational opportunities and more), the time frame, and location you are looking for. Even better, you can register/purchase tickets right from the the Play Today DC site!  Once you set up an account, your activities are all saved into a calendar on the site and you can export them to several popular online calendars such as Google Calendar so you won’t double-book yourself.  You can share events with your friends via Twitter, +1, and Facebook so they may join you. This site is free, registration on the site just allows you to take advantage of the many features.  Currently they cover Vienna, Oakton, Falls Church, Great Falls, McLean, and Reston. Because the site is so new, I haven’t had enough time to find a way to break it <grin> but so far I like what I see. Being able to view my options, register for paid events, save them to my calendar, share them with friends and get directions all from one place is not only efficient, but helps people like me who are easily distracted by both kids and the computer!  Their FAQs hint at a future Reminders capability, which will make me love it any more.  (Now if only they’d add a laundry and dishwashing feature, we’d be all set, right?)

Want to get a better feel for the kinds of activities they will be letting you know about? Play Today DC is hosting a free Find the Fun Fair at Westwood Country Club in Vienna, VA, February 4, 10 am – 2pm for their official launch, with facepainting, moon bounces, soccer and golf, demos, giveaways and so much more from 50+ local businesses — find all the details here.

Additionally, they are having a sweepstakes on the Play Today DC Facebook page where you can enter to win an iPod Touch (value $199).  If you print the Play Today DC Facebook fan page, write your name, email, address and phone number on the page and bring it to the Find the Fun Fair you may enter to win an iPad (value $499)  at the fair.  See the Facebook page for complete sweepstakes rules, sweepstakes runs through February 3, 2012. (Really, I hesitated to tell you about the sweepstakes because I want that iPad all to myself, but fair is fair.)

Check out the website and let me know what you think — did I steer you in the right direction?

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Disclosure: I will be compensated for this post.  However, as you know, my policy is to “tell it like it is.”  If I don’t like a product, I will not recommend it. iPod and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Corporation.

 

Things I Love: E-Mealz.com Menu Planner

Things I Love logoI am the opposite of a domestic goddess — does that make me a domestic demon? I have tried to put together weekly and monthly menu plans and I’m just terrible at it. There comes a time when you have to admit defeat and outsource! My neighbor “M” is a relatively new stay-at-home mom (SAHM) and yet seems to have her act far more together than I do as a veteran SAHM so I asked her about her menu planning and she pointed to her oh-so-organized bulletin board in her kitchen and a print out from E-mealz.com. “They plan everything out, it usually has five ingredients or less, and it has the shopping list all organized for you,” she told me as our children played chaotically in the background.

It took me a while to get around to it — I mean I have literally shelves and shelves of cookbooks and two recipe boxes, surely I could manage to do this on my own?! But finally I caved in and signed up. And now I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner. JavaBoy has always been a challenge when it has come to non-dairy proteins, and yet, he has loved every recipe from E-Mealz. I have him review the week’s recipes beforehand to see if there is anything he won’t like and so far he’s approved every option, even the ones I was certain he wouldn’t like, and he’s eagerly gobbled them down. JavaGirl, who is going through an I’m-five-so-my-tastes-change-by-the-hour phase, has also enjoyed all the meals. Whenever possible, I involve them in the cooking because I always find that helps them get more excited about the meals.  The service has different selections of plans: standard, portion-controlled, budget-friendly, low-carb, gluten-free, natural/organic, and vegetarian.  Because I am diabetic, we are using the low-carb version.

We have been trying some recipes that I probably wouldn’t have picked out myself and yet my family really enjoyed, so this has been a good way to push ourselves. Although we aren’t doing the “budget” plan, I’ve found it to be economical and we are certainly wasting less food because I’m not buying stuff with the intention to cook it and never getting around to it. Because I tend to cook the larger size of the range of the recipe (i.e. if it says 1.5 – 2.25 pounds of meat, I choose 2.25 pounds) we have plenty of leftovers to use for lunch for myself and my husband (and sometimes the kids ask if they can take the leftovers for lunch for school!) or even to have a second night of dinner. Often there is a crockpot night or two, which I love, especially for the nights when my kids have choir practice. Though it kills me to smell that wonderful food when I’m home during the day.

I cannot tell you how much stress this has alleviated for us as a family. No trying to figure out what’s for dinner.  Grocery shopping is easier because we know what we’re going to eat and everything is listed for us. I go through the list and all the non-perishables that are needed for the week, I put into a clear storage box in the butler’s pantry so that it doesn’t accidentally get used for something else and is also easy to find for that night’s meal (not only for myself but in case my husband ends up cooking that night — he doesn’t have to hunt up various spices and canned goods.)

I loved it when I explained to the kids we were having Hamburger Soup (really a variation of a beef and barley with vegetables) and JavaGirl said “show me the box” and I said, “No, Mommy made this from SCRATCH! It’s been simmering on the stove for two hours!” It really didn’t take long to put together and yet it was yummy and gave me a great sense of satisfaction to provide homemade soup for the family. Granted, “scratch” might have been a stretch as it did involve some canned tomatoes and canned broth, but there were fresh vegetables, barley, fresh spices, and of course, ground beef.

There are several meal planning services out there, I checked quite a few out and asked friends for recommendations and ultimately decided on this one because I liked the format, the sample menus they showed, the low cost and because my neighbor was so happy with it. If you are interested in researching them, enter the phrase “meal planning” in your favorite search engine. 

Things I Love will be an occasional series on Caffeine and a Prayer where I highlight items or services that make life in the Java household a little easier or just make me happy and I hope will delight you as well. Other than being a paid subscriber, I have no relationship with E-Mealz.com and they have no idea I’m writing about them — I’m just a really happy customer.

 

Port Discovery Welcomes New Clifford Exhibit

Clifford the Big Red DogClifford the Big Red Dog and his friends from Birdwell Island are at Baltimore’s Port Discovery as part of a traveling exhibit. If your kids are fans of this lovable canine and his adventures, I highly recommend visiting this well-planned exhibit as a lot of activities are packed into a small space.

postcard from Clifford the Big Red Dog exhibitThe exhibit is set up with different “stations” to represent parts of the island. There is, of course, Clifford himself, with his tail converted to a small slide. He has a large dog dish with a conveyor belt and gigantic bones that need to be loaded onto the belt to feed him (have I ever mentioned how much the JavaKids LOVE conveyor belts?) There is a ferry to “take” you to the island, complete with life jackets. A town library full of books and cozy places to plop down and read. A “sandcastle” (hard resin) puzzle area at T-Bone’s beach. You can place your orders or become the cook at Samuel’s Fish and Chips Shack. Perform on stage with a variety of instruments while wearing dressed in costumes of the various Birdwell island dogs. Or — and this is what captivated the interest of my son whom I worried was too old for the Clifford section — deliver laminated mail to the various island residents from the Post Office to their individual mail boxes. There is even a writing station to write your own note to one of the characters. (I LOVE that — hooray for encouraging writing!)

So many children’s exhibits miss the mark, but this one really found a way to engage children with many different interests. JavaGirl blew past some things and then spent considerable time on other activities. There were opportunities for those who were more physical/active (the slide, sandcastle area, conveyor belt area), the musical/performing types, those who like pretend play, those who like to bring order to chaos, and those who simply like to hang out and read books. The fact that even JavaBoy, at that very touchy age of seven, could find a comfort zone made me realize just how well-planned this museum display was. It’s a shame that it will leave Port Discovery May 5.

However, don’t despair; if you are not already familiar with the children’s museum, there is plenty else to do — from a three-story high climbing structure (ropes, tunnels, slides), to a pretend grocery store, water works room, and a very cool exhibit about Egypt. Keeping busy is never a challenge! Since our last visit they have added an interactive section about nanotechnology, which JavaDad and I enjoyed immensely — unfortunately by the time we got to it, our resident scientist, JavaBoy was already exhausted, or else I think he would’ve been a little more receptive. JavaGirl found the “build a carbon atom tunnel” interesting but some of the grander real-life applications of nanotechnology wasn’t of interest to her yet.

Planning a visit?  Every third Friday of the month is Target $2 Family Fun Night where general admission is just $2 per person from 4 pm to 7 pm, if you want to save some money. See the Port Discovery web site for more information about hours and ticket prices, other discounts and special events. Prepare for your visit by letting your kids enjoy some of these online Clifford games at PBS Kids, color printables, learn about the production of the shows, or check out some of the Scholastic books written by Norman Bridwell from the library or buy them online or at your local bookstore.

Disclosures: Clifford the Big Red Dog is a trademark of Norman Bridwell. My family and I were invited guests to the opening of the Clifford exhibit of Port Discovery, writing about the exhibit was neither a requirement of attendance nor did it impact what I wrote – I always tell it like it is. I am an Amazon Affiliate and have linked to Amazon in this post.

The Puppet Company’s Nutcracker: Delightful Departure From the Original

Nutcracker puppet show

The famous sword fight between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King! Photo credit: Christopher Piper.

The Nutcracker with puppets? A purist at heart, I couldn’t quite fathom it. After all, the Nutcracker I grew up with was performed by the Miami Ballet Company, one of the few licensed to perform George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker™. 

But the JavaKids’ first exposure to a live version of this classic tale was yesterday at The Puppet Company in Glen Echo Park in Wheaton, MD and though it is very much a departure from the ballet performance I grew up with, it was absolutely appropriate for their ages and a great introduction. This was also our first visit to the puppet theater and we are already looking forward to attending another show.

Nutcracker Arabian magician

JavaGirl had many questions after the performance about how this puppet floated and how the magic tricks worked. Photo credit: Christopher Piper

The theater has mostly floor seating, though there are some plush banquettes on the sides and very back.  Children who are willing to sit apart from their parents may sit at the very front, close to the stage. For this particular show, some of the puppets were actually actors in costumes with gigantic puppet heads, while others were marionettes and a few were hand puppets.  Though the basic story remained the same (Clara receives a Nutcracker and a magical journey ensues), the scenes in the land of sugar plums are different, including characters from Mother Goose, a donkey from Spain carrying chocolate, a black-light Arabian magician on a flying carpet and more.

Nutcracker family

We had never seen "puppets" quite like these before. Photo credit: Christopher Piper

Since JavaGirl had specifically requested a Mouse King nutcracker for Christmas, she carried it with her to the show and it was wonderful to watch her expressions throughout the performance.  She cringed during the famous sword fight between the Nutcracker and Mouse King and was a bit afraid of Drosselmeyer.  Dancing flowers and flying fairies were quite delightful. Even seven-year-old JavaBoy found himself wrapped up in the 50-minutes of fantasy. JavaDad and I also enjoyed this new interpretation of a family favorite – we marveled at how expressive the gigantic heads could be even without moving features.

There is one more day of performances – Saturday, December 31 11:30 am and at 1 pm.  However, if you miss those, I highly recommend making a trip out to see a future show at The Puppet Company.  We’re already talking about trying to catch a performance of Peter and the Wolf!  Note that there are special Tiny Tots performances for younger kids as well as an American Sign Language version for the hearing impaired.  See The Puppet Company’s web site for ticket and performance information.

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Disclosure:  Though I am often offered complimentary tickets for performances at many venues, in this case, my family purchased our own tickets.  All photos provided by The Puppet Company and are credited to Christopher Piper.

Sesame Place Opens for Winter: A Very Furry Christmas

Sesame Place show

Nothing like Sesame Street characters doing jazz hands!

Motherhood is an endless “To Do” list and taking my kids to Sesame Place has been on my list. Summer 2011, however, became The Summer That Swim Team Took Over Our Lives, so we never made it. Luckily, Sesame Place has opened its doors with a winter offering, “A Very Furry Christmas.”

Sesame Place Vapor Trail

Riding the Vapor Trail with JavaBoy -- just the right-sized thrill for him at this age.

The theme park has a holiday-themed makeover and while water rides are shut down, there are still many popular rides open including Elmo’s Flyin’ Fish, Blast Off, the Vapor Trail, Peek a Bug, Grover’s World Twirl and more.  There is an entire jungle gym type of area with climbing challenges for kids of all ages from the very small to much older kids (think cargo nets and a slippery Cookie Monster’s Mountain).

Sesame Place climbing sectionThere are multiple shows throughout the day that emphasize the values of sharing and giving in the holiday spirit (Christmas is the holiday that is most emphasized, though mostly in a secular sense).  You can find a description of the shows here

Sesame Place dancing with Cookie Monster

JavaBoy got called up on stage to join in the fun!

Having never been in the summertime, I cannot compare the experience to a summer visit.  What I can tell you is that the JavaKids thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  I worried whether JavaBoy, age 7, would be too old for the experience, but he enjoyed the rides, especially Blast Off.  Ever the ham, he got called up on stage to dance with Cookie Monster in one of the shows, which also made his day.  The climbing area was a huge hit and let them burn off a lot of steam.  JavaGirl is at the perfect age to take in the wonder of it all.  Our children are not theme park veterans, so if your kids have graduated to serious thrill rides this park may not be for them.  But what made Sesame Place and in particular, A Very Furry Christmas, nice for us as a family was that it was a miniaturized version of a Disney experience — you had characters, shows, rides, a parade and a big tree lighting, but weren’t completely overwhelmed.  We went on opening day and the lines were quick.  Everyone we encountered was polite.

For my children, seeing the characters in the shows was enough of an up-close experience, they didn’t even feel the need to wait in line to see hug them and get a photo.  However, if you choose, there is a character dining experience option available.  I peeked into the restaurant where it occurs and it isn’t particularly glamorous, though the kids looked happy.  Think of a large elementary school cafeteria with Abby Cadabby running around.

There is, of course, an option to get a photo with Santa and this was one of the few places we encountered a line.  Given that we were in jeans, we decided not to get a photo, but it had a lovely set to do so.

Sesame Place swings

We enjoyed the park from the moment it opened until closing.

The drive to get to Sesame Place was not bad from Northern Virginia and while it is possible to get there and back in a day, given the late hour of finishing up, we opted to get a hotel room and then check something else off my list — visit the Please Touch Museum.  If you haven’t been to Sesame Place before, be forewarned that though there are signs marking the highway exit, the last turn is not well marked, we nearly missed it!

Another hint — line up early for the parade, look for the dots on the edge of main street and that is where you are allowed to line up.  It may be worthwhile to pack a small towel or blanket to sit on while you wait, though the gift shop will be more than willing to sell you one!  Seating for most shows begin half an hour before showtime and it is worth it to get a good seat.  Lockers are available to store the various gear families invariably bring, no outside food allowed in.  Lesson learned the hard way — they do not sell camcorder supplies in their gift shops (oops) and I don’t remember seeing SD cards either.

My final take:  Definitely worth the trip if you live in the Metro DC area or closer, a family fun experience that will probably be one of those “remember when” memories forever, and it makes me even more determined to return in Summer 2012 to see what it’s like to visit in shorts!  For more information on ticket prices and other questions, visit this site.

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Disclosure: My family was invited to attend as media for opening day and received complimentary tickets.  I was not required to write about it nor did this impact my opinion of the event.