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?

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: 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 “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 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.


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.

Marble Jar App Rewarding for Parents and Kids

“Please pick up your backpacks!” “Did you brush your hair?  Your teeth?” “Have you done your homework?” I know we aren’t the only household constantly asking our children these questions because I see parents kvetching about it on blogs, Twitter and Facebook and when we visit friends I see a variety of chore charts and reward systems on fridges and mud room walls.  I, too, have tried various charts and positive reinforcement systems so that I don’t have to feel like a constant nag and am often annoyed by the clutter they create.  We have had stickers, popsicle sticks in jars, marbles and so forth.

And along came Marble Jar, the app.  I was already considering it before I was asked to review it, so naturally I jumped at the chance!

Just like its physical counterpart, the idea is that you set up jars where your child earns a marble for accomplishing a task.  You determine which task and you can set up different categories of jars if you like (i.e. Morning Routine) or put everything into one jar.  You also determine what goal your child is working toward once they fill up the jar.  There is a shelf for all the jars.  Once a jar is completed, it becomes a “golden jar” and you may simply copy that jar to start over again.  This allows you to have short-term goal jars and long-term goal jars.  For example, completing daily routine jars may simply allow the child to then have free play time, whereas long-term goals may be a reward of a coveted toy or a slumber party.

There are many different colored marbles to choose from and a satisfying “plink” when the child drops the marble in the jar.  Also, there are jars for the parents too, such as a “Calm” jar (using a calm voice, etc.)  Anyone in the family can use the jar system!

I love the fact that this is highly customizable (it comes with some default jars and tasks, but you may change them, add/delete jars and tasks, say how many marbles it takes to fill a jar).  However, in its current state, the app is not without its problems — all of which Marble Jar creator Anna Roseblum Palmer assured me are about to be fixed, when I spoke to her at the Blogalicious ’11 conference.

Originally she designed the program to be partially hosted on a server so it could be on multiple devices (i.e. Mom and Dad could have it on both of their phones and you could update the jars from either device) but this meant it required a login every time you wanted to go into the marble jar and also led to a lag time every time you performed some sort of a transaction.  Palmer plans to redesign the app so it resides completely on your phone, eliminating the need for a login and no phone-to-server lag time.  This change, however, means that  it can only live on a single device, but I think that compromise will be worth the sacrifice. Knowing that these changes are coming along makes me even more willing to stick with the Marble Jar app. Talking to Palmer gave me some good insights as to how to use the system — initially I was setting up separate jars for each kid, but she said she lumps her kids together and that way they egg each other on by saying, “Hey, you haven’t brushed your teeth and that’s keeping me from getting my free play time!”

The JavaKids love any opportunity to get their hands on my iPhone and they enjoy the array of colors of marbles and the sound of the marble drop and watching the jars fill up.  So far we are only using short-term goals, but I can see that this would work for long-term goals.  And my favorite part — no clutter on the counter tops!

Interested?  Download Marble Jar from the App Store.


Disclosure: This post is part of a compensated post series sponsored by Marble Jar.  Screen shots provided by Marble Jar.