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February: Brimming with Opportunities

Although February is our shortest month, it’s brimming with opportunities. Special observances invite us to expand our knowledge of American history, celebrate love and friendship, and commit ourselves to random acts of kindness, not only to others but also to birds. Leap year gives us a bonus day.

President’s Day always falls on the third Monday of the month. This year that’s February 15. What better time to dust off our history books and learn more about our two most prominent presidents, George Washington, the father of our country, and Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership kept the country together despite secession and the bloody Civil War?

The pivotal moment in his presidency came on January 1, 1863, the date the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation that granted freedom to slaves.

February is also Black History Month, and a perfect time to explore the role of the Underground Railroad that brought many slaves to freedom. For children, consider Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, about Harriet Tubman who lead 19 trips that brought hundreds of slaves from the south to freedom in the north or Follow the Drinking Gourd, a tale about following the Big Dipper north to escape slavery. Both books are recommended for children ages five and up.

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, tells the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who shipped himself to freedom in the north in a wooden crate. To learn how quilts helped slaves find their way to freedom, read Under the Quilt of Night.

Older readers, those 12 and up, can learn from Nightjohn of the bravery of a former slave who returned to the south to teach others to read, an act punishable by dismemberment.

Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel The Last Runaway provides a compelling account of the Underground Railroad and the people, both slaves and bounty hunters, abolitionists and ordinary citizens, whose lives were impacted by slavery.

February wouldn’t be February without Valentine’s Day. While thinking of ways to show affection, consider that Random Acts of Kindness Week begins on Valentine’s Day this year. The idea is that by expressing kindness we’ll inspire others to be kind. Random Acts of Kindness Foundation reports on research showing how “kindness breeds kindness” and acts of kindness reduce stress. I think they’re on to something. I appreciate the kindnesses of others and feel better when I’m being mindful about showing kindness.

Their website is bursting with information and ideas. One simple act of kindness is smiling at strangers. Plato is quoted as saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” My mother used to remind us that we needed to be kind because we have no way of knowing what struggles another person might be having. I’ve found that to be true.

In our city a homeless woman has staked out a street corner in the business district and stands with a placard that reads, “Even a smile helps.” And she herself smiles at everyone who passes by. Her spirit touches me deeply.

February is also National Bird Feeding Month. So here’s the deal for kiddos and adults alike. Embrace kindness. Practice random acts of kindness everyday. Feed the wild birds. Winter is long and food hard to find. Buying a feeder and keeping it filled is one way to go. Another, if time allows and you like crafting, is making birdseed ornaments or balls to hang in trees. Melissa Mayntz, a birding and wild bird expert, offers easy to follow, step-by-step illustrated instructions. I’m thinking this could be a lovely way to spend time on a cold, winter.

Another idea is crafting simple, easy-to-create glitter hearts for use as Valentines and extras to give away as acts of kindness. Think about the neighbors. Newcomers? Elders? Shut-ins? Someone who’s been ill? How about folks who make a difference in your life. Perhaps a crossing guard at school? Mail carrier? Cashier at the market? Everyone likes being appreciated. And making someone else’s day has a way of brightening our own.

Here’s an idea for making those sparkly hearts:

Cut hearts from card stock. One way is to trace around a heart-shaped cookie cutter.
Punch a hole in the top.
Lay hearts on wax paper.
Using slightly thinned white glue, cover hearts with glue.
Sprinkle with fine grain red glitter.
Let dry thoroughly.
Flip hearts over, apply glue and glitter, and let dry.
Thread a piece of ribbon through the hole and tie.
Finish by placing each heart in a cellophane box.
Either tie with ribbon or fold top of bag to the back and seal.
I like the clear round “mailing seals” available at office supply stores because that keeps the focus on the contents, but any tape or stickers should do the job.
If the hearts are to be Valentines, add a label to each bag.

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What I Love About You

Valentine’s Day is upon us, giving us an opportunity to tell someone we love what we love so about him or her. Make a list of the person’s attributes, anything and everything that makes that person special to us. This works well for everyone you love, children and adults. No exceptions.

Maybe it’s how the person lights up a room simply by being in it. Easy rapport. Ability to put people at ease. Grace, graciousness, poise.

Generosity of spirit. An attitude of gratitude. Spirituality. Practicality. Brilliance. Common Sense.

Consider a quirky sense of humor, hearty laugh, or ready smile. Spontaneity, flexibility. Being unflappable, cool under pressure, willing to go with the flow, mellow, laid back. Think sense of adventure and delight in play.

Think dependability, reliability. Persistence, resourcefulness, willingness to take on challenges. Creativity and problem solving skills count.

Joy in shared experiences. Always being there for you. Supportiveness. Being a source of encouragement.

Perhaps it’s a passion or a talent. Something the person excels in or simply enjoys doing that delights you.

You get the idea. Now, be creative in letting the person know. One way could be to list what you love about the person, then write each lovable attribute on a slip of paper, fold into an accordion and deposit inside a Chinese take-out box. You could decorate the outside, sprinkle a touch of colorful confetti or hide trinkets, perhaps a tiny heart, inside the box among the messages. Tie a ribbon on the handle and surprise your special one.

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Ways to Ask, Will You Be My Valentine?

February, the last full month of winter, finds most of us bundled up against frigid temperatures, biting winds, sleet and snow, spending as little time as possible outdoors. What better month for Valentine’s Day? While we’re “cooped up” indoors, likely feeling tired of winter and “bored, with nothing to do,” a common condition among children and adolescents or overwhelmed by busyness, more common to parents, along comes Valentine’s Day with opportunities for diversion. Let’s not miss this chance to celebrate love in all its forms. Valentine’s is not just about romantic love. It’s also about reaching out and letting favorite people know they’re special to us.

Of course, we could buy a package of cards, address the envelopes, and send them off. That’s one way to say, “will you be my Valentine?” Another is to create our own cards. This takes more time, but has its advantages. We get to express our creativity, and our one-of-a-kind creations convey the depth of our feelings.

Cards aren’t the only way to express affection. We can decorate a box or create a mini collage using snapshots or pictures and words cut from magazines. Those liking to bake can make cookies, heart-shaped, frosted with royal icing, and bearing handwritten messages, or a year round favorite, such as chocolate chip – with pecans, please. Placed in cellophane bags and tied up with ribbon, these are sure to delight. Who can say, “no” when faced with a fresh from the oven cookie and the question, “will you be my Valentine?”

The point is everyone benefits from time spent doing something fun and creative and from showing our appreciation to the special people in our lives. Valentine’s Day provides us opportunities to do both. Let’s accept the invitation, enjoy our creative pursuits, and celebrate love and friendship.

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Random Acts of Kindness

Valentine’s Day often finds us expressing our love for family and friends by presenting cards and gifts, and that’s a lovely tradition. When I was in elementary school, the idea was to exchange Valentines with our classmates, and the rule was that each child had to bring a Valentine for each and everyone in the class. No exceptions. Likely that’s why old fashioned Valentines came in cellophane wrapped boxes of more than enough for a class full of kiddos. I recall complaining about having to give cards to everyone, even those I was sure I did not like and definitely would not want “to be my Valentine.” My mother, of course, agreed with the teacher and made sure I had a Valentine for every classmate.

That was an early lesson in being kind. Did you know that Random Acts of Kindness Week begins on Valentine’s Day? That strikes me as perfect timing. What better day to launch a week – that hopefully begins a life time – of practicing acts of kindness? What better time to talk to our children about kindness and how being kind makes our world a better one for all of us?

Let’s explore with our children what being kind means and how we can be warm hearted, friendly, and generous-spirited, considerate, and sympathetic to the needs of others. A smile, a greeting, a compliment, pausing to hold the door for someone are all acts of kindness easily incorporated into our busy lives.

Talk with your children and together decide what acts of kindness each of you can do, then go out and “walk the talk.” Later gather for dinner and share your adventures of walking in kindness. The discussion will likely be lively, and everyone will likely agree that a day practicing random acts of kindness feels so much better than a day spent being grumpy and rude.

We’d like to hear your stories. Let us know your experiences in sharing Random Acts of Kindness Week with your family.

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Will You Be My Valentine?

According to the Greeting Card Association, 25% of greeting cards sent each year in the United States are Valentines, making this celebration second only to Christmas as a card sending holiday. Wonder if these stats apply to e-cards too.

Nowadays, sadly, most Valentine’s are commercially made, yet what better way to declare our devotion than by taking time to make our own? Possibilities are endless. Use paper or card stock and crayons, markers, or pencils, watercolors or poster paint. Think beyond sheets of paper, consider envelopes, lunch bags, even small gift boxes. Decorate these, then create and tuck a special heart inside for your Valentine to discover.

Use rubber stamps or make your own stamp by slicing a potato in half, cutting an outline of a heart – or any shape that tickles your fancy – on the exposed potato, then carefully cutting away the excess to reveal your shape. Pour liquid acrylic paint into a pie pan, dip your stamp into the paint just enough to cover the shape you carved, and stamp out impressions.

Other materials afford additional opportunities to experiment and create unique treasures for our Valentines. Gather scraps of fabric, felt, ribbon, lace, and yarn, buttons, beads, sequins, and glitter, even feathers. Nuts and bolts work too.

Explore your natural environment for more materials – acorn tops and acorns, tiny pine cones or pine roses, a sprig of lavender, a piece of bark, bits of twigs, shells or pebbles. All these glue easily onto cardboard, a block of wood, or, my favorite, a circle cut from a fallen tree limb.

Adults and children alike can enjoy discovering what happens from gathering a variety of materials, checking inhibitions that hinder creativity, and diving in. The results will amaze and delight you and that special someone who will surely treasure his/her unique, one-of-a-kind Valentine. If not, then figure there’s no accounting for taste, and revel in the joyful act of being creative. My 90 year old mother, who hand quilts one-of-a-kind baby blankets, follows this rule. Whenever I announce that I know so and so – the designated recipient of the in-process quilt – will be absolutely delighted, she invariably says she hopes so, adding if they don’t like it, they can just give it back and she’ll give it to someone who will. In her 35 years of quilting, no one has ever been anything but delighted with her quilts and touched by her generosity. Still, should that change, she has a plan. We would all do well to learn from her.

We wish you a love filled Valentine’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. You could surprise someone with a one-of-a-kind greeting then too.

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Winter 2010: Snowy from Sea to Shining Sea

Valentine’s Day 2010 found snow on the ground in 49 of the 50 United States. I was thinking that had to be a record. Then my incoming e-mail brought a picture from a friend living in coastal North Carolina. There, on their lawn, are her husband and son making snow angels. The onlooking dog, she says, could never be an angel.

Snowfall delights and distresses. Looking out at snow fluttering silently to ground, we stop our busyness to appreciate its beauty and watch as our surroundings become enveloped in a glistening snowy blanket. The natural world seems at peace, resting. We slow down. What’s the hurry? Going out and about in a snow storm, slipping and sliding on icy roads and walkways is asking for trouble. Better to take refuge indoors: read a book, bake, savor the fragrance and flavor of fresh baked cookies, take a nap. Enjoy this gift of winter: the beauty, the peace, the quiet.

I am always amazed at how each snowflake is its own unique shape. If you’ve never read Snowflake Bentley, I urge you to search out this Caldecott Medal winning picture book and share it with the children in your life. Wilson Bentley was born on 9 February 1865, on a farm in Jericho, Vermont, in the heart of the snow belt. He grew up keenly interested in weather, conducting experiments with raindrops, drawing and later photographing snowflakes. On Valentine’s Day 1928, he made over 100 photographs during a two day snowstorm. This best snowstorm of his life was, he said, a gift from King Winter.

Then there’s the distress: staying warm and dry when we must venture outdoors to shovel walkways and driveways or make our way on roads covered in snow and, worse, ice that grows treacherous with below freezing temperatures. And that’s all before melting snow and run-off create floods and turn dirt into mud. [Those living below the foothills of the Angeles National Forest have learned that torrential rain brings flooding, run-off and mud flows too–no delight there, only distress.]

Seems best to think positive. Snow is a gift from King Winter. Delight in its beauty. Bundle up, go outside, and play. Build a snowman. Lie in the snow and make angels.

Make snow ice cream, a winter treat I recall fondly from my childhood. We’d dig down below the surface of the snow, fill a bowl with snow, stir in vanilla extract and sugar to taste, add enough milk to give the snow a creamy consistency, and dig in. Paula Deen suggests combining 8 cups of snow with a 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Either way, it’s a delight. Enjoy!

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February Celebrations

Groundhog Folklore

February offers us a bouquet of celebrations. We can watch for a shadow as a groundhog in Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania, emerges from his den on 2 February. Folklore claims that a groundhog emerging from his den without seeing his shadow will leave his burrow in anticipation of spring arriving early. On the other hand, if he sees his shadow and retreats to the warmth of his den, we know winter will last another six weeks. Actually, either way spring arrives six weeks later on 20 March, with the vernal equinox. The temperatures outside may still be “frightful,” but we can celebrate the increasing sunlight and the approach of warmth. Who can resist the fun of this uniquely North American “holiday”? And who in the grips of “old man winter” doesn’t dream of an early spring?

President’s Day

President’s Day gives us an opportunity to learn about all the presidents of the United States, but most especially the “father of our country,” George Washington, and “the great emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. Their birthdays used to be separate holidays with Washington’s on 22 February and Lincoln’s on 12 February, and many locales still observe their official birthdays.

What better time to search out little known facts about these two men and share them around the dinner table? For starters, Washington liked ice cream so much that he had an ice cream cooler installed in his house. Wikipedia claims his was the first house to boast such a convenience. Wonder what it looked like and how it worked. Incidentally, did you know that the first ice cream parlor in America opened in New York City in 1776.

Lincoln was the first major leader to support extending the right to vote to women. As an Illinois state legislator, Lincoln released a statement to a newspaper endorsing “female suffrage.” The year was 1836, a full 12 years before the first women’s rights convention. Imagine that.

Valentine’s Day

Of course, Valentine’s Day likely causes the most excitement. Who can resist an opportunity to express love? That said, we all remember that “moral dilemma” of our childhood: must we send a Valentine to those we don’t like and, therefore, definitely do not want to be our Valentine? And what should we do if someone we don’t like wants us to be his/her Valentine? Seems often the teacher or our parents solved that one for us with an all or none solution that befits the spirit of the day.

I’m in favor of celebrating Valentine’s Day by spending time together. What more meaningful way to say, “I love you” than to set aside time to be together and share an enjoyable experience? Simple and inexpensive pleasures are pluses in our lives and prove the adage “it’s the thought that counts.” Here’s my idea: gather the children, put out supplies, and make each other a Valentine. The process counts as all important quality time; the products are unique treasures to cherish and serve as reminders of special bonds and special times.

Let us know how you and your family made the best of this bouquet of celebrations. Send pictures of your family at play and their one-of-a-kind Valentine’s. E-mail a little known fact about a president. We’ll be sure to share.

Here’s to a fabulous February.
Stay warm and watch for spring as the days grow longer.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play