Let Them Grow: Pumpkins Support Sensory Learning & Creative-Free Play

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Fruit of the Season

It’s pumpkin time in Western Massachusetts, surrounding us with their plump beauty of orange (and even white, red and yellow!). I try to stretch the pumpkin and squash season out to make the most of this harvest season. Working with toddlers makes me really appreciate the sensory experience a fruit can give them.

This week we talked about: orange, soft, seeds, and squishy. We talked about: tasty, stringy, tough skin, and soft innards. We talked about bake goods like pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin muffins. We talked often about the way pumpkins grow and what they can give us. Toddlers can begin to understand that this fruit has numerous uses — some productive and some really fun! We are going to focus on the fun.!

Last year I did a post about the fun new ways to decorate pumpkins. This year, it’s all about sensory exploration!  Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Crazy-Making Cycles of Perimenopause


Which direction are you going Mama? my boy chirps.

Dunno yet.

When should we expect you back? my hubby inquires.

Bite my tongue to stop the nasty voice in my head from coming out of my mouth: If, not when. The logical voice exits instead, 2 hours tops. I need to blow off the stink.

Conscious enough to take his good advice and slip a granola bar into my jersey pocket. Water bottle already full, waiting. Pound pedals out the driveway. Up the hill. Match breath and legs to mantra in my head.

  1. Am. E. Nough.  I am.  Enough. I am enough.

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Kettles Full of Apple Chutney

Apple Chutney

When our vegetable garden begins slowing down, we begin apple season. We harvest our own apples, visit friends who have apple trees, and gather apples from wild trees and abandoned orchards. It’s apple time early in the morning before work, late at night when we return home, and on our day off. We dry dehydrators full of apples and line our shelves with many glass jars full of delicious apple rings. We freeze and can loads of apple sauce. We make tray after tray of apple fruit leather. We press and freeze dozens and dozens of jars of cider. And there’s still apples in baskets and boxes scattered about the kitchen and dining room. Our favorite apple final resort? Apple Chutney! We can a couple kettles full of apple chutney in jars and eat it all year. It adds a special flair to a quick rice or quinoa or couscous dinner when we get home late at night.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Emergent Curriculum

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Emergent Curriculum: Honeybees

Now that I have a toddler in my life full time, not just during the day, I have to be more creative in my play with her. A two year old is hit or miss with activities. The smaller sensory activities are often not enough of a challenge and pre-school age activities are often beyond her ability.  That’s where child emergent based activities come into play for me at this time in my life.  Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Old Traditions, New Stories

 Old Traditions, New Stories

Relaxing on my parents’ porch, I watch hummingbirds vie for feeder spots and recall Dad’s story: A hummingbird came to the feeder and found it empty. It flew to where Dad sat a few feet away and hovered directly over Dad’s newspaper, then flew back and forth between paper and feeder until Dad got the message. Dad put down the paper, filled the feeder, and returned to reading as the hummingbird ate.

One family story among many, teaching me about animal intelligence.

A train whistle sounds in the distance: Long, long, short, long. The signal for a crossing. Did I ever tell you about the time… Dad retells the familiar story of his father teaching him the signals, his father explaining how the engineer made the last whistle trail off, long before my dad learned about the Doppler Effect in college. Granddaddy was a college educated man, but this physics fact was not in his knowledge base.

A family classic demonstrating how knowledge changes with each generation.

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Hindsight Parenting: He’s Her Brother

He’s Her Brother

When my son graduated from college, it was a proud day for all except one; his 6 year old sister. Well, she MAY have been proud, but that isn’t the emotion that oozed from her pores that day and for several subsequent days. As with any little one, all thoughts of his graduation centered around her. How could HIS graduation in any way be about her you ask? Well here’s a quote: “Mama, I know that this is a proud day and all for my brother, but I am just so happy because this means that he’ll never leave me again!” And while both you and I know that nothing about that is even remotely true, we’ll let her have it, even if it is for just a little while.  Read the rest of this entry »

Under the Hat: Songwriting with the Seasons

Songwriting with the Seasons

At the end of every summer tour, it’s always an incredible relief to get back to the Pioneer Valley. As grateful as I am to travel around the world making music, the old cliché turns out to be true: there’s no place like home! That’s particularly true for all of us fortunate enough to be based here in Western Massachusetts.

Over the years, we’ve developed a ritual at the end of the long months of summer on the road. As soon as we’re home, we make a point to swim in all our favorite ponds, rivers, and streams that we’ve been missing while we’re performing in big cities. Last week as I was getting out of Ashfield Lake at sunset, I noticed the first few leaves starting to turn under the tree where I’d placed my towel.

As a songwriter, being aware of my surroundings and responding to my emotions are important tools of the trade. Noticing the changing leaves, the sensation of getting in cool water, the feeling of sand on bare feet: any of these experiences could be the spark of a new song. Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: It’s Not About the Shopping

Let Them Grow: How Bugs Can Teach Toddlers Kindness & Tolerance

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Bugs of Summer

Toddlers love bugs and insects or they are terrified of them! Either way the curiosity that bugs and insects evoke in young children is endless. I am a true believer that a child that is exposed to the natural world around will have a heightened respect and a deep regard for that world. Insect’s can be scary, they are foreign, and they don’t speak, ride bikes, or eat crackers. They come in thousands of shapes and sizes. Some are safe to touch and some are not. Some are a nuisance and some are allies. How can we teach our toddlers to be kind and safe around bugs and set aside our own deep-seated opinions on bugs? How can we show them the world wouldn’t be the same without bugs? A great book for this is the 1967 classic  Be Nice to Spiders by Margret Bloy Graham. This books looks at a zoo over run with flies without the help of spiders. It is a fun read and a great topic of discussion.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: A Vision of Our Future

River People: A Vision of Our Future

From the Hudson of New York, the Thames of London, the Tiber of Rome, the Nile of Cairo and the Ganges of Varanasi, all the great old cities of the world are sited next to the rivers that gave them food, water, and a port. These cities, slowly flooding as the icecaps melt, are where the essence of the cultures we identify as Eastern and Western distilled themselves, on the riparian edge between forest and brackish (or fresh) water. Imagine the long course of evolution that took our species out of the trees of Northeastern Africa, led us on the great tribal migrations that dispersed us across the globe, and left us to settle on the banks of these rivers. Imagine, also, how this riparian habitat provided the nourishment and stimulation, and gave us the slow swirls of time and leisure that became the centers from which our cultures emerged. Even if we live high in the mountains, out on the plains, or in Las Vegas, we are river people. Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Meditating and Parenting

Peace, Happiness and Fried Eggs

The object of my meditation.

Fried egg. Toast.

Brown flecks on pure white. Whiter than my t-shirt. I need a new white t-shirt. This one probably isn’t nice enough for work. What’s that stain? Marker? Blueberry? Can I tuck it in or do I need to change before my 1:15? What else is clean? I wonder if the washer is done.

Oh. The egg. The toast. Sunflower yellow yolk. Sunflowers didn’t grow this year. Too dry? Chipmunks eating the sprouts? Chipmunk darting through the garden now. Naturally still one moment and then scurrying someplace new.

Like my mind.

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Let Them Grow: Art Abandonment Supports Acts of Kindness Through Creative-Free Play

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Abandoned Art

Recently my brother got into painting rocks and leaving them for strangers to find. Art abandonment he calls it. I hadn’t heard of it, but now that I have, I thought this is a perfect way for a toddler to spread love, gain empathy and become more generous.  Not to mention a great way to brighten up the landscapes around town.

Toddlers have very little sense that they do not own the world; that every does NOT belong to them. Preschoolers are relinquishing this concept, but it’s never too early to start giving.  The concept is simple; paint rocks and leave them in areas where you know members of your child’s community can find them.  You can attach a little note or write on the back:

  • “You found free art, share it”
  • “Love is colorful”
  • “Generosity is learned”
  • “Share”
  • “Spread art, spread joy”

Or just put them out there as is. My brother chooses the dot pointillism approach. This is a great technique for the older toddler or preschooler to learn. By adding a single-color at a time in the form of a single dot can help a child experience art with extreme intention. They can focus on one color or a series of colors.

One child will group like colors together and others may create an image from multiple colors.  Some may choose to paint the rocks a solid color and that’s fine. You don’t have to restrict your child into a particular technique, instead encourage them to be as creative as they would like. Offer several different colors of paint and a bunch of different shape and size of rocks.

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The Ripple: Lessons of Drought

The Lessons of Drought

In the one hundred and twenty years that flow records have been kept for the Westfield River, never has it been as low as it is today. Drought is a phenomena we are going to experience more now and in the future because our climate is warming. How we learn about and deal with this planetary change will mean everything: the success or failure of our own species’ evolution-by-natural-selection depends on learning lessons that are taught only by our biome, which is to say by the great life our own is nested in.

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The Ripple: The Language of Rivers

When Rivers Talk, They Speak River, Not English

Last summer a great non-profit that spends all its time and resources trying to keep our rivers and streams healthy, the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance (MRA), put out a short and illuminating educational video called “If Rivers Could Talk.” It features scientists, activists and recreationalists from around the state sharing their tales of how they love their rivers, and what they are doing to care for them.

The field environmental philosophy school I run, Biocitizen, was asked by MRA to participate in this educational project, in part because of the “citizen science” Rapid Biotic Assessments we do with Hilltown Families every year in the late Summer, and in part because we are always using the Westfield River as an outdoor classroom. It was an honor and joy to express our love for the Westfield, which is one of cleanest and wildest rivers in southern New England.  Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Love Makes Heroes

Love Makes Heroes

I didn’t tell him about Newtown.  Turned off the radio. Hid the news home page. Still, awareness seeped in. Days later, he dreamt that his preschool playground suddenly wasn’t safe. In his dream, he was the hero, the helper. He told everybody to get inside before the bad people took pictures. Took pictures? Shoot pictures. My boy in his innocent preschool bubble associated shooting with cameras, not guns.

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The Good Life: Reaching Makes a Bridge

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

Reaching Makes a Bridge

With the end of the academic year, I’ve been thinking a lot about groups.  Classrooms, mom’s groups, political organizations, workplaces, committees…. (to name a few).  Some groups work well.  There is a positive, respectful dynamic between individuals, which allows space for everyone to have a voice.  They reach out, they include, they embrace.  They seek input and value learning from others experiences.  I work with some fellow teachers who are masterful at creating equitable classroom environments.    Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Garden Herbs

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Garden Growth and Gifts

Our garden herbs are growing and it’s time to start reaping the rewards! Young children love to harvest, allowing them to connect to the land and have a sense satisfaction from the work they have put into growing their garden. This early summer we are using garden herbs as gifts for Father’s Day, teacher appreciation and birthdays. Here are a few recipes of the garden-based gifts we’ve made so far…  Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Honest Questions About Honesty

Honest Questions

A missed call from school. Voicemail reveals the principal’s words: playground altercation.

I reach her 10 minutes before dismissal, so time is limited. The swing-set scuffle was typical and the other child thankfully is fine. “I’m less concerned about the shoving,” she shares in a carefully modulated voice, “than his insisting on a false story.”

When I concur, yes, we’re seeing this at home lately, we’re working on it, her voice relaxes. This was not news to a parent she barely knows. We talk strategy and messaging, educator to parent and mom to mom.

Honesty. Why is it so hard?! Read the rest of this entry »

Under the Hat: Mindful of Your Audience

Music in Motion

The immediate and primal power of music to illicit emotional response is hard-wired into us as humans. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we listen to music for many different reasons. Some music makes us feel happy, while some music makes us feel melancholy. Some makes makes us feel like taking a nap, while others make us feel like jumping up and down.  Read the rest of this entry »

Hindsight Parenting: Crossing the Stage of Life

Crossings: To My Son on Your College Graduation

“Mommy, why did parents cry when their children crossed the stage at my brother’s college graduation? Why did you cry?”

“That’s a good question, my darling. It is difficult to put that emotion into words, but I will try.

For over two decades your brother has been crossing and I have lovingly watched him.

When he was one, he took his first steps crossing the living room headed right for my outstretched and safe arms.

The first time he crossed a busy Manhattan Street was in a stroller that I pushed. He hated it there and threw up on the side of a building and so we crossed right back over that same street to our awaiting car to take him home.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Spring Craft Idea

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Painting With Nature

We have talked a lot about engaging children in nature-based art. It is a fun and easy way to get outside, have fun and expose your child to the process of art. We love taking the children out and collecting bits and pieces that can be used in the process. Spring is a great time for it. But, lately in the Valley and Hilltowns the weather has been unpredictable- making it tough to plan a full day outside. It has been cold and windy in the morning and warm and sunny in the afternoon. For toddlers, it can be tough to spend a long time outdoors, so we have found that we can break projects up into two parts: Collecting and then Doing, to make it more toddler friendly. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Streamcrawling


When I started writing this column in 2011, I did so hoping to inspire readers to “make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!” Rivers are all around us, but they don’t form as much a part of ourselves as roads do. Close your eyes again: can you see a river? How far can you follow it? Does it lead anywhere?

If we close our eyes, we can see roads. Try it yourself— for just a moment, close your eyes and visualize the way to Northampton, Pittsfield, Greenfield or Springfield from your front door. It’s not hard to see mental images of roads, is it? They just appear because they are engraved into our neural systems.

We carry the “environment” inside ourselves. The “environment” is part mental construction, part everything else.

This truth is self-evident, but—after studying the ways we comprehend and fit into the designs of nature for over thirty years—I have yet to read much, or participate in many discussions, about it. True: the concept of “nature deficit disorder” has gained currency, which is good; but, the larger issue of getting more than individuals over the disorder—and getting vast populations over it—can’t even be imagined yet. Individuals can take a long hike every couple of days, or garden, and get over it. But how do the people of NYC, or any other urban inhabitation on earth, get over it? Do these populations even want to get over it? Is there a candidate for public office anywhere running on a platform of ensuring that all citizens get over nature-deficit disorder? Is getting over it “good for the economy?” Can it be considered a “market-based solution?” Is there anyway that Wall St. investors can “financialize” the process, or corporations turn it into a product, or universities turn it into a hot new major? Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Water as Self-Care

Prime the Well

We climbed Mt. Tom on a recent Sunday that was hotter than forecast by 10 degrees. No leaves meant no shade. We brought enough snacks, but ran short on water. Thirst, headache, and grumpies served as solid reminders of the importance of hydration. The importance of reserves.

I’m attempting to drink more water lately. When successful, I have fewer aches and more energy. I stop at the sink, fill up a glass and sip and – lo and behold – realize I’m thirsty! Water tastes good. I’m reminded of what I’ve been missing.

“How much am I supposed to drink?” clients commonly ask as I make the link between pain relief and hydration. Online medical consensus now gives a formula to replace the old “8 glasses a day” advice from last century: Take your body weight in pounds, divide in half and drink that number of ounces each day.  I’m not sure who first proffered this formula, but mainline medical, fitness, and alternate health sites use it.

What to drink? That’s where the disagreements begin. Recommendations vary widely from “food counts as water” to “any drink counts” to “no caffeine or sugar” to “only unadulterated water – not even herbal tea.”

Then comes conflicting advice on how to drink. One liter before noon. Nope, mostly at night. With meals but not after meals. Only hot. Actually, cold is ok. Sip, don’t gulp. Filtered water. Bottled water. Enhanced water. We’ve taken one of the most basic elements of life on earth and made it complex, even controversial.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Spring Craft Idea

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Spring Craft Idea

Contact paper is a dream tool of mine. I find that children love tactical experiences and using contact paper is an easy way to offer this experience without getting messy.  Springtime is a fun time to create beautiful masterpieces that can hang in the window and catch the early light of the summer on the horizon.

My favorite thing to do is collect early spring flower pedals and let them dry for use on the contact paper. Daffodils, crocuses, dandelions, daffodils, early mint leaves are all out now and ready for picking. Dry your pedals out so they stick well. Make this a learning experience, identify the flowers and prepare them flat to make you sun catcher, place mat or art piece with contact paper. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: The River Knows the Way

Sustainability: the River Knows the Way

Biology tells us that water is life. Religion tells us that life is sacred. Biology does not want to admit that life is sacred (because that would not be “objective,” but it would not exist without water.  Think of any biologist and name one not totally dependent upon water for life. Einstein’s brain was 75% water, and so are ours. Think of how you are reading this now—to some actual extent, water is reading this too. As a hard science, biology is a means for water to get to know itself—for water is life and life/bios is what biology studies.

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Off the Mat: Take a Breather and Reconnect

Secure Your Own

“Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” The plane safety video shows neat and calm children obediently letting the nearest masked grown-up mask them. The real-life first grade boy next to me fidgets, tugging at the silly band bracelet on his wrist. I smile in a way I hope will reassure him I’d help him with his mask. Then crack open my new novel. He glances across the aisle to his mother. He’s not mine.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: Optimism is a Gift, But Resilience is Home Grown

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

Growing Resilience

My son is 15. He will likely move away to attend college in three short years. I stayed home to watch him grow for 12 years before returning to work. I hope I told him I loved him every day. At five he was the kind of boy who sprang out of bed in the morning saying, “It’s my lucky day!” Today he is the kind of guy who considers everyone a friend and is a perennial optimist. It turns out every day really is his lucky day. Many things will go right for him in life, but some things will go wrong. What then? Optimism will certainly help, but resilience is what he will need when simple optimism isn’t enough.  Read the rest of this entry »

Under the Hat: School of Rock

School of Rock

In the 30+ years that I’ve been playing music professionally, I’ve been lucky to have many incredible experiences performing all around the world. There are lots of variables that go into creating a great show: the venue, the crowd, the sound, and of course, the rapport with other musicians. It’s a rare occasion when everything comes together, but when those magical moments happen it’s powerful for everyone fortunate enough to be in the band or in the audience.

Recently, in New York City, I played a concert that immediately found a spot high on the list of my all-time favorite gigs. The sold-out show was at a great theater (Symphony Space) on Broadway and my backing band was a group of phenomenal children. The kids who played with me are the stars of the hit Broadway musical “School of Rock.”

In many ways, working with Brandon, Evie, Dante and Ethan was similar to rehearsing and performing with grown-up pros. I sent them mp3’s and chord charts of the songs before we met, and they showed up prepared having done their homework. We had one short rehearsal and then played the show.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Synchronization of the Watershed Flora & Fauna

A River Is Always In Synch

Like tiny submariners bursting up and out of the bottom of the brook, breaking into wings and soaring for a short time above the world they once knew, the stoneflies are here, molting from crab-shells they lived in. On the back of my neck, computer keyboard, every boulder around me: they multiply, skitter all directions, avoiding the rushing water they recently called home. The frenzy begins.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Creative-Free Play with Kitchen Scrapes

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Compost to Good Use

Spring in western MA!  Now is a time where I always like to move toward more nature-based art.  Using natural object as a medium allows us to make the connection between the land and art.  I have many favorite nature-based art projects, but my all time favorite is vegetable stamping. It’s an engaging and simple activity for even the youngest artist to participate in. All children love doing this activity, most will even eat vegetables during it! This idea is simple; use vegetables to create beautiful prints that will be worth saving and worth doing again.  Read the rest of this entry »

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