Let Them Grow: Giving Back This Holiday Season

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Making Giving about Giving

Recycle brown paper bags into “donation bags” this holiday season and join a local family friendly effort to bring kindness and giving to the holiday season!

This is the time of year to think about not just our families but also for our community. Living in such a small valley makes it easy to make connections that are meaningful and valuable. One easy activity that will help your children understand the value of giving and gratitude are donation bags!

At my daycare we have teamed up with Lindsay Fogg-Willits, owner of Art Always in Florence, and came up with this awesome easy activity. Giving helps us all feel fulfilled in so many ways; it helps establish the means for empathy are caring, besides it just feels good.  Read the rest of this entry »

River Teachers as Green Heroes

A Great River Teacher: Greenfield’s Karl Meyer

When it comes to learning about the rivers of Western MA, we are our own best teachers; for, the surest (and perhaps only) way to understand rivers is to be with them: to visit them often, walk their edges, get to know the creatures who call them home, meditate on their floodings and dryings and flow patterns. Swim in them. Float on them. Let them take you, calm you, connect you. In our world so many things are mixed up and frustrated; a few hours with a river reminds us that our world is not the only world; rivers teach us that water embraces whatever is before it, and there is no obstruction that can’t be flowed over and beyond.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Simple Play at the Table

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Where did all the play go? Am I the only parent that is mourning its loss?

The new math makes sense to me. I read Old Dogs, New Math: Homework Help for Puzzled Parents last winter after a friend with middle school aged children mentioned the math concepts coming my way. I like to be prepared. Current reading readiness makes sense. At first I was a bit surprised by the way letter formation and penmanship is introduced in kindergarten—broken down into simple strokes and marks—no letters. I came from the generation of blue, lined practice paper with dashes mid way to mark the height of lower care letters and teachers that loved red marks. I decided to watch and wait. It worked. So far I am on board and enjoying the elementary school experience with my daughter.  Read the rest of this entry »

Soup’s On: Books Cooking Up Interest in the Kitchen

Books For Growing Foodies

As a cooking teacher, many people assume I got my start as a wee tiny child, probably peeling potatoes at my mother’s knee, or learning my grandmother’s matzah ball secrets. The truth couldn’t be farther from these sweet tales! It’s true that I did help out in the kitchen periodically, but I don’t remember taking much joy in the tasks I was given, and I didn’t start cooking on my own until late into high school.

No, readers, before I was a cook, I was an eater.

And before I was an eater, I was a reader (well, a listener-of-books-read-to-me.)

The first memories I have of being excited about food (well, excited in a larger way than the simple excitement of being hungry and eating) all sprang from the pages of children’s books. These weren’t necessarily children’s books about food – some of them had a single illustration or passing description that I latched onto and savored.  Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Higher Priorities


Visiting extended family of my parents’ generation, I’m aware of how little we’ve focused on manners thus far in my kiddo’s life. He still eats with his fingers, comments on people’s appearance in a matter of fact way, and asks how old they are, assuming everyone is as proud of their years attained as he is at 6 and a half.

The age question catches our hostess up short. Sorry, I say, we haven’t put much focus on manners beyond please and thank you.

What do you focus on? she replies.

And I’m stumped, realizing I can’t articulate it.


Given that “why?” remains my child’s favorite word (followed closely by “poopy”), I’m regularly prompted to explain the logical reasoning behind various social norms. Take table manners, for instance. Napkins in laps protect pants from spills. Elbows are less likely to knock over milk glasses, again, if they are off the table. Talking with your mouth full is a choking hazard, besides just being gross to look at. These are concrete reasons to practice politeness.

But what about my higher priorities? What about honesty? Kindness? These require a greater appeal than logic. Honesty involves owning up to our faults, foibles, and imperfections. Kindness grows from compassion and acceptance that run counter to the mainstream in which we swim. I was taught how to be polite, not how to be kind.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Making Halloween a Thanksgiving

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Making Halloween a Thanksgiving

This Halloween, kids can give back when receiving candy from their neighbors. Here are 4 easy handmade crafts kids can make before Halloween night to carry with them and to give back to neighbors.

It is Halloween, a time of year everyone dresses up! Young children especially love this time of year! For them, this their costumes and love for pretend play, it’s Halloween all year round. Finally everyone is playing along!

It is also a puzzling time for toddlers and preschoolers. When toddlers go door to door during Halloween it is exciting and mysterious. They knock on strangers’ doors and get candy for being brave, dressing up, and playing along. A fun way to make the whole experience more engaging and reciprocal is to give back to those neighbors, to the community, to the generous people behind the candy.

Here are a few easy crafts that you can carry along with your children the night of Halloween.  Invite them to exchange their handmade craft with their neighbors giving out candy, strengthening community connections and allowing your kids to give back.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Ancient River Friends

Freshwater Sponges: A Most Ancient and Wonderful River Friend

Of all the river beings who remind us of the unity of our highlands and our beaches, the most startling is the lime-green freshwater sponge that you sometimes encounter downstream of swamps and beaver dams. I am always blown away when we meet each other around here, not only because they are most venerable of the multi-celled river beings, but also because you’ll find that they are not documented as living around here yet!

The leaves are falling again, and soon enough we’ll view without obstruction the muscular bodies of our hills and valleys.

I think of geology when I see our biome bared: the thermochemical transformations that over eons have given us our sandy happy valleys and smooth rounded granite ridges.

400 million years ago our mountains were the first and tallest in what is now North America; 200 million years ago the subterranean lava leaks that are now Mt Holyoke and Mt Tom were spluttering; 90 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean formed, splitting North America off from what is now Europe and Africa; and very recently, only 13,000 years ago, the Laurentian Ice Sheet crushed the mountains into boulders and pebbles, then melted and those waterfalls and rivers spewed the grits out into the ocean, where they formed Long Island and Cape Cod. Yes—the sands of P-town come from here, where we live!  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Nature Based Play & Art in Autumn

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Searching for Fall

Scavenger hunts appear to be popular right now. They are being used for local fundraisers. They are mentioned on many television programs this fall. Local college groups are joining in. So we went on a nature scavenger hunt of sorts.

Head outside with the kids to hunt down the visual signs of fall with a mental list of outdoor things specific to the season. Brilliant red leaves. Acorn tops. Pine needles. Helicopter seed pods. Colorful fall flowers. After all your collecting, stop in the woods and make a nature collage on the ground. This took a bit of convincing at our house because this will not be permanent. There was a bit of concern about leaving our project behind…

Read the rest of this entry »

Soup’s On: Trust in the Kitchen

Kitchen Knife Lessons

When kids are trusted – really trusted – with true responsibility, they rise to the occasion. They will always know if you’re holding back, or if you’re counting on them to mess up. But the moments I’ve connected most deeply with kids in the kitchen are the moments in which I was just a tiny bit nervous – and trusted them anyway.

I love the sight of a young kid with a knife in their hands.

I love the transformation that happens when they’re handed a real blade. Even the kids who spend their days turning branches into swords and spoons into catapults and every single blessed thing into a gun (down to their own fingers!) – even these kids pause when they take the knife.

I watch the enormity of the moment settle over them – true responsibility, in its most concrete form. I watch their shoulders relax, and their focus narrow. Some parents wonder why I save the safety talk until the knife is actually in their hands – and this is why. Once you are holding the knife, wielding that power, the safety lessons make much more sense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Constructively Compassionate at Home

Constructive Compassion

Open hands. Open heart. Loving gracefully begins at home.

My hubby and I are arguing in agreement. Again. This time about word choice in an online article about parenting boys. The content is almost irrelevant. Almost because these tiffs often arise when discussing parenting and gender. Societal messages to little boys and little girls. We argue in agreement, differing over minutiae born of perspective, gender, age, family of origin experience.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: We are Not the Weather

Soup’s On: Lunch Box Ideas

Lunch Box Ideas

It’s back to school time, and that means the family meal schedule – whatever it’s been since the end of June – is about to take a left-turn swerve into school lunches, after school snacks, and many, many exasperated conversations about where lunch boxes get left and why we don’t get to have what every single other child on planet Earth gets to have for lunch.

Here are some guidelines that I use with the families I work with when it comes to school lunches… Read the rest of this entry »

Under the Hat: Song Writing with the Seasons

Rhyming with the Squirrels

This month we’re going to talk about a song called, “Squirrels” from the Pizza for Breakfast album.  I love to write songs about all sorts of things, but perhaps my favorite subject of all is animals. My new album is actually called Los Animales, and it’s a collection of bilingual, original songs all about animals. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Late Summer Adventure Connects to Place

Get Thee to Rock Dam

The Connecticut River is the Mississippi River of southern New England: from the border of Canada to the Long Island Sound, 400 miles long, slowish, wide and sandy. It is a lazy looking, yet muscular, river. From Brattleboro to Holyoke, there are few fast, rocky sections for kayakers to be challenged by, and most paddlers just drift along, feeling the serene strength of the patient roiling waters.

One of these rocky stretches is Rock Dam perhaps the most beautiful and wildlife rich section of the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, and it is accessible to hikers who are ready to wade a little bit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: 4 Pumpkin-Based Arts & Crafts

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

What Else to Do with that Pumpkin

Pumpkin time is here!  I thought of all the basics of what to do with the pumpkins outside our door: cook them; paint them; smash them; carve them. I love all of these ideas, because I just love pumpkins! Most of all I love carving pumpkins. But, having infants and toddlers around makes pumpkin carving a little more interesting, a little less mainstream, and a lot less intricate. I went from detailed mountain scene to a face that not a face at all, but more like two juxtaposed triangles and a rectangle block mouth. I thought to myself, pumpkins should be more than that… They deserve more than that! And so do the kids! This month I’m sharing four pumpkin-based projects you can do with your toddlers that support creative-free play while celebrating the season! Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Fall Scavenger Hunts

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Fall Scavenger Hunts

Our Septembers arrive with excitement for new teachers and school friends. There is also a bit of anxiety while we all adjust to the new changes—NEW teacher!, PE on Monday, new classmates, art on Friday before lunch, etc… We are searching for the new day-to-day routines. It’s an adventure as things quickly fall into place.

While the school schedule gets established, it helps if we start our after-school routine at home. Someone at my house craves downtime with a snack or a lazy walk home with friends and then any bits of homework before dinner and free time. Weekends become regular with Friday sleepovers and family fun. Having a fall party is part of our annual back-to-school routine. Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Fairies Gather Here

Fairy Summer

There’s a magic to childhood, especially early childhood. Developmentally, I’m told, it’ll last another year, two tops. Yet I don’t want my son to lose his belief in magic. I (want to) believe in fairies. I want my son to stay open to that which he cannot see.

What did Dwagon do today?

My son prompts our bedtime story, then leaves the telling to me. Blurring the line between real and imaginary, I spin an improvised tale of a magical dragon who lives in the Holyoke Range. Dragon often finds himself in similar situations to my guy, with similar fears and worries.

Given our nightly sojourns with his magical friend, I’m surprised by my kiddo’s early summer assertion that fairies aren’t real. He turned to me for confirmation,

Wight, Mama?

Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I was relieved when he accepted this at face value, then gladly helped his human playmate build a fairy house. Later that day, he constructed more under our lilac bush.


It took a while to find my stash of confetti hearts that night. A few sprinkled around the entrance seemed enough to create the intended effect.

The next morning, I lingered at the sink, watching out the window. A perfect vantage to observe his discovery.  Read the rest of this entry »

Hindsight Parenting: Knowing Better. Doing Better

Control Yourself

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” ― Maya Angelou

As many of you know, my 18 year son is currently incarcerated due to his battle with addiction. Most of us know that as parents, when our children fail, we turn inward, we regret, and if we have any conscience at all, we analyze and analyze and analyze ad nauseum what we did to contribute to the downfall of the children we love. I am no different. As Son2 struggled and drowned in alcohol and drugs, I drowned in guilt and panic and soul-aching regret.

And while this kind of work has been fiercely private, there is this woman who lives in my small town, who knows nothing of who I am and even less about my son, but who inexplicably thinks that she knows exactly what it is that I did to contribute to my child’s demise. If you listened to her talk or if she wrote you a letter on the subject, she’d tell you that it was because I was too permissive. She’d say that I let Son2 get away with it all–the lying, the drugs, the partying, the ditching school–all of it. If you believed her, she’d tell you that I didn’t parent one iota, if you listened to her.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let Them Grow: Three Edible Creative Free-Play Recipes

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Eat What You Play!

Now that my newborn is becoming a toddler overnight, I have begun to include her in toddler–esque art projects. This is exciting in so many ways. As all kids, she explores, experiments and creates every waking moment. Like every one-year-old she loves sensory exposure at its best- mostly by mouth. So, the question became how do I include her without poisoning her, letting her choke, or dumbing down toddler activities? Because she mouths everything and taste it just the same, I decided to create a few sensory activities that would be safe and fun for both infants and toddlers. And what do they both love? Food! Read the rest of this entry »

Soup’s On: Picky Eaters, Part 3

Picky Eaters, Part 3

Welcome back to the kitchen. In June, we enjoyed a lengthy discussion about picky eaters, and the roots of restrictive eating. July saw us tackle the task of getting young picky eaters to broaden their horizons. This month, we’re going to talk about older youth and young adults, and how NOT to turn dinnertime into a battlefield of exasperation.

But first, a review of things we know about older youth and food:

  1. By the time people reach the age of 9 or 10, they’ve begun to develop the “catalog” of experiences and tastes that we talked about in the earlier articles. They may be able to identify preferences for sweet foods over salty ones, or have a list of favorite foods.
  2. Their taste buds are still changing, as they will continue to do into adulthood. They may not taste things as strongly as they did when they were younger. It can help kids to know this, especially if they’re being asked to try something they remember disliking as a youngster.
  3. They are old enough to prepare simple meals for themselves, or even the family. That’s helpful, as we’ll see later on.

Read the rest of this entry »

What to Play?: 25 Undone Family Summer Fun Ideas

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Family Assignment—Have Fun!

We are in the home stretch. I can’t believe school vacation is coming to an end. Our summer went too fast!

We say those words every year so in the spring we made a list of summer ideas. Many we did not get to. Friends popped over. Sleepovers were planned last minute. Some days we just needed to be lazy. Visitors arrived. What to do in the little time we have left? Fun without forcing it. I think we will aim for one thing a day but if we decide to read for hours in the shade or host a sleepover—a different play happens and that is okay too.  Read the rest of this entry »

Teens 101: Getting Things Done

Creating a Different Way Forward

“No one lies on their death bed and wishes they spent more time at the office.”

My dad shared that adage with me at some point in my youth, which was ironic, because my dad sure did spend a lot of time at the office when I was a kid. Luckily he’s not yet on his death bed, and has been making up for it.

Now I share it here, with next generation irony, because my office is wherever my computer is, and I sure do spend a lot of time at it. I am in no position whatsoever to remind anyone that there is more to life than working, because lately, working is my life.

But of course it isn’t. My children are my life, my husband, my family. This is what matters to me. So why is it so hard to put my work away and be with them?  Read the rest of this entry »

Empowering Our Girls: Keeping our Teenage Daughters Safe

12 Essential Tips to Keep Your Teenage Daughter Safe

We all want to feel confident when our teenage daughters go out at night with their friend, knowing they know how to prevent themselves from being in unsafe situations, and how to defend and advocate for themselves when they needed to.  As a teenager, I experienced sexual assault, and now as a mother of a precious ten year old daughter, I do what it takes to keep her safe, including teaching self defense to girls for the past 30 years. Here I am sharing tips on ways we can keep our daughters safe as they navigates through their teenage years, and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »

Off the Mat: Growing Pains

On Pain

“Why did you hurt me on purpose, Mama?,” comes the zinger from the back seat. In this month’s “Off the Mat: Reflections on the Practice of Parenting,” Hilltown Families Contributing Writer Ginny Hamilton explores growing pains, painful patterns, and the truth that life hurts sometimes.

My kiddo sits in the grocery cart. He’s really too big, but containing him removes one variable from the shopping experience. Getting him in is akin to a choreographed 50s swing dance move – jump up, arms around my neck, lift hips, shimmy down. We both grunt and groan good-naturedly with the effort, usually prompting my teasing exclamation – Stop growing!!!  And his grinning response, No! I’m supposed to grow! or You’re kidding Mama. You want me to grow.

This is true. And not. But that’s a topic for another day.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Good Life: Summertime Downtime

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

Becoming Ourselves

“Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky.”  I wish I had said this, but it was written in an essay by the always amazing Anna Quindlan. She has captured all that summer was meant to be in a single phrase.  I love this idea, but do I have the mettle to allow this to happen in my own family this summer?  Read the rest of this entry »

Soup’s On: Picky Eaters, Part 2

The Ripple: A Philosophical Exercise of Eradicating Invasive Species Along Our River Edges

Cutting Knotweed

Cutting knotweed is a philosophical exercise, because doing it makes you a cultivator of the wild. Wherever the knotweed takes over, creatures starve. It provides no food to native species, except to pollinators when it briefly flowers. By eradicating it, we increase biodiversity, and the amount of food there is to feed our wild creatures.

Every summer I bring students into our woods, and wade in our rivers, so they can learn biocultural history and experience deep biotic immersion. Over the years, we have become very aware of the character and health of our biome; by visiting the same places, we register how they have changed—and they always change. One of the most striking changes we have encountered is the blanketing over of our favorite river spots by Japanese Knotweed, a bamboo-like plant.

Two years ago, we began to reclaim some the beaches we love on a nationally-registered Wild and Scenic river (the East Branch of the Westfield river) because they’d disappeared under impenetrable groves of the stuff. We had nowhere even to put down our packs and eat lunch. Until we got squeezed out by this pernicious plant, we thought there was some entity that would come and take of the problem; but after a few years, we realized there was nothing stopping knotweed from choking the entire river corridor. Action was required.

Cutting knotweed is always good thing to do. At the river spot you love, chop it down and let it dry out on shore. It will come back out of the root, so hit it again until it’s finally surrendered. Be sure not to spread the root, because that’s its primary means of colonization.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Supporting Literacy & Creative-Free Play with Sock Puppets!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Can a Moose Play Sock Puppets Without Thumbs?

Take a break from the heat and sun to make your own sock puppets. Make some scary ones for fire side ghost stories. Make some super cute to entertain the wee ones. Make some completely goofy. Have the older kids make a fancy, detailed version. If you are looking to fill a rainy day at home, make a stage with background murals!

I have a great nephew! He is super cute and reminds me so much of my niece, Jessica, (his mom) and my nephew, his Uncle Andrew. Being the youngest of five children, I was very lucky and became an aunt at age 10 and again at 12 and it kept going until I was in college. Then there was a slow down until by brother, closer in age to myself, and I started families. So now I have this crazy family dynamic where I am 43, a great aunt to my 31 year old niece’s new baby and I have a 9 year old daughter. My oldest sister is a grandma but I have more gray hair than she does?! My daughter still gets mixed up trying to keep it all straight. Her new second cousin in closer in age than her first cousin that seems more like an aunt. Family.

That confusing round-about background leads me into my lazy days of summer play idea. Andrew (now an uncle and accomplished police officer) loved the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie when he was in preK. He had a tiny stuffed Cookie Mouse that went everywhere he did. It was VERY well loved and cared for. So when I think about selecting books I would like to give to my new great nephew, I must include the Cookie Mouse… which leads me into the entire series written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. My daughter’s favorite was If You Give a Pig a Pancake. And I always loved If You Give a Moose a Muffin. That moose is hilarious with his mural painting, muffin eating and sock puppets. He rocks that tiny sweater. My daughter always questioned it as my favorite. “Can a moose play sock puppets without thumbs?” Her logic. That little pig she loved played dress up and built a tree house but it seemed impossible for a moose to play sock puppets. So fun to remember the favorites of my kiddo, the nieces and the nephews.

MYO Sock Puppets

Take a break from the heat and sun to make your own sock puppets. Make some scary ones for fire side ghost stories. Make some super cute to entertain the wee ones. Make some completely goofy. Have the older kids make a fancy, detailed version. If you are looking to fill a rainy day at home, make a stage with background murals like the Moose did! Or go simple with a couple of socks with marker faces to keep the back seat riders busy on the way to the beach.

Don’t forget to check out a copy of If You Give a Moose a Muffin at your local library during the summer reading programs. Fun reading to spark some free play this summer. And look for the Treasury version of Numeroff’s books. There is an excellent recipe for Chocolate Mud Muffins (moose approved). During the summer, we go all out and coordinate books, projects, play and snacks.


  • old, clean socks
  • markers
  • tacky glue
  • needle and thread, if the kids sew
  • buttons
  • fabric, yarn
  • scissors


Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

Let Them Grow: Nature-Based Art

Let Them Grow by Candice Chouinard

Making Nature-Based Art

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It is summer, it’s warm and the season is the child’s pallet. Summer time water play is always a go to and there are many amazing outdoor nature-based art projects for toddlers that will keep them engaged and involved at home. Nature-based art is not only fun and beautiful but it is also a free and open ended way for your child to explore art in a natural way.  Read the rest of this entry »

Teens 101: Supportive vs. Antagonistic Relationships

Adults v. Teens: The Fight Where Everyone Loses

Negative exchanges occur between young people and adults every day.  We accept it as normal for some relationships to be antagonistic, at least some of the time.  These exchanges might feel inescapable or even necessary, but they are also counterproductive, not to mention unpleasant.  What are the effects of antagonistic relationships?  What would it take to maintain supportive relationships between adults and teens and reduce or even eradicate antagonism?

A story from my childhood: Read the rest of this entry »

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