Friday, November 22nd, 2013
On this dreary, drizzly Friday, I’m thinking back to three weeks ago, when my daughters and I began a 7-day adventure that took us to Orlando, St. Thomas, and St. Martin, all part of a press trip sponsored by Universal Studios and Royal Caribbean. We kicked off the trip by staying at the incredible Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando, which is designed to make you feel like you’re in Hawaii, or Bali, or someplace similarly tropical and exotic. (If you’re feeling more of a European vibe, consider Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, modeled after the Italian village and including an authentic piazza and boat-filled harbor.)
The next morning we met up with our group to take the brief walk over to Universal Studios. The weather was uncharacteristically rainy, which made me so grateful for the fact that much of Universal’s best attractions are indoors. We started with the Despicable Me ride; my girls, ages 5 and 8, both loved it and were very happy to be able to take a picture with an actual Minion afterward. Shrek 4-D was another hit–especially the part when the Donkey sneezed and we all got sprayed (with water). It’s so much fun to do 3-D with kids, watching them swat at and duck from the stuff coming toward them, and Universal is long on 3-D offerings, including the new Transformers ride and Terminator 2. Then we went to what’s arguably the park’s most popular attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’d just started reading Harry Potter with my older daughter, Julia, the week before, so that she’d have a frame of reference. Her little sister, Lila, didn’t have the first idea who Harry was, but she still got into the spirit as soon as we got to the enormous Hogwarts Castle. While Lila was too small to ride the main event, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, she absolutely loved the smaller-kid-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff. (And I thought it was very cool that she, along with all the other shorties, were given an official certificate granting her and four guests front-of-the-line access to the Forbidden Journey once she’s tall enough. I’m holding on to that!) After all the adrenaline-pumping rides, we took it down about 20 notches and spent a while in the Dr. Seuss-themed part of the park, which suits the younger crowd very nicely.
If you’re considering a trip to Universal Orlando in the near future, you’ll be happy to hear that come March, they’ll have a brand-new budget-friendly hotel option in Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The resort offers 900 family suites that sleep six (as well as another 900 traditional hotel rooms) and there’s a special offer going on right now with rates as low as $104-$134 per night. Find out more here or by calling 888-273-1311.
Come Sunday, we boarded the Freedom of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship that serves more than 3,600 guests. The Universal/Royal Caribbean combo is a nod to the growing trend of “double-duty vacations.” We didn’t know it yet, but my children were about to have five of the most fun days of their lives. Seriously. Throughout our trip, the girls would spontaneously say things like, “Who’s having the best time EVER?” and shoot their hands in the air. They’d ask if we could live on the ship. They’d say they wished Daddy “had a house in St. Martin so we wouldn’t have to go home.” (Believe me, I wish Daddy had a house on St. Martin, too.) The moments that really stuck with us:
- The Dreamworks Character Breakfast, with special guest stars Puss in Boots, Fiona, and Shrek
- The Tiaras and Teacups Party, where about a dozen little girls served their moms tea and cupcakes (their favorite part) while being taught about table manners and proper etiquette (my favorite part). This was part of the Barbie Premium Experience, a special package you can buy separately that gets your child a slew of Barbie toys and goodies along with the chance to be in a fashion show and participate in other fun events all week. At $349, this add-on isn’t cheap, but Royal Caribbean does offer significant discounts from time to time, so definitely ask about that when you’re booking.
- Strolling through the Promenade one night and finding ourselves in the middle of a flash mob dancing to “Thriller” (I’m a sucker for Michael Jackson)
- Turning on the Dreamworks channel in our room at any hour and catching bits of movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar,” and watching “The Croods” in the ship’s movie theater
- When Lila won (okay, co-won) a hula-hooping contest during Family Disco Night and left with her own medal
- Coming back to our room at night to see which origami towel creation our stateroom attendant, Desiree, had created. The girls formed a bond with Desiree as soon as we arrived at our room, and they loved giving her high-fives and hugs all week. In fact, at the Tiaras and Teacups party, all the kids left with a piece of Barbie stationery, on which they were asked to write a note to someone they appreciated. Lila wrote hers to Desiree, thanking her for keeping our room so clean. Very sweet.
- The ice skating show. (Fun fact: Royal Caribbean is one of the largest employers of ice skaters in the world.) We got there just as the performance started and I didn’t realize it would be so packed, so we had to split up. From my vantage point a few rows behind Julia and Lila, I got to watch a second show: My girls swiveling their heads from one end of the rink to the other and then zipping back to stare at each other in amazement and exclaim “WOW” and “Did you see that?!” after every skater’s jump. When the show ended, Julia ran up to me and said, “That. Was. AWESOME!” (Had I thought to pack the girls long pants and socks, they could’ve skated themselves during the many open-ice sessions during our cruise.)
- Swimming in the pools, splashing in the “H2O Zone” water park, and chilling in the hot tubs. (It’s worth noting, though, that there are no lifeguards on the ship. Staffers definitely keep an eye out for kids–I watched one hustle over and scoop up a little girl who slipped and fell–but the onus is 100% on parents.)
- Our excursion on St. Thomas: We sailed on the party boat Kon Tiki over to a private beach for a few hours. The water was the perfect temperature and the scenery was gorgeous, but the highlight for my kids was the on-board entertainment on the way back to the ship. Backed by a steel-drum band, two post-college guys danced the Macarena, started a conga line, and performed a very impressive limbo. (My girls later separately confessed to finding the guys “cute.” I can’t disagree.)
- Our balcony. With all of the excitement on board the ship (and I’m only scratching the surface), some of my favorite moments were spent sitting outside, watching the waves as we sailed. It was such a peaceful setting and I felt so grateful to have the chance to experience it.
As I said, this vacation was nearly a month ago, but it’s stayed with my children. Just last night at bedtime Julia said, “I wish I was still on the ship.” Lila told me last weekend that she wants to go with her sister and her cousin on Freedom of the Seas for “16 weeks” when she’s in high school. Our on-board neighbors told us that this was their 15th cruise; it’s the only way they travel. I’m wondering if my girls, bolstered by the memories this cruise gave them, will follow in their footsteps one day?
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Wednesday, November 20th, 2013
We at Parents put together a great toy guide every year–and you’ll find our latest here–but I admit I’m partial to this one because it comes from my sister, Meghan, a pediatric occupational therapist who works with young children of various abilities. A large part of her job is to engage her kids and help them reach their therapeutic goals by using toys, games, and apps. She is forever on the lookout for the best items, and when she finds them, she enthusiastically writes all about them on her blog, MAC&Toys. (Bookmark it!) And once a year, she pulls together an extravaganza of recommendations, including links to buy and the skills each item addresses (fine motor, visual perception, sensory processing, social, and so on), and sends it to all of the parents of the children she works with. I am making this bold statement: I guarantee you’ll find something on this list you’ll be tempted to buy or know from experience is awesome. I’ll give you a taste with a couple of the items I’m getting for my children.
From Meghan’s 2013 Holiday Gift Guide:
Lazoo drawing books There are nine different books to choose from and I can’t say one is better than the other. I adore all of these and each one is so unique and different from other coloring and activity books. My first book was the Holes book and my kids couldn’t get enough. I quickly picked up the Squiggles and Stickers/Incredible Stickers books. Perfect for preschoolers who may not always love coloring and drawing books because the pictures are motivating and exciting for them to complete. Many of the kids I work with get stressed with coloring books because the pictures are too big and their hands get tired. With drawing, they avoid this task because they aren’t quite sure where to start the picture. These books are great because they give you something concrete to begin with and then you can allow your imagination to run wild. These books allow for success and the more successful they are, the more likely they will be to try coloring and drawing activities outside of their comfort zone. Here is a link to the Lazoo Store….warning, you may not be able to stop yourself! (Improves fine motor grasping skills and in-hand manipulation skills; visual motor skills; eye-hand coordination skills; fine motor skills)
Stack Up A great cooperative game perfect for preschoolers or young school age children. The purpose of the game is to work as a team to build a stack of blocks using sticks (the blocks have a hole on either side and children must work together to put their stick in the hole and place it on top of the other blocks). There are challenges as well that keep the kids on their feet and moving around. I love watching the kids figure out how to work together to make the tower. Cooperative games are great for teaching kids the importance of team work and that sometimes winning is not the most important part of a game! (Improves bilateral coordination/using two hands at the same time; sensory processing skills, such as attention and focus; improves gross motor skills, such as jumping or whole body movements)
Go to Meghan’s list for dozens more suggestions for toys, games, apps, and independent toy stores around the country. Happy shopping!
Image: Gift boxes on a colorful background via Shutterstock.
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Monday, October 14th, 2013
Aden + Anais, best known for its adorable muslin baby blankets, is now giving away 10 of its muslin “sleeping bags,” or wearable blankets. These are a safe way to keep your baby warm while sleeping without using a loose blanket, which poses a suffocation risk; avoiding them in cribs is an important part of reducing the risk of SIDS. The company is running this giveaway now because October is SIDS Awareness Month, when advocates work especially hard to increase the awareness of SIDS as well as the importance of safe sleep habits for babies. Among those advocates are the CJ Foundation for SIDS, a nonprofit which has provided millions of dollars for SIDS research initiatives, support service grants, public education, and awareness campaigns since 1994. In fact, a portion of the sales of all Aden + Anais sleeping bags go directly to the CJ Foundation.
To enter the giveaway, visit Aden + Anais on Facebook. (Scroll down a bit to find the latest post about the contest.) Good luck!
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Thursday, September 19th, 2013
Yesterday we had the pleasure of hanging out with Elmo and Murray, who dropped by to help spread the word about Sesame Street‘s 44th season, which kicked off Monday. (That’s me and Michael Kress, executive editor of Parents.com, proudly posing with the muppets.) The theme of the season is self-regulation, otherwise known as that thing most of our kids haven’t quite mastered. The shows will focus on helping children master skills like managing emotions, making transitions, being flexible, screening out distractions, and remembering rules–all of which will help them in school, or help them get ready for school.
We asked Elmo and Murray all kinds of questions: Do you ever get so frustrated that you want to push or hit someone? What happens when your mom and dad serve you a meal that you really don’t like? Do you fight with your siblings? (They don’t have any, but they still had a good answer about getting along with others.) You’ll see what they had to say in a fun video series we’ll show you soon–and you can show your own children as a way to get them on board with good behaviors. (I know I’ll be showing my girls what Murray had to say about trying foods he doesn’t think he’s going to like.) In the meantime, have your children check out the new season of “Sesame Street”–though I’ll bet they are already–which includes a new segment called “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures,” movie spoofs that show Cookie encountering all kinds of opportunities to show off his self-regulation skills.
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Friday, July 12th, 2013
Sometimes it feels like mine do. And never is that more apparent than when they go to day camp. We’ve bid adieu to t-shirts, shorts, bathing suits, towels, sunscreen, water bottles, books, sticker collections, and I’m sure I’ve blocked out the rest.
This summer, we’re wrapping up our third week of camp and we’ve lost only one item, a sunscreen stick. This is unquestionably due to the new labels I affix to everything that leaves the house. They’re from kidecals, and I like them because they come in really cute designs–I went with the “Orange Banner” style–and more importantly, because they’re waterproof and they don’t budge even after going through the washing machine and dishwasher. You can get 120 small labels for $21, or 24 larger labels and 54 smaller ones for $28–either way a bargain, when you think of what you’d pay to replace all the items your children misplaced. (Shipping’s free, too!) Just yesterday, the camp t-shirt I thought we’d lost the day before was returned in my daughter’s backpack. No doubt it’s because of the handy little label inside.
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Tuesday, June 25th, 2013
I’m a health editor and last week my daughter got a sunburn.
After a fun day at the beach to celebrate Father’s Day, I gasped when I saw my 7-year-old’s pink back and shoulders as she stepped into the shower. I don’t know how, but I had completely neglected those areas when I sunscreened Julia up. It wasn’t a hideous burn, but it was noticeable enough that her 2nd-grade teacher asked what happened (“I told her my mom did it because she forgot to put sunscreen on me,” she recounted, only partially accurately) and it was bad enough for her skin to peel all week. Oh, and it made enough of an impression on her that she told me, “In health the teacher said that if you get one bad sunburn you can get cancer.” Just in case I wasn’t feeling awful enough.
So when she started pool camp yesterday, she was as covered up as I could get her (that’s her in the photo). Between my two daughters, I’ve amassed quite a collection of SPF swimwear and rashguard tops over the years. Right now I’m into Snapper Rock, which has a great line of SPF50+ suits for kids. Besides their cute designs (you can’t tell that Julia’s suit bottom has pink, aqua, and white stripes; my other daughter’s has a sweet ruffle all around), I like the fact that the company has a philanthropic side. Snapper Rock donates money to the Children’s Melanoma Prevention Foundation, and donates swimwear to a camp for underprivileged children in New Hampshire.
Like all high-quality swimwear, Snapper Rock’s stuff isn’t cheap. But right now they’ve got a great sale going on where swim tops are going for $15. Get ‘em while you can!
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Monday, June 24th, 2013
Up for a feel-really-good movie? Tonight on HBO, a documentary called “Miss You Can Do It” premieres. It goes behind the scenes of a beauty pageant in Illinois called Miss You Can Do It, which is for girls ages 4-25 who have physical and mental disabilities. It was created by a former Miss Iowa, Abbey Curran, who has cerebral palsy. No matter your feelings about pageants, I’m almost positive you’ll love the idea behind this one: For one weekend, every girl–no matter how she’s viewed by the rest of the world–is appreciated for her strength, her determination, and yes, her beauty. And these girls truly are beautiful, with a profoundly positive spirit. In the film, we meet several of the 2011 contestants and their families and get a glimpse into their everyday lives at home. I honestly can’t describe the parents in a way that does them justice–you have to hear them speak for yourself to appreciate how inspiring and honest they are. We learn what life has been like since their child was born and about the many health-related setbacks and victories they’ve had along the way. By the time we see footage of the pageant, where every girl is recognized and one is crowned Miss You Can Do It, you understand why an event like this is life-changing for everyone involved.
We first heard about the movie from our friends at Easter Seals, which has provided services for several of the contestants. Thanks to Easter Seals, children like 8-year-old Ali (pictured here during the “casual wear” portion of the contest), who has spina bifida, have gotten occupational and physical therapy, not to mention emotional support from the experts on staff.
Check out the pageant’s official site to learn more. It celebrates its 10th anniversary this year; there’s an entry form on the site in case there’s a future Miss You Can Do It in your life. In the meantime, watch this beautiful film tonight. And if you read this after June 24, DVR it–HBO will be airing it all summer.
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Wednesday, June 12th, 2013
There’s a large group of kids in this country who aren’t discussed very often. They’re the 2.7 million children whose parents are incarcerated. That works out to 1 in 28 children–or roughly one child per classroom. Did you have any idea so many kids are experiencing the fear and confusion and embarrassment and sadness that come with having a parent in jail or prison? I didn’t.
When our friends at Sesame Street learned about them, they took action. “We started to realize how many children are impacted and no one is talking about it,” says Jeanette Betancourt, Ed.D., vice president of Outreach and Educational Practices, Sesame Workshop. “No one is representing the needs of children and caregivers and the parents themselves.” So this became the focus of Sesame’s newest installment in its resiliency initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration. Launching today, it’s an entire set of resources in English and Spanish including a DVD and video series, storybook, activity pages, tip sheets for parents and caregivers, as well as an app (available on IOS and Android platforms).
The goal of the initiative is twofold. One is to help caregivers–parents, grandparents, extended family members, foster parents–realize they’re not alone and that it’s important to talk to children about their situation. The tip sheet mentioned above provides caregivers with the best language to use with young kids and how to help them manage their emotions. The other aim is to help the incarcerated parent connect with his or her child. In the video, which includes the stories of real children, we meet a young boy who, with his father and sister, draws pictures for his imprisoned mom (that’s them in the photo above). She then colors them and mails them back, and this simple ritual has become very meaningful.
Watching the videos, you can’t help but wonder how to help these children. But it’s less about help and more about support, explains Dr. Betancourt. “This is a very isolated community–many families don’t necessarily want to talk about it. But if they do open up, the best thing you can do is simply support that family. It’s not even doing something ‘special’–it’s just being friends, just as you would with any other family.”
As always, Sesame will work hard to make sure their materials get into the right hands, giving them directly to prisons, family courts, and national and local organizations that help affected children. What’s so amazing about all of Sesame’s toolkits–and there are more than 20, on topics including divorce, healthy eating, and preparing for an emergency–is that the contents are completely free. They’re not on the actual “Sesame Street” TV show, but everything’s available online and can be downloaded here. If you know one of the millions of children who have an incarcerated parent, please encourage her caregiver or teacher to take a look.
Image by Gil Vaknin, courtesy of Sesame Workshop, 2013
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