Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Few Hours in Ulm, Germany with Kids

Last fall we spent a few hours in Ulm, Germany visiting old friends and taking in a few of the sites. Between the three families, we had 3 five-year olds, 2 three-year olds and 1 two-year old and the kids had a blast the entire time - here are the highlights!

We got into town about 1:30 p.m. so the first thing we did was eat lunch. Our friend (an Ulm native) had booked reservations at Restaurant Zur LochmΓΌhle (the website is only in German) which was an amazing place - the food was incredible and more important they had a basket of toys for the kids! The restaurant is alongside one of the canals in Ulm in an old building with a very old functioning waterwheel which was quite interesting to some of the little ones (and bigger ones) in our group. The staff was completely accommodating of our large and loud party, made us feel absolutely welcomed and allowed us to eat a relaxing meal without worrying that we were overstaying our welcome. The food was typical to the region and they did have a small kids' section on the menu. We were there on a chilly blustery day so we ate inside but they do have a lovely outdoor patio alongside a canal and the waterwheel for nicer weather.

After lunch our friends took us on a short walking tour of the center of Ulm - it's so charming and easy to walk around. Make sure to look for the leaning house (which is now a hotel) and take a walk along the Danube - there's a nice riverfront park there. We didn't have time to go into the cathedral but it's impressive and the square around it is nice as well. There's also an art museum that looked interesting but we didn't have the time or the inclination with all those kids with us.

The "leaning house", a park along the Danube River, and a bridge over a canal in Ulm.

The highlight for the kids was the playground with a giant pirate ship play structure, located just to the north of the restaurant across Neue Strasse. It's got a gate so that the kids can't escape easily and benches to relax and watch them play.

I've set up a map in Google Maps with the spots I've mentioned - click on the map below for more info!

View Ulm in a larger map

Have you been to Ulm with kids? What were your favorite things to do there? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tips and Tricks for Surviving Airplane Travel with Little Kids

Traveling by plane with kids is stressful - there's no way around it. You're all trapped in a little metal tube for hours on end with hundreds of strangers and no way to escape. There are a few major differences between traveling by air and traveling by car with kids and by far, the  most important one is that traveling by car your kids can only drive YOU crazy - as opposed to the entire plane full of passengers. The best way to ensure that your family has a successful flight is to realize that your number one job is to entertain the kids, which means you probably won't have time to read much of that novel or magazine or trade journal, or catch up on movies. With that in mind you must know that most of these suggestions will involve you to one degree or another.

1. Airplane travel is a time to make a few key adjustments to your family rules re: behavior. When we fly, we get more strict about our children adhering to our rules for public behavior (things that affect others) i.e. use your indoor voice, no throwing things, no roughhousing, try to keep the nose-picking to a minimum. . . you get the idea. On the other hand, we relax some of our other rules for this special time, so there are no limits on media use, they are allowed to eat more 'junk food' or treats, we're more tolerant of special requests, and we are much more likely to give in to whiny requests than we otherwise would be. No one wins by trying to make a point to a three-year-old 5 hours into a 10-hour flight. Once we were stuck waiting out a lengthy delay in the departure lounge at the beginning of an overseas flight. We bought our little ones a treat of some ice-cream bonbons, and at the end of the box our son started to get into a first class freak-out that he hadn't gotten his fair share. Normally he would've been out of luck, but in that special case we just went and bought another box.

2. Research your destination and layover airports ahead of time - our local airport (SeaTac - SEA in Seattle) has an indoor playground where the kids can safely run around and blow off steam, with large family bathrooms located right beside it. Chicago O'Hare (ORD), San Francisco (SFO), Boston (BOS), Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) and Portland (PDX) all have great playgrounds as well - some more than one. Other airports offer special tours for kids, airport based exhibits from the area's museums and areas with kid friendly food vendors. It pays to take a few minutes before your trip to see what the airports you're traveling through have to offer, and make a note of where the attractions are, because they're sometimes tucked away in a spot you might not pass otherwise.

 3. Read books and talk about air travel with your kids ahead of time - my kids really like 'Going on a Plane' and 'A Day at the Airport'. These are especially useful to get your kids used to some of the more unusual parts of plane travel, especially the security screening and flight attendant interaction. Talk with them about what the airport and the flight will be like, including how long it will be and what will happen - will you eat dinner, then sleep and wake up and eat breakfast? Maybe just eat lunch and then have a nap? Gently reinforce your expectations in the days or weeks before the trip so that they're not surprised during the actual flight.

4. Bring spare clothes; more than you normally would for a day trip. Pro-tip - pack each change in its own gallon ziplock bag (you can squish the extra air out to conserve space). If you need the spare on the trip, its likely you'll be glad to have the empty bag to contain the dirty clothes.  This includes for yourself - we always bring at a minimum an extra shirt for each adult too since there's a good chance if your child gets grossly dirty you might be too.

5. Think about strategies to alleviate ear pain on takeoff and landing. The most important thing is to keep your child swallowing periodically to equalize the pressure in their ears. Juice boxes, milk boxes, gum, or lollypops can all help. We haven't had any problems going through airport security taking two small juice boxes per kid per flight inside the US; I just bag them in a ziplock bag and send them through the x-ray scanner along with the toiletries. Consider packing enough for the return flight in your checked luggage (especially if you are traveling to an unfamiliar area that might not have the brands/flavors your child usually has - we drink/eat whatever is available at our destination during our trip, but again, the flight is not really the time to have a standoff about how the local beverages taste). If you don't want to deal with beverages you can offer a lollypop at takeoff and landing - that can be effective especially if its a kind of special treat for your child.

6. Bring lots of snacks and make sure there are more than just sugary treats. These days it's rare to get free food on a flight, and snacks serve a couple of purposes: 1) they stave off the hungry crankies, 2) they're a good distraction, and 3) they can serve as a bribe if necessary. When we travel we bring snacks that our kids don't usually get at home - our kids especially love to get their hands on handisnacks (with the crackers and "cheese" and a little stick for spreading) which they never get any other time. Other good snack options are granola bars, cheese sticks, crackers or chips and fruit.

7. Introduce your family to the Travel Fairy. The Travel Fairy stops by on every trip our family takes, to make sure the kids aren't bored and are well behaved. She gives them little gifts and treats, and most importantly, everything she gives is wrapped up in wrapping paper. We wrap up everything the kids will have on the flight, even things they already have (like books for their Tag reader pens, or crayons), even sometimes their snacks. We try to dole out Travel Fairy gifts infrequently, and make sure that we've saved some for the return flight.

8. Drawing utensils for writing or coloring. This could be an aqua- or magna-doodle for a toddler, or crayons or markers for an older child. Square or triangular crayons are useful for littler kids so that they don't roll off the tray so easily, and markers whose lids snap on the end easily are good for older kids, for the same reason.

9. Electronic learning activity toys make for good distractions. We are a Leapfrog family, but V-Tech also makes nice toys with learning activities. Its a good idea to bring along a set of headphones (I like these noise-limiting headphones for small kids) to avoid disturbing those around you, although I've found that using toys or electronics with the volume low works since the ambient plane/engine noise is so loud.

10. Bring along a few new thin paperback books to read to your children. Most kids love story-time, and new books will hold their attention longer than ones they've read a lot. Of course, if there are a few books that your child could read over and over every day, by all means bring those!

11. Felt boards for storytelling and imaginative play. These are lightweight and can be either purchased or easily made. I put cardboard backing on the boards I made, but you could go without and have an even lighter and smaller activity.

12. Pipe cleaners or Wiki Sticks make for crafty, quiet entertainment. For very young children you'll need to be the one crafting them into shapes that can then be used for imaginative play - older kids can work more independently but might still need some help to see how sticks can be joined together. Our kids have made (or played with) horses, dogs and other animals, flower bouquets, crowns, jewelery and shapes.

13. There are tons of blog posts around that give ideas for toddler busy boxes/bags - peruse them to choose ideas that might entertain your little ones while still being quiet, light and easy to pack. I especially liked this one, this one, and this one.

14. Sticker books with reusable stickers are lightweight and easy to pack - you could get one that relates to your destination or one more travel-centric (what you can see at the airport).

15. Sticking with the same sticker theme (see what I did there?) - dollar stores and the $1 area of Target often have sticker packs with either seasonal themes or others like construction vehicles or farm animals that your kids can use to make their own scenes. I like to prompt my younger child by drawing a simple scene on a piece of paper than he can then add stickers to, like drawing a town layout with a few roads where he can add car and truck stickers.

16. iPad, iPod, iPhone or the like can be a lifesaver - load it up with games and videos. We use two iPod Touches which belong to my husband and me but for the duration of travel are claimed by our kids. For our last trip we also brought these external batteries, which helped for a long flight. I made sure that each iPod had different games and videos so that the kids could trade and have more things to do and watch.

17. Printable activities of your child's favorite TV shows/characters. Nickelodeon, PBS, Sprout and Disney all have websites where you can download and print activity pages. I usually put them into a report folder to keep them contained and organized. I like to do this instead of bringing one coloring book per kid because they can have more of a variety that way.

18. Travel journals with fun activities about your trip. I make travel journals for my kids before long trips using cheap blank notebooks and embellishing them with route maps, travel games and printed out puzzles and mazes. Then the kids use them throughout the trip as their notepad / coloring paper and afterwards to add in stickers and postcards and other little paper souvenirs from the trip.

19. Quiet card games to play - a regular deck of cards works for older kids, and younger kids would love to play with a Go Fish or Old Maid deck, or a small set of memory match cards. You can even make your own version of Memory if you like - either printing a set off the internet or drawing your own pictures. You can also make variations on Memory than can be great learning tools, like sight word matching or matching numbers with a picture of that many objects.

20. Word games and finger plays. It helps to have an arsenal of word games and other little activities ready that don't need anything but yourselves to play. Some of our favorites are "I Spy" ("I spy with my little eye something brown" and then people take turns guessing what it is), the "Story Game" (where each member of the family adds onto a story sentence by sentence and the last player has to add their ending and then recite the whole story) and the "Alphabet Game" (where each member of the family thinks of a word that starts with each letter of the alphabet). Another game that works well at the airport during layovers or before or after your flight is a variation of I Spy where you ask each child to spot a different thing that is not immediately visible but that might be seen readily (Can you find a blue suitcase? Can you spot a pet in a carrier? Can you see a mom with a baby?).

21. Route maps. I like to draw simple route maps that help my children visualize where we're going and how long it will take us. For airplane travel I divide the trip up into time segments and let them color in the segments as we go along for a visual indicator of "when will we get there?".

22. Coins can be fun. Your spare change can be used as entertainment as well. Let your children sort the coins into groups by size and/or color (of course watch toddlers carefully since coins are a choking hazard!), or use them to make rubbings by putting them under a piece of paper and rubbing crayon or pencil lightly over the top. Older kids can practice making change in a variety of different ways or practice sleight-of-hand tricks, making a quarter appear or disappear.

This post was adapted from a post on my lifestyle, cooking and craft blog

Thursday, March 14, 2013

25 Tips and Tricks for Surviving Road Trips with Kids

As the veteran of various long road trips with my children, starting when my 5 1/2 year-old daughter was 18 months old (we also have a 3 1/2 year-old), I've managed to come up with a few tips, tricks and activities to help keep things running smoothly and my kids occupied on the road. I've compiled them here to share with you. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Leave as early as you can stand to in the morning. We pack the car the night before, go to sleep when the kids do, then get up super early, put the kids in the car in their pajamas and hit the road (I mean, 4am is a late start for us). We plan out our breakfast stop ahead of time and change the kids into their clothes at that stop. There are no miles as easy as those early morning miles with no traffic and sleeping kids.

2. Go to the dollar store before your trip and buy some little toys and things for their amusement, and wrap everything you're planning to give them. Since my oldest was little we've told her the Travel Fairy will have little gifts for her if she behaves, and now the kids look forward to the Travel Fairy almost as much as the trip itself. Let your children know that the gifts will only appear if they're behaving appropriately (You can skip that last part if you know you'll be using them as bribes to get them to be quiet for 5 minutes!). Remember to keep some things held back for each leg of the trip - I try to stash them in a box or bag that the kids don't know about and then pull out the day's gifts each morning. On a long travel day (8-10 hours) I might have four little gifts for each child.

3.Try to say 'yes' a little more than you normally might. On one of our last trips we drove past a small-town carnival that was just getting underway on a Friday evening. The kids saw it and started begging us to stop and while our first instinct was to say no (we still had a two-hour drive ahead of us) we gave in to their pleas and pulled over. With the strict understanding that they'd be getting tickets for two rides each, we spent 20 minutes at the carnival and it was one of the highlights of the whole trip for them, and those last two hours went much smoother than they otherwise might have. I'm glad we said yes that time, and I'm more mindful of that now than I was before.

4. Lots of little snacks individually packaged and if your kids are like mine, try to have the same snacks at the same time for each kid. If you're really feeling ambitious you could even wrap these in gift wrap!

5. Water bottles for each child - and it helps if their car seats have cup holders.

6. Music that is fun for both kids AND parents. Some of our family's favorites are Recess Monkey, Justin Roberts, Caspar Babypants, The Not-Its!, Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants. Putumayo World Playground and Latin Playground are great too!

7. A folding travel potty seat for toddlers who are just toilet trained can be a great thing - plus then they don't have to sit directly on the gross public toilets in rest stops or gas stations.

8. 1/4 size sheet pans for each child - these can be used as an eating tray, lapboard, and magnet board. Glue felt to the back side for use as a felt-board as well. You can usually find a lightweight pan at the dollar store for (you guessed it) a dollar!

9. A portable DVD player - we have one in our car but we only let the kids use it on long car rides (over 2 hours) which makes it more special.

10. iPhone, iPod touch or iPad loaded with entertaining apps. Some of the apps my kids especially enjoy are Cut the Rope, Angry Birds, Where's My Water?, Wheels on the Bus, and Where's Gumbo?.

11. A map to color in the route along the way. I've found this really helps kids to visualize that no, we're not there yet, and how long halfway there actually is. Older kids could follow the route on a real map, drawing or coloring the line from town to town. Here's a link to one I made for our last road trip.

12. Think about investing in a Leappad 2, Tag Reader, Tag Junior, or Vtech Innotab system so that pre-readers can read books to themselves in the back seat.

13. Lots of children's websites have printable activities - puzzles, coloring pages, games etc. Some of the sites I've used are Nick Jr., Sprout Online, PBS Kids, and Disney's Family Fun.

14. Light blankets, especially for kids in car seats with 5-point harnesses. Its better to dress them in cooler clothes with a blanket handy than to have to deal with the inevitable "I'm hot - get this sweater off me!" at some point in the trip.

15. Find fun spots for your rest breaks. Even smaller towns might have a children's museum or a really great playground. If you have a membership to your local zoo, aquarium or children's museum check your membership; you might be able to get reciprocal admission to a museum en route or at your destination. Some research ahead of time will make a great deal of difference. Here are links to the National zoo directory and children's museum directory. Some of my children's favorite roadtrip memories are stopping at playgrounds for breakfast and lunch on the trip.

16. Puzzle books - hidden picture puzzles, mazes, connect the dots books are all fun. With my pre-reader I've found that the funnest for her (and me) are ones that are only one type of puzzle so that she doesn't need me to read her new directions every 30 seconds.

17. Don't reveal the snacks and treats and printables ahead of time - make everything a surprise. Even if you don't wrap them as gifts, keep them 'under wraps' until they're revealed on the trip.

18. These foam cutout puzzles do double duty as easy puzzles for toddlers and stencils for preschoolers' drawing time.

19. Alphabet game - spot letters of the alphabet (in alphabetical order) on roadway signs, billboards and businesses. For younger kids give them a printout of the alphabet and let them mark letters when they see them - out of order allowed!

20. License plate hunt - spot license plates from as many states as you can.

21. For littler kids instead of the alphabet or license plate game, try a rainbow bingo game using car colors. Make it a little more difficult by asking them to find the car colors in rainbow order (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple).

22. Travel bingo - you can buy these sets, make your own or download the ones I've drawn for my kids. Make sure each kid has a different card filled with common sights along your route (farm animals, farm equipment, construction equipment, gas stations, fast food restaurant signs, etc).

23. Find-It bottles are always good for at least a few minutes of fun. First just let the kids explore them, then ask them to find specific items - you can even make it a race. If you put a lot of items into the bottle you might want to keep a list for yourself so you know what to ask them to find.

 24. Consider letting even young kids pack a backpack or bag with toys they've chosen themselves (if there's room). We usually have to supplement what they've picked, especially with the younger one, but it lets them feel more ownership about their own entertainment and sometimes they pick things that I never would have and then play with them the whole time.

25. Travel journals - I found notebooks at the dollar store and pasted a lot of the printables in them, along with a faceplate that had the kid's name and the trip information. It was nice to have things in one place, plus the kids had plenty of room for stickers or postcards or other things they picked up along the way.

This post was adapted from a post on my lifestyle, cooking and craft blog

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hello World!

I feel like I'm standing at the edge of the high dive with my toes hanging over, waiting for the right time to jump in to this blog. I suppose there's no time like the present, so here goes! I'll be sharing everything I come across that will help you travel with your kids, from tips and tricks to city guides to cheap airfares and last-minute travel deals. I'd also love to know what you'd like to hear about, so drop me a comment and let me know!