Smart Parenting
Practical advice about raising children

5 DIY Kid Friendly Backyard Ideas

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Summer vacations to sunny and sandy destinations are loads of fun, but the vast majority of summer memories happen right at home in our own backyards. Many parents focus on one week of summer vacation at the beach — but why not invest in where the other dozen or so weeks of summer will be spent?

Your backyard is full of potential, especially to kids. Here is a look at how to build the ultimate family friendly backyard wonderland.

Make Safety a Priority

Your backyard should be full of fun, but without unnecessary anxiety or worry. Unfortunately, over 200,000 children ages 14 and under are taken to emergency rooms each year because of injuries on playgrounds and about 80% of those injuries result from falls.

Any upgrades or new equipment you add should meet basic safety and common sense standards. You can prevent injuries by following installation instructions and common child-proofing practices. Be sure to survey potential problem areas yourself, too.

Consider These 7 Backyard Wonderland Ideas

You can include the kids in bringing some of these ideas to fruition, but for others, you may want to call in a professional. Here is a range of ideas — from budget-friendly to extravagant — that can help make your backyard the ultimate summer destination.

Show Movies Outdoors with a Backyard Cinema

To make your own low-budget, super simple move screen, all you need is a white sheet, some nails and two trees. Or, you can opt to build an outdoor movie screen that will make the highest viewing quality for the projected film (turns out they make a fabric for that). 

After you create your screen, you can move on to the fun part: the furnishings. Arrange comfy outdoor chairs, beanbags and picnic blankets near the screen. If it’s a cool night, encourage friends to bring sleeping bags--perfect for snuggling as a family. Pop some popcorn and enjoy!

Swing in a Hammock

Do you have an avid reader in the family? A hammock is a great way to ensure they enjoy some fresh air while reading. Be sure to properly hang the hammock. If you prefer to leave your hammock up — instead of taking it down every time it rains — be sure to look for a mildew-resistant material.

Set up a Zip Line

Many families own swing sets or jungle gyms. If you want to level up on your backyard activity center, try a backyard zip line. You’ll likely want to enlist the help of your talented handyman of a father-in-law or your friend who is a contractor by day. The supplies are surprisingly simple, and there are even zip-line kits ready to go for purchase if you’re not much of a DIYer. Keep in mind, safety is paramount when allowing children to hang from rope, so helmets and harnesses are a must.

Paint an outdoor Chalkboard Wall

Kids have been using chalk to decorate sidewalks and driveways for ages. There will always be a special place in our hearts for hopscotch boards and four square outlines etched in sidewalk chalk.

Elevate your love of chalk art and use chalkboard paint on fences or wall installations to create an outdoor artist’s canvas. You can hang a bucket of chalk for easy access and clean up, or simply use a plastic container with a lid, so the chalk won’t get wet if it rains.

Build a Backyard Teepee

The backyard playhouse is ubiquitous. Most kids have seen a mini house in a backyard, but what about a teepee? Create a backyard teepee using painter’s canvas as the fabric, which is sturdy but won’t cost a fortune. There is no hammering or power tools involved, so the kids can help and then decorate it as they wish. You could also use this opportunity to teach them about Native American history.

If you put a bit of sweat equity into your backyard, your family will enjoy a fun and creative summer. Consider trying one — or all! — of these projects to create a wonderland in your backyard to enjoy for the seasons to come.

3 Ways Yoga Inversion Can Boost Your Child's Mood

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I remember a couple of years ago, being at the new home of my ex-husband and his young girlfriend, for my sons’ birthday celebration. My kids had asked their father to host this party and that I come along and celebrate with them. Of course I said yes, in spite of the heavy emotions I knew this would bring up for me. As the party progressed, I recall looking desperately for a spot to lift up into a handstand. I couldn’t explain this urge to be upside down, but it was there, and when I found a wall (because I admit I am a yogi who needs a wall), and got myself inverted, I felt instant relief, and had a moment to literally look at the whole situation from a different perspective.

Kids of all ages feel stress, anxiety, sadness and other emotions as much as adults, and often don’t have the tools to cope. When in the midst of a troubling situation, or feeling overwhelmed conversation isn’t always the answer. Kids respond viscerally to a multitude of experiences, and often, getting them to do something physical gives them a more immediate way to safely handle what is troubling. Helping kids learn to invert gives them another way to not only change their physiology but also their outlook.

What are inversions?

To invert really means to have the head below the heart. Inversions don’t need to be intimidating. Often, the idea of headstands or handstands can bring on a bit of fear and anxiety, so unless these are desired inversions, there are others available to do the job. Downward dog is always a favorite, and readily available for everyone. Other options are wheel, shoulder stand, legs up the wall, happy baby and simply folding over one’s own legs from a standing position There are safe ways to teach head and handstands with the support of a wall and a teacher. One of my favorite headstands uses blocks to do a no-head headstand, taking the weight and pressure off of the neck and head. Whatever the preference, inverting feels great and is extremely beneficial.

Inversions and the body

Turning things upside down actually has great benefit to the body. Inversions help strengthen the core, arms, and shoulders, and serve as good practice for balance. There is increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain, providing more clarity and an increased ability to focus, and improved circulation. This also helps to invigorate and energize the body. As we know sometimes kids get stuck in a pattern of negative thought, or feel drained, and heavy with emotions due to fatigue. Inversions such as headstand, handstand or forearm stand can give kids a mental boost that helps increase their energy and ability to tackle issues at hand. They can be a fun, quick, “pick me up!”

More soothing inversions, such as legs against the wall or happy baby can have a calming effect on the nervous system. When kids are stressed or upset, their sympathetic nervous system has usually taken over and they are stuck in a reactionary fight or flight mode. Calming inversions can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and increase ability to make clearer decisions, slow down breathing, find homeostasis in the body’s functioning, becoming and feeling more in control of a situation.

Photo by Susan Verde

Inversions and perspective

In addition to physiologically affecting the brain and the nervous system, inversions can both literally and emotionally “turn that frown upside down.” Having safe and effective choices and options for handling stress is important for children, as they encounter many varied situations into adulthood. Sometimes what kids need is a different way to see things and that is what inverting does. Being upside down builds confidence, boosting a child’s view of his own ability to handle his emotions. When we can look at an event from another point of view, we cultivate empathy and compassion, as well as providing ourselves with more options to cope.

Looking at a situation from another angle also brings an element of playfulness and fun into the moment. Sometimes this shift is all that’s needed to change one’s mood and bring on a real smile from ear to ear.

Susan Verde is a yoga and mindfulness teacher, and author of the picture books The Museum, I Am Yoga, You and Me and the forthcoming The Water Princess.She lives in East Hampton, New York with her three children. 

10 Fun Outside Activities for Kids and Families

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It's now a distant memory, but before the days of video games, tablets and other electronic devices, there was actually a time when kids loved to play outside. In fact, there was a time when parents thought their kids played outside too much, and they had to find ways to coax them back indoors.

Times, of course, have changed. For a variety of reasons, kids just don't go outside as much as they used to. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Here are 10 ways you can get your kids to go outside and help them learn to love it.

Take Them on a Walk

This is the simplest option, of course, but take your kids for a walk. Make it a part of your evening routine – rain or shine.  This will have the double effect of helping your child get used to going outside regularly, along with exercise for you both. You could also bump it up a notch and take your kids on a hike.

Sleep in the Backyard

For many children, sleeping outside is an adventure. You may eventually want to take them on a real camping trip, but before that you can get a little practice but setting up a tent and camping in the backyard. This will include more than just sleeping, of course. There will be plenty of time to have a meal and play some games, all while spending time outdoors.

Stare at the Sky

Looking at clouds and discussing what they remind you of may be one of the oldest games in the book. But it can be an easy way to spend some time with your child outside and spark up a conversation and get their little wheels turning. Who knows? Maybe they will blossom into a full-fledged cloud appreciator.

Experiment with Sports

The world of ultra-competitive youth sports can be a daunting proposition for many parents, but you don't have to have a child on the top traveling team for them to learn and enjoy all sports. The point is just to get them outside--childhood play is key for developing a wide variety of skills. Try a wide range of sports. Play catch with a football or baseball. Toss a Frisbee. Kick around a soccer ball. Shoot some hoops. Allowing your kids to try their hand at all manners of sports will help them appreciate the pros even more.

Start a Garden

Gardening with your children will not only get them outside on a regular basis, but it will also help them learn the basics of botany and plant life. Not only that, but the whole family will benefit from the fruits, vegetables and herbs you grow together. There's just something about homegrown food that makes it taste that much better.

Get Near the Water

Teaching your kids to swim early in life will help them in the long run, but being around water doesn't always have to be about swimming. Depending on your child’s age, there are countless other water activities available, too! Water skiing, snorkeling, body surfing or fishing are all water activities you and your kinds may choose to partake in. You can also enjoy the water without actually getting in it--take in the beauty and serenity of a local lake, pond, river or stream.

Build a Clubhouse

Putting together a good old fashioned clubhouse has multiple benefits. Not only will it get your kids in the habit of going outside regularly, but it will also give you plenty of bonding time while you build it together. Kids always enjoy feeling like they have access to their own private sanctuary, and having one in the backyard is a good way to do so while keeping your peace of mind intact.

Collect Things

Like many things on this list, starting a nature collection with your children has benefits above and beyond getting them out of the house and into fresh air. For one, it can teach them--and you--about everything from leaves to plants to bugs to birds. Starting a nature collection can also teach them values such as appreciating and respecting nature.

Ride a Bike

It may take a while to teach your child to ride a bike, but once they do there are hours of fun ahead. Riding with your kids will teach them all sorts of things, including the geography of your city your town, how to properly obey traffic laws and how to properly maintain and care for a bicycle. Bike riding, of course, is also an excellent form of exercise.

Just Play

It’s sad that in the last 30 years the time devoted to play in a preschooler’s day has dropped from 40 to 25 percent of the day.  Play is critical to a child’s development and, the truth is, it doesn't really matter what they're doing to play. The key is just getting them outside and playing in the first place.

There are several initiatives that drive home this point, including the NFL's project to encourage kids to play for at least 60 minutes each day. Getting them out of the house for an hour a day will help them appreciate the outdoors while also keeping them healthy.

Summer Yoga at the Beach for Kids

Photo by Susan Verde

Summertime is almost here, and with the beautiful weather comes beach time! Between the sunscreen, gathering the snacks and towels, other “equipment,” and loading everyone into the car for your drive, beach trips can feel a bit overwhelming. But once you’ve “landed” it is actually a wonderful opportunity to fit in some yoga and mindfulness. From the sand to the water, the beach is an opportunity to connect, relax and play. Try these active and calming exercises to infuse your child’s beach day with a bit of yoga fun.


The beach is the perfect place to get your kids practicing mindfulness, and that particular attention paid to what is happening in the moment. Take some time to really observe the water, what is its color? Are there waves? Are they big or small? How do they form and move? Can you sync your breath to their ebb and flow? Once in the water what does it feel like against your skin? While immersed, ask, “How do you feel inside your body as each wave approaches? Nervous? Excited?” Engaging all of the senses can turn a dip into a mindful experience and a practice of awareness and appreciation for the beauty and wonder of nature. Taking a beach walk and collecting shells is also a great option. Feel the sand between the toes. Listen to the crunch with each footstep. Look closely at the details of each shell. Who lived in there? Can you hear the ocean?

Photo by Susan Verde

Salute the sun

Taking your child through a series of sun salutations can not only support everyone’s appreciation for the gift of the sun, but it’s a wonderful way to warm up the body after getting chilled in the water, and great exercise to boot! Start standing with feet hip distance apart. Inhale and reach up to the sky as if taking the sun in your hands. Exhale and fold over the feet, inhale with hands on shins and look up. Exhale and fold. Step each foot back into a plank and drop to the belly. With bent elbows and hands on either side of the body aligned with the chest, palms pressing into the ground, push the sand away as you arch the back and look up at the sky in cobra pose. Coming back to all fours lift your hips in the air, keeping hands on the ground and arms straight. Gaze at your belly and wag your tail in downward dog pose. Jump your feet to your hands and squat in frog, then straighten the legs and fold over them as you did from the start. Raise your arms towards the sky as you slowly roll up and then bring palms pressed together to your heart.  Repeat this sequence as many times as feels good. Build up a sweat and say “Thank you Sun!” Kids will be ready for round two of wave diving in no time!

Get upside down

The softness of the sand is perfect for trying more difficult poses and removing the fear of falling which can often hold kids (and grown-ups) back from inverting. Kids can kick up their heels and practice handstands or crow pose. Give kids the challenge and they will rise to the occasion. Children naturally love to turn upside down and look at the world from a different perspective and the beach is a naturally supportive setting for this exploration.

Photo by Susan Verde


Lying on a towel, soaking up the rays (with lots of sunscreen on of course) is one of the best parts of a beach day. Encourage your kids to take some down time, stretching out on their backs, closing their eyes, and letting their whole body and the thoughts of a busy day just go. Some deep breathing in and out through the nose will allow their muscles to loosen and their minds to clear. Having the sand beneath them is great for a tense and relax exercise or a body scan. While in this restful position have your child tighten different parts of the body and then on an exhale, relax them or bring their attention to each body part imagining they are sinking into the soft sand.

Beach yoga and mindfulness can give kids a chance to reset their bodies and minds, and can help to manage the transitions and busy schedules that the season can bring, which makes for a happier summertime experience for the whole family!

Susan Verde is a yoga and mindfulness teacher, and author of the picture books The Museum, I Am Yoga, You and Me and the forthcoming The Water Princess. She lives in East Hampton, New York with her three children.

4 Tips for Summer Safety for Kids

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Planes, trains, automobiles or backyards: What will be your pick for family fun this summer? The minute schools let out, the kids are officially on vacation. That means that mom and dad have to be on elevated alert to make sure the home front is also a safe zone for fun.

Those precautions can extend to the family vacation as well. It doesn't take a lot of effort to protect your loved ones, just a little planning. Do it right and they won't even notice you've become a super safety monitor. Here's what to keep in mind:

Around the Outdoors

The moment your kids step outside to play, they should be lathered with sunscreen. The minimal SPF factor is around 15. Thankfully, sunscreen companies have gotten with the program in terms of "ease of use." Now, you can find safe sunscreen options that come in sprays as well as lotions. Most sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours. This is especially true if your kids are around water or sand, where the sun's reflections intensify. Keeping babies and toddlers covered with hats and long sleeves is also a good precaution.

If given the chance, the average kid would hit the backyard in the morning and not come back inside until it's time for dinner. As with sunscreen, you also want them to stay hydrated. That means taking drink breaks at least every twenty minutes when out in the heat. Make it easy by setting up a cooler of water. Keep in mind that the minute your kid feels thirsty, they are already dehydrated.

Depending on where you live, you might need to do a tick check when playtime is over – particularly if you’ve been in a wooded area. Ticks can be tricky and hard to spot, but you definitely want to catch them before they latch onto you or your child. If you find a tick, make sure you follow proper tick removal and disposal techniques.  

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Around the Pool 

If you have a pool in your backyard, it could become the most popular spot on the block. Rule number one: Never leave young kids alone by the pool. Ever. It doesn't matter how skilled they are at swimming or diving, they need supervision. You are the lifeguard now. Even your teens should know that you're keeping an eye out on them to prevent horseplay that can lead to injuries.

When enjoying your typical pool session, make sure you've got a phone outside, along with flotation rings and a shepherd's hook. For extra vigilance, take a CPR course. With a couple of hours’ training, you'll be good to go.

When visiting a new pool at a hotel, theme park or community center, make sure you give it the once over before the kids dive in. Specifically, make sure all the drains are covered, especially in the deep end. It doesn’t hurt to check the inspection reports as well, since as many as 80% of public pools had at least one violation in a recent study.

Around the Car

If a road trip is on the agenda, make sure your car is ready for the adventure. It might be time to review your child safety seat setups to make sure they conform to recommended standards (1 in 4 car seats are not used or installed properly).  Of course, you should also travel with an emergency road kit, to help if the car breaks down in bad weather.

Once you get behind the wheel put down the cell phone. Between the road ahead and what's going on in the backseat, you don't need any other distractions.

Photo by Fotolia

Around the Grill

Summer is all about grilling. As you work up your new marinade recipe, review the hot zone areas with your kids. There is nothing wrong with getting them to help out with the cooking, but make sure they’re aware of the potentially dangerous situations.

Ask any top chef and they'll recommend that before grilling, you bring meat and poultry to room temperature. This means setting it out on the counter for a bit, keeping it covered in a bowl or on a cutting board. After handing any type of raw meat or poultry, wash up and avoid using the same bowls or trays to transfer cooked meat, to avoid cross-contamination.

Of course, nothing can prevent your fair share of scrapes, cuts and bug bites. Fortunately that’s nothing that can't be taken care of with a well-stocked first aid kit. Between that and common sense precautions, your family can look forward to a super safe and fun summer.

7 Tips for Involving Your Kids in the Garden

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Growing your own food can be a big step in learning to eat well early in life. Instilling healthy eating habits in kids can be tricky, but if you can teach them to love gardening, your chances of getting your picky eater to eat their veggies will increase. With a few tips, you can get your child to enjoy themselves in the garden. Check out the list below for some ideas on giving your little one a green thumb.

Let Them Choose

Letting your kids pick what to plant can help keep them interested. They get to choose something and watch how it changes as they take care of it. The cause and effect part of gardening can be very rewarding for children. Get garden tools that are suited to their small hands and let them participate in the whole process of creating and maintaining a garden.

Give Them Their Own Area

Dedicating a small section of the garden to your child can make gardening feel like a special activity for them. Having their own area to work in helps them feel important and included. Giving them their own garden space also grants a little room for creativity, because they can set up their garden just how they like it.

Let Them Decorate

Plain flower pots look better with a coat of paint, and your child will enjoy making something colorful. Allow your child as much creative freedom as possible to decorate the garden as they wish. Let them paint pots or draw signs to identify plants. Anything they can do to personalize the garden will keep them content.

Let Them Get Dirty

Kids love to get their hands dirty. Letting them go wild in the garden may be the secret to keeping your little helper entertained. Let them dig their own holes and plant their own seeds. Getting their hands in the dirt is something almost no kid can resist. Let your child water the garden sometimes, as well. Who doesn’t love playing with the garden hose?

Be aware though; May and June can be rainy months, and if your yard is in a low-lying area, small puddles can quickly turn into a muddy pond. If you find yourself in this situation it may be helpful to remove water with a pump or at least redistribute it to other areas of your yard. Your white carpet will thank you later.

Plant Something Fun

Kids are all about their senses. No matter what it is, they want to touch it, smell it or put it in their mouths. The garden can be the perfect place to explore your senses. Plant things that appeal to all the ways your kids interact with the world. Colorful flowers give them something to look at. Wooly plants such as lamb’s ear are interesting to feel. Marigold and mint are highly scented plants. Lettuce and radishes will sprout quickly and show your kid that their hard work is paying off.

Bribe Them

OK, this probably isn’t the best way to get or keep your kids in the garden, but a reward system can make them more interested in their new role of farmer. You can create a garden chore chart and reward them for completing all their tasks. The reward should be something small but exciting. Getting to pick a rental movie, having 10 extra minutes of playtime or a small treat are some good possible rewards. Personalize the chart and reward system to your child and they might eventually start volunteering to garden.


Don’t make gardening too stressful for your little helper. When offering advice on an activity, be specific but not overly strict. Rows don’t need to be planted perfectly straight. Let your kids have a little wiggle room and allow them to garden in a carefree way. Never cry over spilled seed and always remember that clothes – and children – are washable.

Getting your child to help in the garden can start a lifelong love of healthy food. The physical activity is just one reason to get outside, and the time you spend together is irreplaceable. Even if your garden isn’t the most successful, you’re getting plenty of practice and your child is learning valuable skills they can carry with them their whole life.

Megan Wild is a gardener who is the process of cultivating her first succulent garden. She loves visiting local floral nurseries and picking out plants that she struggles to fit into her yard. Find her tweeting home and garden inspiration @Megan_Wild.

10 Household Essentials for Eco-Moms

You’ve heard of that mom — the one who has a natural solution to every ailment that strikes her child, who makes her own cleaners and laundry detergent, who somehow has her kids trained to crave organic vegetables over fruit snacks. This type is often known as the “crunchy mom” or “eco-mom.”

Eco-moms are loosely defined as women who initiate green living and maintain natural lifestyles and households. In parenting, cleaning and cooking, these women look for the most clean and natural alternatives to keep their bodies and homes free of chemicals and toxins. And more and more parents, and people, are leaning toward a crunchier lifestyle.

Whether you’re looking for a gift for an eco-mom in your life or you want to start taking a more natural approach to your own household, the following ten items are essentials.

mom and dad playing with baby
Photo by Fotolia/taka.

1. Essential Oils and a Diffuser

Headaches, sore throats, colds, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, pain, allergies — you name the symptom, and there’s an essential oil designed to alleviate it. Diffusing essential oils eliminates the need to turn to over-the-counter pain relievers or antibiotics. Making your own essential oil blends for use in a diffuser than you may think, watch our video to learn how.

2. Himalayan Salt Lamp

These dim lamps are like natural air purifiers as they work to eliminate dust, pollen and contaminants from the air. Believed to improve your mood and energy levels while relieving your kids’ allergies and asthma symptoms, these lamps have several benefits for moms and babies.

3. Dr. Bronner's Soap

Eco-moms love this popular, natural line of soap. Made with high-quality, pure ingredients, Dr. Bronner’s soap is well-known for its versatility. You can use Dr. Bronner's soap for everything from washing your face, hair and body, to doing dishes and laundry, to scrubbing toilets and washing windows.

4. Glass Water Bottle

These trendy water bottles are a must-have for moms and kids. Eco-mamas like these because the glass and lids are BPA- and phthalate-free. The majority of these are sturdy, lightweight and easy for kids to hold.

5. Ceramic Cookware and Nontoxic Kitchenware

Since moms tend to do much of the cooking, they will want nontoxic cookware that is scratch resistant, easy to clean, and free of chemicals and heavy metals.

6. Coconut Oil

This is the most versatile and useful investment for any mom. While it’s a healthy fat to use for making granola or almond butter, it also serves as a natural moisturizer for skin and hair. Coconut oil is great for healing eczema and diaper rash, but also for removing your makeup or relieving stretch marks.

7. Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is another versatile household item. Whether using it as a facial toner, an all-purpose cleaner or an aid for an upset stomach, eco-moms will always want to have apple cider vinegar on hand.

8. Microfiber Cloths

Cloths with microfiber technology, such as e-cloth or Norwex, allow you to clean without using harmful, chemical-laden products. Adding only water to a microfiber cloth cleans 99 percent of bacteria, so your family can be spared exposure to extra cleaning chemicals.

9. Reusable Bags

These can be cute and trendy, often decorated with quotes or themes that appeal to either your values or aesthetic preferences. Simple, recyclable totes come in handy when moms are heading to the farmers market or the grocery store.

10. Loose-Leaf Herbal Tea

Tea is similar to essential oils in the sense that there’s a tea leaf for every ailment out there. Specific herbal teas can aid in digestion and sleep quality, boost relaxation and happiness, relieve allergies and so much more. Some are known for their benefits while pregnant or breastfeeding as well.

While you may think crunchy, eco-moms do a lot of extra work to live more naturally, these essential items provide more benefits and reduce their stress levels in the long run.

Ali Lawrence is a tea-sipping writer who focuses on healthy and sustainable living via her family blog Homey Improvements. She was born and raised in Alaska, and dabbles in PR, Pilates and is a princess for hire for kid’s parties. Find her on Twitter @DIYfolks.