Hosting for the Holidays Hot Cocoa Bar

Image source: Southbound Bride
Image source: In Fine Taste

Sweater Weather!

As soon as it gets dark at 5pm and morning frost hardens blades of grass, I crave a hot drink every night. Hot chocolate is my favorite winter aperitif, so when researching ideas for an upcoming magazine article on creative hosting ideas, my favorite idea was–you guessed it–a Hot Cocoa Bar!

Easy Kids Activity: Why not ask older kids and tweens to participate? Set up a separate table with a wintery tablecloth or a cleared countertop. Supply mugs and spoons, mix-ins and containers, and labels and markers, and let the kids set up the display with a place saved for the hot cocoa. After you add the hot drink, they can be in charge of introducing the Hot Cocoa Bar to the rest of the guests.

Perk of the “job?” They get first dibs!

Supplies and Ingredients:

  • mugs, saucers, spoons
  • carafe of cocoa or hot water and powdered cocoa
  • containers with or without labels
  • mix-ins such as cinnamon sticks, chocolate shavings, peppermint sticks, toasted coconut, crushed toffee or whatever are the fan favorites
  • whipped cream and marshmallows

Note: Depending on diet preferences, ingredients may be parve (dairy free), gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan.

Happy hosting, hon!

Easy and Important Kids Activity: Sensory Play

Sensory table.

Some preschoolers don’t mind getting their hands sticky, gluey, and dirty, while others pull their hands back when introduced to unfamiliar textures. Example: glueing feathers to outlined hands to create turkeys. Observation: some kids spread their fingers to be outlined and some have to be prodded. Most kids didn’t mind sticking feathers to a gluey surface, but others will only touch the surface lightly and then hold up fingers in a way that says, “I don’t liking this feeling.”

Despite the different tolerance levels, all the kids love playing in the water table. They enjoyed the floating pumpkin pieces and, similarly, the water-table-as-a-giant-sensory-bin is a hit! It’s filled with pinecones, colorful blocks, gear-like connecting pieces, and measuring cups and shovels. I can’t wait to create different texture combinations using pasta, snow, ice, and assorted found objects.

According to Amanda Morin for verywellfamily, “Sensory play has an important role in development.” She also says,

Playing with different types of textures, tastes, and objects help your child build new ways of talking about the world. Suddenly, the tree is more than a tree, it’s a sapling with smooth bark, or it’s a pine tree with rough bark and a sharp pine scent. Water isn’t just wet, it can be rough (waves), slippery with bubbles, or cold and translucent when frozen. Fine motor skills are those that require the ability to use and coordinate small muscle groups and are important for writing, shoe-tying, buttoning, and zipping, among other things. Sensory play often involves using and building fine motor skills by exploring things using pinching, pouring, and lacing movements.

Happy hands-on learning–always!

Post Halloween Easy Kids Activity, Pumpkin Pieces Float

Halloween may be over, but the pumpkins still have a purpose. Before you throw away your jack-o-lantern, here’s an idea–cut it up into pieces. One of the directors at my preschool suggested this easy, fun and educational kids activity, and the kiddos loved it.

My co-teacher and I cut up our classes’ pumpkins and placed the pieces in a water table. Don’t have a water table? A big plastic bin, large sink or even a bathtub will work.

Our two-year olds had a blast scooping, filling, pouring and experimenting. The blog Miss Ashlee’s Class suggests ways to enhance the activity. Older kids could discuss the parts of a pumpkin, hypothesize whether they think the pieces will float or not, learn about density, and record observations.

Happy hands-on learning–always!

Roasted Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Seeds

My co-teacher, Hannah, scooping and sharing the insides of a pumpkin.
Image soure: Joy Food Sunshine

I like roasted seeds and nuts (do I sound like a squirrel?), but have never tried sweet roasted pumpkin seeds. When we were scooping pumpkins and saving the seeds for our two preschool classes, my co-teacher Hannah said she loved the seeds with cinnamon. Mind blown! What planet am I living on? How did I not know about these? Hon, here’s a healthy, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo-friendly, kosher recipe from Joy Food Sunshine that I must try!

Happy carving, scooping and baking!

Roasted Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Seeds

Tips Before Roasting Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds must dry completely before roasting. Remove the seeds from pumpkins and rinse thoroughly, discarding any stringy orange pieces. Drain seeds by lining a large baking pan with paper towels, spreading seeds evenly in a layer, and letting sit for 24 hours. At the 12 hour mark, change damp paper towels for dry ones, stir to air out pumpkin seeds.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups pumpkin seeds dried for at least 24 hours
  • 3 Tablespoons coconut oil or butter (or vegan butter)
  • 1/2 teaspoon pur vanilla extract
  • 4 Tablespoons granulated sugar (or coconut sugar to make paleo)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Very lightly grease a large baking pan, set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, mix together sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.
  3. Melt coconut oil or butter in a large microwave safe bowl or on the stovetop in a 4-quart pot.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
  5. Mix in pumpkin seeds until they are all evenly coated.
  6. Add dry ingredients to the pumpkin seeds and mix until all they are evenly coated.
  7. Spread pumpkin seeds on your prepared baking pan in single layer.
  8. Bake for 25-35 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. They are done when they start to brown.
  9. To test for doneness: remove a few seeds from the pan and let sit on the counter to cool. If they harden up the seeds are done. If they remain soft, return to the oven, checking them after 5 minutes. Continue baking in 5 minute intervals until done.
  10. Once seeds are done, transfer them from the warm pan to another pan lined with parchment paper to let cool.

Yield: 3 cups

Store pumpkin seeds in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

101 Hilarious Pranks and Practical Jokes! New Middle Grade Book by Theresa Julian

Theresa Julian, critique partner, writer-friend, published author, and fellow triplets mom, can be called a humor expert. Her first book, The Joke Machine, teaches kids how they can increase their own funny factor. Her second book, 101 HILARIOUS PRANKS AND PRACTICAL JOKES, illustrated by Pat Lewis, is now out in the world! Woohoo! Darlene Beck-Jacobson added an excellent post to her blog “Gold From The Dust: Bringing Stories to Life,” in which Theresa gives potential pranksters a leg up by sharing tips from her book. Darlene’s post is re-blogged below.

Theresa says:

Did you know:

  • Cows moo with different accents – depending on where they live?
  • The bones in the human body are held together by marshmallow taffy?
  • Snakes don’t live in swamps, they live in potato chips cans, like this:

If you didn’t know these facts, it’s okay because – none of them are true. I’m pulling your leg. Kidding. Pranking you.

If there’s a little jokester in your life who wants to learn about pranking, check out 101 Hilarious Pranks & Practical Jokesa middle grade book written by me and illustrated by Pat Lewis. This super silly book includes – you guessed it – 101 pranks, AND explains how to pull the perfect trick.

The book teaches kids how to pace their prank, find the right attitude, and create a story around it. It explains how kids can kick their pranks up a notch through physical humor, which is using their body to make someone laugh. It’s using goofy faces, funny voices, slipping, tripping, and weird smells and sounds to make their pranks extra awesome.

Here are some tips from the book:

Attitude

Start a prank with the right attitude. How would you feel if you were really in the prank situation? If you’re pretending you’ve just won a million dollars, act thrilled. If you’re pretending you broke a window, act shocked. If you’ve filled the cabinet with ping-pong balls, act casual and wait for someone to open the door. Pick an attitude, commit to it, and sell it.

Story

Create an interesting story around your prank. Let’s say you want to convince your friend that your family has a “dead finger” collection and you’ve brought in your favorite one to show her. But, of course, it’s really just your finger in a box, covered in ketchup and avocado mush.

If you walk up to your friend and show her the box, it may not be very effective. But if you build it up with a story that draws her in, and then show the box, you’ll get a bigger reaction. 

Try creating a story like this: You crept down your creaky basement stairs; opened the rusty door to the back room; and gagged at the stench of rotting skin. When you turned on the light, you found that there, in your very own basement, was a dead-finger collection – probably great-grandpa’s from the war. Now, when you show the box, you’ll probably get the reaction you were looking for.

Pacing

A good prank is carefully paced, not blurted out or rushed.

Picture this: Your brother walks into the kitchen and hasn’t yet seen the fake tarantula on the cheese casserole. Do you jump up and yell, “Look at the cheese casserole, ha ha!”? No, of course not. You sit and wait, distract him with comments about how good you’ve been (which, is always true, right?), and wait for the time to be ripe. It’s sooo much better if he finds the hairy spider himself!

Funny Faces

Let’s face it, facial expressions are key to a good prank because they help sell your story. Picture a face that’s afraid, amazed, annoyed, or bored, like the ones below.

The right face can say a lot more than words. So when you’re pranking, let your face do the talking!

Kooky Arms & Legs

Get your whole body into the prank. If you tell your friend the rat in the garage is THIS BIG, fling out your arms and show just how big. If you’re pretending you’re about to vomit, clutch your stomach, moan and double over in pain. In the prankiverse, body language reinforces your story and paints a picture, and is often funnier than words.

Silly Voices and Sounds

Silly voices and sounds make pranks more believable and fun. If you’re pretending you’ve broken a window, download a crashing glass sound and play it on your phone or computer. If you’ll make a prank call, you’ll need to disguise your voice with an accent or different tone. Funny voices are fun to create and once you’ve nailed a few, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them!

Slipping, Tripping and Prat-falling

101 Hilarious Pranks & Practical Jokes teaches you how to pretend you’re slipping, tripping and falling, so you get the reaction you want. For example, here’s how to pretend you’re hitting your head on a door:

The book also explains how to crack your nose, bite off your finger, detach your head, spit out your teeth, push a pencil through your head, rip your eyeball out, slip in poop, and control gravity. You’re welcome.

So, if there’s a little prankster in your life who’s looking to learn completely ridiculous skills, such as how to use goofy faces, funny voices, bad smells, weird sounds, and smooth body moves to trick their friends, check out 101 HILARIOUS PRANKS AND PRACTICAL JOKES which goes on sale Sept. 28, 2021. Then — watch your back

Theresa Julian loves chocolate, changing her ringtones, and writing humorous books for middle graders. Her books have been featured in TIME for Kids magazine, the Barnes & Noble Kid’s Blog, and Today.com. Theresa is a graduate of Boston College and has a Master’s in Corporate Communications. After many years of writing business documents for large corporations, she’s now happily living on the beach, writing funny books for kids. Her mother claims Theresa spent most of first grade sleeping on her desk, but don’t worry, she’s awake now, dreaming up new ways to keep kids reading and laughing.

Connect with Theresa on http://www.TheresaJulian.com
Twitter: @Theresa_Julian
Instagram: @tm_julian

Wedding Week Cont’d–Brides & Bubbles

When Aline and Cherie asked about throwing their wedding at our house, they wanted to know if we had any giant games. We used to have giant Pick Up Sticks and a picnic blanket-sized game of Checkers but, nope, we don’t have Cornhole or a giant Connect Four. They rented both and also brought bubbles. The games were a hit, and the bubbles were the best!

If you want to add giant soap bubbles to your next outdoor event, here’s what you’ll need:

  • big bucket
  • bubble wands
  • giant bubble solution
  • sense of magic

*Wands and giant bubble solution can be purchased or made.

(Click on each pic to view full photo.)

Wedding Week: DIY Chocolate Favors

Chocolate wedding favors.

My niece got married in our backyard this past Saturday, so this week is Wedding Week–pics of the beautiful event!

You know what happens when I get an idea in my head? It swirls around, taking up space and not letting go, until I write, do, or make the thing! This goes for story ideas, preschool crafts, store displays, party favors and so much more. Maybe this is why I feel compelled to take on multiple projects–the only way to stop the swirling and get a good night’s sleep is to act on the ideas. Call is creativity overload!

My niece didn’t ask, but chocolate wedding favors got in my head, so I bought molds, melties and favor bags and got to work. And how nice was this? I called my favorite source for molds, cookie cutters, melties and sprinkles and the like, Sweet n Fancy Emporium in Cranford, NJ, to check that they had the molds I wanted in stock. I was running late but the new owner, Amanda, had a hunch I was still on my way and waited for me before she closed! So-umm-sweet!

DIY chocolate favors are so easy. Here are the steps:

  1. Melt chocolate melties or chips in the microwave, first on 50% power for 30 seconds and then full power for 15 second intervals, stirring in between. Chocolate is ready when it’s shiny and liquidy.
  2. Spoon into molds.
  3. Place in freezer for 5 minutes (no more!)
  4. Pop chocolates out of molds.
  5. Clean edges of chocolates if needed.
  6. Bag and hand out.

Source: Check out Sweet n Fancy Emporium where you can find endless choice of mold, cookie cutter, melties, sprinkles and frostings.

Sayings at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe

Sayings and stories abound at Meow Wolf!

Some of the written-word art at Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf, “The House of Eternal Return,” makes you laugh, some makes you think, and all of it enhances the interactive, exploratory art exhibit that allows your imagination to think of time and space as non-linear. So fun!

Las Vegas hosts a second permanent Meow Wolf installation, “Mega Mart.” [“Participants explore an extraordinary supermarket that bursts into surreal worlds and unexpected landscapes.”]

The third Meow Wolf installation opens in Denver this September and is called “Convergence Station.” [“Discover immersive psychedelic, mind-bending art and an underlying rich narrative as you take a journey of discovery into a surreal, science-fictional epic.”]

Hon, have you been to Meow Wolf? What did you think?

Girls weekend with Laura and Cindy.

Mindbending Art at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe

Black and white kitchen with an invitation to open cabinets and drawers.

“Mind-bending, explorable art experience for people of all ages in Santa Fe, New Mexico.”

Have you heard of Meow Wolf? I hadn’t either until my recent trip to Santa Fe. Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return “takes participants on a macrocosmic adventure of seemingly endless possibilities.” It’s art, music, a mystery, a story, and an experience. You walk into a house and discover endless pathways to seemingly other dimensions. Walk into the fridge, slide inside the dryer, duck into the fireplace, climb layers of a tree-house, interact with on-site actors, and explore materials and mediums in ways you’ve never thought of–all of it opening up your mind and sense of wonder.

303 Magazine’s Corinne Anderson describes the one-of-a-kind art installation “by breaking down the main themes that tie the psychedelic smorgasbord of Meow Wolf together.”

It Encourages Curiosity

Using your imagination is almost unnecessary if you just wander throughout The House of Eternal Return because the wildly fantastic environments easily transport you to unearthly dimensions. But within these dimensions there are countless ways to interact and immerse yourself which take at least a little inquisitiveness to uncover.

If wandering around with no purpose doesn’t suit you, then you can try to puzzle out the mystery that was written by five different Meow Wolf writers about the event that pushed this regular house into an irregular rift between space and time. With this addition, Meow Wolf has invented an escape room and fantasy funhouse hybrid that tickles every single one of our senses, no matter our age.

Interaction With the Art is Key

Almost everything is handleable, and if it’s not, it’s clearly marked. Find a piano? Play it. Walk through a fabric corridor? Rub your hands along the walls and see what happens. Encouraging discovery and interaction is essential to Meow Wolf, which gives the installation an unusual spot in the art world. 

You Will Question Time and Space

Without giving away too much of the mystery, it is important to understand that the house and its inhabitants have been affected by a fracture in the space-time continuum. The House of Eternal Return is in fact, a house. But a better way to imagine it is as a portal. The portal serves as a kind of transport station to other dimensions. These dimensions seem to have no order, no relation to one another because they exist as memories and feelings of the members of the household.

Meow Wolf has created a completely new style of experiencing art and it’s exciting to feel that as a visitor you are a part of that experience, rather than an onlooker.

303Magazine

Father’s Day Hike, Hacklebarney State Park

Hiking in Hacklebarney State Park

Last Father’s Day, Hubby requested a day hiking, so we packed a picnic, harnessed Lucy and drove to Hacklebarney State Park in Long Valley. The shaded trails range from easy and wide to narrow and moderately challenging. All follow the Black River whose cool and pretty water rushes over many small waterfalls . Our plan is go on another hike tomorrow. Yay for outdoor time in fresh air in summer weather!

Info from Hacklebarney’s website:

The freshwater Black River briskly cuts its way through rocky Hacklebarney State Park, cascading around boulders in the hemlock-lined ravine. Two tributaries, Rinehart and Trout Brooks, also course their way through this glacial valley, feeding the Black River. Even in the heat of midsummer, the temperature of Black River gorge is cool and refreshing.

Today Hacklebarney is a favorite place for avid anglers, hikers and picnickers, yet in the 19th century the park was a mined iron ore site. The gushing river against the grey boulders and dark green hemlocks creates a majestic beauty in any season.

Three rare and endangered plant species exist within the park: American ginseng, leatherwood and Virginia pennywort. Over a hundred bird species and wildlife such as black bear, woodchuck, deer and fox live in the park.