Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Stocking Stuffers for Kids

What sort of things do you put in your kids' Christmas Stockings? When I was a kid, there were a few things that I found in there every year: chocolate coins, an orange, & a candy cane. I often got a few useful gifts in there too, like underwear or socks, plus a few other small items. Now that I'm stuffing stockings for my own kids, I like to give them a mix of fun stuff & useful stuff, while trying to stay away from low quality plastic stuff that'll end up in a landfill in a matter of months. But I also don't want to spend a mint on stocking stuffers, so affordable is key.

Here are a few ideas for affordable stocking stuffers for kids (& let's be honest, a lot of adults would like many of these too):

  1. Play Tape--masking tape with roads printed on it that can be put down in different ways, then peeled up & recycled after, great combined with a Hot Wheels car or two. Comes in two widths, lots of colours, & is available in store at Walmart for just $5.
  2. DIY Kit--felt plus embroidery thread & a needle, or homemade playdough (check out Mama.Papa.Bubba for loads of ideas)
  3. Mini Sketchbooks--I generally look at Opus Framing for any art supplies, since the quality is generally so much better. A tiny blank book is portable for entertaining kids at restaurants, or in waiting rooms, & even road trips. Get a 5"x8" book for just $3 at Opus.
  4. Bath bombs--if you DIY these there are tons of tutorials online. I bought the citric acid & cream of tartar at Famous Foods for about $8, which will make at least a dozen of them. Or buy ready-made bath bombs at Lush for $6 & up.
  5. Blue Orange games in a tin--they're small, they're portable, & they practise useful skills like scanning, math, reading, etc Ring It is one of my kids' current faves, available online for $16 
  6. Reflective bracelets or tags--useful for walking & biking in the darker mornings & aftermoons. MEC has a great selection under $5, but I particularly like the reflective pins made by PoCampo--they're a little more stylish & still only $10 for two of them.
  7. Ikea stuffies--inexpensive, cute, machine washable & dryable (both important qualities for children's toys!), $1-20. I particularly love the SAGOSKATT line which are designed by children: the proceeds go to children's charity focussed on the importance of play.
  8. Turbo Turtle lights--designed for easily attaching to a bike, but they also work great on backpacks & zipper pulls when walking. $7 from MEC

Hope this list helps you save a little time in your holiday shopping. Are you finished yet, or are you more of a last-minute shopper? Have you cut back on the consumerism this year? I'm curious to hear how the holidays are for you. Let me know in the comments below!

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Holiday Activities Advent Calendar

Counting down to Christmas with an activities Advent calendar
It's December 1st & I'm officially starting the Christmas season in our household. Though, truth be told, we've already been to several Christmas events like the East Van Panto, a couple of Holiday parties, & visiting Santa.

I love doing a Christmas countdown with the kids, & Oliver grew up with the tradition of the Advent calendar, so we're continuing the tradition in our own way. This year is a combination of things we've done in the past. Using the giant tree-shaped felt board with a set of numbered felt ornaments that I made a few years ago, plus some small gift bags I got at Ikea, we're doing an activities countdown calendar.

The giant felt tree Advent Calendar
I made up a list of holiday-themed special events & simple activities to do with the family, then created a set of cards with clipart images to go with each. Each day, the kids will get to take the number off the calendar, put it on the felt board tree, & read what the special activity is for the day. Some days it's extra special outings, like today, when we biked over to the Vancouver Aquarium to see all the critters, plus Scuba Claus & Rudolph 4D. Other days it's going to be easy things at home, like making paper snowflakes.

While this whole activities calendar thing seems like a lot of work, it's actually very affordable & great for slacker parents--hear me out! There was a bit of prep getting the bags & hanging them up (I used rick-rack & mini clothespegs to attach them) but you can easily use envelopes, brown lunch bags, paper clips, regular clothes pegs--whatever you've got around, or can find in a quick trip to the dollar or grocery store. The secret here is that you don't need to plan out the entire month in advance. As long as the bags/envelopes are opaque, the kids won't know that you're deciding the night before what the activities are going to be. You could even print or hand write them as you go.

Saying hi to Scuba Claus at the Vancouver Aquarium
There are some great variations on this too--one of my Facebook friends is doing fitness activities with her family each day, & Jen of Mama.Papa.Bubba has a sweet Kindness Calendar version (with free printables). & if you want to go the more usual route with chocolate--it's easy to pop one or two of those in the bags as well.

Follow our holiday adventures on Instagram with the hashtag #activitiesadventcalendar

Have you done a countdown calendar like this? How did you do yours? Let me know in the comments! 

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

6 Things to Do with Kids at the Vancouver Christmas Market

We've been going to the Vancouver Christmas Market since the beginning, back in 2010, which is also when Linny was born. This will be his eighth & Bronte's fifth year going to the market & I'm looking forward to taking them during the holidays because the Vancouver Christmas Market has introduced even more interactive & family-friendly activities this year. 

Here's the list of six things to do with the kids at the 2017 Vancouver Christmas Market:
  1. Visit Santa Claus: Take a special journey with your kids and deliver those Christmas wish lists to Santa Claus in person. Santa will be taking time out of his busy toy-making schedule to visit the market at the Photo Hut each evening. Complete with beautiful lights & festive feels, kids can experience a magical fantasy world as they sit on Santa’s knee, pose for photos and share their Christmas wishes. Santa & Mrs. Claus will be at the Photo Hut daily from 5pm-9pm, & from 2pm-6pm on December 24 as he has a special job to attend to that night.
  2. Take a ride on the Christmas Carousel: No childhood is complete without taking a whirl aboard Vancouver’s only Christmas carousel. But it’s not just for kids. The whimsical woodland creatures & nostalgic music will trigger some of your fondest childhood memories. You must be at least 2 years of age & 36 inches tall to ride the carousel. Tickets cost $3.   
  3. Meet Holly & Jolly: Everybody’s favourite gingerbread mascots, Holly & Jolly will be on hand spreading festive joy throughout the market once again. The delightful duo love to dance around with visitors, give big warm hugs & pose for silly selfies.
  4. Kinderhut Hunt & 4Cats Crafts: New to this year’s Vancouver Christmas Market, children & adults alike will delight in arts & crafts activities at six Kinderhuts throughout the market. Thanks to our friends and partners, 4Cats, your little ones can write a postcard to Santa, create spin-art snowflakes, build their own snowmen & more. But the fun doesn't end there. Complete the Kinderhut Scavenger Hunt by collecting a stamp from all six huts to receive a free ride on the magical Christmas Carousel. Maps are available at the Info Hut.
  5. Gingerbread Decorating: One of the best parts of the holidays is the sweet scent of gingerbread that fills the air. So, if you’re looking to create a Christmas tradition that your kids will always remember, come on down to the Gingerbread Haus. Purchase a decorating kit containing a gingerbread cookie, & adorn it with sprinkles, smarties, marshmallows & other sweet treats. Once you’ve created your delicious delight, store it in a free container to keep your cookie nice & fresh.
  6. Warm up with some Kinderpunsch: Just what its name translates to - Kids' punch. After all, warm & spicy drinks like aren’t just for adults. This alcohol-free hot punch made with herbal tea, fruit juices & spices will warm the cockles of your heart. Perfect for a brisk winter’s eve, kinderpunsch is available at Das Apfelhaus. 
For more info on food & drinks at the market, check out Eating My Way Through the Vancouver Christmas Market.

The Vancouver Christmas Market is on til December 24 at Jack Poole Plaza, next to the Vancouver Convention Centre, surrounding the Olympic Cauldron. It's easy to reach by transit--near Waterfront Station & the #19 bus route. Biking there is a cinch as well--the seawall & the Hornby bike route lead there. There isn't any additional bike parking for the event, but you can generally find a rack nearby at the convention centre, or the office building across the street. Tickets are $5-10, free for kids under six years old.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Eating My Way Through the Vancouver Christmas Market

Christmas is just a month away, so it's time again to eat, drink & be merry at Vancouver's Christmas Market!

This year's market returns to Jack Poole Plaza, home of the Olympic Cauldron next to Vancouver Convention Centre West. This year's Christmas market is bigger & tastier than ever with more than 55,000 square feet of space, live entertainment, & new hands-on activities for children around the market.

For more info on the market with kids, see 6 Things To Do With Kids at the Vancouver Christmas Market.

For our household, going to the Vancouver Christmas Market has been an annual tradition since the start back in 2010. For Oliver, aka Spokespapa, it's a way to share a wee bit of his German heritage with the kids.

It's also one of the few events in the city where you can order an alcoholic beverage & wander around drinking & shopping. If you drink alcohol, don't miss out on the Feuerzangenbowle, which is basically hot, mulled wine spiked with a shot of extra brandy. For the kids & non-drinkers, check out the hot apple cider from Das Apfelhaus.

Last week I got the chance to try out many of the Vancouver Christmas Market's culinary delights & I have to say, I left completely stuffed. There's a lot of fabulous (read: meat-centred) traditional European fare on offer, but there's also many vegetarian & vegan options as well.

I pretty much ate one or two of everything in sight, so here are my highlights:


Das Gulasch Haus serves delish Hungarian gulasch in a bread bowl, with both beef & vegan options of this European comfort food available. 

Mushroom soup

At Taste the Wild I had a sample of their wild mushroom soup. Creamy & packed with tender mushrooms, I really wished I had room in my belly for more. They also sell a wide variety of dried mushroom products so you can make your own at home.


I don't know how I managed to get to this point in my life never having tried raclette, but now that I have, I'll be back to Cheese Me Raclette. This is a typical Swiss dish, essentially melted cheese scraped from a wheel onto potatoes, served with pickles & pepper on the side. Great for a damp, Vancouver evening!


To me, nothing screams traditional German street food like a big sausage on a little bun (with sauerkraut, of course!). Head over to Freybe Brat Haus for a meaty delight with just enough bread to keep your fingers clean, as the Germans do it.
Chimney Cake eating technique


Okay, maybe it's a tie for The Most German Street Food: pretzels! Pretzel Haus serves up warm, chewy, face-sized Pretzels, which are something we always get at the market. Get some mustard on the side for dipping for an authentic snack.

Chimney Cake

Last but definitely not least, I had seen the Transylvanian Bakery Chimney Cake before, but never tried one until this year. I was definitely missing out. a long strip of soft dough, wrapped around a wooden roller, rolled in sugar, then baked to caramelize the outside, then sprinkled with coconut or walnut. It's a great treat to share--take turns peeling strips off to eat, or eat it straight off your arm, a la Bronte.

The Vancouver Christmas Market is on til December 24 at Jack Poole Plaza, next to the Vancouver Convention Centre, surrounding the Olympic Cauldron. It's easy to reach by transit--near Waterfront Station & the #19 bus route. Biking there is a cinch as well--the seawall & the Hornby bike route lead there. There isn't any additional bike parking for the event, but you can generally find a rack nearby at the convention centre, or the office building across the street. Tickets are $5-10, free for kids under six years old.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

7 Things to See & Do at #FamilyFUSE at the Vancouver Art Gallery

When was the last time you brought your kids to the Vancouver Art Gallery? If you're worried that they might not get super excited about Emily Carr paintings or Scandinavian design influences on Canada, you should bring them to Family FUSE weekend November 25 – 26, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.

Family FUSE is a monthly event at the Vancouver Art Gallery that features extra hands-on activities specifically for kids & their families that explore the concepts from the works on display in the gallery. Another thing that makes Family FUSE is that unlike many events designed FOR kids, children 12 & under are FREE with adult admission.

This weekend's Family FUSE theme is The Action of Expression, exploring the variety of ways that artists’ ideas & stories are revealed through the magic of materials. You'll get inspired by artists, performers & musicians, & join our many Art Agents & Educators for a truly engaging weekend of family fun!

This art-infused weekend is organized in conjunction with the Gallery’s fall exhibitions: Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection; Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive; Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting; Gordon Smith: The Black Paintings; True Nordic: How Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada; & Emily Carr: Into the Forest.

Seven Things to See & Do at Family FUSE

  1. Self portraits--the original selfie. Explore self-portraiture with artist & art educator Kate Dawson at the Self-Portrait Sketch Station, which is inspired by the Gallery’s exhibition Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection. Using mirrors to sketch their very own self-portrait, participants will investigate various painting styles & decide how they want to represent themselves to the world.
  2. Make art with light. Responding to the fictionalized artist in the Gallery’s exhibition Carol Sawyer: The Natalie Brettschneider Archive, participants will play with light sources & everyday materials in a workshop with artist Carol Sawyer. By using shadow-play, alter egos will emerge!  
  3. Watch some films & make one too. Relax & take in a film screening programmed from the Festival of Recorded Movement, a Vancouver-based youth-focused film festival. These short films will engage & inspire audiences by bringing movements like dance, surfing, skateboarding & physical theatre into new perspectives. Afterward, participants can create their own unique movement-based film in a drop-in-experiment with Vancouver-based interdisciplinary media artist Sammy Chien.
  4. Create a masterpiece. Draw on the expertise of Vancouver-based mixed-media artist Colleen Heslin at The Mark Making Place & experiment with printing, painting and collage. Participants will transform raw canvases into a painting that they’ll be able to take home.
  5. Selfie time! At The Digital Making Place, explore the age of the selfie! Using an iPad, participants will be able to take the time to paint a selfie rather than simply taking one with the click of a button.
  6. Scavenger hunt. Responding to the paintings in Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting, soak in an improvisional vocal performance by one of Canada’s most experimental vocalists DB Boyko, accompanied by one of the country’s premiere Jazz pianists, Paul Plimley. Also join our curious & informed team of Art Agents in Entangled’s exhibition space & learn new ways to look & understand painting as families hunt for different materials used throughout the exhibition.
  7. Get up & MOVE. Learn how to perform without language—through gesture & movement alone. Actor Paul Moniz de Sรก will teach a range of improv methods that he has been using to develop his own unique characters since the 1998, most recently playing the Meatdripper in Steven Spielberg’s BFG. 

For more information, please visit the Vancouver Art Gallery Family FUSE Weekend page.

I'm really looking forward to bringing the kids to Family FUSE this weekend. We've brought the kids a few times, from age two onwards & it's been a lot of fun! Check out what we get up to on Instagram @spokesmama, & join the conversation using #FamilyFUSE on your 'grams.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

How to Actually Enjoy the Holidays

This year, I'm a bit surprised to realize that I'm really well organized for the holidays already. Somehow, once I finished teaching for the season, I just launched into Christmas planning & got the basics done quickly. I want to have a fun, maybe even a bit relaxing, holiday season this year, rather than worrying if that online order is going to arrive in time, or spending hours in line at various attractions around the city.

Got the holiday card factory up & running early this year
When I was reading Minimalist Mom's post about "going zen" for the holidays, she had a lot of good ideas. I realized that I've been doing a few things to have myself a merrier little Christmas too. So I thought I'd share with you what I've done so far to achieve my actually enjoyable holiday season:

Minimize the gifts. I don't have a long shopping list, since we've already cut back on who we exchange gifts with over the years. One year, we decided that we weren't going to buy gifts to most of the extended family & friends anymore, we'd donate the equivalent amount of money to charity instead. Basically I only buy for children: four nieces & nephews, plus our two kids. I try to keep the gifts for our own kids fairly simple--though I admit in past years I've usually gone over budget a bit. Using the old rhyme helps keep me focused: "Something they want, something they need, something to wear, & something to read".

Another way we minimize the influx of stuff is talking with my family about what to give the kids. I talk with my sisters about what my kids would like or need & they give me ideas for their children, so our gifts to them are less likely to end up just taking up space somewhere. The grandparents tend to give money, which we spend on things like museum & gallery memberships. It's great to be able to go to places like Science World whenever we want & stay for a short time if the kids aren't up for longer, rather than wanting to make it "worth it" if we've paid for tickets just that day.

Quality over Quantity. I admit I'm no minimalist--my house is full of stuff & I visit dollar stores way more than I'd like to admit. However, I really try to restrain myself at Christmas. Part of me wants to buy one of everything in the store & decorate the tree in a different theme each year, or cover our outdoor trees in giant baubles, or wrap the entire house in lights. I'm also reeeeeeally tempted to get myself one of those fake white trees--I've just always secretly loved them. But I know if I buy the tempting cheap stuff, it'll break or just look awful by next year, so it isn't worth it.

Our Christmas Countdown felt board/hanging
DIY is a lot of work, but so worth it. I know not everybody is into making stuff, but if you are--make your own gifts &/or holiday decorations. This also ties in with quality over quantity. I've seen SO MANY DIY tutorials on YouTube that produce an end product that is unique, but no better quality than crap from the dollar store. The awesome thing about making your own decorations, is that you can make them heirloom quality. You can make them washable, durable, or at least recyclable.

I try to make one big project per year that can be used in future years too. I've made a wreath that holds holiday cards, a massive felt board (wall hanging, really) Christmas countdown calendar (which could also double as a Christmas tree if we were travelling, I figure), plus upcycling some ceramic Value Village knick-knacks into a Christmas village.

This year, my project is a sort of companion piece to the countdown hanging. I'm going to make a string of holiday bunting that the numbers will clip to, with pockets in each that will hold a note & maybe a treat for each day of December before Christmas. Which leads me into my next tactic...

Plan, plan, plan. As soon as November rolls around, I start collecting a list of holiday themed things to do as a family. Some of those will be events or festivals, like the ones in my post "12 Holiday Events to Bike to in Vancouver", but many will be simple things we do at home, like baking cookies, or watching a classic holiday movie. For some of the events that only happen on one day or during one week, I put them into my Google Calendar so we don't miss out, but I don't plan what we're going to do down to the minute.

This year I created a set of "cards" with activities from my above list on each that I'll keep hidden away somewhere. I'll decide which activity we'll do the following day & put it into the pocket in the countdown bunting for the kids to open the next morning. So the kids will have a bit of structure & know what they're going to do a little ahead of time, but there will be flexibility in case of bad weather, illness, or if something even more fun comes up.

There you have it. I'd love to hear about what your November/December looks like. What are you celebrating this winter? How's your holiday prep going? Are you getting overwhelmed yet, or have you got your zen on? ;)

If you're looking for more ideas on keeping Christmas simple & green, check out my list of "Ten Ways to Have a Greener Christmas" from last year.

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