By Marion May

After tutoring one morning recently, my student sang me the most beautiful, uplifting song that he and his classmates were rehearsing for a Remembrance Day ceremony. The lyrics of the song encourage peace, harmony, collaboration and remind us to think of children as the future. In his spontaneous performance, he reminded me to be aware of—and thankful for—priceless, precious moments of joy. Leaving his home, I felt happiness in my heart and gratitude to him for brightening an otherwise gloomy, cold, rainy November day. He reminded me to be mindful of the small gestures of kindness we can share with one another to brighten each other’s spirits.

With the theme of Appreciation in mind, may I suggest a few calming and credit free, together-time activities to refresh you and your family’s collective soul over the holiday season?

 

Tune into nature—take a forest therapy walk

In the Ottawa region, by mid-December we thankfully have plenty of snow and plenty of walking and nature trails to enjoy around the city. Why not, bundle up the gang, pack a thermos of hot chocolate for encouragement and head out for a lengthy walk in the woods and explore a snowy trail near you. To find a list of National Capital Commission (NCC) trails visit http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/hiking-and-walking

A little bird told me…

The Jack Pine Trail, part of NCC’s Stony Swamp Trails system, is an excellent path for discovering—and feeding—tiny birds. Be sure to pack a small Ziploc bag of birdseed to feed the little overwintering birds you will encounter along the way. Hungry Black-Capped Chickadees will eat seed from your outstretched hand and even from the top of your toque! Children love this activity and it gives them the opportunity to see a bird right up close. Black oil sunflower seeds are a favourite of Black-Capped Chickadees. The Bulk Barn offers a wide array of birdseed you can buy by the scoop.

For a quick guide on what birdseeds birds like, checkout this link at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, otherwise known as the SMEs on birds!  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/

Hark, who goes there?

Not sure which bird you just saw or which bird just sang to you? Download the free Merlin Bird ID App from the Apple Store or Google Play to help you identify birds and listen to bird calls http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/

Become a Nature Detective Extraordinaire

After a fresh snowfall, don your Nature Detective hat and take a walk in the woods in search of animal tracks. Fresh snow makes the perfect canvas for revealing animal footprints. Be sure to take pictures, document details and build your own library of animal footprints. Who knows, you might just discover footprints from an animal who has wandered completely off course!

Check out these resources for a few tips and clues about animal tracking from the pros:

  • http://www.ontarioparks.com/parksblog/winter-wildlife-tracking/This website offers many clues to the types of tracks you may come across in the snow
  • Animal Tracks of Ontario, published by Lone Publishing is a small and handy pocket guide—that literally fits in your pocket. It can be found at many grocery stores and drug stores on the magazine racks. I especially like this guide for the simple pencil drawings of common wildlife—a terrific resource for the budding wildlife artist in your family. Online, it can be purchased through the Ontario Wildlife Federation shop at https://www.ontwf.org/shop/animal-tracks-of-ontario-book/
  • Or, before you head out, download an animal tracks identifier app from Google or Apple

But if the weather outside is frightful and downright un-delightful…how about these indoor quieting activities to rekindle your souls?

Deck the halls with an Appreciation Chain

One of my favourite books on mindfulness for children is Mindful Games by Susan Kaiser Greenland. It includes sixty mindfulness and meditation activities and games to do with children to promote empathy, understanding and awareness. The five chapters cover the topics of quieting, seeing and reframing, focusing, caring and connecting. In her Appreciation exercise, she mentions that we sometimes focus on what we lack, rather than what we have but that we can turn this negative bias around by reflecting on, and appreciating what we already have in our lives. Mindful play is a good way to help kids develop focusing skills while learning to regulate their emotions and respond to situations calmly, with kindness and compassion.  For more on Mindfulness for children, visit https://www.susankaisergreenland.com/

In the Appreciation game, Susan Kaiser Greenland suggests participants create a paper chain by writing notes of appreciation to remind them of what they have and to see the positive effect of a simple act of kindness.

To lead an Appreciation game with your family:

  • Ask everyone to think of ways people have helped them? Talk about what “appreciation” or “gratitude” is?
  • How it feels when someone appreciates you and expresses their gratitude?
  • How you can express gratitude toward someone you know
  • While making the chain, talk about “How you feel when you appreciate someone or something? What are some of the ways that we’re all connected? What is a community?

To create a paper Appreciation Chain:

  • Write notes of appreciation on strips of paper about 20 cm in length x 5 cm high.
  • With the note facing outward, glue or tape one strip as a starter loop, then continue looping the rest of the strips together to form a chain.

Note: Wrapping paper is perfect for this exercise because it is decorative and flexible enough to bend easily into loops.

Check out this WikiHow page for simple instructions and other ideas for making paper cutout chains: https://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Paper-Chain

Get creative with gratitude: Create your own Thank you cards

With a little construction paper or wrapping paper, card stock, markers, fancy ribbon, washi tape, decorative cutting scissors, glue or tape and some imagination, take an afternoon together over the holidays to create homemade Thank You cards. Grandparents, relatives, and friends will appreciate your gesture of gratitude and be delightfully surprised to receive your personalized card amongst their junk mail and bills in January. Check out this site for a few ideas to get you started https://wonderfuldiy.com/homemade-thank-you-cards/

Before you start, be sure to:

  • Buy mailing envelopes at a card shop or stationery store so your cards will fit in mailing envelopes. Hallmark sometimes sells their leftover envelopes for a few dollars. These are colourful and perfect for homemade cards.
  • Make a list of relatives’ mailing addresses and buy a roll of stamps, so you’re well prepared to pop your thank you cards in the mail after the holidays.

When the time comes to send the thank you card to the special person who gave you the gift, keep these six steps in mind as you write the note, from the book On a personal note: a Guide to writing notes with style by Angela Ensminger and Keely Chace:

  • Greet the person (example: Dear Aunt Heather)
  • Express your gratitude (…Thank you for the beautiful mittens you gave me)
  • Elaborate (…Red is my favourite colour. They match my coat perfectly and fit me very well)
  • Compliment and look ahead (…It means a lot to me that you knit these mitts just for me and I look forward to wearing them while I am skating on the Canal)
  • Restate your gratitude (…Thank you again for making me this nice gift)
  • Give your regards (…Sincerely, with love, etc)

Note: For more about instilling a sense of gratitude in your children, check out this excellent article from the Huffington Post https://www.huffpost.com/entry/11-tips-for-instilling-true-gratitude-in-your-kids_b_4708019

When visions of cookies are dancing through your head…

Cookie baking is always a fun activity to do on a snowy afternoon with friends and family of all ages. If Gingerbread house making is on your list, you can make your own dough and build-your-own house from the ground up OR reduce your stress and check out the Bulk Barn for some pre-fab gingerbread house kits. They eliminate the baking and precision cutting steps and let you and your little ones get straight to the fun stuff….decorating!

Here’s a favourite gingerbread recipe from my Grandmother’s collection which can be used for cookies, cookie cutter gingerbread people or for gingerbread houses.

Snappy Ginger Snaps

¾ cup butter or shortening

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 egg

¼ cup molasses

2 ¼ cups flour

1 tsp salt

2 tsp baking soda

½ tsp cloves

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

Cream shortening and sugar together until smooth. Beat in egg and molasses. Stir in dry ingredients and mix well. Chill dough for 30 minutes. Shape into small 1” balls. Note: dough may also be rolled out (in small amounts at a time) and cut into shapes with cookie cutters and decorated with icing, if you wish.

Place balls or cut outs on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets. Flatten balls to ¼” thickness using a flat-bottomed glass dipped in water, then white sugar.

Bake at 325F on the middle-upper oven rack for 8-10 minutes. At halftime (i.e. 4-5 min), turn pan around.

Mind with care: these burn easily!

For more baking recipes over the holidays, check out the Ottawa Public Library cookbook collections for holiday baking recipes.

T’was two weeks before Christmas and I….downloaded Podcasts!

And lastly, if you’re aiming to reduce your kids’ screen time and boost their imagination or simply calm them after a very energetic social event—introduce them to podcasts. Podcasts are beautifully simple because they are completely portable, cost nothing, will reduce screen time and best of all, boost learning.

Listening to stories helps children build vocabulary, improve their reading skills and some say—will even help them become more empathetic. Check out this site for a few podcast suggestions just for kids: https://www.mother.ly/child/best-podcasts-for-kids

What I love most about podcasts is that they can be pre-downloaded to your device (before a trip) so you’re not relying on a WIFI connection to listen in. This is a real bonus if you’re travelling through areas with unsteady or no WIFI connections. I guarantee that a long car ride or train trip will fly by for you and the kids with a good podcast series or story to listen to.

Audio books are also excellent for long trips. Got an Ottawa library card? Then, check out the Ottawa Public Library audiobook collection for suggestions. https://biblioottawalibrary.ca/en

Much like the beauty of radio, podcasts and audio books allow listeners to do other things or take in the visual scenery around them while they listen.

Conclusion

As Susan Kaiser Greenland mentions in the Table of Themes in her book, Mindfulness Games, “reminding children of the themes of acceptance, appreciation, or attention feels more consistent with the practice of mindfulness and meditation than telling them to speak and act in a particular way.” Under the theme of Appreciation, she says, “When I remember to appreciate my relationships, health, good experience, belongings and the natural world, I remind myself that appreciation is a cause and effect of happiness.”

What I didn’t mention in my opening was that on that gloomy, rainy November morning…the area where my student lives had been hit by a devastating tornado just six weeks before. With 100-year old trees snapped in two or completely uprooted, homes badly damaged and destroyed, the neighbourhood had taken on quite a marred appearance.  At that moment however, listening to my student’s beautiful voice and the lyrics of the song about the children of tomorrow, peace, inclusion and helping one another, I felt a sense of hope and appreciation. His family, their neighbors, relatives, friends, good Samaritans, first responders and utility crews had truly come together to support one another, clean up and rebuild the community. Their spirit and resilience in the aftermath has been remarkable to me.

As we head into the holidays and 2019, I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to meet and tutor the most wonderfully creative, kind and intelligent children of tomorrow.

Happy Holidays to you and your family!

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