Hands Free Mama

The Perfect Gift for Your Child—Something of Yourself

It may sound trite to say there is no greater gift than something that expresses love and a piece of oneself, something beyond a store bought gift, but I have recently found that to be very true.

For my little girl’s third birthday I was inspired to do two things for her:  One was to write a letter and one was to create a painting. Neither was originally meant to be a present; the ideas and the opportunity just happened to present themselves at the same time.

After I wrote the letter, I pulled up my blog and showed a friend of mine what I had written (“I Have Two Names Now: Mommy and Christina”). She paused thoughtfully and after a moment said, “You are leaving such a gift for her.”

My friend is a mother of two grown children and a grandchild that she also raised for the first three years of his life. This feedback coming from her meant something.

It was then that I knew I had written something meaningful; something that my daughter would carry with her through time.

My letter recaps the last few years as a mother and in particular how much my life has changed since I gave birth to my daughter. It also describes to her, while my memories are still fairly fresh, what her birth was like and what our relationship has been like these past three years.

I am thinking that perhaps I can print it out somehow and put it, with other such letters or essays, into a book that she can keep and cherish for a long time to come.

The comment that my friend made caused me think about the importance of gift giving and how ethereal the types of gifts we normally give are.

If one thinks back on it, the things we really hold onto the longest and the closet to our hearts are the photographs and memories of family and friends.

As one of her “real” presents, I gave her a very cute, Elmo playdough machine that talks in an Elmo voice and tells you whether you should make a square or a circle. It’s cute but in a few years it will most likely be long forgotten, as will the stickers or some of the other toys she was given. Many will end up in the donation box for other young children or will break after a few years of use.

These gifts will become distant memories, if memories at all.

But the letter will live on, even as she grows into an adult herself, or has children of her own.

The two paintings were inspired by Eric Carle’s illustrations in two of his books. The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?  From the The Very Hungry Caterpillar I chose the beautiful butterfly that the caterpillar turns into at the end of the story. Carle’s rendition of this butterfly is simply beautiful.

The second painting is of a crane in Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?  I chose the crane for my daughter’s Godfather to paint because there is something about that crane that draws my child in. Whenever we read the book she always insists on turning back to that page.

Because she likes the crane so much, I thought it would be lovely to have a painting of it hanging on the wall behind her bed. We could look at the painting and talk about it while we read the book.

The paintings did not take much effort – even for two novices to acrylics. I had bought some canvasses and I sketched the outline of the animals onto the canvas. I had learned this technique from a local art studio that offers one night classes to adults who would like to paint. To actually create the paintings we then went to the studio for another one night class. The studio provides everything one needs: brushes, paints, easels, gentle instruction. It was quite enjoyable.

(There is an art studio in town called Simply Jane where you can go for a one night class called Paint with a Pint. Off we went with our bottle of wine, bags of chips, cookies and unpainted canvases. I had attended a class there before called Paint the Greats and the Sharpie idea came from there.)

We spent the next three hours with our bottle of wine, chips, easels and acrylics painting our pictures. The teacher then sprayed them with a glossy spray to protect the paint.

Here are the final products of our work. I think they look wonderful and I am so happy that I have them to offer up as a special gift.

Eric Carle’s butterfly:

My butterfly:

Eric Carle’s Crane:

Randy’s Crane:

I love these painting and I am sure my daughter will come to love these paintings as much as I do. Both will be hanging in her bedroom over her bed and hopefully she will cherish them forever.

But at the same time, it has occurred to me that although these paintings are a gift to my daughter, they are also a gift to me. For a brief moment they stop the clock at the age of three and they will hold a special meaning for me that even she will never be able to understand.

No matter how old my daughter becomes, whenever I look at those paintings I will remember what she was like as a three year old and how meaningful those images were to her at that time in her life.

I will remember parenting my little three year old girl and I will remember how she looked at them and said “Butterfly!” and “Geese!” when she was asked what they were.

They started out as a gift for her but in turn have become something even greater, a wonderful reminder of the fleeting moments of childhood and the special times we enjoy.

In the future, I hope that I am equally inspired to create some special gift that will stay with her for a lifetime and that will carve out a special place in my heart for me to revisit as my baby grows up and becomes a young woman.

Minneapolis Resources:

Here is Simply Jane’s Facebook page if you would like to see more:


DOCUMENTARY Play Again: What are the consequences of a child removed from nature?


This is an amazing documentary about children who are “wired in” for seriously long periods of time a day. Hundreds of texts every day, hours in front of the computer screen, gaming, on-line chats. For some of them, the computeer is their social life. Chidlren who have difficulty connecting to other children socially may also fall prey to this easy way of what feels like connecting to others.

Humans have an innate need to connect to other people. Their survival and well-being depends on it. For children who may be on the margins (obese, socially inept, shy), the world of computers leaves their deficits and the reality of social interactions behind.

If you get a chance to view this documentary I would highly recommend it. It can also be purchased for a reasonable price and you and parents in your social circle could view it together and have a discussion.


From the website:


“One generation from now most people in the U.S. will have spent more time in the virtual world than in nature. New media technologies have improved our lives in countless ways. Information now appears with a click. Overseas friends are part of our daily lives. And even grandma loves Wii.

But what are we missing when we are behind screens? And how will this impact our children, our society, and eventually, our planet? At a time when children play more behind screens than outside, PLAY AGAIN explores the changing balance between the virtual and natural worlds. Is our connection to nature disappearing down the digital rabbit hole?

This moving and humorous documentary follows six teenagers who, like the “average American child,” spend five to fifteen hours a day behind screens. PLAY AGAIN unplugs these teens and takes them on their first wilderness adventure – no electricity, no cell phone coverage, no virtual reality.

Through the voices of children and leading experts including journalist Richard Louv, sociologist Juliet Schor, environmental writer Bill McKibben, educators Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, neuroscientist Gary Small, parks advocate Charles Jordan, and geneticist David Suzuki, PLAY AGAIN investigates the consequences of a childhood removed from nature and encourages action for a sustainable future.

Where we are coming from

Seventy years ago, the first televisions became commercially available. The first desktop computers went on sale 30 years ago, and the first cell phones a mere 15 years ago. During their relatively short tenure these three technologies have changed the way we live. Some of these changes are good. Television can now rapidly disseminate vital information. Computers turned that flow of information into a two-way street. Cell phones enable unprecedented connectivity with our fellow human beings. And the merging of cell phones and the internet has even allowed protest movements around the world to organize and thrive.

But there’s also a down side. For many people, especially children, screens have become the de facto medium by which the greater world is experienced. A virtual world of digitally transmitted pictures, voices, and scenarios has become more real to this generation than the world of sun, water, air, and living organisms, including fellow humans.

The average American child now spends over eight hours in front of a screen each day. She emails, texts, and updates her status incessantly. He can name hundreds of corporate logos, but less than ten native plants. She aspires to have hundreds of online friends, most she may never meet in person.  He masters complicated situations presented in game after game, but often avoids simple person-to-person conversation. They are almost entirely out of contact with the world that, over millions of years of evolution, shaped human beings — the natural world.

The long-term consequences of this experiment on human development remain to be seen, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. By most accounts, this generation will face multiple crises — environmental, economic and social. Will this screen world — and its bevy of virtual experiences — have adequately prepared these “digital natives” to address the problems they’ll face, problems on whose resolution their own survival may depend?

As we stand at a turning point in our relationship with earth, we find ourselves immersed in the gray area between the natural and virtual worlds. From a global perspective of wonder and hope, PLAY AGAIN examines this unique point in history.”


Hands Free Mama? What about Hands Free Toddler (or Child)?

(My Hands Free Baby doing a little dance!)

Yesterday evening after swimming lessons and dinner out I took my almost three year old to Target with me to pick up a few items. Of course, a few items turned into a few more items and we were there well over an hour. She wanted to ride in the cart, she wanted to ride on the cart, she wanted to stand on the back of the cart, and stand on the front of the car. She fell over, she almost fell out. A typical trip to Target. Oh, and she sat on the Cheerios box that I put in the cart as soon as we got in the store (it was on sale) and even ripped open the top asking “What is this?!” Luckily she didn’t make it INTO the Cherrios. Yikes!

After a few minutes of this toddler-sized chaos, I realized that there was a bag of items that we had purchased at the Dollar Store prior to coming to Target. I suggested that she take the items out of their packages while we zipped around the store. We had picked up some small beach balls and some toys for the swimming pool: most of them were all packed in paperboard and plastic. This kept her busy for a while but she was still into stuff, doing her typical toddler thing.

About half way through our trip, I noticed something interesting. There was another mother pushing the cart of a toddler just about the size of mine. But unlike my cart which was full of chatter and movement, her cart was silent. How could that be? A toddler sitting in the bottom of the cart and not making a sound? I looked over into the cart to investigate. There sat with a toddler completely silent, not moving, transfixed. What going on? Then I saw it: the smart phone. She was watching Elmo on her mother’s phone.

Now if you’ve read any of my other posts on children and screen time, you may know my opinion on this. Any time a child is spent engaged with an electronic device is time that the child is not spending engaged with another human being or a tangible object. The toddler is not learning how to entertain herself, the toddler is passively being entertained.

Now perhaps for that mother, that was just the break she needed. Who am I to judge? But the skeptical side of me says that’s not the case. The skeptical side of me says that the phone is whipped out whenever there’s an occasion to keep an antsy child from squirming, exploring, grabbing and generally making a mess out of things.

(This is also backed up by the fact that a different mother at the table of the restaurant we were eating at before the Dollar Store was on her phone the whole time and only spoke to her 5 and 8 year old kids when it was to tell them to sit down. Not a Hands Free Mom.) Her children ended up leaning over the booth for half of the dinner to talk and interact with me and my child.

The interesting thing about this trip is that it never crossed my mind to try to entertain in her in any other way than the way that I was, and I won’t be changing my ways anytime soon. For me dealing with a squirmy toddler is part of the job of raising a child. Sure, I was tired. I had worked a full day of work, I had taken her to swimming lessons, out to dinner and to the Dollar Store. I’m a single mom. I do these things myself. But a toddler is a toddler. She needs to explore, to learn about objects, to ask questions. On one trip to the grocery store I spent half the time reading the signs advertising the fruits and veggies.

The grocery store, or any store for that matter, is a 3D experience. She’s touching things, looking at objects, asking questions. She’s learning how to balance in the cart when she’s standing in it and it comes to sudden stop. Language, reading, fine motor, gross motor, it’s all there.

For me, the smart phone and Elmo is a last resort. It’s for times when there are few other choices.  This has always been while we on a long car trip. Giving my child the smart phone every time she is restless would be somewhat akin to giving her a cookie every time she cries. I do use the occasional cookie to pacify the upset child, but aren’t there other lessons to be learned? Shouldn’t she learn that there are times you don’t get what you want, or to teach her how to self-soothe or learn that her mamma is there when she needs a hug? Why use the phone when you can offer your child a learning experience and a chance to be in the real world? Sure, it takes more time and effort on the part of the parent. But isn’t that what we’re there for? Isn’t that what we wanted when we signed on the dotted line of motherhood?

For more on Hands Free mother check out the Hands Free mama blog.


Now THIS is a Playground!


One of the techniques of the Waldorf School is to provide open-ended objects to children and to allow the child to freely project meaning onto the object. Toys with concrete meaning already ascribed to them are less favorable because they require less of the child’s diverse imagination.

 This last weekend I went to the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, Minnesota. http://www.woodlakenaturecenter.org/ It is a large green area smack dab in the middle of the city. It’s a Waldorf parent’s dream.

I’d never been to before and I was amazed! It was a dream come true for those who believe that the child’s imagination should come from materials that don’t already have assigned meaning to them. The children use their own creativity and ideas to decide what they want to do with their surrounding and their environment. They are free to let their imagination run wild.

This nature area has a beautiful indoor center where children can see snakes and turtles and salamanders in fish tanks. The center also has plenty of windows for viewing birds eating at the feeders.

But what follows blew my mind! It was the outdoor playspace.

A “back to nature for children” dream come true!


No slides, no structures. Just one big fenced in area with two really big trees. No man-made objects. Just sticks, small logs, trees, rocks, stones, slices of trunks of trees.

The kids were in HEAVEN!

Climbing Trees.

Building Forts.




Scaling high peaks.



Or staying close to the ground on rocks just her size.



The bridge was also a lot of fun.

And when we tired of that, we went for a walk on the paths listening for crickets, frogs and birds.

Into the woods,



where the ferns were exploding and so were the smiles!


Around the marshlands and lakes we went.

It was like a fairy tale. Just gorgeous!

(Our younger companion enjoyed nature from her stroller.)

But later fell asleep!

If you live in Minnesota, check out the Wood Lakes Nature Center. It’s a treat!


Living “Hands Free” and Technology Free for Your Children
Kids Removed from Nature
Advocating for Your Child to Remain Electronics Free

May 19th ‘National Kids To Parks Day’

From http://www.childrenandnature.org/news/detail/npts_national_kids_to_parks_day_to_take_place_saturday_may_19_2012/

“National Park Trust reports 50,000 registrants in 45 states have pledged to participate, 219 cities and towns have passed resolutions and the governors of Colorado, Washington and West Virginia have signed proclamations declaring May 19 National Kids to Parks Day.  Families can join the fun and sign up online at NPT’s web site www.kidstoparks.org.”

“Recognizing that young people spend far too much time indoors and far too little time appreciating and preserving America’s magnificent national, state and local parks – the National Park Trust is mobilizing kids across the country for a nationwide park play-in.  The new website, www.kidstoparks.org, is interactive with links to park activities nationwide and provides a toolkit of ideas and activities for children, families and educators.”

Hmm…Might just have to think something special up for that day!

Beyond the Playground

Yesterday I had to take the day off from work because my child’s daycare had school conferences. On conference day her classroom closes completely and I’m forced to take the day off to watch my daughter. On the one hand, this is seen as an inconvenience. I can’t go to work; there are things that need to be done, etc., etc.

Obviously the flip side is that I have the opportunity for a full day of quality time with my child.

Fortunately for us, it was a gorgeous day out and we spent the whole morning outside. After the morning conference and a bike ride to breakfast, we ended up at a playground. As most children do, my daughter loves playgrounds.

“Momma. First eat. Then pwaygwond. Yes?”

“Yes, honey. First we’ll eat and then we’ll go to the playground.” For the hundredth time.

Finally we got to the playground. For the first time in months, perhaps even years, I was able to sit and just enjoy the out-of-doors while my daughter played. She was in heaven digging in the sand, swinging on the swings, watching the other children. I was in heaven doing nothing.

After a long time of enjoying this peaceful bliss of nothingness, I started thinking. What other opportunities are there for her out here? What can I show her in the world that goes beyond the man-made play structure? It was then that I noticed the field of dandelions. I suggested that she and I go look at the flowers. It was hard to tear her away from all the fun she’d been having, but she obliged and went out to explore.

We went over to the field of dandelions and sat to look at them. I had a flashback to some of my earliest and most delightful memories. I used to love to sit in a field of dandelions and just pick them. When I got older I would sit with my other little girl friends and we would make long chains of dandelions and turn them into necklaces.

I did the same now. I began to weave together a necklace of dandelions for my sweet little girl. I encouraged her to find me the “really long ones” and to bring them to me. She did. She would look really hard, would pluck them and would say, “Really long, mama, this one really long!”

It’s a simple story but one filled with beauty and delight, in the wonder and curiosity of exploring something new.

After making the necklace I tried to get a picture of her looking up at me but I just couldn’t get the picture. “Please, honey, look up at mama.”

“Why can’t I get a good shot?” I’d ask myself. “Can’t she just look up for just one second?”

Through the lens all I could see was that she wasn’t looking at me.

As I look back at the pictures now, I see now why she wasn’t looking at me. It wasn’t that she wasn’t looking at me it was that she was too busy.

She was actively engaged in this new wonder of the world.

She was looking down at the wonderful chain of flowers falling around her neck.

She was in her own world, in a place beyond the playground.

Always Kiss Me Good Night

Always Kiss Me Good-Night is a precious book about how children think parents should raise them.

J.S. Salt, in an attempt to be a better parent (and to produce a lovely book), asked 1,000 children to complete the following statement:

“If I could tell my parents how to raise me, I’d tell them ‘_____.'”

The children’s answers speak to their desire to simply have their parents spend time with them.

To let them explore, play in nature, and get dirty.

To be loved and cherished and to have their parents “Snugel me up in your arms.”

To take care of them.

For a good reminder of what parenting is and can be, check out “Always Kiss me Good-Night.”

Compiled by J.S. Salt. Published by Three Rivers Press: New York.

Hands Free Moment with the Big Wheel

I had a very poignant Hands Free moment yesterday.

My little two year old and half year old and I were going out for one of our evening jaunts around the block. She was on her Big Wheel and I was walking behind her. Towards the end of the walk she got tired of riding so I started to carry the tricycle. Being the independent creature that she is, she wanted to carry the trike instead of me. However, she quickly realized that she couldn’t carry it because it was too heavy. She put it down and reconsidered. She still didn’t want to ride it so she decided to push it with one hand as she had seen me doing it. This, too, proved too difficult as it swayed to one side too quickly and she is too small to push it with both hands. To help out, I reached down to push it for her. (Had I been walking and texting or talking on the phone I would likely have just picked it up and insisted that would be that.)

However, no phone in hand, I was there for the moment when she put her hand on the left handle of the big wheel and I had my hand on the right handle. Together we pushed it down the alley.

This may seem like a pretty insignificant event but to her it was HUGE.

She looked up at me at the moment we started working in tandem and had the MOST satisfied and overjoyed expression on her face and the biggest smile in her eyes. Language is pretty new to her and she clearly didn’t have the words to express just how she felt in that moment. It was a moment when she realized that there weren’t only two options in life (either she does it or Momma does it) but that there was another option: She and Mommy could doing something TOGETHER! She had the epiphany that we together were conquering this Big Wheel and that we were joined both in action and physically by the trike itself.

She was so happy that she squealed and screamed the whole block that the alley spanned while staring at me the whole time. We walked the whole way home with her on one side of the Big Wheel and me on the other.

Her screeching and squealing reminded me of when she was an infant. She would oftentimes spontaneously squeal in joy when life was good. Her father thought she was the happiest infant he’d ever encountered. I realized at that moment that those infantile squeals were the depth of her personality. And here I was, hearing her shriek again. But this time she wasn’t an infant, she was a toddler who can talk but who was so happy to be doing something with her mother that she was speechless.

The joy overcame her and it was all she could do to contain herself—all she could do was grin and squeal.