Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How To Choose A Backyard Play Set: 5 Helpful Hints

This post is not to be confused with my next post, "How to Assemble a Backyard Play Set in 5,487 Easy Steps!"*

Growing up, our backyard swing set was a staple of my childhood. With its trapeze, double swings, swinging bench seat and aluminum slide, it was the best playground in our neighborhood and the place where all of my friends loved to congregate. When my dad started wax papering the slide to boost maximum slipperiness, it became an even cooler hangout and now I suddenly realize where our middle child inherited his sense of danger adventure. 

I always knew when we had kids that a backyard play set would be a part of their childhood too but when I started to do my research, I quickly became overwhelmed with all of the options. While a swing set is undoubtedly more of a luxury than a necessity, it's something that all three of our boys (and their friends) would enjoy for many years to come and although it took a bit of convincing, it wasn't long before my husband was in agreement and started his own mission to find the best backyard swing set for our current life season. 

Let me tell you. Backyard play sets have come a long way since the late 80's. Very few are made from aluminum any more but instead are crafted from sturdier, natural materials, such as pine or cedar. There are thousands of models to choose from- some with forts, others with cabins, ones with regular slides or tube slides and our personal favorite, twisty slides. Some come with climbing walls and cargo nets while others are much more simple in their design. While I'm certain you could find numerous sets at varying affordable price points, I can remember stumbling upon a castle-like play set that retailed upwards of $11K and couldn't help but wonder who in the world was buying that for their kids! It cost more than my first car! 

While you might be quick to find the cheapest set on the market, it's best to keep in mind that you get what you pay for. That's not to say you should spend your life savings on something that your kids would need to charge their buddies admission for but it's definitely a piece of advice worthy of keeping in the back of your mind.  

Similarly, you may feel led to purchase a set designed to meet the needs of your children now, but the truth is, you really want to maximize longevity by choosing a set they can grow with instead of out of.  

Here's a quick list of things to keep in mind when choosing a swing set:

1. Measure up. Survey the area in which you plan to put the set. You'll need to make sure it's clear of trees, hanging branches, or other road blocks. Does your yard have a fence? That's something to take into consideration when planning swing clearance. Be sure to measure the entire square footage of the area in consideration.Most importantly, the ground must be FLAT.

2. Think ahead. While cost is typically a number 1 concern, it's also very important to keep in mind who the set is for and how it will continue to engage them in coming years. The average lifespan of a backyard play set is 7-12 years if properly maintained so it's very important to invest in a set that grows with your kids and continues to meet their developmental needs.

3. Choose materials. Whether metal or wood, you can't really go wrong. While metal requires much less upkeep, the beauty of a natural wood set can't be beat. It's important to keep in mind that some wood materials are often treated with chemicals- if that's a deal breaker, be sure to check out pressurized wood options that are often chemical-free. 

4. Keep it simple. Many play experts will tell you that kids enjoy the simpler sets and are routinely drawn to them as opposed to the more extravagant, complicated ones. Once again, keep in mind the size and ages of your children and choose accessories that promote their developmental growth rather than hinder it.  

5. Ready to install. Ease of installation is key. The more complicated and elaborate? The more difficult it will be to assemble and if cost is an issue, keep in mind that professional installation can be an added, hefty expense.

After weeks of research, measuring and re-measuring, we chose to surprise our three boys with The Charleston model from Big Backyard and while the surprise was immediately spoiled when the delivery man shouted from the truck, "Got your swing set here!" it was pure awesomeness seeing the look on their faces when the big rig swung by to unload their newest favorite toy.

Next week I'll highlight the installation process and will share my husband's honest opinion on the whole process as well as share some pictures of our boys enjoying their backyard playground paradise!

Disclaimer: This post is the first in a three part series as a Brand Ambassador for Big Backyard. I received a play set for free in return for sharing my honest, upfront opinions on our experience! In the coming months I will be sharing how we chose our set as well as our honest opinion of the set-up process! Stay tuned! 

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

How To At Hersheypark: Visiting With Your Little Ones + A Four Ticket Giveaway!


This post is the first in a three part series highlighting our latest visit to Hershey, Pennsylvania. Earlier this year I was selected as a Sweetest Moms Ambassador which means I get to indulge in certain perks at the park such as free accommodations and park passes twice per year. Our next visit will take place in December when we'll return for Christmas at Hershey and after having already visited the park once during this time of year, we can't wait to return! 

While Hersheypark may not seem like a place to visit with your little ones under the age of 6, it's incredibly child friendly with ample attractions and opportunities for your little ones to engage in. 

Accommodations and Eats

This was our very first time staying at Hotel Hershey and although traveling with little ones is never easy once you arrive at Hershey, you have every amenity available to make your visit feel just like home (but with more chocolate). We stayed in one of their Two Queen Guest rooms and with the addition of a small cot brought to us by the kind service staff, it fit all five of us quite comfortably. My boys will tell you the best part of their stay was "the chocolate soap" that made them smell just like Tootsie Rolls!

There were two things I loved most about staying here at the hotel. The first was its proximity to attractions such as Hersheypark itself and Hershey Gardens as well as it's kid-friendly schedule of events. We enjoyed S'mores each evening on the back patio as well as Chocolate Bingo, a variety of family oriented games and even met a few costumed characters in the lobby one morning. 

Harvest, the on-site farm to fork restaurant is also wildly kid-friendly which made it our go-to dinner destination both nights we stayed at the hotel. I highly recommend the Strawberry Basil mule and scallops appetizer. 

Packing for the Park

Before you even step foot into the park, I suggest downloaded the park's mobile app. This allows you to purchase tickets, plan your visit and dining locations (including allergen and other dietary information) while also offering a host of other sweet tips and interactive tricks to enjoying your stay at the park.

Hersheypark offers dining with the characters, an attraction that also allows entry into the park almost an hour early. While we didn't take advantage of this opportunity, it would definitely be something worth looking into!

Packing for the park is simple. Your bags will be inspected on the way into the park but don't let that stop you from packing refillable water bottles and snacks to keep everyone happy in between meals. Bottled water can be expensive throughout the park, sometimes upwards of $4/bottle so it's best to bring your own cup and refill at the numerous water fountains located throughout the park. We visited during a massive heatwave and it's important to stay hydrated while sweating buckets and having fun! If you plan on taking advantage of the water park as well as the rides and games, be sure to pack your swimsuit and a change of clothes.

Dress comfortably and seasonably appropriate. Sneakers are ideal with the amount of walking you'll be doing. You also don't want to risk losing a sandal or flip flop on any of the rides! 
Arriving at the Park

Once you arrive at the park with your little ones, I suggest reviewing your families emergency plan in the event that one or more of you becomes separated from the family. Use the park's Family Finder service located just inside the park entry to establish a safety plan. Check out this post, 5 Easy Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe in Crowded Places for some great ideas.

You can choose to bring your own stroller into the park or rent one right inside the park gates. 

If you haven't already done so, use this time to check the height and size requirements for various rides throughout the park. Use the mobile app to filter rides by height and be sure to take notice of the images located at the entry to each ride to make sure your child "measures up."

Are you a nursing mother? Of note, a special area for nursing mothers is located in the First Aid station. Designated Quiet Locations are also available in First Aid (located in Pioneer Frontier Family Health & Services) as well as Guest Services located in Kissing Tower Hill.

Enjoying the Park
Now that you're ready to enjoy the park, get to it! With more than 20 rides available to pint-size kiddos, there's plenty for even your littlest ones to enjoy at the park. 

Be sure to take advantage of the Kiddie Swap Policy in effect that allows you to swap with your partner in the event that your little one wishes to ride a height restricted ride that he or she isn't tall enough for. "One parent may ride while the other stays with the child. At the conclusion of the initial ride, the parents may "swap" places. Similarly, if one parent has two children who meet the height restriction but must be accompanied by a responsible rider or who wish not to ride alone, the parent may ride with one child while the other child waits in an appropriate area of the ride. At the conclusion of the initial ride, the parent may remain on the ride while the children "swap" places."

We ended our visit with a ride on the monorail. It was a great way to wind down our first day in Hershey and see the park, Zooamerica and downtown Hershey all with a birds eye view!

Now you can enter below for your chance to win not only FOUR 1-day Passes to Hersheypark valid until September 25th, 2016 but also a Games Value Pack worth $29.00! 

Be sure to check some of these other great posts about all that Hershey has to offer! 

1. Best of Hersheypark A-Z from A Parent in Silver Spring
2. A post about Zooamerica from Susan's Disney Family
3. Learn more about Hershey Lodge accommodations from This Roller Coaster Called Life
4. Check out The Butterfly Garden from All Things Fadra
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

5 Easy Tips For Keeping Your Kids Safe In Crowded Places

Back when I had only one child, I didn't have this constant fear that I would lose him in a crowded public setting- probably because I was a major hover-er. When my second was born two years later, a child known for his spontaneity and wandering ways, I still never lost sleep over the fact that I could lose one or both of them in a crowded public setting, mostly because while one was on foot, the other was always (ALWAYS) strapped into a stroller making it relatively easy to keep tabs on them.

Now that I'm a mom to three full-fledged, independence-seeking children and I have more children to worry about than hands to hold them with, I worry every single day that one of them will wander off, that someone will snatch one up, that one of them will fall behind and get lost in a crowd. It is a constant worry of mine and on the heels of one of our latest trips to a large amusement park, I wanted to share with you a few of my favorite tips to help keep your kids safe when traveling in crowded public places. 

1. Dress them alike or in bright, neon colors

Similar outfits or outfits using bright, neon colors make them easy to spot when maneuvering through the masses. I always try to pick two neon colors and dress all three of the boys in those same colors, this way I know I'm always looking for, say, two pairs of neon yellow shorts and a neon yellow top. 

2. Take a picture of them first thing in the morning

Once they are dressed for the day snap a cell phone photo of them so that you have a very current picture of them handy should you need one to show to authorities. It's something that the thought of doing may make you feel a little uneasy in the pit of your stomach but it makes so much sense. 

3. Establish a family emergency plan

It's always a great idea to discuss your own family's personal emergency plan during times like this and how your children are to respond should they find themselves separated from the family. Once you arrive at your destination, seek out a Family Finder Service or other main building where lost persons may be taken to. For example, right inside the main gates of Hersheypark there is a family finder service where kids are given a bracelet to wear with their guardian's cell phone number written inside. They are shown the kind of badge a park employee wears and are instructed to seek out someone wearing that badge if they become lost or scared. 

4. Don't be afraid to use a "leash" 

Or other type of harness on your young toddler. This is something that I never considered using until my third child, the runner, most recently started demanding that he would no longer ride in the stroller like a baby but rather walk like the big boys. It is impossible to keep my eyes on all three boys when they're taking off in all different directions and the minute we left Hersheypark that very first day, I hopped on Amazon and ordered this really cool looking backpack and safety harness with zero shame. I couldn't care less what others would think nor whether or not he would feel "humiliated." Not to mention that in some crowded public places, such as the National Aquarium, a place we frequent often, strollers are prohibited, leaving you even less options to corral your young, wandering offspring. I would much rather keep tabs on my two year old at all times than risk him bolting and disappearing into a massive crowd of strangers. It only takes a second for the unthinkable to happen and I'm glad to have just one more safety stop gap in my arsenal for the next adventure. 

Yodo Upgraded Playful Kids Insulated Lunch Boxes Carry Bag / Preschool Toddler Backpack, with Safety Harness Leash and Name Label, Dragon

5.  Memorize Important Phone Numbers

Lastly, if your child is old enough, have them practice reciting your phone number before you reach the crowded public place. This goes hand in hand with establishing a family emergency plan and instructing them to seek out a responsible authority figure, etc. It's a difficult conversation to have, especially in conjunction with "stranger danger," however, if your child isn't old enough to memorize your number, many parents prefer vital information bracelets or child safety tattoos. Be sure to place them in a nondescript (yet appropriate spot) so as not to make them a target for someone who may seek them out otherwise.

Quick Stick Write-on! Child ID Tattoos NEW (Beach 6pk.)

Keep in mind what works for one family may not always work best for another. While your child may be great at holding hands and following directions, my younger two are not, therefore I have to get creative when it comes to keeping them safe. Sitting at home until they're old enough to memorize phone numbers, hold my hand (or foot) or walk perfectly in line with the rest of us just isn't an option. We'd miss out on way too many amazing adventures! 

If you have any other great ideas when it comes to keeping kids safe in crowded places, I'd love to hear them below or over on Instagram or the ILYMTC Facebook page. Thanks!

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I'll Never Host Another Birthday Party In My Home Again.

"I'll never throw my kids another birthday party in my home ever again."

I say this every year and every year I end up throwing a joint themed birthday party for the big boys in our home. I lie to myself and say things like "I'll keep it small" and "I won't go crazy," or "I'll only have to straighten up the night before, everyone will spend most of the time out in the yard anyway!" yet time and time again, the week of the party arrives and there I am, scrambling like a crazy person to redecorate and rearrange rooms (seriously, what the hell?), ordering last minute party supplies and paying extra to have them shipped overnight (because what if XYZ isn't enough?) and frantically wiping down baseboards, cleaning every nook and cranny of our home. What's worse is that recently my husband even entertained the idea of painting over all of the crayon scribbles on the walls throughout our house- a task that would've required us to remember the names of at least four paint colors used throughout our house- the night before the party.

Throwing parties brings out our inner crazy as evidenced by the three times I threw a ridiculously over the top themed first birthday. Of course there was a carnival birthday party (that took like five posts to write about and involved homemade tissue poms (NEVER AGAIN)), followed by a Where the Wild Things Are party and finally, and you can tell it was totally for a third baby, something that had to do with turning one and hot air balloons (Umm, did I even write about his party?). 

But this is it. It's in writing. This is the last year I'm ever throwing the boys a birthday party in our house. From now on it's nothing but bounce houses and Chuck E. Cheeses (or whatever third party establishment is the flavor of the week) and anywhere else all I have to do is show up with a cake and party guests, write a check and the kids have the best time of their little lives (and it doesn't involve a single ounce of redecorating or post-party housecleaning on my end). 

This year we threw the boys a low key (maybe?) backyard BBQ birthday party that included an amazing store-bought cake, bounce house and magician. One of my favorite birthday parties growing up was one where my parents hired a clown/magician to put on a show and while it wasn't exactly the Mr. Giggles of my youth, Amazing Mike was certainly a huge hit with under 8 crowd. 

There were balloon animals, (live!!) doves and rabbits that magically appeared out of thin air (or boxes, rather) and several magic tricks that had even the adults scratching their heads. Best of all, I paid the Amazing Mike a little extra and upgraded our party package to include some pretty amazing party swag (goody bags) that I didn't have to plan for and fill myself. Not to mention that while I sometimes think goody bags are full of useless junk, these happened to be full of really fun useless junk that I thought went great with the party "theme." Totally worth the extra money in my book. 

One thing I will surely do again and again for birthdays, baptisms and other occasions that require cake is order from Harris Teeter. This isn't the first time I've ordered a sheet cake from them and undoubtedly it won't be the last. Not only are the cakes absolutely delicious but they really knock the designs out of the park. I went out on a whim and requested a "rabbit and magic hat" design when filling out the online order form, fully prepared to pick up a cake that said only "Happy Birthday Carter and Maclane" and was blown out of the water when I saw my request come to fruition. Thanks to a discount they were running, I only paid $23 for this sheet cake that fed 40+ guests!

Party supplies were ordered mostly from Amazon and aside from the glow stick wands and helium tank that I picked up from Walmart the morning of the party, while I spent the better part of the week rushing around like a complete fool, this was one of the best parties we've thrown for the boys. They had an absolute blast- they felt loved and celebrated the whole day through and that's what matters most. 

Well, that and I finally have a fully furnished family room thanks to three trips to HomeGoods earlier that week, but that's neither here nor there. If you're local to the DC/VA/MD area and looking for a pretty fun guy who does magic tricks and whose biggest fans are pint sized, check out Mike Perello. The boys give him two thumbs up and he was well worth the price tag. For additional magic party details, see below! As I mentioned earlier, I literally waited until the last minute to order party supplies and managed to luck out with some magician-themed odds and ends from Amazon. 

After 6 years of party planning, I think I'm ready to hand over the reigns. While the boys have always been equally excited about whatever theme I've chosen for their parties, I think it's high time that I begin to relinquish control and let them begin to plan their own parties. Not to mention that as each of the boys begin primary school and begin to gain a small network of their own friends, joint birthday parties will soon be a thing of the past.

Although now that I think about it, I did just read about this really cool reptile guy who comes to.... you guessed it... your house. 

Will I ever learn?

Misc. Party Details: 
40" Gold Foil Number Balloons
Gold Polka Dot Balloons
Black Top Hats
Magic Wands
Tinsel Streamer Photo Backdrop
Happy Birthday Sign
Novelty Mustaches



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