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Raise your hand if you oohed and aahed over the Downtown Seattle Public Library shortly after it opened, but have rarely been back since. Yeah, us too. It’s not that we don’t love it (we do!) It’s just that most of us have a closer branch that suits our needs just fine, and with the library’s fantastic hold system, you can get anything you want sent to your local branch. That’s all well and good, but it’s worth making the trip to the mother ship every once and a while. Here are six reasons why:

1. It is HUGE. Your local branch is where you go to pick up materials that you already know you want, but the downtown library is a place to discover books. The children’s section has entire shelves devoted just to fairy tales, graphic novels, holidays, foreign languages…you name it.

Central Library - filmoculous via Flickr

2. It’s architecturally significant. Love it or hate it, it’s one of the more interesting and unusual buildings in our city. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the building received a 2005 National AIA Honor Award for Architecture. Kids will spot it immediately, as it definitely stands out among the more typical downtown buildings.

3. They have a large selection of Toddler and Preschool Theme Kits. Each kit contains five picture books, a music CD, a resource book, and an activity card, all based around a theme (dinosaurs, sharing, sleepy time…). You can reserve these kits for pickup at your local branch too, but it’s a lot more fun to browse them all at once. And like all library materials, they can be returned to any branch once you’re done with them.

4. Exploring the building is an adventure in itself, with the neon green escalators and glossy red hallways. Head to the top (where you can take in the view and peer down the glass elevator shafts), then wind your way down the “book spiral” – four floors of book stacks, all connected by ramps.

Central Library- grifray via Flickr

5. Check the calendar and plan your trip during one of the many story times. With baby, toddler, preschool, and Spanish story times, there is something for everyone.

6 A Chocolati coffee shop in the building! Need we say more?

Getting There
We recommend taking the bus, since parking downtown can be pricey. The majority of Metro bus routes go through Downtown Seattle, so chances are there is a direct bus straight from your ‘hood. If you prefer to drive, the library has underground parking (entrance on Spring Street between 4th and 5th Avenues), with convenient 20-minute pricing increments for the first hour.

Central Public Library
1000 4th Avenue
Seattle, Wa 98104

Monday – Thursday: 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
Friday & Saturday: 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Sunday: 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm

When was the last time you visited the Central Library? What is your favorite part of the library? Let us know in a comment below.

— Heidi Unruh

Photo credit: Theodore Scott via Flickr, filmoculous via Flickr, grifray via Flickr

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Got a pony obsessed kid? Chances are an actual pony is not in the cards, but a pony birthday party is totally doable! Or maybe you’ve got a junior scientist on your hands, who’d like nothing more than to spend the day tinkering with liquid nitrogen. From science extravaganzas to outdoor ecology games to working farms, we’ve rounded up the best science and nature birthday party spots in town.

For the Animal Lover…

Ride ‘em ponies! Have your party at Farrel-McWhirter Park and choose from a guided farm tour, pony ride or wagon ride. Party guests get to “milk” a cow (really a cute wooden cow with a milking glove), celebrate in the party room, and pose for a photo op on a real saddle. Upgrade to the deluxe package and get the party room decorated in your choice of themes (cowboy, cowgirl, pirate, princess), a goody bag and a take home activity. Cost:  $140 for 12 kids, $240 for 20 kids. Deluxe package is $315 for 20 kids.

At Kelsey Creek Farm it’s all about the animals. After meeting the farm’s pony, sheep, rabbits, goats, chickens, and pig, party guests will create a project crafted from the sheep’s wool. Then you’ll have plenty of time in the farm room for cake and presents. Cost:  $165 for 15 kids. Only $150 for Bellevue residents!

Parties at Fox Hollow Farm are completely customizable, with an impressive variety of themes and add-ons. All parties include rideable mini-tractors, animals to pet/hold, and access to the creek, barn, and large lawns. For party themes, choose from miniature train rides, bouncy houses, pony rides, or any combination of the three. Bring your own food or let them do the catering with hot dogs, shaved ice, popcorn, s’mores and other treats. You can even add on face painting and/or balloon animals. Cost:  $550 for a single theme. Additional themes and add-ons increase the cost.

What better place for an animal lover to celebrate than the zoo? Both Woodland Park Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo offer carousel rides and party setups in their carousel party rooms.  Cost:  $250 for 15 kids at  Point Defiance Zoo. Add a private animal appearance in the party room for $50. Woodland Park Zoo is $275 for $15 kids, with a 10% discount for zoo members.

For the Junior Scientist…

We love parties at the Pacific Science Center, because they take care of everything! Choose a theme (Weird Science, Astronomy, Dinosaurs, Bugs and Butterflies), and they provide matching decorations cake and activities. Kids will love the “Super Science Show,” which includes an interactive science activity and a liquid nitrogen ice cream demonstration, where you get to eat the ice cream you made. Party guests also get free admission to the museum on the day of the party. If you plan to stick around and explore the museum, be sure to check out our insider guide for tips on making the most of museum. Cost:  $285 for 15 kids. Discount for museum members. They also have a basic package for $155 that includes the party room and museum admission, but no decorations/cake/activities.

Play with vortex generators, chemical illusions, and slime at a Mad Science birthday party. Add on a cotton candy, rocket launch, or bubbling potion “finale” for more science fun. They will bring the science to you, or you can have the party at their “lab” in Bellevue. Cost:  $195 for 20 kids at your location. $260 at the lab. Cost increases with additional kids and finale add-ons.

For the Nature Enthusiast…

At Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, parties include a themed hike through the wetlands and a celebration in the party room amidst the treetops. They have three themes to choose from:  Bug Safari (exploring with bug boxes and magnifying glasses), Animal Mania (animal games and tracking), and for children over eight, a GPS Scavenger Hunt (learn how compasses work and go on a GPS scavenger hunt). Cost:  $200 for 15 kids. $280 for 25 kids. Discounts for Pacific Science Center members.

At Tacoma Nature Center, you can go simple and reserve the play area and picnic shelter at Discovery Pond. Discovery Pond is a natural play area with a tree house, boulder scramble, slide inside a hollow log, snag climb, pond with waterfalls and log crossing, walking trails and rain gardens. Or if you want more structure, they offer several packages with activities (nature walk and craft or geocaching adventure) and use of the party room. (Pssst…if you’re looking to visit the Tacoma Nature Center prior to throwing your party, click here for our insider guide to this awesome spot). Cost:  $150 – $200, depending on the package and number of children.

Know of any other science and nature party spots that we missed? Let us know in the comments! 

–Heidi Unruh

Photos courtesy of the Kelsey Creek Farm website, Fox Hollow Farm facebook page, Pacific Science Center facebook page, and the MSEEC

Fremont’s Newest Book Store

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If you’re like us, you can never have too many cookbooks. With a well-stocked bookshelf of cooking inspiration, family dinner is a snap! Dinner parties? A joy! School pot luck? No sweat! Sure you could browse the cooking section of your local book megastore to feed your cookbook habit. But trust us, you’ll have way more fun at Book Larder, the recently opened cookbook store in Fremont that also offers fun activities (and of course, books) for kids.

The Scoop:
They have a fantastic selection of new and vintage cookbooks, plus an entire section devoted to kids’ cookbooks. Browsing their shelves is reason enough to visit, but Book Larder is about more than just cookbooks. With a full kitchen, the store doubles as an event space for cooking classes, author readings, and other foodie events. Peeking at their upcoming events calendar calendar, we noticed everything from a kids’ cooking class based on Alice Water’s book, Fanny at Chez Panisse, (ages 8-12, $45 includes lunch) to a book signing with the authors of The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook (free, plus they’ll be making Halloween treats from the book) to a book group led by local author, Tara Austen Weaver.

More Reasons to Go:
We love giving cookbooks as gifts. At Book Larder, you can find an obscure vintage cookbook for a foodie friend or a fun kids’ cookbook for a child’s birthday. And if you find yourself stuck in a dinnertime rut, what better place for inspiration than a cookbook store?

If All That Cook Book Shopping is Making You Hungry…
Stop by Dot’s Delicatessen next door for some of the most delicious deli and butcher shop items in town. Known for their house-made sausages made with locally farmed meats, Dot’s has everything you need for a take out lunch or dinner, plus a small dine-in seating area if you just can’t wait.

Insider Tip:
Follow Book Larder on Facebook and Twitter, and you might just catch them cooking up a special treat to share, like this Blueberry Cornmeal Skillet Cake they made from the Vintage Cakes cookbook.

Have you been to Book Larder? What did you think?

— Heidi Unruh

Time-Saving Meal Services for a Hassle-Free Dinner

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Ice cream for dinner? Sure! That’s what summertime is all about, right? And while your kids might think you’re Super Mom if you keep that up all year, we’re guessing you’d like to have a little more representation from the non-ice cream food groups once school’s back in session. Whether your idea of cooking means making the most of your CSA share or pressing start on the microwave, we’ve got some simple tips to make getting dinner on the table a breeze.

Plan Your Meals
Even if you love to cook, dinnertime has a way of creeping up on you. No plan + empty pantry + hungry kids = take out more often than you’d like. Get organized with a meal planning service, and you’ll cut down on shopping trips and those last minute delivery orders to the local pizza joint. One service that we really like is Plan to Eat ($4.95/month or $39/year), since you use your own recipes and can even import your favorites from blogs and websites. From there, it’s easy to plan your meals and grocery list for the week with the handy drag and drop meal planner.

Or let someone else do the planning with one of the many meal planning services that provides menus and recipes for you. A few we like are The Six O’Clock Scramble, known for their kid friendly dinners ($3 – $7/month, depending on subscription type);  Whole Food Meal Plan, created by a local mama with a focus on whole food nutrition and gluten-free options ($19.95/month); and Deliciously Organic, made with organic, unprocessed foods (plans ranging from $4.99 – $12.99/month and $48 – $150/year). They all have free trials, so you can try a few different ones out before deciding which one works best for your family.

Stock Your Freezer
No matter how awesome your meal planning system is, there are those evenings when you get home from soccer practice/paddleboard yoga/chess club, and there just isn’t time to cook something from scratch. What you can do is stock your freezer with pre-made meals for those “too busy to cook” nights. Set aside a weekend afternoon, invite a few friends over, and host your own make and freeze party. (See here for tons of tips and recipes or join the Make-Ahead Mamas). If that’s too much effort, use a service like Dream Dinners that provides the ingredients, recipes, and kitchen space–you just have to show up, make your meals, and you’re set! Entrees can be made in three- and six- serving sizes, and range in price from $10.99 – $20.99 for the three-serving size and $19.99 – $38.99 for the six serving size.

If your idea of fun isn’t spending the afternoon cooking and freezing meals, let someone else do the work for you. The friendly folks at Eat Local have an entire store stocked with frozen entrees and sides. Everything is made with local and sustainable ingredients. For a small deposit, you can even get your food in reusable glass containers. Try the chicken pot pie with free range chicken and organic vegetables for $9.04 per serving, vegetarian black beans and rice for $7.98 per serving, or the grass-fed beef lasagna for for $10.98 per serving.

Hire a Private Chef (Sorta)
Private chefs aren’t just for celebrities. Okay, well maybe they are, but you can have the next best thing: a prepared food delivery service. Let someone else make the food and deliver it fresh to your door. Check out Delicious Planet for organic meals prepared by a nutritionist (entrees from $12- $16 per serving), Tumeric ‘n More for homestyle Indian and Pakistani meals (entrees from $6.99 – $13.99 per two-person serving, $40 weekly minimum), and Lucky Palate for a full vegetarian menu (monthly meal plans from $132 for two meals per week without dessert to $329 for six meals per week with dessert. They also have an a la carte menu).

When the back-to-school chaos hits, how do you streamline everything that needs to get done? Any tips for getting dinner on the table in a hurry? 

— Heidi Unruh

photos courtesy of juhansonin and Lars Ploughmann via Flickr and Delicious Planet via Facebook

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You know how it is—you register (and pay for) a class with the best of intentions, and then a sick kid here, a longer than usual nap there, and the class is over and you’ve missed half of your appointments. The beauty of drop-in activities is that you can go when you want, most of them are free, and when you do pay, it’s only for the activities that you actually attend. We’ve included some of our favorites with information on days, times, and fees (where applicable). Be sure to call or check the website before you go, as details may vary.

A different retailer sponsors stories, crafts, and activities each week at University Village Playdays. Past activities have included Curious George storytime and opportunities to either make your own kite at Pottery Barn Kids or paint your own pumpkin at Ravenna Gardens. Bonus: Playday attendees get a Playdays Pass with special offers to selected U-Village retailers. Tuesdays 10:00-11:00 am. Free. Check the website for upcoming activities.

Every item at Planet Happy is categorized as all natural, organic, fairly traded or green. The ecologically minded company offers a wide variety of free weekly drop-in activities, including magnet and button making, fragrance and lotion creation and seasonal crafts. Open Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday. Check their monthly activity calendar for a current schedule of activities. They also have some low-cost activities that require pre-registration.

Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park has a drop-in playtime with art and games appropriate for children up to age five, on Wednesdays from 10:00am-11:30am. This event is sponsored by the Shoreline Family Support Center; the bookstore also has storytime on Fridays from 10:00am-11:00 am. The Ravenna location has one every Saturday at 11:00 am. Free.

The Toy Place at Bellevue Art and Frame has a variety of drop-in classes and events, including free Make It Take It classes, Mondays 10:00am-11:0 am, 1:00pm-2:00 pm, where kids can create art projects to take home, Scien-tastic Art, Tuesdays 10:00am-11:00am, and Little Me Art: tactile art for the youngest of artists, Thursdays 10:00am-11:00am.  Storytime and Painting, Fridays 10:00am-11:00am. Lego meet-up every second Wednesday from 2:30pm-3:30pm, Art Club every third Wednesday from 2:30pm-3:30pm pm, Explorer’s Club for curious kids, every fourth Wednesday from 2:30pm-3:30pm. Free. Check their events calendar for specific details.

The Moonpaper Tent now has Open Studio on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:30am- 3:30 pm. $8 per child. There is no studio during the month of January 2012. For only $10 per child, you can stay as long as you like and explore the art station, play dress-up, enter imaginative play areas and more.

Twirl Café offers a stylish space, delicious, healthy food for parents and children and a play place and activity center. Play-time every morning from 8:30am-9:30 am, full play days every Monday, and storytime with Queen Anne Books on the first Friday of each month, 10:30am-11:15am. Free.

Adventure Kids in Issaquah offers a completely drop-in care seven days a week in two locations. Infant nursery, toddler area, play place, arts and crafts, karaoke, computer games, theme nights and toys. Calling before-hand is encouraged to ensure space will be available. For comprehensive hours, rates and contact information, click here.

Teachers and staff at Trettin Drop-In Preschool care for children ages 2 1/2 to 5 years, Monday-Friday, 9:00am-4:00pm. $8.50 per hour. One-time fee of $40 required to enroll. Show & tell, music time, toys, alphabet and reading development and outdoor play. For additional information and FAQ, click here.

The Nest provides friendly teachers, music, stories and play for ages 2-6, Monday-Saturday. One time family registration fee of $20 required. Extended Saturday hours until 10:00 pm offer date night opportunities. Parents of children with nut allergies will be relieved to learn only nut-free snacks are allowed. For complete information on hours, rates and discounts, click here.

Flow Yoga on Redmond offers drop-in Family Yoga on Fridays, 5:45pm-6:45pm., ages 6+, $15 per parent and child, additional children $5 each.

Lotus Yoga on 4860 Rainier Avenue South offers drop-in Family Yoga every Saturday from 1:30pm-2:45 pm. $20 per family.

5Focus Yoga offers childcare at $3 per hour, 8-12 p.m., for parents utilizing the center’s services: wi-fi, massage, yoga, reading and conversation space. drop-in kid’s yoga for ages 3-10, $15 per child, Saturdays at 10 a.m.

Did we miss one? Please add your favorite in the comments below!

—Heidi Unruh (with Genna McGahee)

Day Trip to Tacoma’s Museum District

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With three museums all within walking distance, The Tacoma museum district is a fun family day trip from Seattle. The Museum of Glass, The Tacoma Art Museum, and the Washington State History Museum are all within one block of each other, and downtown Tacoma is just a short walk over the pedestrian-only Bridge of Glass.

Go: Year-round, and it’s a great rainy day activity, since it’s mostly indoors.

Approximate travel time: A 40 minute drive from downtown Seattle or take Sound Transit’s Seattle Express bus (route 594).

What to see: In addition to the exhibits, the big attraction at The Museum of Glass is the Hot Shop Amphitheater, where live glass blowing is on display. Outside on the main plaza, you can walk through the Water Forest, “a forest of vertical elements with clear acrylic and bronze tubing through which water rises and falls.” The Chihuly Bridge of Glass connects the museum to downtown Tacoma. Kids will love walking through this 500-foot-long pedestrian overpass surrounded by colorful Chihuly glass.

Creative types will enjoy the Open Art Studio at the Tacoma Art Museum. There are five stations of structured activities, or you can create anything you like with the wide selection of art materials. Check out their calendar of events (search under children and family) for monthly story times and family-related events and activities.

Train enthusiasts won’t want to miss the PSMRE Model Railroad at the Washington State History Museum. The Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers club is building an 1,800 square foot layout of the rail lines from Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park to the Stampede Pass tunnel in the Cascades. Be sure to visit the museum’s History Lab Learning Center, where visitors can  explore the lab to solve a Washington State “history mystery.”

Possible lunch spots:Gallucci’s Glass Cafe at the Museum of Glass has a good selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches. The Rock Wood Fired Pizza has a kid’s menu and a popular lunchtime buffet.

Need to know: Visit on a Wednesday and take advantage of “midweek at the museums” – admission to all three museums for one discounted price. Also, you can park for free near the Tacoma Dome and take the free Tacoma Link light rail to 19th and Pacific to the bridge of glass to the museums. The museums are just across the bridge.

Bonus: If you want to see some spectacular Chihuly glass without having to pay for museum tickets (or if you just can’t get enough glass), visit Union Station. This former train station is just across from the History Museum and features a 20-foot Chihuly chandelier suspended from the domed ceiling over the rotunda. With marble walls and Terazzo floors, this historic building is quite grand. Free and open to the public Monday-Friday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Cost of trip: Moderate

OnlineTravel Tacoma

—Heidi Unruh

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With cupcakesice cream, frozen custard, and now pie,  Capitol Hill  has got your family’s sweet tooth covered. Dani Cone’s High 5 pies have been available at her Fuel coffee shops (and a few select other spots around town) for a while now, but the pie takes center stage at the new kid friendly High 5 Pie shop.

Their pie fillings range from sweet to savory and come in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Kids will have fun deciding between a flipside (a hand pie), a cutie pie (pie for one, baked in a muffin tin), a piejar (a mini pie in a mason jar), or a traditional slice. And no one will be able to resist a piepop (a pie lollipop, which would also make a terrific party favor for your next birthday party)! If you’re really feeling indulgent, go à la mode, with selections from both Molly Moon’s and Bluebird ice cream.

Seating is primarily bar stool seating along the window facing Madison. It can be fun to watch the traffic and buses go by, but they do have one large table for little ones that aren’t quite ready to climb up on a bar stool. Or you can take your pie to go. In addition to the single serving options, they have whole pies, take and bake pies, and even a mile wide pie, which serves 30. Grab a pint of ice cream, and you’re good to go.

Before you leave, take a peek through the glass door near the back hallway to see the bakers at work. And be sure to follow them on Twitter to find out about some more unusual specials, like fruit loop cream pie!

—Heidi Unruh

The Best Places to Spot Trains in Seattle

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Trains at Carkeek – Photo by Tim & Shannon Stauffer

Spotting Trains Around Seattle

Were your toddler’s first words “choo choo?” Are you up to your eyeballs in Thomas paraphernalia? Enough with the toys…sounds like a trip with the kids to see a real, live train is in order! From Downtown Seattle to the Snoqualmie Valley, we’ve got the scoop on the best train viewing spots around Seattle.

Take the kids to Belltown and head over to the Olympic Sculpture Park’s BNSF bridge, where you can view the trains from above (26 feet up!) while admiring Teresita Fernández’s laminated glass art installation atop the bridge.  While you’re there, make a day of it with a picnic lunch on the sculpture park lawn (pack your own or pick something up at the park’s sustainable-food focused TASTE Café), explore the park, then make your way down to Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront for some rock skipping into Elliott Bay.

Railroad tracks run the length of Carkeek Park in northwest Seattle, where you can view the trains from the beach or from the pedestrian bridge that crosses the railroad tracks, connecting the park to the beach. Have your kids wave to the conductor from the bridge, and you might get rewarded with a toot of the horn!

If it’s raining outside, or if you’re just up for some lunch with your train viewing, check out Wild Wheat Bakery Cafe and Restaurant in downtown Kent. Ask for a window booth, sit your kids down, and watch the trains go zooming by.

The Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie is housed in a restored turn of the 1900s depot. Admission is free, and guests can wander through exhibits on railroad history in what were once train depot waiting rooms. From there, you can get your kids tickets for the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad – a five mile train ride aboard an antique railroad train. See the website for times and ticket prices.

—Heidi Unruh

Where to Play Indoors in Seattle

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Seattle Gymnastics Academy

Yes Seattle, it’s still raining out there, and the playgrounds won’t dry off until, oh, about June. Lucky for us, there’s tons of indoor play spaces for the kids, so staying indoors doesn’t have to mean staying home. With a variety of locations and open hours, you can hit up a different spot every day of the week!

Chances are your local community center has affordable drop-in play times. The city of Seattle alone has 21 community centers with drop-in playrooms and/or toddler gyms, and most are only $2 a visit. Some of our favorites are the Mighty Mite Indoor Play at Miller Community Center with tumbling mats, toddler trikes and a toddler-sized bouncy house. The Ravenna-Eckstein Community Center has an Indoor Toddler PlaySpace (ages 4 and under) and a Tot Gym (ages 2-5) with tons of toys, balls, and ride-on toys, and has open hours 6 days a week. Family Fun Fridays at the Queen Anne Community Center is a great opportunity to get out those pre-bedtime ya-yas. Ride toy cars and bikes, play games, and jump in the bouncy house – every Friday from 5-8pm. Outside of Seattle, check out the indoor playground at Mercer Island’s Community Center at Mercer View, the one at Crossroads Community Center, and the Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center.

Get your bounce on at one of the many bouncy house spots around town. 3-2-1 bounce has drop-in play times at the Bellevue and Everett locations. $6 weekdays and $10 weekends.Pump it Up has pop-in playtime at their Lynwood and Kirkland locations Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 9am – 10:15am and 10:30am – 11:45am. Cost is $6.50 per child and $4.50 per sibling. Jump Planet in Bothell opens both arenas (all 11 inflatable rides) for their drop-in play times at numerous times throughout the week, including some evenings. The Arena Sports Fun Zone inflatable playground is open Tuesday-Friday from 9am – 3pm at their Redmond location. Check the website for open times at the Magnuson Park location. $5 members, $7 non-members. Three-month and annual family passes are also available.

Children ages 12 months to five years will love bouncing on the trampoline, playing on the TumblTrak and crashing in the foam pit at the Seattle Gymnastics Academy Indoor Playground. All three locations (Ballard, Lake City, and Columbia City) have indoor playground times. Cost is $6 per child ($4 for children enrolled in SGA’s classes).

For a nice combination of physical and creative play, check out open play at Dizzy’s Bus Stop in Bellevue. For $7 per child, you can climb the rock wall, jump on the trampoline, hit the slide and monkey bars, play dress up, shop at the market, build with blocks, and play with puzzles and play-dough.

—Heidi Unruh