You’ve Come an Even Longer Way

It’s been almost 6 years since I gifted my parents with some very special Garden Art in You’ve Come a Long Way… and it was in need of an update. Sign Side-by-Side

In addition to adding “Penang, Malaysia” to their list of Places-Lived, they purchased a vacation home in North Carolina, aptly named Hakuna Matata for the abundant serenity, beauty, and relaxation it offers—in addition to providing the space for memories, family, friends and fun. #happyplace

Hakuna Matata Collage

Meanwhile, last Christmas I was gifted with a Cricut Maker* and have slowly learned to skim the surface of its possibilities.

*Although I use affiliate links, meaning I’d get a couple of pennies if you purchased this from me, Never Have I Ever earned enough to actually receive compensation.

So for my Dad’s birthday this year, I decided to give the gift of an updated, double set of signs using my Cricut Maker. One set for their home in Leander, the second set for Hakuna Matata.


As a frugal crafter, I prefer to use materials already on-hand rather than purchase anew. Because the table saw scares me, I voluntold my husband to cut some thin plywood that we had in the garage (maybe 3/16 thickness?).

IMG_4755As a problem solver, I chose the time-saving spray paint option rather than hand-painting with acrylics. And frugal means I used cans we already had… if I had it to do over, I would have replaced the dark blue (Yeadon and Penang) and dark purple (Limerick) with brighter colors.

I also pre-drilled two 1/4″ holes in each sign so that the wood wouldn’t crack when attaching it to the sign-post.

The only supply that I purchased for this project was Oracal 651 Premium Outdoor Vinyl. 


I chose several different fonts that look more like fancy handwriting rather than computer generated. (Here’s the Cricut Pin for this project)

And I used the same website from my original creation to determine distances between each location:

Big, important lesson when using Cricut: the width of the project cannot be greater than 11.5″ unless you want to purchase the super long mat, the scroll of vinyl, or assemble several pieces. I’m frugal with both my crafting time and my money, so I edited the width of each sign accordingly.


Once I transferred the words to each sign, I used the sharp weeding tool to shape the vinyl around the pre-drilled holes so that when attaching them to the sign-post (with 1″ screws) the vinyl wouldn’t get snagged. And then sprayed a glossy finish.

The Garden Art looks fantastic and was a well-received surprise!


Revolutionary War Themed Birthday Party

My son Alex was born on the Fourth of July.  He’s a super-bright, quirky, geeky, introverted kid, so his requests are usually a little off the beaten path.  For his 9th Birthday, he asked for a Revolutionary War themed party.

Not a patriotic birthday party; he wanted the Revolutionary War.  The Revolutionary War has quite a bit of death and starvation.. not real great birthday party material.

Beyond a Betsy Ross Flag Cake, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I searched Pinterest for fun ways to approach the Revolutionary War that would be engaging for kids (simply by searching the words “revolutionary war kids“), which is how I got the idea to do a timeline.

Alex also loves maps, biking, swimming, and as most nine-year-olds; he loves the idea of scavenger hunts.

Thus was born the idea: a Revolutionary War Timeline Bike Scavenger Hunt.  On the 3rd of July, we could bike to different neighbor’s houses, re-enact some battles using water guns and water balloons, and conclude the bike-scavenger-hunt at the neighborhood pool.  This wouldn’t be a true “scavenger hunt” with racing; rather, it’d have more of a “progressive dinner” feel. (We continued to call it a scavenger hunt, however, because that sounds much more exciting for the kids.)

The timelines spend a good deal of time explaining all of the events that led up to the Revolutionary War; it didn’t just happen, and it wasn’t inevitable. Many people were happy to continue being a colony of Great Britain; so what happened to change that?

As I started to fill in the details for Alex’s Revolutionary War Timeline Bike Scavenger Hunt, I asked him how much of the War he wanted to cover.  Alex was emphatic that we conclude with the signing of the Declaration of Independence (aka – his birthday). Once I negotiated an additional “Crossing of the Delaware” in the pool, I started fleshing out the details.

The kids’ age range was from 5 to 12, with the bulk of party-goes around age 9.  Thus the timeline descriptions needed to hit the mark of clarity without too much detail.  I used  Book Units Teacher’s presentation of The American Revolution for most of my event descriptions, supplementing with’s American Revolution when necessary.

Next, I needed several neighbors to assist with hosting a re-enactment in their front yard (and inviting them to participate in the battle or simply let us use their property).  Our neighborhood is the original astronaut community in Houston; the City of Nassau Bay is fantastic for many reasons, not the least of which is our fun neighbors and city ordinances that allow golf-carting.

The invitation asked kids to bring a bike, helmet, bathing suit, and towel and described the overall flow. Parents were invited to bike or golf cart, but for safety reasons, I asked for no cars.

In addition to mapping out the stops (with reasonable distances for kids), I dropped off any necessary supplies as well as a laminated “information sheet” about each stop a couple of hours before the party began.  Although I had an agenda for timing, I made arrangements with each host to call or text when we were on our way so no one was caught unaware.

We started at our house with a Taxation without Representation simulation.  We used M&M’s as our “money” to be taxed, followed the instructions, and amended the free PDFs on Young Teacher Love as needed.

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Once the kids got sufficiently annoyed by the King’s ridiculous taxes, we got on our bikes to see what happened next.


I asked one of our friends who has a golf cart to be the “pace car,” leading the bikes.  The kids understood the #1 rule: no one passes the golf cart; this is not a race.  I made sure to be at the end of our bikers so that no one would be left behind.

Our first stop was the Boston Massacre.  The “British” were neighbors with adult children.  Two bins of water balloons were set – one for each side, and the British soldiers were armed with water guns.  I read the description, tossing a water balloon towards the British as I read “throwing snowballs” and cued the start of the re-enactment by shouting “THE SOLDIERS FIRED!”

1 - Boston Massacre


We only fought for a couple of minutes before I shouted to the Colonists: “Time to head to the Boston Tea Party!” Several “That was awesome!” remarks from the kids, and we biked off.

For the Boston Tea Party, I set up a large clothing storage bin with water (because we don’t have a baby pool), a box of super-cheap, store-brand tea bags (pro-tip: get a box that is not individually wrapped), and crudely constructed headbands with feathers,

2 The Boston Tea Party IMG_2701 IMG_2704

After explaining the First Continental Congress, I went on to read about the Minutemen. I set up a bucket of water guns, which were pre-filled for the Colonists.  These (along with water bottles) were the party favors.  They were inexpensive (about 50¢ each), but such cheap quality that I wouldn’t recommend.

3 - First Continental Congress

As we concluded the First Continental Congress, one of our neighbors performed Paul Revere’s famous ride on his bike, ringing a bell, shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

We all mounted our bikes and headed off to battle!


The Battle of Lexington began after my neighbor shot her kiddo’s cap gun, representing the “Shot heard ’round the world.”

4 - Battle of Lexington

Then we rode off to Battle of Concord…

5 - Battle of Concord

IMG_2726 IMG_2728

Our last stop was the Battle of Bunker Hill…

6 - The Battle of Bunker Hill

Conveniently, the kids started complaining that they were running low on ammunition. “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”


This neighbor not only made his own British flag, but he was armed with ICE COLD water to attack the kids!


Upon arriving at the pool, the kids signed the Declaration of Independence.

7 - Declaration of Independence

I got a print of the Declaration of Independence from a local Teacher Supply store for $1.50 and had them laminate it. Upon arriving, all the kids signed in Sharpie, which creates the perfect keepsake for Alex.


The inflatable boats were purchased at a sporting good store (Academy), but can be purchased on Amazon.

8 - Washington Crosses the Delaware


And of course, I made a Betsy Ross Flag Cake!

9 - The American Flag

IMG_2785This never would  have been a party I would have imagined or come up with on my own.  But with a little creativity and a lot of help, I was able to create one of the most fun birthday parties for adults, kids, friends, and neighbors.

Great Family Games

We love to play a good family game, and we’ve acquired a number of great ones over the past few years.  My husband likes to give a new game to each of our sons on their birthdays, and we often add a new one at Christmas.  If you’re looking for a gift, here’s seven of our favorites (with links to Amazon).

1.  Castle Panic – my favorite thing about this game is that all players are working together on a common goal – to defend the castle and slay the monsters.  It’s more about cooperation than competition.  In the end the whole family either wins or loses.  Should you need a little competition, in the end, you can recognize a “Master Slayer” who has earned the most points by defeating the most monsters.  Although the box says “ages 10 and up,” we have played this game with our boys since they were 5 and 6.  The other day my 7 year old taught his 8 1/2 year old friend how to play.  So it may require adults to learn and play at first, but this is definitely a game for kids of all ages.  Also, the box looks a LOT scarier than the actual game is.  The monsters (orcs, trolls, etc.) are on game pieces the size of a quarter.

2. Quirkle – This is such an easy game to play.  Like Scrabble, you pull tiles out of a bag.  You either match the color (with no repeating shapes) or match the shape (with no repeating colors), and earn points.  It’s challenging, but not too difficult.  We help our 7 year old when we play as a family, but the other day he took it upon himself to teach his 8 1/2 yr old friend how to play, and did so with great success.


3.  Q-Bitz – This game can be played independently or as a group.  You try to match the pattern on the card by turning the cubes on your own little wooden coaster.  There are different levels of challenge that adults can engage in so that they are evenly matched against kids.  I like that this can be a quick game – play the best out of 5 cards – if needed.


4. Ticket to Ride – My boys love trains, so this was a no-brainer. It’s expensive (at nearly $50 in most stores), but has many levels of fun.  The object of the game is to earn points by building train routes from city to city as assigned in the “Destination” cards.  Since we play with young children, we leave our cards face-up and try to collaborate and suggest solutions for and with one another.  There is a lot of strategy to this game, but it also involves an element of chance.  Bonus: it familiarizes players with geography!


5.  Blokus – This is a great spacial reasoning game that appeals to the OCD in me.  If you every played and loved Tetris… if you like to pack the dishwasher (or the trunk) just right, this game is for you.  My husband and I got this one pre-kids, but have found that they love it.  The object of the game is to play as many of your pieces as possible; the rules are that you pieces may only touch on the corners.  Again, we coach and suggest with strategy, but allow them to make their own choices.


6.  Sequence – This is another game we started playing pre-kids (with other adults), but found the kids enjoyed it.  You play on teams of two or three.  Each person get 5-7 cards marked like a deck of playing cards.  The board has two occurrences of every card, except Jacks (which are wild).  The object of the game is to make a sequence (or two) of five-in-a-row… or block the opposing team from doing so.  It’s like a cross between matching and bingo, with a fair deal of strategy.  There is a kids version, which we gave as a birthday party gift once, but have never owned.


7.  Ravensburger Labyrinth – This is a fun “treasure hunting” game that involves an ever-changing maze.  Players each get 5-7 cards with a variety of objects or characters (a dragon, a princess, a ghost, a genie, a bat, an owl, etc)… each person must travel through the maze in search of each object, and be the first to make it back to the starting square to win.  There are ways to make the game more or less challenging, depending on the age and ability of the players.


Do you have a favorite family game?  Share in the comments!





Halloween Craft: Jar-o-Lanterns

Here’s another Creative Solution that uses recycled materials to make a Halloween craft called a Jar-o-Lantern.

Originally, I saw the Jar-o-Lantern craft in a Women’s Day magazine about two or three years ago; now it’s also all over Pinterest.  My kids love to do it every year because it’s so simple, easy, and fun.  Of course, part of the Creative Solution is to adapt it according to your needs/desires.  Some suggest decoupaging orange tissue paper onto a jar… others suggest painting… Some focus only on pumpkins… others suggest the same varieties of characters that I painted in the Carnival Cans Craft.


Supplies Needed:

  • Jars – clean inside and out
  • Paint & Brushes – Definitely use Acrylic paints!  Tempra will peel off.
  • Votive or electric candles

Jars: We recycle a ton of jars (from peanut butter, pickles, and salsa).  I started saving the jars and found that it’s easier to remove the label and glue immediately rather than waiting until I am ready to use them later… old glue is harder to remove and I’m less likely to actually follow through on the project if I have to spend the time to clean all the old jars.  While there’s a ton of suggestions for how to remove the label and glue, I find the easiest is to simply soak the jar in a container of hot water with some blue Dawn dish detergent overnight.  Then label scrapes off pretty easily and I wash it before storing.


Paints:  The first time we painted the Jar-o-Lanterns, we did all pumpkins.  This time we painted the jars similar to the Halloween Carnival Cans Craft.

  • Decide on your painting scheme, and apply the base coat in your chosen color.  You only need one coat of paint, the thinner the better (since these will be luminaries and glow).
    • Orange for pumpkins
    • White for ghosts
    • Green for Frankenstein’s Monster
    • Purple (or lavender) for Dracula
  • Let the jar dry completely.
  • Add decorative details… let it dry.

Light: Add either a tea light candle or an electric votive (usually available in a 2-pack for $1 at the Dollar Store).  My boys love keeping theirs in their bedrooms, in which case the electric version is the way to go.


Halloween Craft: Carnival Cans

I’ve been intrigued by this old-school carnival “Knock Down the Cans” game, which uses recycled materials, since I first saw the Halloween Cans on Pinterest two years ago.  So I finally sat down to follow through on doing it this week.  The Pinterest link is broken, so I just went with the images and did my own thing.

IMG_0151Honestly, it required a bit more effort than I imagined, simply because the cans required 3 to 4 coats of paint.  While I do use cheap acrylic paints, four coats is a lot.

  • Save and clean at least six 28 ounce cans.
  • Decide on your painting scheme, and apply the whole base coat in that color until you no longer see the can. (Like I said, it took me 3 to 4 coats.)  Definitely use acrylic paint;tempra will flake off.  Be sure to let it dry completely between coats
    • Orange for pumpkins
    • White for ghosts
    • Green for Frankenstein’s Monster
    • Purple (or lavender) for Dracula
    • (not pictured) Black for Cats
    • (not pictured) Brown or Red for Owls
  • Add decorative details… let it dry.
  • Spray finish in Rust-oleum Crystal Clear Enamel (note: if you don’t do this finishing spray, the cans will quickly chip, and the color won’t be as bright… trust me: you want to do the finishing spray).

IMG_0149 IMG_0136

Total time: 2 – 3 hours, paced over the course of a few days.  Cost: $0 (because I had all the paint and finishing spray on hand).

I plan on using this game at a Halloween party we have with family friends before trick-or-treating, but decided to test it out one afternoon that my boys had a friend over.  This old school fun was a HUGE hit!  Definitely worth the time to create.

Halloween Decorations & Crafts for Windows and Doors

Here’s a couple Creative Solutions for decorating your windows and doors for Halloween that are inexpensive and pretty easy.

1.  The Monster Door (as seen on Pinterest)


This was super, super easy.  Using leftover streamers, masking tape, and paper plates, I put this together in less than 15 minutes.

  • Hair: adhere some streamers to the top of your door with masking tape.
  • Eyes: paint black dots on a couple of white paper (or foam) plates, adhere those to your door with a loop of masking tape… add angry eyebrows with more masking tape.
  • Mouth: more masking tape… one across and several shorter pieces slanting in different directions

Since I already had all the supplies on hand, this cost me $0.

2.  Picture Window Pumpkin (Julie Original Creative Solution)


We have a 9-panel picture window in the “formal living room” that we use as the boys’ playroom. I decided to cover the window panes by making a pumpkin face using bulletin board paper from the Teacher Supply Store (Lakeshore Learning).  With the help of my 6 1/2 year old, this project took about 1 1/2 hours total.

  • Measure and cut the paper (30 minutes)
  • Paint the face on the appropriate pieces (20 minutes to paint, another 20 min to dry)
  • Hang the pieces on the window using masking tape (20 minutes)

The Pumpkin Window looks great during the day and glows at night.  Total cost: $6 – $7 for a roll of paper; I already had the masking tape and paint on hand.

IMG_0161 IMG_0158


A Waterproof Case for Your Smartphone

I have my smartphone with me all the time.  Partly because it’s my camera, partly because it’s my phone, partly because it’s my internet… I have my iPhone with me all the time.  When I take the kids to the beach or the pool, I don’t like risking damage.  So last November, when Hip2Save posted a great deal on a waterproof case, I got it… even though I wouldn’t be needing one for months.  Best random purchase ever.  The OtterBox Armor Series Waterproof Case has been an amazing Creative Solution.

If you don’t have an iPhone, OtterBox also makes a waterproof case for the Samsung Galaxy called the Preserver Series.

Don’t get me wrong: this case is bulky and more protection than I need most of the time.  But I don’t keep my iPhone in the OtterBox most of the time… I just keep the case with my sunscreen, towels, and pool stuff and put it on when I need it.  There are two little hinges that easily open and close the case.  And by close, I mean lock-it-down.  And because it’s waterproof, the microphone is blocked, so calls are a little muffled unless you open that little flap.

Still, this has been an awesome Creative Solution because I am able to take pictures and video while in the water, having fun with friends and family.

IMG_1972 IMG_1631

While enjoying a fun day on the river with friends, my iPhone was accidentally knocked into the water while in the Otterbox Armor case.  It sank about 4 feet to the muddy bottom before it was recovered.  Not only did the Otterbox prove to be waterproof, but because of my case, we were able to capture some amazing and fun memories!

IMG_2754 IMG_2930

CamelBaks Aren’t Just for Hiking and Biking

20111105_030Here’s a Creative Solution: use a CamelBak anytime you want access to water but don’t want to carry a water bottle.  A CamelBak is like a backpack with a water “bladder” (reservoir) and a straw that many people use for hiking and biking.  Instead of carrying a backpack with a water bottle, fill the reservoir with ice, top it off with water, and you’ve got cold water all day:

  • At the zoo
  • While walking and touring a new city
  • At the pool or the beach – hang it on the back of your chair and pull out the “straw” when you want to drink.
  • Walking around an amusement park or Disney
  • At a kids sporting event

You can get CamelBaks in all shapes and sizes.  The most popular (and the one my husband and I have) is the Camelbak Mule, which comes with a replacable 100 ounce reservoir.

You can get a larger backpack if you need, but the storage space on the Mule is fantastic.  Moreover, when everyone has their own CamelBak, everyone carries their own stuff.  Which brings me to the kids…

On our first family camping trip, we were astonished by how much the kids loved our CamelBaks, but our packs didn’t fit them (too uncomfortably large), so we were pretty excited to find the Kid-sized version.  The CamelBak Mini Mule fit the kids perfectly. It’s got a kid-sized backpack and a 50 ounce reservoir.  The kids stay more hydrated when they use their CamelBaks, and they can carry their own stuff (snacks, maps, hats, etc.) in the little backpack.  You can find them online at Amazon, LLBean, or in stores like REI.  The Mini-Mule prices range from about $49 – $89, so definitely shop around.  We asked the grandparents to make the Mini-Mule their Christmas gift to the boys, which was a win-win: not a toy, and it lasts for years!  (Note: the Mini-Mule is very rugged, but occasionally, we do need to replace the “bite valve.”)

On our Summer travels this year, we used the Camelbaks when we hiked a couple of trails in the Adirondacks.

Lake George

I really wish I had thought to use them when we walked the Freedom Trail in Boston.IMG_2295


They were perfect for our walk on the Great Wall of ChinaCamelbaks on teh Great Wall

So whether you’re into hiking and biking or just being a tourist, I think CamelBaks are a great Creative Solution.


How do you clean the CamelBaks?

Empty out the water (suck out whatever’s in the straw. too), stuff the inside with paper towels, turn it upside down, and let it dry out for a couple days.

IMG_0002They also make “Cleaning Kits.” But we’ve always just air dried them… I mean if you aren’t responsible about drying them mold/mildew grows and you have to replace the reservoir.

Traveling Tips: iPod Touch and Headphones for Kids

This Creative Solution explains which gadgets we use for our kids while traveling – and why.  We live a-ways from family: a minimum of a 3 1/2 hour car ride or a 3 1/2 plane ride.  When my boys (now 6 1/2 and 8) got to be of the age where we would consider a video gaming system or a portable DVD player (or both), we opted for iPod Touches.


  1. The adults in the house have iPhones that the boys love to play with, so this would give them their own version of the gadgets we use
  2. The iPod Touch is versatile: movies/shows, games, interactive aps
  3. The newer iPods allows them to FaceTime and iMessage their Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, and Grandparents (who have iGadgets)
  4. It also has a camera
  5. Rugged cases

The longevity of application and versatility won the cost analysis.

So, first is the iPod itself.  We originally got each kiddo an 8GB iPod 4th Generation (now available refurbished).  New, they are now only offering iPod 5th Generation 16GB.

Honestly, in cost analysis today, I can’t say I’d choose an iPod Touch over an iPad Mini…

Anyhow, when purchasing gadgets for kids, a rugged case is a must!  Given the choice, I’d usually choose (and recommend) an Otterbox because of their guarantee.  When purchasing cases for my own kids, however, I found that my older child’s neurotic preferences for color combinations was strong enough to sway me to a non-Otterbox brand that promised kid-safe ruggedness.  Two years in and no problems!

    Multi Color Hybrid Hard Plastic Silicone Case For Apple iPod Touch 4 4th,Rugged Hybrid Case for iPod 4G (Blue+Green)

OtterBox Defender Series Case for iPod touch 5G

Child friendly headphones are another must in my book.  You don’t want to have to listen to that-noise.  Please don’t subject your traveling neighbors to listening to that-noise.  While my older one has been satisfied with random ear buds, my younger one has a sensitivity.  He prefers over-the-head.  I have found that the kids version of the Uprock Skullcandy Headphones works really, really well.  They’re definitely rugged (in case your kid might be like mine and leave them in a walking path to be trampled upon).  Unfortunately, Amazon tells me that the Uprock headphones are discontinued by the manufacturer.  I’ll update this post if I hear any more, but we have been really pleased with the quality and durability and comfort of these.

Skullcandy Uprock Headphones Athletic Red (2012 Color), One Size

So an iPod, a rugged case, and headphones.  A must in our Creative Solution traveling tips!

Traveling Tips: Portable External Battery USB Charger

After traveling with my two boys, ages 8 and 6 1/2, over the course of four weeks, from Houston to the Adirondacks, to New England, to China, to Malaysia, and then finally home, I have a lot of Creative Solutions that I want to share.

My kids each have an iPod Touch and a Kindle (e-ink), my husband and I each have an iPhone, an iPad, and a Kindle.  When we fly, my husband and I tend to read, and the kids tend to play games or watch movies.  One of the gadgets that really helped is a Portable External Battery USB Charger.

You charge it at home, and it packs a ton of portable power.  There are little LEDs that tell you how much juice is left.  It has multiple USB ports to charge multiple gadgets at once.  The Portable External Battery USB Charger was especially handy during international travel or long days out when I planned to use my iPhone as a camera.