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!






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.

Literary Garden Art Sign Post

So after the Creative Solution I made for my parents “You’ve Come A Long Way,” I finally had the materials and focus to complete the Literary Garden Art Sign Post.


Both my husband and I love to read–a love which we have shared with our boys.  The idea of the Literary Garden Sign Post is to use the fictional locations from stories.

So the first step is to choose the books!  I didn’t want too many signs; I wanted to draw attention to our favorites:

  • Whoville  – Dr. Seuss
  • Rivendell – The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit 
  • The Shire – The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit 
  • Hogwarts – Harry Potter
  • The Emerald City – Wizard of Oz
  • Pern – Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern
  • Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  • Camelot
  • 100 Acre Woods – Winnie the Pooh

In the “Cities/Distance” sign, I didn’t worry about a special font, but one of the unique features of the Literary Garden Art Sign is that each imitates the font from the book cover (or map).

Using scrap wood, a base coat of latex (because that’s what we had out), and random acrylic colors, I prepped the boards.

Place Signs2

Since Pinterest and Google both have several versions available, there are options…

  • Print each sign and mod podge it on
  • Create/use stencils
  • Hand painted imitating the desired font

I toyed with the idea of mod podging, but hand painting with the “homemade look” is more my style. So using Font Space, I found several fun fonts that looked the part.  I didn’t love the Dr. Seuss style font they had, but Melissa at Keep Calm and Decorate did a similar project and suggested this Grinch font, which I loved!

I printed the text and did my best to hand paint, imitating the font style.


Finished with varnish and attached to a pole in the back yard.


And I love the finished product!


A Fun and Functional Key Box for the Dr. Who Fan

Have keys?  Need a more Creative Solution for knowing where they are?  We have had a basic wooden key storage box that we got from IKEA several years ago:  IKEA Pavo

Hanging by the back door, looking plain, it needed a makeover.  Something much more FUN!  My husband is a huge Dr. Who fan, and has had us watching and re-watching episodes with 11th Doctor (Matt Smith).  So when I looked at the rectangular box, I immediately saw a TARDIS.



Making this Key Box into a TARDIS was actually pretty easy:

  1. Paint the box blue with black and white details.  Going with the “intentional homemade” look means there’s no need to worry about crooked lines.
  2. Mod Podge: When I painted my husband a TARDIS tissue box last year, I discovered that it was easiest to paint the black outlines and white windows, but print images off the internet for the “FREE for use of PUBLIC” sign and the triangle top with the lamp.  The “FREE” sign was printed on regular printer paper and mod podged to the door; the triangle was printed on photo paper and mod podged on to the wall.

Free For Public UseTARDIS Top

Since this box actually opens (and it is bigger on the inside), Peter found an image of the T.A.R.D.I.S. Console, which was printed on photo paper and mod podged to the inside of the key box.


ConsoleTARDIS 2

3. Finish with an interior varnish or poly.


Now, what used to just be functional is also fun!   A very Creative Solution!

You’ve Come a Long Way

A little garden art for this Creative Solution:

Place Signs4I’ve been wanting to do a Garden Art project that I’ve seen on Pinterest…

Literary Garden Sign

A few months ago I had shown the Pinterest pin to my Mom who remarked how it would be great to do one for all the places they’ve visited… This traveling in and of itself is significant.  She and my Dad were born and raised just outside of Philadelphia to working class families.  Neither had money nor a college education.  But my Dad worked.  A lot.  We moved from the Philly area to North Jersey when I was 4 (something people in Philly tend not to do–move away–ever… at least not people in our extended family). And my Dad commuted 60 miles each way from our rural town in Northern NJ to his job.  He went from working in the warehouse to customer service to management.  The family moved back to the Philly area when I was in college and then to Austin, TX for Dad’s job with Dell, for whom he’s now a Director.  His job has taken him all over the world; most notable are the two stints he and my Mom have had as expats, living in Xiamen, China and Adare, Ireland.

And then the other day someone posted a comment on a FaceBook picture of my Dad:

Dennis Dienno - Google Chrome 12312013 14251 PM.bmp Dennis Dienno - Google Chrome 12312013 14251 PM.bmp-001

And that’s how I came to this Creative Solution as a gift for my parents.

I used scrap wood that my husband cut into various size rectangles and painted a base coat with some white latex we had in the house.

Place Signs2

I painted each sign in a different acrylic color… it needed to be light enough to properly display the location.

Place Signs

I used their physical address as the starting point and calculated the distance between their current house and each of their former homes.  Google Maps couldn’t give me driving directions to Ireland or China, so I used and plugged in as much info as I could.  I never remembered Dad’s address in Yeadon, but I knew the street.  And my sister was quick to inform me that I remembered our address in Limerick incorrectly (I thought it was 162… it was 161… but I did recall the street name).  Keeping it a surprise was worth it, though!

I’m super pleased with the finished product.  And so were my parents!!

Place Signs3And now I’m even more motivated to create my Literary Garden Art!

Homemade Lego Gifts

Here’s a Creative Solution for Lego-lovers; a crafty, homemade gift that is useful, fun, inexpensive, and pretty easy.

Assuming you have acrylic paints on hand, this Lego tray cost about $11 to make (even less if you can snag a baseplate from your kids’ playroom).

Lego Tray


The wooden trays are available at any craft store.  I got mine from Hobby Lobby ($7.99, minus a 40% off coupon).  Just be sure to get the large tray (10 3/4 ” x 14″) so that it will fit the 10 inch Lego baseplate.  The baseplates are available at Target, the Lego Store, or Amazon for $4.99.

  1. Paint the tray one color (avoid green since that’ll be the baseplate color).  Let it dry, then paint bricks around the outside border–a rectangle with dots on top.
  2. I like to finish any painting-on-wood project with some varnish or polyurethane.  This varnish is easy to work with, clean up, and dries super fast.  And it can be found in the paints aisle of the craft store.  Amazon has it for $10.99, but I’m pretty sure craft stores sell it for closer to $4.99.
  3. After it’s dry, hot glue the baseplate to the side of the tray.  Resist the temptation to center it.  The “loose” Lego bricks need space to go on the side.


Another easy homemade Lego gift is a Mini-Fig Hat.


You can purchase a white hat from a craft store and dye it yellow… but honestly that’s too many steps for me.  The colors of baseball caps in craft stores and dollar stores vary… and I haven’t found a yellow hat in either place years.  But lo and behold, Academy Sports has one!  Marked $4.99, but rang up at $2.99!

I have a lot of Acrylic paints and find it easier to simply use a fabric medium like this one from Amazon.  The instructions on the bottle suggest 2-parts paint to 1-part fabric medium.  Although you may want to sketch out your ovals in pencil before beginning, I just threw caution to the wind and had at it.  Since it’s a hat that will likely not be washed, I didn’t bother heat setting.

Dishwasher: Clean or Dirty

Sometimes – like after having pasta with marinara sauce – it’s easy to tell if the dishwasher is clean or dirty.  Other times, you get halfway through emptying the silverware before noticing the dried food on the forks.  Or you have to answer theIs it clean or dirty question twelve times a day.

My sister had a scrap paper with cleanand dirty” scribbled on either side, adhered with a magnet to the dishwasher.  I loved the practicality of that idea, but the “form” wasn’t working for me.  Sure it worked, but it looked sloppy.

And yes, you can buy a special magnetic piggy that tells the tale, but usually those are so country kitchen that I’d prefer the scrap paper.

So here’s a Creative Solution: Make your own Dishwasher Clean/Dirty Magnet.  

Start with your own tastes. We like to play Scrabble, so I liked this idea that I saw on Pinterest:

Except I didn’t like:

  1. Upside down letters (my OCD can’t cope)
  2. Needing to use actual Scrabble tiles… I don’t happen to have those lying around.  They’re either part of an actual game or they’re not in my house.

But what I could do is print a copy of the Scrabble tile letters!  So I Googled images until I found this one.

I printed the image on 5×7 photo paper (at home) and cut out the letters: C-L-E-A-N and D-I-R-T-Y.

From another project, I had some of magnets like these from JoAnn’s or Michael’s or Hobby Lobby:

Using double sided tape, I placed the pictures of the letters in the proper order, taped them to a small piece of printer paper, and then adhered the whole thing to the magnets.  First C-L-E-A-N on one side and then D-I-R-T-Y on the other.  Afterwards, I wrapped the whole thing in some clear packing tape so it has a chance of withstanding the wear and tear of life in our home.


Of course, I made one for my sister so they could trash the scrap paper, and kept the other for myself.


My only tip is to arrange the words so the back is upside down… thus when the magnet gets flipped, it is already properly aligned.

So that’s a Creative Solution that doesn’t involve a country kitchen pig.