The Birch Aquarium

While we were down south, there were a couple of days the weather wasn’t right for hitting the beach, so we explored the area for a few fun things to do. And we found ourselves heading to La Jolla for a stroll through the public exploration center for the world-renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography at UC San Diego Birch Aquarium.


I enjoyed the informative guides lurking (well, not lurking, but roaming in the darkness of the aquarium) and ready to answer any questions or share fun tidbits of information. We all became quite intrigued with the eels in the above left photo, and were told all about their amazing lives together (yup, that’s a proud mama and papa), how they’ve produced hundreds of baby eels, and are often found nestled together in the tank. But the collection of jellyfish just about put my tot in a tizzy…


Located next to each tank are helpful plaques sharing facts about the fish and other sea life, perfect for us adults that have no clue what we’re looking and then can utterly amaze our not-yet-scholarly tots by reading (without them realizing it) bountiful information about the amazing sea creatures.  And it’s great for older kids, allowing them the opportunity to learn more on their own. We loved this huge tank filled with coastal sea life.


And part of the aquarium is dedicated to educational and interactive learning about the sea and California coastline. Most of it was totally advanced for our daughter, but that didn’t stop her from putting her hands on everything.


But the seahorses stole the show. We were all impressed and amazed by these little creatures. A whole wing is dedicated to educating the public about the lives of seahorses, sharing how the aquarium is helping to nurture and build their numbers, and showcasing the amazing beauty of the cool sea animal.


And we had such a great time, we ended up walking (well, running) through the aquarium one last time at the tot’s insistence to see it all over again. Along with the indoor tanks, the Birch Aquarium has outdoor interactive tide pools, a shark tank (not interactive), and some really cool solar activities for the kids to check out. Perfect for kids of all ages, the aquarium has something for everyone, is easy to navigate, has a small outdoor snack bar on site, a gift shop, and wonderfully friendly staff. If you’re in the La Jolla/San Diego area, it’s a fun way to spend an overcast day.

*If you’re not from the area, please, PLEASE, make sure to have directions before you head out to La Jolla. No joke, every time we go to La Jolla from the north, we get lost. It’s really not crazy difficult or anything, there are just a few twists and turns that can catch you by surprise.


Observational learning (That moment when you realize your kid listens and watches everything you do)

observational learning

Observational learning is exactly what it sounds like — learning through observing. And let me tell you, there’s been so much more of it going on at my house than I ever realized. So my tot’s now not such a “tot” anymore since she turned four a month or so ago, and I’ve been seeing some serious attitude, behavior, growth, development, and all-around-cool stuff happening lately. I wrote this educational post for Funderstanding awhile ago and felt it was a good one to revisit, mainly because I caught my four-going-on-full-grown-year-old testing out a few of my favorite adult sayings the other day.

But there is more to it than that. With the child’s internal motivation to learn and accomplish new things, observational learning is the first way of exploring her abilities. She see’s a sweet smile and reciprocates it. She hears her parents’ voices and mimics the sounds. Observational learning allows the brain to tap into its inner need to excel and advance at the most basic level through watching and doing. And if your child is anything like mine, she’s watching and learning more than you even realize.

Observational Learning and The Brain

Okay, here are the facts: Albert Bandura, a leading researcher in the area of observational learning, is well known for his bobo doll studies dealing with observational learning in the early 1960’s.  He created a movie of a young woman hitting, kicking, and yelling at a blow-up doll.  After showing the film to a group of young kindergartners, they were sent to a playroom filled with bobo dolls. And, of course, the children copied the modeled behavior, aggressively hitting and kicking those adorable bobo dolls. The realization that the children changed  behavior even without reward didn’t fit with traditional behaviorist thinking of the time, and Bandura labeled the learning “observational” or “modeled learning.”

Along with observing and doing, Bandura combined the cognitive and operant view of learning to formulate a four-step pattern seen in observational learning.

Attention: Your child notices something within her environment and  is attentive to it. From the television to your cat to you, anything exciting and new is going to capture your sweet child’s attention.

Retention: As soon as she gloms on to that thing or person or behavior, it’s duly noted in her ever-growing brain.

Reproduction: Guess what? Your little one’s going to try out whatever caught her attention, without concern of repercussion.

Motivation: Depending on if you freak out or overly praise the behavior determines if it happens again. But, guess what? Sometimes even if your little one is treated negatively as a result of her tested-out behavior, she may do it again.

The mirror neuron theory along with observational learning encourages your child’s desire to sympathize and also respond similarly when behavior happens. Mirror neurons are a collection of brain cells that fire when an individual observes someone making the same movements as her own, causing a reaction. For example, when observing someone folding a sheet of paper and receiving a paper cut, one often flinches in sympathy. This plays a role in observational learning. Just as a child learns from observing others, her brain is ready to respond in ways from observing other’s responses from actions. Also, mirror neurons are fired when making faces in response to others, such as smiling when someone else smiles, or frowning in disapproval as someone else does.

Observational learning takes place automatically, and begins at birth, which means it is a powerful learning tool and way to shape a young child’s mind. A parent is the first model to a child, and in later years, friends and other adults offer the child models for establishing learning and behavior. And observational learning can be one of the most powerful strategies for modifying or shaping behavior, which means once your sweet child starts repeating swear words you begin to realize how important observational learning really is.

Behavior and Observational Learning

Now when a child is in a situation where a peer or an adult exposes her to a new behavior, she is attentive to what is new and often tries the behavior for herself, sometimes with not such positive results. As adults, it is our role to jump in and model the behavior desired to assist with promoting appropriate outcomes. But, let’s be honest. We become frustrated when our child misbehaves and forget to look at our own actions. So we start  yelling and carrying on, and then punish our child when she yells in anger.


Modeling behavior is the first step in observational learning and is sometimes hard to remember to follow our own rules and regulations. If you ask your child not to eat in her room, but she sees you enjoying a snack in bed, she’s getting mixed messages. A child often benefits from observing others perform tasks successfully, encouraging her own behaviors and decision-making. Aiding a child in accomplishing a challenging task, like tying her shoes by modeling how it is done, is an example. It is beneficial for the child to be exposed to several models, which helps break stereotypes and preconceptions.

Along with holding attention while modeling behavior, following with proper motivation is key. Setting realistic expectations for children, and explaining them in detail, offers the ability for the child to feel she can succeed along with building self-esteem. Also, clearly defining consequences can aide in increasing positive behaviors.

If you’re feeling heated the next time your tot misbehaves, take a deep breath and think about how you’re expressing your feelings. By modeling a calm put direct way of dealing with the situation, you’re helping your child do the same in the future.

Fisher Price 4x Digital Zoom Digital Camera

Fisher Price 4x Zoom Digital Camera

Now that the holidays are over and everything is getting back to normal after all the crazed present opening, it’s interesting to see which items hold the tot’s interest. She still loves all the plastic animals and dinosaurs, and playing the matching game in her own special way, but the one thing that she’s still reaching for is her new camera. A few months ago I did a post for LilSugar sharing cameras fit for little hands and had focused on suggestions from friends and good reviews when I put the collection together. So when I decided to get one for the tot as a special birthday gift (her special day is right after the holidays), I already had one in mind.

And then I went with something totally different.

The Fisher Price 4x digital zoom digital camera.

It was pink, I liked the square shape, and although it didn’t get great reviews on image quality, the camera sounded like it was indestructible. Hey, I’m not looking for museum-quality prints, I want a camera that isn’t going to break the first time it gets dropped.

And it was on sale.

Today I wrangled the camera out of my daughter’s hands and downloaded the pictures (SIDE NOTE – the camera does NOT come with a USB cable, but does work with a standard siz. If you’re not PC (like me) you can’t download the funky photo editing stuff, but, hey, my tot wouldn’t have a clue how to use it.) and was surprised and impressed with what she’d taken pictures of and the quality of the camera. My daughter loved seeing her pictures and helped me select a few favorites:

Here’s a picture of the hubs and I,

Fisher Price 1

her new tent,

Fisher Price 2

the decorations from her birthday party,

Fisher Price 3

Sid the Science Kid,

Fisher Price 4

our cat by the fire,

Fisher Price 6

her spot on the couch,

Fisher Price 7

and a self portrait.

Fisher Price 5

So, yeah, she’s not great on standing still while snapping, but she’s dropped the camera, bashed it into walls, been walking while taking a picture and fallen down with it, and I think it even took a tumble down the stairs the other day.

Still works wonderfully.

The picture files aren’t big (640 by 480 pixels), but prints good quality 4 by 6-inch pictures. The camera also makes slightly annoying noises when in use but does turn off on it’s own so you don’t burn through batteries. Equipped with an easy to use zoom (which my daughter totally doesn’t get) my husband enjoys taking pictures with it too.

I love that she is still excited about taking pictures and is learning to look at things in a new and interesting way. I’m planning on printing out her favorites and creating a gallery wall in her room. I’ll keep you posted…



Kid-friendly holiday cookies: Red velvet sprinkles

My tot is in love with the color red. She had to have red shoes, only uses red paint when getting creative, and wants us to paint freshly painted white walls of her room red. So I wasn’t at all surprised when she decided we just HAD to make RED cookies to share with all her friends for Christermax. Sure, I could’ve added red food coloring to basic sugar cookie dough, but wanted to make something not-so sweet that also had a nice holiday flavor. We mixed together a lovely red velvet base, added sparkling red sprinkles, and created a delectably crisp and balanced holiday cookie that’s perfect for making with your little ones. And these cookies aren’t too sweet, or filled with too much butter, making them a healthier option than that cookie dough you can pick up the in refrigerator section.


1/2 cup room temperature butter

1/4 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar (or white vinegar)

1 tablespoon (plus) red food coloring

1/4 cup cocoa

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups flour


Preheat your oven to 375F and gather the ingredients for making the cookies. Red velvet cake is a seriously yummy combination of vanilla, chocolate, a bit of tang, and a whole lot of red. I absolutely love red velvet cake, and with it’s vibrant red color, figured this cookie rendition would be perfect for celebrating the season.

Invite your child to help measure and add the butter, oil, sugar, and vanilla to a mixing bowl. Use a hand blender to mix everything together until it’s nice and smooth. I even let my tot use the blender for a brief moment (while holding with one hand AND attempting to take a picture) but quickly realized that toddlers and hand blenders might not be such a good idea. We’ll try again when she’s a bit older…

Now add the egg, milk, and the vanilla, giving things another mix. Hold off on adding the vinegar, because if you add it at this point, the milk will separate and things will look really gross (your cookies will still taste good – don’t worry).

Sift (or mix) together the flour, baking soda, baking  powder, and cocoa and then add about one-fourth of the dry ingredients to the batter. Give things a stir until incorporated and then add the vinegar and a good amount of red food coloring. If you want the cookies on the darker side, add another few drops of the food coloring.

Continue adding the dry ingredients until all incorporated. As you can see, my daughter really took stirring seriously.

Cover a sheet tray with parchment and invite your tot to drop spoonfuls of batter on the pan, allowing an inch or two between cookies. Now your child can douse the cookies with the red sprinkles.

Offer your child a clean glass to gently press on the cookies creating sprinkled rounds of dough. Yeah, they aren’t going to be perfect, but that’s how it goes when you’re cooking with little ones. It’s about the experience, not the super pretty outcome — but it’s sure a plus when things taste good!

Pop the cookies in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the tops are cracked. If you prefer a chewy-er cookie, leave in for 9 minutes or so. But these are really good nice and crisp with a tender center, which is what we discovered after about 12 minutes of baking. Remove from the oven and top with more sprinkles or even a dusting of powdered sugar before serving.


Fresh cranberry lemon yogurt bread

Now that Thanksgiving is over you may have a few leftovers hanging out in the fridge. We happened to have half a bag of fresh cranberries that were starring at me every time I opened the fridge. The tot started calling them “grapes” and really wanted to eat them and then would get angry and confused when I told her they wouldn’t taste very good. But, she was determined, so I let her have one.


She was excited about the idea of using them to bake something, so I gathered a few ingredients we sat down for some serious stirring. And this bread turns into a really awesome fine motor skill activity if you encourage your tot to only add one cranberry at a time — and it also keeps your little one busy for a good amount of time….


1/2 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Zest of one lemon

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 cups cranberries

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Dash of salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 egg

1 1/2 cup flour


Invite your child to measure and add the yogurt, vanilla, and sugar, giving the ingredients a stir. You can preheat the oven to 400F so it’s nice and hot when you’re finished mixing.

Now offer your tot the cranberries and encourage her to add a few at a time, and then give a stir. While she’s busy, go ahead and zest the lemon over the bowl and then add the fresh squeezed juice.

Measure and add the milk and vegetable oil, inviting your child to continue mixing the ingredients — and adding the cranberries.

Once the cranberries have been mixed into the batter, add the egg, baking powder, baking soda, flour, and dash of salt. Give things a final stir.

Now your child can help grease a loaf pan and then add the batter. Pop the bread into the oven for 45-minutes to an hour, or until the top is toasty brown and a toothpick comes out nice and clean.

Let cool for 30-minutes before slicing and enjoy as an afternoon snack or in the morning toasted with a slathering of butter — my favorite way to eat this tasty, healthy bread.



Crafting with Kiwi Crate

This is a busy time of year, but it’s also so much fun. It always seems like the span from Thanksgiving to Christmas goes by in a snap, making it tough to fit everything in. We also dabble a bit in Hanukkah, so I’m always happy with anything that makes my holiday-season life easier. When I received an email from Kiwi Crate asking if I’d be interested in checking out one of their new holiday crafts, I responded with a really loud, “YES!”

In only a few days the compact package arrived in the mail, containing everything I needed to create an adorable, and child-friendly, holiday wreath with my tot.

I gathered the tot and she went to work, seriously. I didn’t even have a moment to discuss with her the steps for creating the adorable mini-holiday wreath. Included in the kit is a simple instruction card that even a toddler can figure out. I helped by cutting the squares of green tissue paper while she dabbed bits of glue and then scrunched and positioned.

Once the ring was filled my tot selected only the red glittering puff balls to decorate her finished wreath (her favorite color is red…) and then we gave it a few minutes dry.

That simple.

AND there were tons of materials left over for making more wreaths. You could repurpose an old cardboard box into the base for another wreath or even cut out the inside of a paper plate for more wreath fun….

I helped by tying a section of the included red ribbon for a festive wreath that we hung on our front door. My daughter gets so excited every time she sees it — and so do I.

Along with cute holiday wreaths, Kiwi Crate is offering several other seriously cute and interactive holiday crafts, including ones perfect for Hanukkah. And, just so you know, I wasn’t compensated in any way for writing this post, only sent the craft to experience with my tot. If you’re looking for something fun and festive to create with your child, but don’t have the time to hit the craft store for supplies, Kiwi Crate has everything you need packaged together — and it won’t bust your budget.

Kehoe Beach (on Thanksgiving)

I’d normally be sharing pictures and recipes from my Thanksgiving feast right about now, but this year we are postponing our turkey making until the weekend. Instead we acted like today was just like any other day, which didn’t stop us from being seriously thankful. It turned out to be a glorious day, making a trip to the beach the perfect way to spend the day together as a family. Kehoe Beach is tucked away in West Marin past Olema and through some of the most glorious cow fields I’ve ever seen — and I’m from Wisconsin.

After walking a short trail, flanked by some of those seriously happy cows, you come over a ridge to spectacular stretch of beach that seems endless, and it is also dog friendly. This was the first time we’d taken the tot on a “hike” and she loved every minute of it. We checked out worms on the trail, barnacles on the beach rocks, inspected the various footprints in the sand, and determined the water was way too cold for any swimming…

Happy Thanksgiving — I hope you all had a wonderful day!

(Get ready for turkey pictures on Sunday…)

*And thanks to the husband for the awesome pictures.

Spicy chicken pot pie

There’s nothing like a dinner that makes the whole family happy, which is harder to pull off than you might think. My tot isn’t excited about this or the husband isn’t in the mood for that. So the other night, when I tossed together this seriously simple dinner, I was amazed when everyone asked for seconds — and thirds.

Along with being healthy and a go-to weeknight dinner, this dish also cooks in one pan, making it fitting with this month’s Shine Supper Club Challenge. With tasty one-pot dishes as the focus, I knew my twist on chicken pot pie would be perfect. With a little help from pre-made cornbread mix, a can of beans, fresh veggies, and my new Calphalon 3-quart sauté pan, this spicy twist on the traditional recipe is a fun dinner and makes enough for lunch the next day. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, you could also swap the chicken for shredded leftover turkey, which would also be seriously delish.


1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

1 pound skinless boneless chicken

1 small onion

2 carrots

2 ribs celery

1 clove garlic

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1 15-ounce can pinto beans

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

Hot sauce

1/2 cup salsa

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon flour

1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1 8.5-ounce box cornbread mix

1 egg

1/3 cup milk


Place a 3-quart sauté pan over medium heat and drizzle with vegetable oil. Chop the onion, carrot, and celery and add to the pan, giving a stir.

Once the vegetables have cooked for four to five minutes, chop and add the garlic as well as the chicken. Give things a stir and then sprinkle with the salt, paprika, and oregano. Allow the ingredients to simmer together for around five minutes, or until the chicken starts to brown.

Deglaze the pan with the apple cider vinegar then strain and add the beans. Go ahead and add the salsa and water, creating a nice bubbling pan of goodness. Let the mixture simmer while you grate the cheese and make the cornbread muffin batter.

Preheat your oven to 425F. Follow the directions on the cornbread muffin box, mixing with the milk and egg. Don’t forget to grate the cheese, and you could totally use cheddar instead of Monterey Jack, which would be tasty too.

Stir the chicken and then turn off the heat. Sprinkle with the flour and mix together until it’s incorporated. The flour will help pull the liquid together, creating a really flavorful sauce. You can also add a few dashes of hot sauce if you like things nice and spicy.

Sprinkle the cheese over the mixture and then cover with the cornbread mix, using a spoon to spread the batter evenly around the pan.

Pop the spicy chicken pot pie in the oven and bake for 20-minutes or until the top is golden brown.

Serve with extra salsa, a dollop of sour cream, a fresh salad — or all on its own for a delicious weeknight dinner.

Cooking with tots: Butternut squash coconut milk muffins

I had an odd collection of items in the fridge that needed using in some way or another. An end of a butternut squash, half a can of coconut milk, steamed spinach, a bag of cooked pasta…. I had a fleeting idea of tossing everything together into a butternut squash coconut curry pasta dish to enjoy for lunch, but then the tot caught sight of those noodles and she just had to have them.

As soon as she finished her lunch she demanded some sort of “treat” as a reward.

Damn Halloween.

But our candy was fresh out and instead of her begging for “A TREAT A TREAT A TREAT,” I thought it would be wonderful if we baked a treat together instead. And mixing together the high-in-antioxidants butternut squash and coconut milk had the beginnings of a really flavorful and healthy baked goodie. Coconut milk is nut-free, vegan, and vegetarian, making it a fitting alternative to milk when baking and cooking. And it’s nutrient rich, high in protein, and packed with healthy fatty acids. I love cooking and baking with my tot because it’s not about how pretty things turn out, it’s all about creating something together — and making it taste good while being healthy.


1/2 cup cooked butternut squash

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup coconut milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Dash of salt

1 1/4 cup flour



Let’s be honest, there’s not much to this recipe. Preheat your oven to 375F and then invite your child to help measure and add the ingredients into a mixing bowl. Slowly stir everything together until the batter comes together. And if a little more of this or that ends up in the mix, I’m sure your muffins will still be tasty.

Then pop liners in a muffin tin and then invite your child to (attempt to) evenly distribute the batter in the tins. Drizzle with a squeeze of honey for extra yummy flavor. My tot assisted with the drizzling while her favorite stuffed animal watched, making sure she got a big glop on each muffin.

Place the muffins in the oven for 20-minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and slightly cracked. Let cool and then dig in.


Mystery picture salad spinnner art

Someone gave me a salad spinner at some point. It may have been a wedding gift or a baby shower gift — or a holiday gift. I really don’t remember (and hopefully whomever gave it to me isn’t reading this now (and if you are, sorry!)), but it’s been shoved in the back of one of the various cabinets of the houses I’ve lived in over the years.

Last weekend I decided it was time to let that never-been-used salad spinner find a new home. But before I was able to cart it off to our local donation spot, the tot decided it was her new favorite toy. And the minute she discovered that she could make it SPIN, she wouldn’t let it out of her site.

After we did a bit of good ol’ spin art, I thought it might be fun to give the colorful project a bit of a twist. I cut a small square of white paper and then drew a picture on it using a white crayon.

Then I popped the paper in the spinner and invited the tot to drip water-downed watercolor paint over the picture. I knew I had drawn a collection of fishes, so offered her shades of blue.

After she was happy with the amount of paint she’d dribbled over the paper, she spun and spun that spinner. Expecting to discover a wonderfully colored creation, my tot squealed when she saw the fish that had appeared on the paper.

And, of course, she wanted to do it again, and again, and again. Because crayons are made from wax, they push away the liquid paint (oil and water don’t mix, right?) creating a fun resist artwork. Your child can experiment with creating lots of drawings in white, use black crayons to make dark outlines, or lots of colors to draw exciting creations and then pop in the spinnner for lots of colorful fun.