Hot Cocoa Sensory Tub

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Disclaimer: This is by far the messiest sensory play I’ve undertaken with either of my children, and that’s saying a lot. But it’s worth it!

In retrospect, I would have done this activity around Christmas. Something about it felt very seasonal, perfect for the holidays, although technically it is still winter which means hot cocoa season. The original version of this game called for a container of hot cocoa mix, but it’s very hard to find a brand with no milk powder. Instead, I mixed together a tub of cocoa powder but added about 1/2 cup vanilla-flavored protein powder. This meant the mix wouldn’t be too bitter if Veronika happened to lick her fingers (which she did!). Straight cocoa powder probably won’t appeal to your little one.

To complete the set-up, I added a few gingerbread people ornaments. in keeping with the cocoa theme. If you want to keep the bin fully edible, use mini Dandies marshmallows instead. Or try gingerbread men cookies, if in stock around the holidays.

I added a funnel and a few scoops and rakes, and Veronika went to town!

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This was like indoor dirt, except it smelled divine. I held the scoop up to her nose a few times to fully enjoy that chocolate-y scent, which prompted little “mmm’s” of delight.

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Mostly she loved scooping through it.

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Once I showed he how to fill up the funnel, she became an expert at that.

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The gingerbread men were fun to put in the cocoa and bury, then dig up again. Again, I wish I’d thought to use edible marshmallows, though!

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By now she had completely spooned cocoa powder all over her pants and socks. Another mea culpa: wear only a diaper next time!

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Well, since we were already this messy, I figured why not take our sensory bowl from indoor “dirt” to “mud”. I poured in a little oat milk, which made the whole thing smell even better. She loved stirring and watching the powder dissolve in big bubbles.

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Okay, playtime complete; now it was immediately upstairs for a wash and a change!

Winter Picnic

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We’re in the final stretch of winter, and if you’re equally sick of being indoors and dying to get your toddler outside, here’s the perfect idea: Don’t wait! Throw a winter indoor picnic instead.

While Veronika was napping, I set the whole stage including big blankets on the floor, soft balls to throw and play with, and a picnic basket full of little lunch items.

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When she woke up, she immediately needed to check everything out. The balls were a blast to play with, and soon she and big brother were happily devouring their meal.

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We invited a few “babies” along, and Veronika loved putting them in and out of the picnic basket!

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Older kids might have fun talking about favorite warm weather memories as they eat. My two were just thrilled with the change of location from the kitchen table! Did they eat as much as usual? No, but we sure had fun.

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Play Tourist in Your Town

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I love playing “tourist” in our home town with the kids, finding new ways to appreciate and discover the same place. One perfect way to do this is to head out in search of holiday decorations in December, when the same-old same-old houses suddenly look new again decked in holiday lights. Acting on a tip for the best neighborhood in town, we headed out to play tourist!

We made it special by getting everyone in pajamas first. And Travis got a candy cane!

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Don’t forget to set the radio to the holiday station!

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Travis knew we had a particular neighborhood as our destination, but that didn’t stop us from ogling every house along the way, rating the ones we liked best.

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The recommended neighborhood did not disappoint. There were flying Santa’s sleighs, giant penguins in doorways, sparkling candy canes, and more.

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Travis took it all in with wonder!

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This was such a fun way to appreciate our town anew.

I Spy an Ornament

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Here’s a fun variation on “I Spy” to play around the Christmas tree after the sun goes down!

Turn off all the lights in the room so that the only illumination left comes from the tree lights. Take turns playing classic “I Spy” (“I spy something green”, “I spy something gold”,) and have the other family members guess which ornament it is.

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Travis loved being in charge of shining a flashlight on the guessed ornament if it was correct. Because he’s young, his clues are sometimes hilarious. “I spy something at the top of the tree with wings.” Our angel!

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This can also be a fun way to talk about family ornaments, for example explaining the significance behind homemade ones, family heirlooms, or those purchased on vacation.

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Travis loved the game so much we might just play every night until the tree comes down!

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Beach Party

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If you can’t get some place warm and beachy this winter, here’s my favorite suggestion for entertaining kids indoors: Bring the beach to you!

This morning, we woke to gray skies and cold weather, so on a whim I set out a few beach towels, as well as all our summer beach toys. There were sand buckets and shovels….

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…a travel tic-tac-toe game…

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…inflatable pool toys, and more! Of course for added authenticity, we cranked up the heat a few degrees so the kids could put on their bathing suits.

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I had intended the game mainly for Veronika, but big brother Travis had to join in, and soon was “sunbathing”.

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If you want to go all out, there’s so much you can do here. Add tropical music, tropical snacks, or even real sand and real water for your little ones to scoop and play with in a sensory way.

Apologies for the dark quality of these photos; yes we played this game before the winter sun was even up!

Easy Nature Sensory Bag

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You could do this easy sensory activity with a toddler in any season, but it was particularly nice to fit in a little bit of nature in the winter. An unseasonably warm day meant our snow melted and Veronika and I headed outside briefly to find wintery treasures.

We returned inside with a pine cone, pine branches, a few leaves, and acorns. I filled a gallon-sized zip-top bag with just a bit of water, then added our treasures.

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Veronika was immediately intrigued when I handed it to her at her high chair tray (older toddlers might liked this taped down to a table). We talked about the different textures, especially the hard, round acorns.

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Because the colors were a bit drab this time of year, I ended up slipping inside a few tiny red jingle bells to mimic the look of red berries. Ok, so they were not really from nature, but they added quite the pop! She loved poking these around through the water with one finger.

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We can’t wait to do this activity in the spring, and see how different our nature bag looks!

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Brighten Dark Winter Nights

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We are loving winter so far, with snow to play in and forts to build. The key, I have learned, to loving this darkest season is to keep things cozy. Here are four fun ways we’ve found to brighten the nights that begin as early as 4 p.m.!

First, we had an extra string of Christmas tree lights, and I gave Travis permission to hang them in his room.

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He loved that these had the option for flashing or steady modes, and he could control it with a button.

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Next, we made glow-in-the-dark paintings. Your kids can be deliberate or artsy with this activity…

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…Or just blob on the paint, as Travis did. He wanted maximum glow!

Brighten Nights (9)Next, we made a campfire. We scribbled brown marker on paper, rolled the paper up, and taped shut for quick “logs”.

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All our battery-powered tea lights in the house provided the perfect glow for reading Christmas stories and singing carols. A winter camp out!

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While we were at the “campfire”, we made sure to act out stories with shadow puppets, too.

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In sum, we’re staying cozy and happy, and excited for dark nights to come.

How to… Build a Snow Fort


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It’s only the third day of December and Travis is on the second snow day off from school. That meant we had to test out Highlights magazine’s tips for making the best snow fort!

Highlights recommended first delineating an area for your fort with a stick. We used a shovel instead, making a big square on our patio and then mounding up the walls to give us a base.

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To make bricks for the walls, fill a rectangular container with snow. Drizzle with a little water, than add a final layer of snow on top.

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Depending on the consistency of your snowfall, you may or may not need that extra water. We soon found that we did not – today anyway! Continue building until you have several layers of “bricks”.

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We even tried adding windows.

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Simply twist an empty soup can to drill a little peephole.

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Even more fun was adding food color to a spritz bottle; now we could decorate our fort’s walls with art (though I wish Travis hadn’t opted for orange!).


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Travis loved being in charge of the “moat”, shoveling a long path away from our fort.

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And we even armed ourselves with ammo, in case enemies (i.e. neighborhood friends) happened to storm the castle!

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Don’t forget a side door to sneak out of! What special activities to you do on a snow day off from school? Please share in the comment!

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Snow Skeeball

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Finally! It took until March for us to receive our first real snowfall of the season, and we were so ready to play. Last weekend we were indoors at an arcade, so today we decided to replicate one of our favorite games in snowy form.

I fashioned a ramp out of the snow, making it lower at the bottom, and higher up top – good thing we had perfectly packable snow.

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We wedged three buckets into the snow at intervals, and then I handed Travis a few golf balls.

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Time to toss! We decided the first bucket was worth 1 point, the second was 2 points, and the third was 3. We even had tickets to use from a pretend-play carnival game!

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The game was admittedly hard – next time we’d use bigger buckets. (Note: we’d also use colored balls, for rather obvious reasons!).

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So here’s hoping for one more storm before spring. We’ll be out there playing skeeball… or should I say “ski ball”?

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Gingerbread Pancakes

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These pancakes, redolent with ginger and other spices, are the perfect version to make on a winter morning.

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They’re especially nice around the holidays, but you can’t go wrong with them on any dark winter morning!


  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 1 and 1/2 cups non-dairy milk
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 2 Ener-G eggs
  • 4 tablespoons canola oil
  1. In a large bowl combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. Set aside. (Note: we didn’t have ground allspice, but the pancakes were plenty spiced without it!).
  2. Whisk together the vinegar and milk, and let sit for 5 minutes. Combine the milk mixture in a bowl with the molasses, Ener-G eggs, and canola oil
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring just until combined.
  4. Heat a griddle coated with cooking spray and add about 1/3 cup batter per pancake. Cook until bubbles form on top, then flip and cook 1 to 2 minutes on the other side.

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We liked these with just a pat of Earth Balance butter, but optional toppings include sliced banana, powdered sugar, or sauteed pears.

To continue the fun, Travis and I also explored ginger in all its forms. I presented him with ground ginger, crystallized ginger, and a fresh ginger root.

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He loved taking little nibbles of the crystallized  ginger, delighting in how it was sweet and spicy all at once.

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The ginger root was a big hit. First we smelled it…

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…then tested what would happen when we grated it.

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He marveled at how the firm root became soft and wet, in just moments.

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This is a great way to talk kids about using all the senses with an ingredient, since they can touch, taste, see, and smell the varieties. You can even add pickled ginger to your exploration, if you like!

Finally, this recipe makes a great gift. Just layer the dry ingredients in a pretty jar, add instructions for adding wet ingredients at home, and present to a party hostess, friend, or family member.

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