At the start of the summer I challenged my kids to make something everyday.  Big Girl looked skeptical, clearly imagining one giant project after another.  But, she quickly agreed once I pointed out how many different ways there are to “make something.”

For the next 5 posts, I’m going to share some highlights from our make something challenge.  The rules have been as basic as can be:  make something using your imagination (rather than a kit or strict rules) and as much as possible try to use stuff we already have in the house.  Cooking counts and so do temporary structures.

One of our cheapest and most impressive group projects was to make lanterns using mason jars, elmer’s glue, food coloring, and nail polish.  We mixed glue with food coloring and used a sponge brush to apply the colors.  Each of these jars took two coatings.

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IMG_3982We were inspired by some reading we had been doing about India as well as some lanterns we had seen for sale at Pier 1 (but I refused to buy 🙂 ).  So we painted them in bright jewel tones and used nail polish to create designs.
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The final effect is really charming.  It took a few hours from start to finish and we have enjoyed making them our table centerpiece– especially when we are having Indian food for dinner.  Yum!

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So that was 6 posts in 7 days and I have really enjoyed writing here again. Thanks to those of you who read too!

I’m heading out of town today for the long holiday weekend this morning.  The kids and I are going on a 430 mile road trip.  When I return, I’ll be posting about how much I over-prepared for this trip, whether or not is saved my sanity and maybe even successfully entertained two kids who seem to get car sick at the mere mention of the car.

But, I won’t be able to report back while I’m away.  Because I am travelling without my computer! Yes, that does make me almost as nervous as driving 430 miles alone with two kids!

 

I always hated this question.

As a kid I answered it with shrugs, silence or imitation. “Uhhh…. teacher!”  There was only one time when I could answer it with certainty: When in grad school.  It was a one way road.  Why get a Ph.D?  To become a professor.  Before my late 20s, then, I found this question some where between stressful and irrelevant.

As a parent, I hate it even more!

We were at a children’s festival a few weeks ago and there was a tent sponsored by a bank. Kids were encouraged to enter the tent to learn about saving and to have their picture taken dressed up as “what they want to be when they grow up.”  We skipped that tent.

I didn’t want to stand there while my 8 year old and four year old tried to decide if they wanted to be a doctor, ballerina or astronaut WHEN THEY GROW UP.  I don’t want them to focus on being a grown up.  I want them to enjoy being a kid!

Aside from the way it rushes kids to think toward the future.  The question of what you want to be when you grow up also bugs me because it lends toward gender normativity. What do you think most four year old girls pick when choosing between pink tutus and green scrubs?  It’s not little kids only.   For a recent class project girls in Big Girl’s Second Grade class said Business Worker, Teacher, Writer and Artist, boys in the class said Business Owner, Principal, NFL player, Doctor and Architect.  Want to look up the average incomes and gender distribution for those incomes? Power differentials too?  The gender wage gap is based, in part, on an expectation gap that starts when kids are really young.

The question also is a product of the project of training kids to be employees and consumers. I don’t want my kids goal to be to make money or to work for some company. It was a bank asking those kids, you know?

Getting older younger, gender normativity, and consumerism are three totally legitimate reasons to object to something, right?

But, recently it’s been bugging me even more… because for me, in my current state of contented unemployment, the answer is yet again elusive.  I don’t know what I want to do with myself for employment.  But what I do and who I am are not the same thing.

So, I’ve been coaching my kids and myself.  When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I urge them (and me) to say, “Myself!”

 

 

 

wax melting in double boiler The good thing about me being a planner is that I always have elaborate ideas about awesome things we can do to make our trips, parties and events even more exciting and memorable.  I’m the person who likes to read novels months in advance of a vacation to get in the right mood, who researches themed projects and crafts, and who starts talking up a trip well before it arrives.  I happily sew new clothes before a trip to the Renaissance Faire, develop a week-long berry themed menu as a follow up to a day spent picking, and create lists of dozens of fun things to do during Summer vacation.  For goodness sake, we might as well rename October as Halloween month, really!

 

We have our first of four summer camping trips coming up next weekend.   And, I have a list of dozens of new and fun camping themed activities to do at home to get ready for our trip as well as tons of great new ideas for during the trip.

First up, homemade firestarters made from an egg carton, dryer lint and melted candle wax.  I’m not sure where we found this idea originally but we made these once before and they work amazingly well (there’s a reason you are supposed to clean out dryer lint; it’s highly flammable!)

The girls and I made these yesterday.  It took about 45 minutes all together.

What you need:

Cardboard egg carton

Dryer lint

Candles or candle wax

Tin can for melting wax

Small pot as double boiler

Chopstick, pencil or thin stick for pressing the lint into the wax

We’ve been saving our dryer lint in a basket near the dryer forever.  This project uses a lot of lint so you’ll need to plan in advance.  I would estimate that each firestarter requires two loads of dryer lint and ½ small candle.

dryer lint and egg cartons for firestarters

To prepare, push the lint down into the egg carton.  This is a good job for your littler kids. Chopping candles for firestarters

Big Girl and I chopped up the candles and put in a can for melting.  We used 9 shabbat candles and just let the wick get added to the mess.

I put a pot full of water on the stove and set the can into the water to create a double boiler.   It took about 15 mins to melt the wax.

Once the wax is melted, pour over the lint.  We put everything in a cardboard box to catch spilled wax.  Press down hard with chopstick to let the wax bubble up and fully coat the lint.  I did the pouring while Big Girl pressed the lint in.  Little Girl took the picture 🙂

wax melting in double boilerlint in egg cartons ready for wax

In all, we made 18 firestarters for free and in about 45 minutes.  And, we got to spend the time planning all the fun stuff we’re going to do next weekend during our trip!

finished fire starters

18 fire starters as down payment for 18 nights by the fire? I’m in!

Added bonus?  My kids are really good at remembering to empty the lint trap in the dryer!

 

There are two very different birthday party trends among Big Girl’s (8 years old) friends.  Several kids have had parties that are super-hyper structured, like the two that were held at art studios where each of the girls painted the exact same painting under the guidance of an “artist.”  Those glorified paint-by-number events make my skin crawl.  I found myself wanting to scream, “It’s supposed to be the process!  Not the product, people! Please, let them be creative!”

Then there’s the other extreme: sleepovers or late nights with no structured activity at all. Just a wild, jumping on the furniture, swinging from the chandelier, dumping out every toy in the house and not putting it away free-for-all.  Those also make me want to scream. A little wildness is good, trashing the house is not.  (It’s wasteful and disrespectful, darn it!)

These birthday parties become one of the biggest parenting debates writ small:  How much structure is good for kids?  At what point does structure become too rigid and prevent kids from developing their own skills to plan, imagine and explore?

This is definitely something we struggle with in our parenting because neither of the two extremes seems ideal, and neither works for my kids.   Both of my girls hang back when kids are just running wild.  They want some structure so they know what the expectations are and so they know how to behave.  But, when it’s hyper-structured I see that my kids aren’t really enjoying the activity.  They are too concerned about doing it wrong!

I found myself facing this dilemma when planning Big Girl’s birthday party.  Despite the fact that they were flexible, at heart the crafts we planned were not open-ended—hair ties and headbands & charm bracelets—both either work or they don’t.  They were fundamentally about the product; making something cute.  And, they were a big hit. The kids loved to learn to make them for themselves.

But, I was uncomfortable with doing only structured crafts so we also added a third activity: clay play (model magic, really).  It was definitely the favorite activity.  The kids mixed colors, made shapes  and mushed it around.  For some it was just sensory fun and never turned into anything.  For others, they made elaborate pieces that they brought home to dry.  For every single one of them, it was a few moments when they stopped worrying about doing it right and instead focused on just doing it.

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It was a really good reminder to find that balance of both structure and open-ended.  Even for big kids who seem like they might be too old for “clay play”!

One of the joys about my new-found unemployment is that I am looking forward to a summer with my girls where the three of us will play and explore together every single day.  We will go on hikes, to museums and parks.  We will garden and cook.  We will do art every single day.  And, I will strive to provide just enough structure to keep us engaged and feeling creative.

Big Girl turned 8 a few weeks ago.  She was really eager to have a birthday party at home this year.  We decided to invite the girls in her grade (12 kids) to our house for an evening craft party.   To make this really fun and special, I decided to think up some crafts that would be wearable, a little challenging and distinct.  The next big challenge though?  How to do this without spending a fortune?

After tons of brainstorming, Big Girl and I finally settled on three major craft activities (not counting cupcake decorating!): hair-ties & headbands, charm bracelets, and clay beads.  Each of these crafts were reasonably affordable and manageable for kids 8-12 years old.

First up, hair-ties and headbands:119

I was so amazed a few months ago when I discovered that those fancy “yoga band” hair ties were really just ribbon tied in a knot.  Ever since, we’ve been making our own, sometimes with the addition of bows, beads and flowers and sometimes plain.  We’re not a headband family, but we realized around the same time that we could make headbands just as easily.  We decided to share this magic with Big Girl’s friends as the first craft at her party.

To make these hair-ties and headbands, you need:

-needle and thread

-fold-over satin elastic bands

-flowers, gems, etc…  We used chiffon flowers.

I purchased the chiffon flowers and elastic ribbon on amazon.  Fifty flowers and 10 yards of ribbon cost about $25.  This is enough to make 10 headbands and 20 hair-ties with leftover flowers!

To prepare for the party, I cut the ribbon into 18″ (headbands) and 9″ (hair-ties) pieces and trimmed the netting off the back of the chiffon flowers.

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Hair-ties are super simple.  Just tie a knot!  I pre-knotted them for the kids.  For the headbands, I sewed the ends together with a three inch overlap.  It took a minute or so to quickly hand sew them; would have been even quicker with the sewing machine.

I then pre-threaded a dozen needles and laid them out for the kids to grab.  I wrote instructions on an index card and taped it to the tray.

I had them mix and match flowers with headban117ds/hair-ties and sew the flowers to the bands themselves.
It was a huge success.  The kids loved making them and wearing them.  Some of the girls needed a little help with the sewing but most of them could do it just fine.  And, check out how cute this looks!

 

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Super cute and super fun!  The charm bracelets were a big hit too.  I’ll post about them later this week.

Epson_02262016141119 (1).jpg Last week my kids had a day off from school but were too tired and cranky to go to a museum or out for a hike or even to the library.  They also couldn’t just have “alone time” (seriously do anyone’s kids both want alone time at the same time, ever?).  Just as the pitch of their bickering reached a dangerous level, I happened upon a super fun idea.  I told them that we were each going to draw a creature and then we were going to do a series of art projects using those creatures.

Thus, Sparkle the Unicorn, Bluebell the Bluejay and Fran the Faun were born.   This project worked really well for a few reasons.  First, we could each do parts of an animal but we found that we liked having someone else do another part.  So, I sketched a unicorn, Little Girl made it rainbow, Big Girl added the purple, I outlined it, and Little Girl covered it in glitter glue.  Same process for Bluebell and Fran too (though minus the glitter!).

Doing it that way meant that we were working IMG_3194together… which means there was no competition.  (A dramatic improvement from how our day had been shaping up before that.)

This approach also  had the benefit of getting us all thinking about how we might want to use our creatures.  What sorts of scene they should be in and how they fit together.

We decided to create a water color scene for the original animals but also to create alternate versions to fit with our bigger story.  For one picture, Big Girl had the idea that we should trace the creatures so we could make multiples.  I loved that idea and proposed that maybe we could use scraps of colored paper to make it work.  For another version, I thought it would be fun to scan our coloring creations to resize, reprint and reuse.

Tracing and cutting for art projecttrace

We wrapped up our day by putting our creatures into scenes, a few of which I hope to frame and hang in the house.

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We also ended the day happy, relaxed and feeling like friends.  It is so tempting to think that when kids are cranky we need to get them out of the house to provide some stimulation.  Of course, we can all end up stir crazy so sometimes getting out of the house is what is needed.  But, sometimes, staying in, working together and building closeness is what we really need.

One of the best parenting books I ever read (Raising Your Spirited Child) proposed that when your kid is most monstrous and infuriating and you are most tempted to yell at him/her, the best thing you can do is give them a hug and try to reconnect instead of letting anger take over.  This project did that for us.

My husband and I recently made a parenting decision that surprised us: we signed the opt-out form to remove Big Girl from a health unit on “personal safety.”  This section “safety” discusses what to do if you encounter a gun (don’t touch), how to deal with knives and fire (don’t touch) and “inappropriate” touching (tell a grown-up).  My husband and I realized that we did not want her to learn about any of this as part of her second grade class at school.

Turns out, that my husband and I are the only ones who felt that way, or at least the only ones who acted on our feeling; Big Girl is the only one in her second grade class not participating.  After the first class (when she had free reading time in the classroom while the rest of the class went to health) her friend asked her, “Why doesn’t your mom want you to be safe?”

To her credit, she knew both how to respond to her friend and the reason for our decision.  It’s not that we don’t want her to be safe.  It’s that we don’t want her to be scared.

By teaching my daughter that there are all these things out there that are a risk to her I think we end up making her worry about encountering them.  I think we end up cultivating a culture of fear.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know that guns, knives, fire and child abuse are all real things with disastrous effects but I also know that the chances of any kid actually being at risk from one of these threats is small.  I know too that for my daughter, a kid who is cautious by nature, but also has had real life (and safe) experiences with fire (while camping) and knives (while cooking and camping too), learning about how to “stay safe” in the abstract is not necessary.

So, I’m not dismissing the fact that there are risks out there.  Nor am I proposing wrapping my kids in bubble wrap and never letting them out of my sight.

But, I am suggesting that by prioritizing safety has a cost.

Part of my reason for opposing this health unit is my own childhood memories.  I can recall, vividly, in the early 80s sitting through D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Program) program and learning EVERY possible detail about every imaginable street drug.  I can remember being warned to never talk to strangers, to never get in a strangers car, to watch out for crazy people because they might be on drugs and might try to give me drugs, to not cross the street without the help of a grown-up, to never eat anything homemade without my parents’ permission because it might be poisoned (or laced with drugs), to never accept a gift from a stranger, and, of course, to watch out for razor blades in apples at Halloween.

Taken together, the message was clear:  the world is a scary and dangerous place.  You should be afraid, you should not trust neighbors or passers-by, you should not trust people who are a little odd or different, you should not trust homemade food items.  You can only trust your school, the police, and your parents.

It worked.  I was afraid.  And, that is what I don’t want to do to my kids.  I don’t want them to see a threat lurking around each corner.  I don’t want them to distrust well-meaning passers-by.  I don’t want them to fear the world.  I want them to embrace it.   I don’t want them to be “safe” at the expense of being free.

When I mention this to my students or talk about it with fellow parents, one of the common refrains I hear is that, “things are more dangerous today than when we were kids.”  That is just not true. 

There isn’t as much to fear as we might think.  Gun violence is down—49% lower in 2010 than in 1993 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/).

Death or injury by accident has also generally declined over time in the U.S.: 334 kids died from fire in 2013, compared to almost twice as many 703 in 1999.  (https://www.safekids.org/fact-sheet/burns-and-fire-safety-fact-sheet-2015-pdf)  Again, it’s a tragedy when it does happen, but it’s not really something for kids to worry about in advance.  In fact, that’s because most deaths by fire have nothing to do with kids playing with fire.  Deaths from fire happen when kids are inside buildings that catch fire.  So, yeah, they should learn stop, drop and roll and to touch the doorknob to see if it’s hot before they exit a room when there’s a fire.  Even more important, parents should install smoke detectors and change those damn batteries twice a year!

Similarly, all that stranger danger rhetoric is totally overblown.  The number of kids who were abducted by strangers in 2015?  About 100 which is less than 1% of total reports of missing and abducted children.  (https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/crimestats)

And, this is the cincher.  There is no record of any kid, anywhere getting poisoned Halloween candy.  (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/halloween.asp)

So, these are not things to be worrying about.

Still, I get why the school is doing this unit. Parents and schools want courses on safety because they too are scared.  It’s often hard not to be scared.  Turn on the news or scroll through the headlines on your phone and you are greeted with one horrible atrocity after another…  never mind that millions of not horrible things happened that day too.  Those aren’t newsworthy!

Clearly this culture of fear goes way beyond school curriculums.  Read a parenting website and see ads for baby gates, baby leashes, and finger printing kits.  See promotions for alarm systems, self-defense classes, and countless other products that promise security and safety.   Many argue in fact, that this is intentional marketing—and it obviously is not limited to parents and kids.

My objections to this breeding of fear run deep.  I don’t want my kids to be frightened.  In fact, I think I have a responsibility to keep the culture of fear at bay.  The responsibility of parents is to prepare their children to have the skills they need to make choices, develop connections, solve problems, and live a meaningful life.  I think that when we inculcate children in a culture of fear we teach them to second guess their choices, short-circuit their ability to develop connections and solve problems and make it harder for them to live a meaningful life.

So, despite our love of schooling and commitment to education, we opted out.  I have a feeling it’s only the first time of many.

In the midst of my final disillusionment with academia which includes feeling skeptical about schools, formal education and the real point of learning, my husband and I are obligated to make a decision about where to send our four year old next year for school…  by the end of this week.  We are at a complete deadlock.

Option 1 is to keep her where she is—a play based daycare with not enough outdoor time and no real curriculum but dedicated and loving staff and great kids to play with—and move her to part time.  If she went part time she and I would get to go to museums, do art projects, read books, and play.  We’d get to spend more time together but I know I’m not going to teach her to read or do math or to sit quietly.  It would not be pre-K.

Option 2 would be to send her to the exceptional pre-K at the same school that Big Girl attends.  The teachers there are amazing.  The resources are mindblowing.  The outdoor space is a dream.  The follow a Reggio-Emilia philosophy that would allow Little Girl to spend days and weeks diving deeply into topics I’d never think to cover, alongside lots of curious kids who would be at school with her for the next 6 years.  She wants to go, desperately.

Cost is not irrelevant: Option 1 is the cheaper choice and Option 2 is just about doable.  Option 1 is flexible with schedules and timing.  Option 2 is a school; five days a week, starting right at 8:15 for morning meeting.  The timing and flexibility issues are hugely important to me.

Do we pick the school that allows Little Girl and I more time to have fun, the flexibility for her to go back up to full time if the part time option doesn’t work, and is less expensive but no real academic content or the school that costs more, does more but is a year-long commitment?

We have four days left to decide…

There are lots of other pros and cons we can throw into these lists (including: one place for drop-off, Big Girls opinion, existing friendships) but the above captures the central dilemma.  Part of what makes this such a dilemma is the fact that we are trying to predict the future during a time of profound changes in our family life— it’s virtually impossible to make a prediction with so many unknowns (anyone have a crystal ball to lend?).

But, also central to our dilemma is a question about what we think kids need most: structure and stimulation or freedom and openness.  As with any other legitimate dilemma, I can find data to support both perspectives.

Scholars have shown through several studies that kids who attend a structured pre-K program do much better in all academic pursuits both short-term and long-term (for example, see http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Pre-kindergarten/Pre-Kindergarten/Pre-kindergarten-What-the-research-shows.html.)  But, scholars have also shown that pre-K is particularly important for kids with low-to-average IQs, those who grow up in poverty and those whose parents are not able to provide enrichment for them.

I am abundantly able to provide enrichment myself.  I do it automatically and naturally.  (What was you’re your favorite animal we saw at the zoo today?  Cool!  Why don’t we go draw a picture/sew a stuffed animal/make a sculpture of that animal?  I bet we can find books on it at the library too!)  That said, although I am an educator, I’m not a pre-K one.  A fabulous pre-K teacher will surely be able to give her all that and more.  And, I’d still give her that on the side, just like I always have.

The second big reason I read about why kids need pre-K is for the socializing aspect.  Well, part-time care at her current daycare will handle that easily.

For that matter, all the research I can find (including this compelling article in Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2013/01/how_important_is_preschool_if_you_are_researching_early_education_philosophies.2.html) shows pretty clearly that for most kids, and kids with highly educated parents especially, which school we pick makes very little difference in my daughter’s future.

For us, this is not a decision about the long-term future but the short-term.  What is best for her, for me, and for our family next year?  It’s hard though to know how much to weigh my preferences or to know how durable my preferences will prove to be.  I keep finding myself thinking that my little four year old would really benefit from more time at home, more time for big projects that she can immerse herself in, and especially more one-on-one time with me.  But, I also think that I can benefit from more time to play with her.  It’s hard to make a decision on so selfish a reason.

But, so far, it’s that assessment of my own wants that pushes the lever just a bit on the side of less school next year (keeping her at her current school and reducing to part-time).  This lever is finicky, we’re at 55-45 right now, but we seem to keep swinging back and forth… and we only have four more days to decide!

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Cookies and Cream (our chickens) eating oatmeal on a cold winter morning.

Life is funny.  Somehow I have gone from someone who was worried about salmonella (no licking the cake batter covered beaters in my house!), often grossed out by eggs (no runny yolks; eggs well done please), and unable to imagine EVER cleaning up after a pet (kids were enough, thank you!) to a devoted chicken keeper.

It started when Big Girl’s school decided to rent chickens through rentthechicken.com last Spring.  Since we live within walking distance of Big Girl’s school we decided to sign up as “chicken checkers” for a weekend.  We were charmed by the way those chickens gobbled up grass and the kale grown at the school and smitten with the delicious eggs we got to take home as a thank you for checking on them all weekend.

The girls and I ganged up on my husband and started our persuasion campaign that very weekend.  Please can we get chickens, please?!?!?!  My mother-in-law supported our case by pointing out (a couple of times) how she always wished that she had chickens.

After weeks of thinking through logistics, we decided to do it.  We initially rented our two chickens and quickly decided that we wanted to adopt.

We are all more than fond of our feathered friends now.  Big Girl delights in feeding them from her hand.  Little Girl joins my husband in the morning to feed them.  While doing so she croons to them about her birthday, their birthdays and other things on her mind.  She is especially appreciative of them as she would eat 4 eggs a day if we let her…  she even like her fried eggs with runny yolks!  The girls and I delight in giving them afternoon treats.   And, I contentedly clean up all of their poop, refill their water, refresh their bedding, bring in their eggs (and cook their eggs) and generally hang out with them.   And, it feels a bit like magic every time we collect another egg.

We’ve had our chickens for 6 months and it’s become (pretty) normal.  Our chickens have become our pets, beloved ones.  For me, this has been a real growth experience.  For the very first time in my life I understand why people have pets.  I love them.  They make me happy.  I buy them treats (they love the cackleberry ones from Happy Hens and devour corn too.  I even found myself delivering hot oatmeal to them this morning (with sunflower seeds and rehydrated raisins.  I took a bite first to taste it!)

It is more than that too.

It’s something we do together.  Yesterday, Big Girl spent 25 minutes outside on a cold winter afternoon feeding them treats from her hand and trying to get them to follow her instructions.  I cleaned out their coop and watched my kid play with her pets.

I know that for animal lovers this seems normal… kid loves pet.  But, to me this is amazing.   My kids are both afraid of almost all animals.  A year ago, neither one of them would pet any creature.  Now, they pet our chickens, and our neighbors cat, and the sheep at the farm where we go fruit picking.  Someday they might even pet a dog!

Having chickens has helped my kids not be afraid of animals.  And, not being afraid of animals helps my kids in two important ways: it makes the world less scary and unpredictable in general (no need to fear the off-leash dogs nor the creature on a hiking trail) and it helps to make them more comfortable in the natural world more generally. Caring about their pets and by extension other animals helps kids remember that humans are not the only creatures who inhabit this world.  And, that is good for both kids and the world!

Yet, we don’t have regular pets.  We have chickens.  Creatures who lay eggs that we eat for our breakfasts and dinners too.  I value the idea that by working together we are providing our own food.  Doing so helps my kids think more seriously about the ethics of food: for themselves, the environment and the animals too.

And, I have to point out that those chickens are so cute too!