A Very Harry Potter Birthday

A couple of years ago we decided that the boys would have a birthday party only on every even year. So when they turned 5 and 7, birthday celebrations were limited to a family dinner and maybe a friend or two over to watch a movie. And I secretly gave myself a little pat on the back for taking a step to simplify my life. Of course the downside to this plan is that Thomas just turned 8 and Samuel turns 6 in May and now I owe them a couple of birthday parties.

Cue the Harry Potter soundtrack…

Yes, Thomas is obsessed with Harry Potter, which meant that his dream birthday party had to take place at Hogwarts. Since flying to (fake) Hogwarts wasn’t an option this year, we brought the Hogwarts experience to our little house in Portland. It was a lot of work but, thanks to some internet research and a couple of ideas of our own, I think we created an environment that, although not  a perfect replica, would have made Professor Dumbledore proud.

I was so busy setting up and then managing the entertainment for 11 boys that I wasn’t able to take many photos, although I did run around in the three minutes between brushing my teeth and the first guest’s arrival to make sure I captured evidence of our hard work. I should have hired a photographer (Ha!). Here’s a small look at our crazy couple of hours in the Wizarding world.

Arriving at Hogwarts: Decor

Upon arrival, guests were invited to board the Hogwarts express through platform 9 3/4. I bought a brick wall backdrop on Amazon that we hung from our front porch with string. I found the platform sign online.

To help with the authenticity, Thomas and I had fun plastering Sirius Black wanted posters all over the inside of the house.

I found this idea online and thought it was so much fun. Sadly the Fat Lady painting and password request was lost on most of the kids. Thomas thought it was a little weird which made it worth the effort.

Most of the party took place in our dining room which leads out to the deck and backyard. The weather gods were kind to us and we managed to have the party in a perfect little two hour window between thunderstorms which likely saved my sanity.

I set up a “Potion” station with water that was available throughout the party. Later, during cake time, I used another idea I found online and added a little food coloring to the cups before filling them up with Sprite or Lemonade. The boys were excited to see their drinks in different colors. A fun and easy magic trick. I only wish I’d managed to get a photograph.


As the boys arrived I set them immediately to work decorating their magic wands. Kei cut pieces of dowel into 10 inch lengths and I placed a bunch of decorating items on the table including permanent markers in different colors, glitter glue and washi tape, but the biggest hit by far was the gold and silver duck tape. I was really impressed with the boys’ creativity and consider this activity a huge success.

Some of the guests even went on to decorate their “broomsticks”.

Kei had the brilliant idea to create them out of pool noodles because you just can’t play Quidditch without a broomstick, but more on that later. First we had to assign guests to their house with the help of a sorting hat that I borrowed from a very creative friend who made it for his own son’s birthday party.

We knew the sorting hat ceremony could prove problematic because almost everyone wants to be in Griffindor, so I made extra Griffindor badges (house crests printed on cardboard) and let the boys choose their own house. Kei provided the voice of the sorting hat.

By the time we finished sorting everyone into houses, it was clear that we needed to get everyone running around. Our original plan was to set the Quidditch field up over at the park but, with the threat of thunder and lightning, we decided it was safer to stay close to home. Kei built some very impressive Quidditch goals using dollar store Hoola Hoops and wooden stakes.

We set them up at either end of the yard and then Kei explained the rules of the game. I have no idea what he said because I had to set up for the next part of the party. When I went out to check on progress a few minutes later there seemed to be some method to the madness.

Party Food

While the boys were out playing Quidditch, I was inside setting up Honeyduke’s sweet shop. I found some really cute lolly/candy labels online and bought candy to match. The hardest part was keeping the boys outside until we were ready to open the store. Originally, the plan was to let them go through and fill their own candy bags but I decided that it would be better to have an adult manage the process. Still, they were able to choose the candy they liked and skip those they didn’t – although I wasn’t prepared for any child to say they didn’t like chocolate. It was shocking.

After Honeyduke’s (or was it before?) we had birthday cupcakes (cauldron cakes) and magic potion drinks while Thomas opened his presents.

Finally, with about 15 minutes left until pick up, we decided to let the boys come down off their sugar high by watching the first few minutes of the Sorcerer’s Stone. After two hours we said goodbye to 9 happy guests along with their new broomsticks, magic wands and a bag full of Honeyduke’s candy.

All in all a very successful party for a very special eight year old – even if I did forget to take a group photo. (My idea for a photo booth was also abandoned due to time and resources). I’m not sure if we’d do it again simply because of the amount of effort involved for a two hour event, but Thomas had a wonderful time and that was the most important thing.

And now, after I take a very long break, I’ll need to start planning a party for a six year old. Rumor has it that this one has a new interest in Vikings. What’s the Viking equivalent of Quidditch?

International Travel with Children: Surviving In Flight and On the Ground

I’m sharing a few more tips and tricks, based on my own experience, about how to best survive long international trips with children. Last week I shared some of the things I am doing now (three months in advance) to prepare for my solo trip to Australia with two kids in tow, as well as some of my favorite travel toys, books and activities to keep them entertained. Today’s post is focused on the making it through flight and long waits during layovers with you sanity in tact.

Surviving in the air

So now you’re all packed and you managed to get the kids out the door and to the airport about 2 hours before your flight. You even made it through security with all the necessary documents and passports – and without leaving one of them on the photocopier at your office over 20 miles away from airport. (True story that ended well thanks to a very kind co-worker and a speedy courier).

While a lot of the hard work is over at this point, you have about 22 hours in the air and another 8 hours in layovers looming before finally reach your destination. Here are the things my husband and I do every time we travel to try and make sure those many, many (many) hours are as stress-free as possible.

1. Don’t settle when it comes to seat allocation

Never consider your seating arrangement absolutely final until you are safely buckled for takeoff and all tray tables are in their fixed position. The seats that you get when you purchase your ticket do not have to be the seats you end up with. In fact, I begin negotiating for better seats from the moment I book them on line and I don’t stop until I am satisfied that we have the best arrangement for our family – even if that means talking to the person at check in, at the boarding gate, the flight attendants on the plane and your fellow passengers.

This is what I aim for:

  • Everyone seated together – I know it should be obvious but we have, in the past, been seated across the aisle from one another or where one parent is sitting in front.
  • Zone Defense – For a family of four, the airplane configuration will help you determine your best options for seating. For example, if the plane has rows of three seats each, then you may be better off choosing two sets of two seats together.
  • The bulkhead – especially important for families traveling with infants as some international airlines offer a bassinet that hangs from the bulkhead. These bassinets can be used for children up until the age of two (although 12 months is probably most appropriate) and will give you somewhere to put the baby while you eat your dinner or even catch a few moments of sleep. The bulkhead also offers a little more legroom, although placing your child on the floor to sleep is not allowed (I’ve tried).
  • Special upgrades – Sadly, our budget doesn’t allow an upgrade to business class and most airlines no longer offer the surprise upgrade at the gate – especially for families traveling with small children. Although it did happen once on a flight home from Australia with Thomas as a baby. Fond memories…  This time, I’m looking forward to trying out the new Air New Zealand Sky Couch  which will allow us to spread out across three seats and, hopefully, get a little more sleep. I’ll let you know how it goes.
  • Check the car seat – Car seats take up a lot of valuable space in economy seating and limit your options for moving around. I recommend checking it with baggage or, better yet, renting one at the destination.

2. Organize on board and keep the essentials in reach

The first thing I do when I get on board the aircraft is make the kids sit down while I organize our belongings. Kids backpacks with essential books, toys etc. and my camera bag go under the seats in front for easy access. The larger carryon is put in the overhead bins and reserved for things we’ll only need to access on the ground. Here are the items I put in the seat pockets for easy reach:

  • A couple of kids books and activities to keep them occupied during taxi and takeoff.
  • My kindle and a magazine (because you can’t read the Kindle during takeoff).
  • Bottles of water
  • Gum for ear popping
  • Headphone for myself and the kids (in case you’re allowed to watch TV during takeoff)
  • A few snacks to get us through the beginning of the flight because you know they’re going to complain about being hungry as soon as the seat belt sign goes on.

If you have a baby, then I highly recommend purchasing a compact changing pad/diaper carrier. That way you can store 3 or 4 diapers and some wipes in the seat pocket and  access your diaper bag only when you need to re-stock. I used one similar to this for both boys and it was easily one of my best, and most-used, baby purchases.

3. Let some (but not all) of the rules slide

Our kids have a fairly limited TV-watching schedule at home. During the week we limit them to about 30 minutes a day. We allow a little more on weekends but, still, we have limits.

While we’re flying over the Pacific, however, these limits pretty much go out the window. My goal during this time is to keep everyone happy and comfortable and if that means more in flight entertainment then so be it. Thankfully, the international airlines we choose to fly with provide us each with a TV of our own so I’m not forced to watch endless episodes of Blue’s Clues. Definitely worth spending a few extra dollars on airfare.

Of course we still limit TV viewing to an extent so it doesn’t interfere with critical sleeping time and I will take time out to read books and play games but, let’s face it, when you’re forced to sit in your seat for 14 hours, TV is the best form of entertainment for a couple of energetic boys. I also make sure I reinforce at every possible moment that this is a special rule for the aeroplane and that everything will go back to normal after we leave the airport.

The one rule I do continue to enforce whether we’re in the air on on the ground at home, is a limit on sugar. It goes without saying that you do not want to hop your kids up on sugar right before you’re about to board a plane.

Oh, one more thing. Some people recommend taking along Benadryl or some other  medication that may help your child sleep while in flight. Word of warning. Samuel was given Benadryl after an allergic reaction when he was a baby and it had the exact opposite effect. He was wound up for hours. I, personally, don’t think the benefits of medication are worth the risk.

Surviving the Layover

Unless you’re traveling to and from hub locations like LAX and Sydney, it can be almost guaranteed that you’ll have a layover or two – or three in our case. Maintaining your sanity during a layover is just as critical as it is in the air. Here are a couple of things we do to help make 6 hours in LAX move just a little more quickly.

1. Find a place to hunker down and create a home

It’s incredibly tempting to walk leisurely through the airport and check out some of the shops, especially when you have many hours between flights. Instead, Kei and I have developed a habit of heading directly to the gate for our next flight. On our way there, we’ll pay close attention to food options, bathroom locations and any areas that might serve well as our home base for the next few hours. Since I’ll be alone with the children this time, I’ll make sure we include a bathroom break because packing up a bunch of toys and books so you can take your child to the potty is something you want to as few times as possible.

When we’ve found a relatively comfortable area to call home, we set up a perimeter. Somewhere next to a wall is good – even better if it’s a window with a view out to the aeroplanes – and make sure you’re next to an electrical outlet. If possible, we move seats around and create our own little play area to keep children and toys contained. Another thing we do is establish rules so the kids know how far they can venture.

2. Look for a place to play

Many airports have awakened to the fact that kids often travel with their parents and (shock!) might want somewhere to spend their time doing something that doesn’t involve climbing over seats (and other passengers) in the boarding area or pulling items off shelves in the bookstore. If possible, look for a map of the airport online before you begin your journey so you know where these special places will be in relation to your transfer gate. If you find that the play area is immediately next to your gate, then go out and buy a lottery ticket because luck is definitely on your side.

Vancouver, BC airport has a fantastic play area and TVs with children's programming scattered all over the place.

3. Pace yourself and try to keep the kids awake

I’ll be traveling alone this time so I won’t have the option of taking a catnap during our layover. Instead, I’ll be doing all I can to entertain the kids and keep them awake while we’re on the ground so there will be a greater chance that they’ll sleep on the plane. My strategy involves a constant rotation of activities, including encouraging them to play with their toys, watching a movie or playing a game on the iPad, reading them a book or two, coloring and drawing and, when we’ve reached the point of boredom and frayed nerves, bringing out a surprise toy or book. Every couple of hours I’ll pack up our gear and take them for a walk to get them moving, grab something to eat and visit the bathroom. then we’ll rinse and repeat until we’re finally able to board the plane again. The key is to ensure we have as few “I’m bored”‘s as possible.

The San Francisco International airport has a mini aquarium AND an airline museum. One of the better places to be stranded with children.

Remember – Not everything is in your control.

As much as you try to pre-plan and organize and entertain, there are some things that are bound to happen that will be completely out of your control – both good and bad. Over the past few years we’ve experienced delayed flights, cancelled flights, being refused boarding, an unexpected upgrade, lost luggage, an extremely long wait on the tarmac after landing, wonderful flight attendants, grumpy flight attendants, crabby fellow passengers, wonderfully helpful people, great airports and crappy airports.

The one thing that remained constant during each of these situations is that we came  prepared for anything – spare clothes in the carryon, extra toys to keep the kids happy, the ability to smile through the trauma of not being able to board the plane (OK, maybe not that last one). Each of these situations, as bad as they were at the time, would have been a whole lot worse if we hadn’t planned ahead.

Is there anything else you’d like to know about traveling with small children? Anything I haven’t covered here and in my previous posts on this topic? Have some tips of your own that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments.

Random Photo Monday

…Because I feel bad about spending last night watching Mad Men instead of taking a few minutes to edit some photos. (OK, I don’t feel that bad.)

…Because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and document a weekend that featured a visit from the Easter Bunny (just a guy in a bunny suit according to Thomas), buckets and buckets of rain and another lost tooth.

…Because I don’t feel especially inspired to take photos when I, a) can’t take my camera outside because it will get wet and b) have zero natural light to work with due to the dark clouds that refuse to go away.

…Because these are the photos that I happen to have sitting in my photo library.

Enjoy a few wonderfully random photos that have nothing to do with what we did this weekend.

Three Things I’m Doing Now to Prepare for an International Flight with Children

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write about traveling internationally with small with children. I decided to write this series partially to share the information I find myself  giving friends and colleagues on a regular basis, but mostly to help make the time until my vacation move just that little bit quicker.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’ll be heading back to Australia soon for an extended vacation. I’m very lucky that the fabulous company I work for has rewarded my years of dedicated service with a lengthy, although well-earned, sabbatical.

The catch is that this time I’ll be traveling at least one leg of the trip alone with two children. Secretly, I’m looking forward to an adventure with my boys, especially now that they’re old enough to enjoy it and both are fully potty trained. At least I say that now, I may have a different perspective after 13 hours in the air or even just two hours of layover at LAX

This will be my 6th international trip after having children so, clearly, I’m no rookie. And the one thing I’ve learned from past experience is that there is no substitute for proper advance planning to ensure a successful trip. That doesn’t mean it can’t all go horribly wrong (see our last trip to Australia part 1, part 2 and part 3), but at least if it does go wrong it (mostly) won’t be my fault.

So, here I share three things I am doing now to help ensure a successful flight before we even get to the airport.

1. Choose your airline and flight duration wisely – and pay extra if you have to.

There was once a time when I would scour the internet for the cheapest flight because, honestly, who wants to pay an huge chunk of change just to get to their destination a little earlier? Well, all I can say is that choosing a shorter flight with an international carrier is well worth the extra expense.

Here’s why:

  • US domestic airlines make most of their money from domestic flights and don’t invest as much in their international service (at least in my experience). Airlines from smaller countries (e.g. Qantas and Air New Zealand) rely on their international passengers for a huge chunk of their business and are much more invested in keeping you happy.
  • Airlines that focus on international travel understand how important it is to keep families happy. This is especially helpful if you’re traveling with an infant. When Samuel was a baby, the flight attendants moved people around after we had boarded the plane just so we could sit in the bulkhead. We didn’t ask for this extra attention, they just understood how we’d be most comfortable and made it happen. Side note: you should always ask for the bulkhead when booking a flight or, at the very least, before boarding the plane if possible. Most planes have a bassinet that  that will save you from having to hold the baby for the entire time,

Photo of Japan Airlines in the 60's. If only traveling were this pleasant now.

  • You’ll never be more relieved that you spent an extra couple of hundred dollars for one less layover than when you’re about to board the last leg of you flight with two cranky kids after the caffeine overdose has stopped doing its job.

2. Be a minimalist

This is the one step that I struggle with every time, but my goal (as always) is to pack as little as possible in our checked luggage and carry on’s. This will also be our first trip without a stroller which, while cumbersome, came in very handy when transporting tired children and all of our stuff during transfers and layovers, so it’s more important than ever that I carry as little as possible. Here’s what I plan to take on the plane.

  • 1 Camera bag/personal item – containing camera, passports, important docs, kindle, iPad. This bag will never leave my body while we’re off the plane and will be safely stowed under our feet while we’re on it.
  • 1 wheeled carry on – containing a change of clothes for each of us (critical as we learned during our flight from hell during our last trip part 1, part 2 and part 3), a few toiletries such as deodorant and toothbrushes (in the outside pocket for easy removal when going through security), books or other heavier items that are too much for the kids to carry, healthy sugar-free snacks such as nuts and granola bars, surprise toys and books to be revealed at strategic times, headphones for all of us and, of course, chargers for phone, ipad, kindle and camera – because you DO NOT want to be stuck in an airport with a dead battery.
  • 2 small children’s backpacks – one for each child that they will be encouraged to carry on their own. Each backpack will hold a few small toys/figurines (but none with small parts that can be easily lost), a couple of small travel-size books, drawing materials (paper and few pencils/crayons) and their favorite stuffed friend. I may also give them each their own snack bag so they can help themselves to snacks as they want them rather than asking me every five minutes.

In addition, I’ll try to fit everything else into one piece of checked luggage, although I suspect this may be difficult because we’re traveling to an Aussie winter. On second thought, two lighter pieces might be better than one humungous one.

3. Plan for your child’s age.

Our first trip to Australia with children was when Thomas was just two months old and, of course, traveling with a two month old is a lot different than traveling with a six-year-old (a two month old is easy). We took our last trip just before Samuel turned two and it was challenging to keep him occupied. I anticipate that this time will be a lot easier now that the boys play well together and are interested in drawing, coloring and watching movies.

Another big advantage this time around will be the advances in technology that will allow me to offer up a movie-filled iPad, as well as the iPhone if they need some time apart. I’ll save the kindle for myself.

My plan, however, is to save the iPad as a last resort and instead try and fill their time with age-appropriate books and toys. I’ve been taking a mental note of things that they’re interested in right now and squirreling away a few books and activities in preparation. For Thomas, I plan to take a couple of level 1 readers that he can (hopefully) practice reading to Samuel. I also found some Ninjago comic books with lots of pictures that will keep them interested if I need a break from reading.

As for toys, both Thomas and Samuel love creating worlds with their Superhero/Star Wars/Ninjago figurines. They’ll take some from their existing collection but I’ll also bring along a couple of surprises to share at a strategic moment.

The thing to keep in mind is that you can never be 100% sure of what will most grab their attention. For Thomas a few years ago, it was a few Wiggles figurines that kept him entertained for (literally) hours. On another trip it was a dry erase activity book that saved our sanity. The key is to bring a variety of small items that don’t take up too much room, but provide them with options so they’re less likely to get bored.

So there are just a few of the most important things I’m doing to prepare in advance of our trip. In the next few related posts I’ll share tips for staying sane in flight and during transfers, as well as some of the kids travel items that I’m counting on to help keep the kids entertained.

Hitting the Reset Button

Began my Monday morning with too little coffee and one car seat short. Thankfully I was able to stop at Starbucks for the coffee and borrow a car seat from a friend so I could get the kids to daycare. Monday is looking better already.

The weekend was filled with waterfalls, sunshine and snow (all on the same day!), a symphony in the park and a late night finishing the laundry. Pictures to come of course but first I have to get through Monday.

Plans for the day: whittling down the massive to do list sitting on my desk (photo editing, video editing, powerpoint editing), locating a couple of mattresses so my parents have somewhere to sleep during their visit, scheduling a cleaner in advance of the same visit, maybe getting the car washed and arranging a much needed pedicure appointment for my poor neglected feet.

In the meantime, I have these little monkey faces to look at for inspiration.

Five Things Friday: The Happy Edition

The sun’s out, the weekend is about to commence – it truly is a happy Friday. Here are five things that made me smile today – including one that should be preceded by a chorus of Angels.

1. Boys who insist on wearing one gumboot and one sneaker to school – and Mums who let them because it’s truly not worth arguing about and, hey, it’s cute. (P.S. Socks are mismatched too)

2. Pixar characters in real life (seen on the way to school)

3. Cuteness that comes in pairs

4. Buskers that literally make you want to dance in the street (I think they were called The Glue Horses but I can’t find them online. Fantastic bluegrass-style. Please leave a comment if you know who they are).

AND, FINALLY (this is where the choir of angels comes in)…

5. A finished deck that’s just inviting me to come and take a seat with a nice glass of wine. (still waiting for the elves to come and finish painting our back room).

Plans for the weekend include more sightseeing around Portland with our Japanese guests – The weather will decide whether we make it to Powell’s or the Japanese gardens – or maybe we’ll be adventurous and try both.

Hope your Friday is as happy as mine.