Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Picnic Bag Review: PackIt Social Cooler

Enjoying a picnic is one of the simplest ways to spend time outside with your family. Which is why we usually bring along a picnic on play dates and local nature adventures. I’ve shared our picnic packing secrets before, and today I’m following up with a review of a picnic bag: the PackIt Social Cooler.

Picnic Bag Review: PackIt Social Cooler

About the PackIt Cooler:
The PackIt Cooler isn’t your ordinary picnic bag. For starters, it must be frozen before use. Yep, that’s right – you place the entire bag (which folds flat) into the freezer to cool for at least 12 hours (say, overnight) before packing it with food and/or drinks. No ice packs needed, because the bag comes with its own gel-lined walls that do the trick.

Here are a few more specifics from the manufacturer:
  • Made from food-safe, nontoxic poly canvas and waterproof EVA
  • PVC-, BPA-, phthalate- and lead-free
  • Gel-lined walls chill food and drinks for up to 10 hours 
  • Folds flat for freezing & storage
  • Zip-top closure keeps cold air in
  • Shoulder strap makes it easy to carry
  • Interior wipes clean; spot clean exterior
  • Dimensions: 12” x 13” x 5” (12” x 5” x 2.5” folded) – room enough for food & drinks for four or a six-pack
  • Retails for $29.99
In addition to the Social Cooler, PackIt also makes lunch bags, snack bags, wine bags, even baby bottles – all using the same technology and available in a variety of patterns.

What we like:
  • It keeps food & drinks cold. The manufacturer says it keeps things cool for up to 10 hours depending on exterior temps. No argument here – our stuff definitely stays cold.
  • It’s easy to carry & looks good. Even packed with food and drinks for the kids and I, the bag was comfortable. I’m usually also wearing a backpack purse (or just a backpack) and the PackIt Social Cooler can easily be carried, too. I also like that there are a lot of fun patterns to choose from.
What we dont like:
  • It only works if you remember to cool it ahead of time – and have the room in your freezer to do so. Which means it works best for pre-planned events, not the spur-of-the-moment kind. Also, best for folks with at least a little extra room in the freezer.
  • We noticed some sweating from the gel packs, meaning we wound up with some wet stuff in the bag.
Where to buy: PackIt.com

Note: We received a PackIt Social Cooler to field test in exchange for providing my honest review with you. Read my full disclosure policy for more information.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Photography E-Course: Take Better Pictures of Nature

Photography E-Course: Take Better Pictures of Nature

Earlier this year, I took an online nature photography course with Joy Sussman, the sole photographer at JoyfullyGreen.com. Joy’s 12-day online course, How to Take Better Photos of Nature and the World Around You, is intended for newbies and photogs alike, with less focus on the technical aspects of taking pictures and more on the creative process that allows your pictures to go from “just okay” to “wow!”

I’ve taken photography classes before, even a nature photography class in Yosemite Valley. What makes Joy’s class different is its focus on seeing your work as art, and allowing yourself the chance to see nature from a new perspective. If you’re looking to take better pictures of nature, this class is worth considering.

The good news is that Joy will be offering the class again this month! In trying to figure out best how to encourage all of you to take her class, I invited her to come and chat a little about herself and her thoughts on nature photography. Welcome Joy!

What is your favorite natural subject to photograph?
I’d have to say it’s a tie between flowers and insects, and luckily, the two often go hand in hand. Usually, if I have a macro lens on my camera and I’m shooting flowers up close, I’ll be pleasantly surprised to see a tiny, interesting bug that has been going about its day, unbeknownst to anybody, inside the flower.

Tell us about one of your favorite photographs and why you are especially proud of it.
I love taking photographs of my children in nature, and one of my favorites is a photograph of my daughter climbing up a huge flight of steps at a nearby state park. I loved the way her red tights “pop” against the greenery, how she’s so tiny within the grandness of the forest, and the softness of the trees – the whole scene is magical to me, like a fairy tale. Plus, it reminds me of that particular afternoon, when I picked up the children after school and told them we were going on “a secret adventure.” There’s a cider mill down the road from this park, with homemade donuts, so that was an added treat to the already beautiful forest visit. My son took a little spill in the brook while he was climbing from rock to rock, but the day was still pretty perfect!

JoyfullyGreen.com Nature Photography Class

How do you think children can connect with nature through photography?
If you’ve ever given a child a magnifying glass, you already know how they love to study worlds smaller than they are. They often notice things that we adults miss because we’re too busy paying attention to “more important things” like checking the headlines or Facebook updates. Plus, they see things from a lower angle, so it’s an interesting perspective on the world. I often let my children take pictures with my iPhone because it’s user-friendly, and it’s easy to delete the blurry ones! Although sometimes the blurry shots are interesting in their own way.

What’s one thing you hope people will learn from your course?
I love it when my students discover that they can be artists with their cameras. Often, people are overwhelmed with all of the technical features of their cameras, or confused by photography tech-speak like f-stops and ISOs. But really, photography is simply about viewing your world in new and creative ways. Rather than being stymied by the math and the science of photography, the students learn to concentrate on the art of it. So, the most important thing for me is teaching my students how to relax into photography and see the world artistically, with their eyes wide open. Everybody has the potential to take beautiful, artful photographs – I really do believe that, and I’ve seen it myself with my students – even beginners who thought they were hopeless. Finding their confidence behind the lens is extremely empowering for them. 

What’s your favorite way to spend time outside with your kids?
There are a lot of beautiful parks near us – great opportunities to do some “forest bathing”, or Shinrin Yoku, as the Japanese practice it – immersing yourself in the peace and quiet of a forest. I grew up with an immense forest in my back yard, so I always find it soul-soothing to be in the woods.

Also, we live in an area with a lot of nearby farms, so we often visit the animals, or do seasonal things like picking our own apples and pumpkins during the fall. I love the change of seasons and having four distinct seasons to enjoy in the northeastern U.S.

Photography E-Course: Q&A with Joy Sussman

Joy’s course will run from July 14 through July 25, 2014.
You can check out a course overview and find out how to sign up here.

Note: I took Joy’s class earlier this year at my own expense, then invited her to share a little more about herself with all of you. I received no compensation of any kind to publicize her latest e-course with you here.

All photos are © Joyfully Green LLC 2012-present and have a Creative Commons license. Please do not use or reprint any photos without asking Joy Sussman for permission at JoyfullyGreen.com@gmail.com. The photos in this post have been used with express permission.

Monday, June 23, 2014

2014 Summer Nature Photo Hunt

Over the past few months, both of The Explorers have become avid picture takers – especially when we’re out on our nature adventures. I’m happy to see them incorporating their interest in technology in such a positive way.

Taking pictures allows us to slow down, be patient and focus in on things we might otherwise miss. It isn’t just fun, it’s also a great way to learn more about what we discover. We often use our photos to help us identify things we see, such as birds, butterflies and flowers – then seek out more information as desired.

We look forward to sharing our seasonal nature photo hunts with you. And now that summer is officially underway, the 2014 Summer Nature Photo Hunt is here!

2014 Summer Nature Photo Hunt

I’ve come up with 20 things you and your kiddos can hunt for outside this summer. Find an item, snap a picture and check the item off your list. To make it even easier, I’ve created a free Summer Nature Photo Hunt list that you can print out and post somewhere you’ll see every day.

Most items can be found in your own backyard or neighborhood; others might be spotted during a local nature adventure or on a family vacation. You may choose to complete the summer nature photo hunt all at once or play all season long.

Don’t worry if your child isn’t an aspiring photographer or sometimes needs your help to snap a shot. The point is to get outside exploring!

I’ll be sharing our pictures on Facebook and Instagram if you’d like to follow along and see what we’re up to.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Tastes from the Garden: Nasturtiums

When it comes to eating fresh foods from the garden, what sorts of images come to mind? Vegetables, fruits, maybe even herbs? How about flowers?

This non-foodie certainly wasn’t thinking of eating flowers. But leave it to our elementary school’s master gardener to suggest we put our blooming nasturtiums to use by cooking up something for the kids.

With the school year winding down and plenty of nasturtiums ready for the picking, we decided to treat the students to a nasturtium taste testing right in the school garden.

Tastes from the Garden: Nasturtiums

Our plan was simple: Ask some of the older kids (fourth graders) to pick as many nasturtium flowers as they could. Then we used a Panini (sandwich) press to melt some cheese and nasturtium petals onto tortillas. Voila!

Cooking with Nasturtiums

The verdict was split: Some kids thought the nasturtiums were tasty, others not so much. But they pretty much all agreed that it was neat to eat flowers from the garden.

If you’re thinking about cooking with flowers from your own garden:
  • Know which ones are edible. Also, be familiar with which parts of the flower are best for eating.
  • Pick them fresh and use them fast.

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