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Maybe I'm wacky. Maybe I'm old school. But, honestly, I am looking forward to a slow, meandering summer. With no big plans, without a ton of obligations, without rushing and stressing and planning.

I call myself a "lazy summer parent" but the word lazy often has a bad connotation—it implies lack of passion and movement. When I use this word I am trying to convey another meaning; one that encompasses un-scheduled, unbridled, carefree satisfaction. Lazy doesn't mean unintentional. Lazy doesn't mean that I don't care.

I keep hearing other parents say that they are dreading summer. A friend was telling me about all of the camps that she has planned for her kids and when she asked me what we were doing I simply replied, "Summer?"

Every family is different—and we all have to do what works best for us. For all of you parents who are making mad dashes around the world or filling your days with planned activities—more power to you. But me? I'm gonna be straight up chillin'.

I want my summer to be an excuse to lavish in the ordinary and mundane; to cruise through our days like a VW Bug on a Hawaiian highway. We may not go far, nor fast, but our journey will still be incredible—because of these five things.

1. Being a "yes" mama

I feel like so many of my days are spent saying "no", and this is usually for good reason. I don't always have time during the school year to indulge my kids in their fun, imaginative requests.

Can we go to the beach and watch the sunset? No. We have homework to do.Can we see if the moon looks different from the roof? No. It's bedtime.

But summer mommy? Summer mommy is a yes woman.

You want to go see if our local pet stores carry hedgehogs? Sure, why not!A friend told you that a park down south has the best swing set in the county? Let's go check it out!

I am a woman who is completely unburdened by the rules that dictate September through May. And though our days may be unplanned, they are filled with adventure and intrigue.

2. Sleeping in

Girl, do you remember when you used to sleep in? When you would be woken up by the mid-morning sun beating down on your un-wrinkled forehead?

Summer is the lazy parent's chance to obtain this greatness again. There is no schedule in summer; no early start-times for school, no lunches to be made. Mornings can begin slowly, naturally. There is finally time to make pancakes with blueberry eyes and banana noses. I can let my children eat as slowly as they want, pausing to build Lego castles besides their plates.

There is no morning rush. No wide-eyed panic as I toss leftovers in a Tupperware and call it a lunch.

I am a summertime parent. I am the queen of ease.

3. Picnics

There is something simply delightful about a picnic. Our large, straw-woven basket reminds me of the summers of my youth. It has a red and white-checked inside that makes anything you put within it seem like a delicacy.

This basket is magic. Bottomless.

It holds surprises like juice boxes and freshly baked breads. Our basket always contains a versatile blanket that can rest easily on sandy beaches, the dirt beside a hiking trail, or the grass of a local music festival.

The picnic basket gives us freedom to be creative in our timeline; not based on our hunger pangs but instead on whatever our hearts desire. We can linger by the lake, or build one more towering sand castle.

Our feast is only an arm's length away.

4. Gardening

(I realize that including "gardening" has officially turned me into my mother but let's be honest—I am finally okay with that.)

There is nothing that screams "SUMMER!" more than weeding in our garden as a family at 11 am on a Tuesday, sneaking bites of vegetables or herbs as we go.

I want my children's chubby faces to be covered in dirt, their fingernails stained browned by picking up roly-polies and digging for worms. Three little bodies can huddle together in a tight circle, taking the time to comment on the growth of a squash and to count the sweet, crisp, strawberries that hang like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

I want their summer days to be filled to the brim with family time, and if I get a little weeding done in the process—praise be!

5. Trying new foods

I truly believe that summer should revolve around food. I want to stop at every taco stand and frequent every farmer's market.

We don't have anywhere specific to be, so we can give ourselves the benefit of exploration—of seeing where the day takes us. And if this leads us to eating ice cream plunked down on a filthy sidewalk, our flip flops catching the melted sugar that drips from our soggy cones, then I will consider that a win.

Our summer bucket list is not set in stone; it may bend with the desires of three strong-willed kids who have been given carte blanche to choose how their days are spent. There may be periods we never leave the house, others we return home only to lay our tired bodies down.

Our lazy summer months are precious—there is a finite amount of time that my children will follow my lead and dedicate their vacation to spending time together as a family.

I will revel in being a yes woman; in dirty, cherubic bodies, and the joy of not knowing what our day holds in store. I am a lazy summer parent—and I love it.

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

BUY


This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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If you've got hamburger in your freezer you might want to check it before making dinner.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Cargill Meat Solutions is recalling approximately 132,606 pounds of ground beef products for possible Escherichia coli O26 (aka E.coli).

The beef was sold at various retailers, including Target, Meijer, Safeway and Sam's Club, as well as Save Mart in California. This comes after a previous recall involving ground beef sold at Publix.

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service notes the recalls are the result of an investigation into 17 illnesses and one death in recent months, and that children under 5, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are the most at risk for a type of kidney failure common in people with E.coli infections.

"It is marked by easy bruising, pallor and decreased urine output. Persons who experience these symptoms should seek emergency medical care immediately," the agency notes.


Cargill has issued a statement on its website that reads, in part: "We were distressed to learn a fatality may be related to an E.coli contamination of one of our products. Our hearts go out to the families and individuals affected by this issue."

The recalled beef products were produced and packaged on June 21, 2018. They have a use or freeze by date of July 11.


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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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To my firstborn baby,
We were overjoyed when we found out we were pregnant with your brother. We were so excited to give you a sibling to play with; someone to love and grow up with. Someone who will be your buddy for life.

But our excitement quickly turned to worry as we thought about how this would affect you. You were the only grandchild, on both sides. The only nephew, on both sides. Basically, the king of the castle. And you relished in that title.

We took special care to wait as long as possible to tell you. We waited until 20 weeks when we knew you were going to be getting a brother. We felt it would be easier for you to wrap your head around and also shorter for you to wait for his arrival.

I still watch the video of you cutting into the gender reveal cake. You were SO excited to see blue—because that meant you were getting a brother. You were overjoyed with telling everyone the news because you were the first to know.

From there your love for him grew every day. YOU too had a baby in your belly. I was carrying YOUR baby. You told everyone who would listen that you were going to be a big brother. We wondered if your love for him would quickly fade when he was actually here. When you realized that you would have to share time and attention...

But we were wrong. Your heart grew a million times bigger the day your brother arrived.

You came to visit me in the hospital wearing your doctor uniform, to check on both of us. You made friends with the nurses. You wanted to make sure I was okay. You wanted to take care of me and were so proud to wear your "Big Brother" shirt your aunt made you.

You were such a trooper during his two-week stay in the NICU. You were too young to go in to visit him. So, for you, it meant you had this mysterious brother you could only see in pictures and videos.

You drew him cards and colored pictures for his isolette (which you so playfully called his aquarium). You told everyone at school you had a new brother and that he would be home soon—even though you didn't know when exactly. Your heart ached as much as ours did. You wanted him home as much, if not more, than we did. You wanted your new family of four.

Sometimes I feel like you are wise beyond your years. A little old man trapped in a pint-sized body.

You were the best helper for Mom and Dad in those first days and months of welcoming your baby brother into our family. You would tell everyone to use hand sanitizer, and check to see if anyone was sick before they walked through the door to our house.

You would tell everyone how to hold your baby. And then them the proper way. You would tell everyone to line up their shoes at the door. You just wanted to keep your brother healthy and safe, ever the protector.

I worried the honeymoon period would wear off, that you would wonder how long he was staying here.

But, I was wrong. It's almost a year later and you are still so in love with your brother. Truly in love. On your obligatory "first day of school sign" you listed your favorite things as: Star Wars, basketball and my brother.

You tell everyone that you love him more than anyone. The way you both laugh hysterically together during peek-a-boo in the back seat of the car literally makes my heart explode into a million pieces, in the best way possible. It is a joy and an admiration I never knew possible as I watch my two precious boys interact and love each other.

My wish is that you will always be best friends. That you always look out for each other. Continue to be each other's biggest fans. Root each other on, even when it's hard, or you don't want to. Because, my sweet, sweet boy, I want you to remember—your brother looks up to you. You are his role model for life. And I thank you for taking that role so seriously.

Love,
Your Mommy

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If there's anyone who needs a nice spa day, it's parents. But booking a day at the spa isn't so easy when you also have to find and pay a babysitter.

A business owner in Los Angeles came up with a solution: Trina Renea, the founder of Spa Lé La, added free childcare (by a CPR-certified nanny) to her spa's menu, offering the service to any parent who needs a massage or a facial, or any of the spa's other stress-busting services.

If you've got more than one child at home, the first child is free, and each one after is just $6 for the whole duration of mom or dad's spa visit, HuffPo reports.

Renea recognized that for a lot of parents, a quick 15 or 30 minute appointment for a wax or a manicure just wouldn't be worth all the effort it would take to get the kids ready and then into and out of the car, so she added 30 minutes of "lounge time" that parents can take before or after their appointment, so mama can just chill for a bit.

If lounge time isn't relaxing enough for you, you can also spend an extra $40 for another 25 minutes in a totally comfortable nap room.

This kind of parent paradise could only have been thought up by a fellow parent. Renea is a mother herself, and she understands that a lot of parents feel guilty about prioritizing their own self-care. That's why she added cool classes to the childcare component: Kids can participate in art, music or yoga sessions while mom or dad is away. There's nothing to feel guilty about at all. "If they feel like their child is getting a class, then it makes them feel more comfortable," she told HuffPo.

The spa also offers services for expecting parents, like prenatal massage, belly facials, and even labor stimulating massage for those 40-week mamas-to-be who are understandably over being pregnant and just want to meet their little one.

Whether you have a child on the way or a couple of them keeping you up at night, this spa's menu sounds like the perfect way for mama to enjoy some me time.

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