5 Things To Do When Planning a Trip For a Child’s ‘Experience’ Birthday

Countdown to Departure: 9 days.

The excitement is growing, and my to-do list is not – thanks to all of my preplanning! I am  just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s over here! I’m making eating reservations and paying off water park tickets… But I felt like it was the perfect time to share with you how to pull off a family trip instead of a birthday party for your child this year.

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5 Things To Do When Planning a Trip For a Child’s ‘Experience’ Birthday

#1 Plan Everything Ahead – including reservations to restaurants and ice-cream stops.

A daily itinerary may seem like an impossible task ahead of time, but it will make the entire trip more fun. You may think that your kids can go with the flow, but kids do much better when they know what is coming next. The less waiting time, the less meltdowns. You will also enjoy everything more if you put in the time prior to your departure. The last thing you want to do is spend a few hours each day researching where to eat or where to go. Print out your itinerary with reservation times (and phone numbers) highlighted. Keep your schedule on track, but don’t stress out if it all gets shifted around. You’ll have the ability to call and make changes, fit other things in, or skip over things that aren’t worth the time.

This is the most stressful part of planning an experience birthday trip. It can take weeks or months of late night googling to make sure that you find everything your family will want to do. Start with a master list of activities:
Sporting Events
Horseback Riding
Hiking
Swimming
Beach Play
Theme Park
Festival
Concert
Local-Can’t-Miss-Activities
Breweries/Wineries
Restaurants/Cafes/Ice-Cream Stops
Landmarks/Photo Opportunities

#2 Research, Budget, and Pay Before Your Leave

Shop around for the best hotel deal, make phone calls requesting discounts, and join social media groups for advice on ‘not to miss’ activities. While you’d love to include everything on your master list, it isn’t worth going into debt over. The earlier you begin your planning, the more you can fit in because you will have time to pay for it all. Depending on your family size, you may need two hotel rooms – that doubles the expenses right out of the gate. Consider planning separate activities for different ages – Let your oldest kids do a major waterpark, but save money by keeping the younger kids at the hotel pool (or spend a day exploring with them).

The key is to have everything paid off – or close to it before you pack your bags. The only money you want to spend is on gas and food, and you can even purchase VISA gift cards to make sure you don’t go over budget. You will feel more relaxed and be able to remain present throughout the trip if you are not frantically checking your bank account.

#3 Prepare Your Child

If your child is used to having a birthday party and receiving a large amount of (useless) gifts, you will want to help transition the expectations. Create a countdown for the trip that you can get excited together about. Consider keeping some aspects of the trip a surprise. You can give clues or leave pictures laying around to build the suspense! If your child isn’t big on surprises, you can let them help you plan the entire thing.

#4 Remember Why You Are Traveling

Yes, you are traveling to see and experience new things, but the trip should have multiple activities that celebrate the birthday child. While lounging poolside may seem like heaven for you, your child may love parasailing, horseback riding, or seeing the local zoo. You can mix activities so that everyone is happy, but don’t skimp on the birthday fun – I promise that you will have fun, too. Also – make sure you stop at a local bakery for a birthday cupcake.

#5 You Still Need a Gift

Yes, the trip is your child’s true gift, but there is something to be said about unwrapping something. It goes hand in hand with blowing out candles, right? Choose one item for your child. It can be something small to remember the trip by. It can be a snow globe or sweatshirt, even. Of course, it can be a piece of jewelry or a nicer item for an older child, too. A gift card is the easiest and sometimes most fun present! However, it is important that the gift does not overshadow the trip – and that it is simply a (one) gift.

As My Sensory Kid Grows Up

 

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The days have been beautiful here in Omaha, Nebraska. I have very few complaints during the warm months of the year. My entire soul shines bright, especially on the other side of postpartum depression mixed in with seasonal depression – nothing like the first summer after the longest ‘winter’ of your life, right?

So, all is good.

All is spectacular.

But – and you knew the but was coming… but, I am not Super Mom. I feel like I need to stand on the tallest building and scream it loud because so many friends and acquaintances try to slap that (annoying and crappy) label on me.  However, I’d have no voice to do this because I’ve lost it from yelling at home. I wish I were kidding, but alas, I have become the yelling mom I never thought I’d become. (I’m laughing at myself, so you can laugh at me, too.)

I’m a strong believer that my children are mine for a reason. Each one was meant to be mine – and I was meant to be their’s, and they were meant to be each other’s. Many of you know how hard it was when my oldest son was little. He struggled with Sensory Processing Disorder. I was the mother crying on the floor in Target because I was frustrated. I was the mom who had a child who would not physically move from one spot (while screaming) because he simply could not move past something. His mind just wouldn’t let him. 

He wouldn’t get his head wet until after age 4 – but now he’s on the swim team. He wouldn’t let a blanket touch him – now he snuggles tight every night. He wouldn’t wear structured clothing – this is still an issue, but he works through it and can do it fine most days now! He would kick and scream and take an hour to transition from one place to another – now he’s on every sports team, a fantastic athlete, helps me plan our road trips, and attends sleepovers.

However, the sensory issues are still present. It’s true that through diet, our amazing herbalist, chiropractic care, and age, he has grown so much. I look at him and see this handsome boy, loving, giving, brilliant, and happy – most of the time. But he struggles with the “Why ME?” attitude.  He feels as though everything bad happens to him and gets stuck in those moments – sometimes crying for an hour, even throwing himself on the floor. 

These hard moments can come if he gets hurt, doesn’t get something he wanted, plans change, etc. And the spiral is awful and all-consuming. It takes all of the energy from the room. It effects the entire day for the family. It is truly exhausting. 

The major difference between toddler-version and present-almost 8-year-old-version is that I am not the same mother. I have 5 children instead of 2. I do not have the patience to sit on the floor and hold him through these moments anymore. He has the tools to do it. He knows he can do it, but at his age now, I cannot wrestle him or walk him through it every time. 

I am thankful that these moments are not frequent. But it seems that they come in waves. We are in the middle of one right now. His body is fighting something. He has had too much gluten. He hasn’t consumed enough water. He’s not getting enough sleep. Any of these could be a trigger. Maybe his tinctures need adjusting (I already have a call in.) Maybe our camping trip triggered something – it seems that these moments have been happening since then. Who knows, honestly. And I can’t sit and play detective all day. 

As I am writing this — there is a major meltdown happening. It’s lasted 1 hour and 25 minutes. I am beyond frustrated. I have yelled. I have ignored. I have given him space. I have hugged him. But, I will not just give in and give him what he wants. My anxiety is through the roof and it makes me short with the other kids. We have lost the afternoon to this meltdown. 

I’m ready for a glass of wine, but it wouldn’t help the problem. ha. 

And just as suddenly as the moment started, he is back to his normal self. Close to 1 hour and 45 minutes later, of course. His eyes are puffy and swollen – and the baby was woken up from her nap. But we are on the other side, so I’ll take it. 

Sensory kids grow up. My sensory kid is growing up. Just when I think we have gotten through this, a hard day hits. It reminds me to stay true to our diet and lifestyle. 

So, if you are also struggling in hard moments, know that you are not alone. Know that you are strong and capable. You are loving – even when you are losing your mind. You are doing the best you can. This is all I can do right now. And while I am constantly trying to become better, for all of my kids – and myself, I also am ok with being honest. I am not perfect. I am not handling any of this perfectly. I am living these moments as a tired mom – a mom hoping that as my sensory child continues to grow, we will continue to see less and less hard moments. 

The Undiscovered Calamus Reservoir of Nebraska

If you live within driving distance to the tiny town of Burwell, NE, consider adding the Calamus Reservoir to your bucket list of places to see. 

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As our time in Nebraska is now far passed the halfway mark, we are starting to consciously accomplish our midwest bucket list vacations. Being a big family, these adventures can take a toll on our bank account, so we have to be creative when we can. John likes to keep a running list of off-the-beaten-path locations we can drive to whenever an opportunity presents itself. And after a chat with a friend, he had an itch to make something happen ASAP. 

It was the Fourth of July, and a long weekend for John. We decided against throwing our traditional (LARGE) BBQ this year to save a bit of money, but we were not ready to sit around twiddling our thumbs. We spent the holiday at the pool with friends but came home with adventure on our minds. With every hotel in the midwest booked for the holiday weekend, we felt like our options were limited. That’s when John suggested tent camping.

I almost laughed. FIVE KIDS. FIVE. We haven’t been tent camping since before Ollie Jack was born (when we had 1, 3, and 5 year olds only). Could we even do this? Could we even fit all the shit needed to camp in my van with these five small humans? Who would watch our dog because there wouldn’t be room for her in the van? I had so many questions. 

John then pulled up pictures from the Calamus Reservoir. He basically lured me in – and I took the bait. I couldn’t believe that this place existed within a few hours of us. It was a clean lake – meaning no farms surround it, no pesticide runoff, no homes built on it – NOTHING. Just spectacular views and campsites. I decided to start packing. 

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We called in our babysitter to come pet-sit for the weekend. (Thank you Madison!)

After loading up more stuff than we could have possibly needed (including the entire pantry, all rafts, and any flashlight we could find), we jumped in the van and headed out. The 3 hours passed slowly (we need a bigger vehicle) with the kids, but they did great.

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They helped unload and set up tents, each kid having a specific job. We built two tents (one family-sized, the other a double person tent). They played games and got filthy while we decided to head into the tiny town for dinner. 

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The small town of Burwell is maybe a stop sign wide by a cattle farm long. There is one grocery store and a handful of really tiny restaurants. That’s about it! We enjoyed a meal that we didn’t cook – at the sweetest diner-style restaurant. It included a scrapbook of the original layout and the renovations completed years ago. If ever in Burwell, stop in the Sandstone Grill. Make sure, though, to grab anything you may need from their grocery store before 6pm because they close early every day! 

The kids managed to stay awake until midnight, even though we tried our damnedest to get them down by 10pm. The night was long and full of wind and rain. It’s the one downfall of camping – the weather. We stayed dry, thanks to our amazing tents and rain tarps. Our chairs and coolers managed well, too. I’m super grateful John sprung for the deluxe air mattresses, though. The one I shared with the littlest kids was just as comfortable as my bed at home! 

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Morning came fast and the sounds of camping woke Emmett up with the sun. Breakfast was prepared while I ran a few miles that took my breathe away.

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We threw on our swimsuits and headed to Calamus Outfitters for our first tanking experience.  My Florida friends – think: tubing the rivers but instead of a tube, you sit in a giant plastic baby pool (cattle feed). There are seats built in, but it’s not luxurious! However, it is something so simple that will create a mark in your memory bank forever. The kids thought we had taken them to the greatest place on earth. We floated and swam and played for hours as we flowed with the river current with not another soul. Seriously, not one other human was on the river with us. The clouds looked painted against at least three different blues in the sky. The sun kissed us and we smiled bigger than we have in awhile. 

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Back at the campsite, we munched on food before blowing rafts up and walking a few campsites down to the ‘beach.’ I will never get used to calling a lakeside a beach, but the sand was perfect and the water – breathtaking. We planned on renting a boat the following morning, but after checking the weather, we realized that an incoming storm was going to send us packing before we had expected to leave. We spent the afternoon and evening playing in the lake before starting a campfire and cooking dinner. 

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It was at this time that our tick paranoia really kicked in, and (combined with the incoming weather)we decided to start packing up. After last summer’s lyme craziness, we do not mess around with our chances. It’s ok though. We soaked in the glory that God had created out here and will forever remember the trip.

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We arrived home in the early hours of the morning and left the unpacking for true daylight. I had my van deep cleaned to ensure no ticks made the journey home with us – and I completed 4 loads of laundry. The trip was worth every load. 

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As our time in the midwest is now on the decline, it’s time we truly seek out these truly amazing trips. We have trips planned to different parts of Colorado, Arizona, Mt. Rushmore, the Black Hills, and possibly the Grand Canyon before we move again, but are looking for more ‘weekend escapes’ like this one that we can do on a budget – on any given long weekend. 

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How to Pull Off a Last Minute (Under Budget) Family Vacation

If you are thinking about a family camping trip, you can pull it off, even at the last minute.

If you have been following my Facebook page, you knew this post was coming! We decided on July 4th to pack up the kids and throw everything in the car to take a long weekend trip together – the next day.  The problem( other than the crazy last minute rush)? We already have a large week-long trip planned at the end of the month – followed by 3 August birthdays, and several other trips on the calendar. The money wasn’t going to fall from the sky, that’s for sure! But, we still wanted to do something we’d remember forever. AND WE DID.

Everything was booked full. There wasn’t a hotel to be found throughout the midwest. Camping was the only option – with 5 young kids. 

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If you are thinking about a family camping trip, you can pull it off, even at the last minute.

Necessities:  We used REI’s camping list, but here are the most important items we used…

  • Reservation (Preferably in a spectacularly unknown location)
  • Tent (or camper)
  • Air Mattresses
  • Air Pump (battery operated)
  • Pillows
  • Sleeping Bags (or sheets)
  • Chairs
  • Water Jugs (and reusable cups)
  • Food (just empty out your pantry and prep cut the dinners you were planning to make that weekend)
  • Coolers (large and backpack style)
  • Cast Iron Skillet (and plates/utensils)
  • Towels
  • Toilet Paper
  • Lighter
  • Lanterns/Flashlights
  • Travel Potty (tiny toddlers or not)
  • Toilet Paper (and baby wipes)
  • Camping Stove (and propane)
  • Bug Spray and First Aid Kit
  • Tweezers and a Plastic Bag (just in case a tick shows itself – send that sucker in for Lyme testing – you’ll read more about that later.)
  • Clothes
  • Plenty of trash bags (for trash, wet/dirty clothes, anything)
  • Outdoor Toys/Games

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I hesitated when John suggested this trip. A 3 hour drive and two nights in a tent? Sounded less than fun, but I am so glad that I caved and agreed. 

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We had to call the morning of our trip to see if walk-up tenet camping reservations were available. So, the night of the Fourth, we started packing in hopes we’d be traveling. I literally emptied the pantry into baggies and packed it all in a huge tub. I prep’d the weekend dinner (potatoes, sausage, veggies) and had it ready to dump over the fire. One duffle bag held five kids’ worth of clothes. Each child grabbed a backpack full of ‘fun items’ they wanted to bring. 

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I reserved a house/pet sitter (our amazing babysitter) to come to the house while we were gone.

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John loaded the van up – and we started googling everything to do if we made it to our destination. Keeping our (small) budget in mind, we decided on ‘tanking’ down the river, spending a day at the ‘beach,’ and renting a boat.   

Calamus Reservoir had 10 walk-up spaces available. The trip was a GO. 

Our one major fail? We didn’t look closely at the weather. 

As we were driving, we realized there may be bad weather heading for us, but we ventured on. It was only a 40% chance, so we crossed our fingers. The skies were blue and the air became more breathable the farther from the farms that we made it. As we arrived, my heart sang out loud. The lake was beyond anything I had imagined. We scored a great camping spot and started setting up. 

A note: Make sure you give your kids jobs to do while setting up. This is to prevent the pestering and questioning that will cause frustration and anxiety. We handed kids hammers and stakes and taught them how to stake the tents. They set up the sleeping bags on the air mattresses and found twigs for the fire. 

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Don’t plan on cooking within a few hours of arriving. You will be done with ‘doing all the things’ and want to relax. Hop in and explore the closest tiny town. Eat somewhere local. Grab a beer and take the experience in. (Make sure you grab a few scratch off tickets while you are out. It seems that there are always winners sitting in these tiny towns.)

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Break out the glow sticks and flashlights. Play a few games and read some books together before calling it a night. Plan to be up with sun because kids will be out of their element sleeping in nature. Spend the next 24-36 hours soaking in everything beautiful around you. Unplug from the normalcy of life and just exist together.

If the weather turns (like it did for us in the middle of the night), make sure you have your rain tarp up. It was a windy and rainy few hours that made sleep a challenge, but having a great tent proved invaluable! 

You can do this. You can do this on a minimal budget. You can do this with young kids. You can do this as a couple. The key is to find someplace worth seeing and then just do it.

Where have you explored that you think others should know about? Let’s share our hidden vacation spots and start exploring more.

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