5 Free & Fun Things for Kids to Do

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s will remember these summertime activities. There were no excursions to theme parks or money spent on activities. We kept ourselves occupied by playing in the yard or neighborhood.

  1. Catching lightning bugs – maybe you call them fireflies. Once it was dusk, you ran about the yard capturing these with your hands. Putting the captives in a jar turned it into your very own blinking lantern. I think we poked holes in the jar lid for them to breathe.Fireflies, Stars Digital Paper, Stripes, Stars, Fish
  2. Playing outdoor games – There were all sorts of games you could play with your siblings like “Mother May I?” or “Simon Says” or games that involved running like Tag or Hide-And-Seek. After we wore ourselves out with these games, we would relax in the shade for a while.
  3. Playing with the hose – If you had a lawn sprinkler, it was fun to run through on a hot summer day. It wasn’t necessary though, you could just put your finger over the end of the garden hose and spray the other kids. You didn’t have to go anywhere and you didn’t even need a swimsuit. Outdoors, Nature, People, Summer, Kids, Happy, Water
  4. Stretching out on the grass and watching the clouds – We looked for special shapes in the cloud formations and tried to imagine they were animals or people’s faces. Kansas has marvelous skyscapes with thunderheads that shifted and reformed as we watched.

    cloud photo, Kansas

    Cloud photo by Virginia Allain

  5. Pretending – After watching National Velvet on television, we spent hours pretending to ride our imaginary horses over jumps that we placed around the yard. Other times, we created a playhouse by stamping down the weeds in an overgrown area to form rooms. Of course, we could always resort to making mud pies and decorate them with the pokeberries that grew wild. The big leaves made great plates for our concoctions. (Don’t worry, we knew not to eat those.)


Games We Played

I’m not sure if we learned these games from Mom (Gail Lee Martin) or from other kids at school. You may have played some of these in your childhood. Remember these games: Duck Duck Goose, Steal the Bacon, Drop the Handkerchief, Simon Says, and Mother, May I? There were always the old standbys of Tag and Hide and Seek to play too.

Since there were 6 children in our family and we lived in the country, we had to entertain ourselves. That was enough for some games, but others like Red Rover were better when played with a larger number.

Red Rover, Red Rover

We played Red Rover on the sloping field behind West Branch Country School. You needed a good number of kids to make two teams. Each team lined up and linked hands. One team would chant, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Jimmy (or another player from the other team) over.

Jimmy would leave his team and run as fast and forcefully as he could to burst through the other team’s line. If the runner succeeds at breaking through the line, he/she gets to choose someone from that team to add to their own team.

running boy pixabay

Each team takes a turn calling for a player to come over. Once one team has all the players, they win.

Directions for More Old-Fashioned Games

martin cousins, Karen, Lori, Bonnie, Raymond, I think

Martin cousins playing “Button Button.” Karen, Lori, Bonnie, Raymond.

While refreshing my memory on these games, I ran across a few that were new to me. I don’t remember playing Sardines, Four Square, or Capture the Flag. I found one called What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf that sounded really fun.

I’d love to hear about some games that you remember from your early days. Click on COMMENT and tell me about some.

Nature Deficit Disorder

last child in woods

Last Child in the Woods book cover (courtesy of GoodReads)



What a frightening concept: nature-deficit disorder. I remember summer days turning up rocks in the creek to find crawdads, and wandering through woods and pastures under the hot Kansas sun. Because of those experiences and my parents’ interest and encouragement, I care about animals, plants, and the state of the planet.

There’s a concern that children get too little time in nature these days. This results in nature-deficit disorder. Are today’s children missing all the relaxing time exploring nature? If their exposure to nature is television documentaries and carefully orchestrated trips to a petting zoo, will they bond with nature? There’s no question that electronic gadgets occupy too much of their time and has consequences beyond short attention spans and weight gain.


YouTube video on Nature Deficit Disorder and the importance of giving children time in nature.

Nature Deficit Disorder could result in generations who care little for the environment. That would be a truly disastrous situation. Here’s some reading for parents and grandparents about how to ensure children have the opportunity to be lovers of nature.

children water woods pixabay

Children need time and freedom to connect with nature. (photo from Pixabay)

Last Child in the Woods is available from Amazon or from your public library.

I wish parents would soak up the message of this book and take steps to unplug their child and provide regular outdoor time both structured and free time.

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with NatureHow to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with NatureView DetailsI Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of NatureI Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of NatureView DetailsSharing Nature with Children, 20th Anniversary EditionSharing Nature with Children, 20th Anniversary EditionView DetailsFree-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)View DetailsPlay The Forest School Way: Woodland Games and Crafts for Adventurous KidsPlay The Forest School Way: Woodland Games and Crafts for Adventurous KidsView DetailsBalanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable ChildrenBalanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable ChildrenView Details

V is for Vases from Old Bottles

In 2010, Gail Lee Martin wrote this how-to article for the eHow site.

How to Use Old Bottles for Vases

Too much gets thrown away and dumps fill up then there’s no place to put all the trash. Here’s how to get more use from old bottles and keep them out of the trash. Give them new life while adding beauty to your home by using the bottles as vases.

Things You’ll Need:

  • old bottles
  • flowers
  • soap and water
  • GooGone (optional)

I have a thing about glass, especially colored glass bottles. Some of this might come from my father and grandfather, who worked in the Tyro Glass Plant in the early 1900s. bottles flowers pixabay

But my own memories of colored glass bottles began in the early days in the oilfields in northern Greenwood County. Most of the bottles we had were ones we saved after using the contents or were found at the camp’s trash dump in a nearby gully. My mother would pick wildflowers for bouquets to put in the dinky rooms of the shot-gun house we lived in at the Phillip’s Petroleum Company’s oilfield camp.

Mother had a tall brown bottle that she used for sunflowers, daisies, and cattails. Mother and I collected all kinds of dried weeds that looked great in this type of vase.


Photo by Virginia Allain

I think it was possibly a beer bottle but to Mother, it was just a unique brown bottle. Because of its height, you need taller flowers or grasses to balance the look.

She had several blue colored bottles of different shapes and sizes. A small blue perfume bottle was used for wild rose buds or the tiny, pale lavender sheep-shower blooms. The taller blue, flat bottles were so pretty filled with wild asters.

Some of the blue colored ones had contained Milk-of-Magnesium at one time. The Vicks VapoRub came in a squat, blue jar with a wide mouth. I loved to float blossoms in them. My parents grew hollyhocks and just one blossom would spread out across the top, completely covering the bottle except for the shiny blue bottom.

medicine bottles_Roxio brighter

Photo by Virginia Allain

For larger bouquets, Mother would get out one of her green canning jars that currently are so coveted by antique dealers. The opening in this type of container was much larger than most bottles. The long woody stems of the wild gooseberry with tiny yellow blossoms were spectacular in this tall green jar. When we set this bouquet on the library table in front of the south window, the Kansas sun shone through the glass adding sparkle to the arrangement.

Tips & Warnings
  •  Soak the bottles to remove the labels. GooGone helps to get off the adhesive.
  •  Wash the inside of the bottle.
  • The taller, slimmer bottles are easily knocked over, so put them where they won’t get bumped.




Gail’s collection of vintage green canning jars

D Is for Dandelion Wine

Mom submitted this “recipe” to a book of Butler County recipes of the 1920s and 30s. The title of the book is Grandmother’s Legacy. She emphasized that this was a just for fun recipe and not actually for consumption.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Gail Lee Martin said, “This is an oil camp kid’s memories of making this wine. There was never a shortage of dandelions.”

Pick 5 cups of dandelions. Keep only the yellow part of the flower and discard the green part. The green part makes the wine bitter. Always wash and drain the petals. Put the petals and a gallon of water, more or less, into an empty glass gallon jar. Stir in 1 pound of sugar.

Put the lid on tightly and bury the jar. Oil camp friends are needed to help dig a big enough hole. Of course, they would be in on the taste testing too.

Gail and friends in 1930s

Kids at the oil camp in Greenwood County, KS

After two or three weeks, the mixture should be dug up and taste tested. If needed, add more sugar to suit taste.

“This recipe is for historical purposes and reading enjoyment only,” Gail said.

I’m amazed that back in the 1930s that her mother would let her have a pound of sugar for what definitely sounds like an experimental project. When I looked up real recipes for dandelion wine, they call for additional ingredients like lemons, oranges, and wine yeast.

You could go to the Commonsense Homesteading blog to try her recipe for dandelion wine. It appears to be adult tested, at least.

The 7 Memory Challenge

Here’s a short exercise for you. Take a piece of paper and write seven sentences about your childhood. Each sentence must start with “I remember.” You might be surprised what comes to your mind.

Here are mine:

  • I remember how excited we were when our cousins sent over a batch of their outgrown dresses.
  • I remember hanging clothes on the clothesline on freezing winter days. The clothes froze stiff and were hard to carry into the house later.
  • I remember learning to iron, starting with handkerchiefs. Eventually, we worked up to ironing blouses with sleeves and those gathered skirts on shirtwaist dresses.
  • I remember pretending we were ice skating on our frozen creek, even though we didn’t have skates.
  • I remember the horror of seeing our dog, Tippy, hit by a passing car. We were waiting by the highway for the school bus.
  • I remember churning our own butter in the glass Daisy churn.

    Daisy Churn_edited

    I browsed around on eBay and found this picture. It’s exactly what our churn looked like.

  • I remember learning to make muffins back when they were like a bread, not the cake-like kind they make now.

I hope you will give it a try. Date and save your memory page to share with children and grandchildren later.



Make Molasses Taffy

This old-fashioned candy recipe is one my mother-in-law, Cora Martin, made back in the 1920s. It takes two people to pull the taffy after it’s cooked. You can even make a party of it. Here’s how to make it.

Things You’ll Need:

  • 1 cup molasses
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • egg sized lumps of butter
  • vanilla (to taste)
  1. Mix all the ingredients, except the vanilla in a pan (molasses, sugar, vinegar, butter).
  2. Bring it to a boil on the stove top. Boil for 10 minutes. Stir frequently. She always used a wooden spoon for this.
  3. Add vanilla to taste.
  4. Remove it from the burner and allow it to cool enough to be handled.
  5. Coat your hands with butter, then pull the taffy with each person holding an end.
  6. When the taffy becomes light in color, it has been pulled enough.
  7. Twist the candy, then cut it into small pieces.

Cora and Ren Martin with their children in 1925.

My folks had taffy pulling parties when my older sister, Melba, was in her teens. There was so much fun and laughter as we paired up to pull that yummy stuff. Then we cut the taffy into strips to eat. The pulling and the togetherness made this a wonderful winter treat.

1938 – Pauline Bolte, Melba McGhee, Twila Yeager, Gail McGhee and little Carol McGhee.

(Article previously published online on eHow by Gail Lee Martin)

After reading Gail’s memories and the family recipe for taffy, I did some research using Newspapers.com. I found a similar description of the family having fun together making the sticky, stretchy candy. This clipping is from a Kansas paper, The Collyer Advance02 Jan 1930, ThuPage 2

What’s became of the old-fashioned watch party on New Year’s eve? Remember how we used to congregate at some neighbor’s home, eat pop-corn and apples (and sometimes drink sweet cider) until a midnight hour and then all join in singing a welcoming song as the new year opened before us? Some years when the cane was exceptionally good and there was an abundance of sorghum, we’d have taffy pulls. My, how good that taffy tasted, especially if it was seasoned with black walnuts!
There’s another thing, too, that we remember in connection with the taffy pull, and that is how clean our hands would become after we had pulled and stretched our wad of candy (and had dropped it upon the floor a half dozen times) and had twined it around our fingers. No matter how dirty one’s hands were they always emerged from a taffy pull as white and clean as tho they had been given a scouring with Lewis lye.
The Collyer Advance, 02 Jan 1930, Thu, Page 2

The Collyer Advance, 02 Jan 1930, Thu, Page 2

Here’s a slightly different recipe for cream taffy from a 1930s Kansas newspaper.

taffy recipe from The Hutchinson News  (Hutchinson, Kansas) 10 Jan 1930, Fri  • Page 11

The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kansas) 10 Jan 1930, Fri • Page 11

Gail and the Broken Glass Chimney

At Home on the Prairie by Gail Lee Martin

My daddy worked for Phillips Petroleum Company back in the twenties and thirties. All their employees were furnished housing complete with natural gas heat and lights. I remember Mother lighting kerosene lamps but there was a gas light fixed high on the wall in each room. They all had glass chimneys that tended to get smoky inside no matter how low you turned the flame. The gas light made a hissing noise and Daddy always had to light it as Mother was too short.

One of the first chores I remember getting to do was washing the glass chimneys because my hand was the smallest. I had to be careful so as to not drop and break them. That made Mother unhappy. I recall one time I did drop a chimney. I tried to pick up all the pieces quickly so Mother wouldn’t know about it.

In my hurry, I cut my hand bad. Mother had heard the noise and knew just what had happened as mothers seem to. The scolding I expected turned into an expression of concern about where all the blood was coming from.

I can still trace the scar on the palm of my hand. I have another long scar on the same hand but that is another story to tell.

Gas Lamp Card
Gas Lamp Card by Sloppydesigns


(This story is published online at Gail Martin’s stories on the Our Echo website. You can read more of her stories there)

Gail’s Advice on Picking Wild Berries

(Another article by Gail Lee Martin that she wrote for eHow) During my childhood in the 1930s we picked wild berries along the Cottonwood River in Kansas. It was fun for me, but it also put food on the table. Here’s how to go berrying.

  •  Locate a wild area that you can access without trespassing. We had permission to camp on a farmer’s land by the river. He didn’t want to bother with the wild berries so they were free for the picking.Catfish for dinner
    We would gather mulberries and gooseberries on sunny summer days. These made a good dessert when cooked together to go with the fish that we caught in the Cottonwood River.
  • Be sure the area is free of pesticides or chemicals. If it is next to a farmer’s field, there might be some sprays drifting onto the wild plants.
    Wild blueberries
  • Don’t eat pokeberries!!Don't eat pokeberries!!

    Learn which berries are edible and which are not good. Ask someone to show you which are the right fruit to pick or check in a wild foods book. I’ve provided a link below to find books like that.

  •  Learn when certain types of berries ripen. It changes slightly with the weather, so you may have to check several times to catch the raspberries at their peak. Mark it on your calendar so you’ll remember to check around that time next summer.

  • Poison ivy – keep away from it

    Wear long sleeves and even gloves if you’re picking thorny fruit. Watch out for poison ivy and snakes. Don’t forget the hat and sunscreen.

    Poison ivy - keep away from it

  •  Take a lightweight bucket and start picking. Enjoy lots of cobblers, jams and other berry delights. They are tasty just to snack on too.

Comments on the Article:

momose said on 9/19/2009 – We always carry a “beating stick” for our blackberry picking forays – to beat the bushes a bit first to roust out any rattlesnakes that might be lurking. I’ll bet you have done that, Gail! Five stars for your berry picking tips!

bjs1979 said on 8/21/2009 – mmmm fresh berries. Recommended you and rated 5 stars! Keep writing great articles!
Mindee Lee said on 7/10/2009 – Nothing is better than snacking on a handful of wild berries. Teaching children identification of berries is a crucial point not to be discounted. Thanks for these great and important tips!
kittycooks said on 7/10/2009 – OOO, I love wild berries. So flavorful!  A good tip to watch out for poison ivy!

Gail’s Pet Badger

A Pet Badger

I’d never think to have a pet as ferocious looking as a badger. They have fearsome claws and are noted for their digging. My mom was given a baby badger back in the 1930s and she raised it and kept it as a pet.

She tells some remarkable stories about what it was like to have a pet badger. Here’s more information about the American badger and more about her pet badger.

Mom took this photo at a museum. She said it reminded her of her pet badger, Jolly.

Mom took this photo at a museum. She said it reminded her of her pet badger, Jolly.

An Unusual Pet – An American Badger

Young Gail McGhee in front, center. The shed in the background might be the wash house that the badger lived in, where he dug tunnels in the dirt floor.

Young Gail McGhee in front, center. The shed in the background might be the wash house that the badger lived in, where he dug tunnels in the dirt floor.

Baby Badger

Gail Martin describes in her book how they raised the badger as a baby. This video shows a European baby badger, but it would have looked pretty similar to this.

Great Video of a Badger 

Note that it has a harness. It also digs just like my mother described her pet badger digging in their potato patch. A collar didn’t work for the badger as it would just slip off over its head.