Tag Archives: parenting

Encouraging a Budding Architecht

My daughter loves to build.  I mean really loves to build.  It started with tower-building, where she would build these precariously stacked towers taller than she was – and I still have no idea how she ever managed to get them to stay up.  Even built four feet high, tilted on the edge of a rug and slanting sideways all the way up, she could get the darned things to stand.  At least until the dog came by and knocked them down, after which there would be a brief period of outraged wailing, followed shortly by a new tower.

Gradually her repertoire expanded from towers to castles, castles to cities.  Mega Bloks gave way to my old set of Duplos, and the colorful small set of Melissa & Doug wood blocks was supplemented by a set of Mad Scientist alphabet blocks and a bigger, plain wood set of Melissa & Doug blocks.  We’re just about ready to move on to regular legos, so watch out world.

Almost anything can be added to a block city - even old berry baskets and hippos!

Almost anything can be added to a block city – even old berry baskets and hippos!

It warms my heart that she loves to build so much.  She has this amazing single-minded intensity when she is building things.  So with her fourth birthday coming up, I’m very excited to see what she makes of the latest additions she’s going to get to unwrap: Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.  These were some of my childhood favorites that I was very pleased to discover have made a comeback.

Playing with building toys is a great way to encourage valuable skills in kids that are applicable in so many areas.  While my relatives and I joke that my daughter’s current building obsession must mean she will grow up to be an architect or construction worker someday, I’m really just happy that there’s an activity she likes so much that has many long-term benefits.  Building is great for spacial orientation, balance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and planning skills.  And blocks can even be dual-hatted and used for teaching counting, ordering by size, shapes, pattern-making, and geometry.

I remember building massive lego cities as a kid, and can’t wait to do that again with my daughter (yes, I may have some ulterior motives here… there could perhaps be eventual purchases of lego sets that are things I always wanted as a kid!).  It never even occurred to me as a kid, playing with my sisters and brother and friends, that legos weren’t anything but a unisex toy.  I’ll save the new “girl” legos for another post, maybe sometime when I have had a good day and a couple glasses of wine and can talk about it calmly and rationally instead of ranting.

I also like that building toys are one of the better types of toys for playing across a span of ages.  Older kids and younger kids, parents and children, crazy uncles and grandparents – everyone can play together with these toys.   Well, when you can get the kids to share, at least.  And they are definitely a more grownup-friendly form of play for me.  I can only do so much pretending to eat plastic-food meals my kid has prepared, but I’m happy to build with her for a good long while.

And a lot of adults still play with these toys – just look at Lego conventions and competitions.  But professionals use them as work tools, too.  I remember being stunned when, as an undergraduate working a summer internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, I discovered a drawerful of legos, k’nex, and Tinkertoys.  I needed something to demonstrate how an attachment mechanism on the space station moves, in order for someone to make a computer animation of it.  I had been attempting to make a moving model out of paper clips, erasers, and rolled up notebook paper.

Instead, my supervisor took me over to a nondescript cabinet, pulled it open, and showed me the toys inside.  He said it was common for engineers to use these things to demonstrate moving parts and play with new ideas.  That was the first time I realized that engineering was so very much more than the academic side I was so immersed in.  Engineering was about creatively making things work.  It’s also a job where no one will bat an eyelash if you play with legos at work.  I was sold – I had definitely picked the right major.

So I encourage you to encourage your kids to play with these types of toys.  They are sturdy, and can last through several generations of kids.  My parents kept our wooden blocks and Duplos and now the grandkids use them.  They are fun, simple, and good for group play across ages and generations.  And you never know when getting down on the floor to build a block tower or create a lego battle scene will give just the right spark to a budding young architect, engineer, astronaut, artist, or construction foreman.

What were your favorite building toys as a kid?  Have any recommendations on the latest and greatest, or fond memories of great building-toy achievements?

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Busting that Stereotype, Cracking that Ceiling, and Proving Those Jerks Wrong.

One of my favorite t-shirts – from http://www.offworlddesigns.com

This is for every girl or woman who had to grow up hearing any of these.  A little motivation for a gray February day.

“Girls aren’t good at math and science.”

We are.  We may not always be encouraged to be, but we are.  I’m encouraging you now.  Surround yourself with others who will encourage you.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or aren’t good at something if you haven’t tried at least a dozen different approaches to get better in your weaker areas.  Find a tutor, or a book that explains it better, or work with a friend.  You’d be amazed how much a fresh perspective and a little support can do to make you realize that math and science are fun – and not that hard if you’re not constantly told you can’t.

“Oh, don’t you look pretty in that outfit.”

You do – but that’s not all you are.  You have substance, you have worth, you have brains.  You are more than the fashion of the moment, a doll, an object, or your external appearance.

“Why are you playing with a boy’s toy?  Don’t you want a dolly?”

Variety is the spice of life.  Choice is important.  Figure out what you like, and don’t let others dictate what you enjoy.  You don’t have to pick pink sparkly things – but if you do, it should be because you were allowed a choice and decided for yourself what your tastes are.  There’s nothing wrong with pink, sparkles, ruffles, dolls, rainbows, kittens, or bows – but they shouldn’t be crammed down anyone’s throat as the only way to go or the only acceptable things for girls to play or decorate with.

“Oh, you’re such a sweet little princess”

Being a princess isn’t actually very glamorous in real life.  They have schedules, keepers, public appearances, and not a whole lot of freedom.  A real-life princess is scrutinized in the press, never gets any privacy, and has the whole world notice if she gets a gray hair or dares wear the same outfit twice.  Their ‘subjects’ often question why they are even still around – it’s rough to have a bunch of people say you aren’t necessary, or even that you’re a burden.  They’re also usually extremely well-educated, politically savvy, and highly accomplished women in their own rights, not fluff-headed cartoon characters full of sweetness and light.

“That’s such an un-feminine thing to say or do.”

Who gets to define that?  Feminine according to what standard?  None of it makes any sense and there’s no consistency.  Women should cook at home, but men get to be great chefs?  How does it even make sense that one is ‘feminine’ while the other is ‘masculine’?  Women should be in trim shape, but not so fit as to be muscular?  Skirted garments are for women in one culture, but for men in others?  You should dress ‘pretty’ but not ‘sexy’ and have to know where that moving-target fine line is at all times?  These ‘rules’ change from decade to decade and culture to culture.  So don’t bother chasing an ever-changing impossible ‘standard.’  Be yourself and find things to do that you enjoy and are willing to work hard at.

“You’re not skinny/pretty/stylish enough.”

Be healthy.  Be confident.  Take care of yourself.  None of the rest of it matters.

“You’re too bossy/b*tchy/pushy”

If you were a boy or man, you’d be described as ‘confident’ instead.  Or a ‘good leader,’ or ‘persuasive.’  It’s another double standard.  Be yourself, and stand up for yourself.  Stay tactful, but don’t be afraid to push back.  And never, ever be afraid to say ‘no.’  It’s a very powerful word.

“You’re such a feminist.”

Definition of feminism according to Merriam-Webster: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.  How did that ever become an insult?  Why is it ‘ the other f-word?’  What is so awful about wanting equal rights and opportunities?  Feminist doesn’t equal misandrist.  There’s nothing in the definition about hating men, thinking women are better than men, wanting to take anything away from men.  What is so horribly threatening about people wanting to be equal?

“You’ll never find a husband doing (insert whatever they think you’re doing wrong)”

A husband is a life partner.  Partner.  As in equal.  Not someone who will take pity on you or somehow be talked or tricked into attaching himself to you for life.  If you aren’t yourself when finding a spouse or partner, you’re basing the whole relationship on a lie.  It’s not fair to either of you.  Be the best self you can be – and remember that being someone you are not won’t find you a compatible partner, it will find you misery.

“Girls/women can’t do (insert pretty much anything here).”

So there’s a bunch of stuff that an entire half of the world’s population can’t do?  Women can’t fight a war?  It’s been done at least part of the time for most of recorded history.  Win a Nobel Prize?  Many times over.  Finish an Iron Man?  Check.  Climb Everest?  Done.  Discover a new element?  Yes.  Reach the North Pole?  Yep.  Win Iditarod?  Done.  Engineer, CEO, film director, doctor, physicist, astronaut, ship captain, general, inventor, you name it, it’s pretty darned likely a woman has done it.  Probably lots of women, many of them against incredible odds and extra barriers.  So don’t tell me a woman or girl can’t do something.  When you say that, what I hear is actually, “I personally don’t think you should for some reason, but I’ll say ‘girls’ or ‘women’ to generalize so I don’t sound quite as much like a jerk.”  When you tell a girl she can’t, you’re probably doing it for a selfish or ignorant reason, or out of long habit you don’t feel like breaking.  Don’t you dare ever tell a little girl she can’t do something.  It takes a pretty soulless schmuck to squash the dreams of a child.

Yeah, ok, so I’m feeling a little punchy on this topic today.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go back to work on trying to follow my own advice 🙂

Has anyone ever told you that you can’t do something?  How did you respond?  What do you wish someone had told you that you could achieve when you were little?

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Now That’s a Nature Walk!

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My little geekling and I took our usual routine weekend nature walk ‘on the road’ today with a 10k race along the ocean.  This is the view from the parking garage – the starting line was down at the far end of the boardwalk. I love doing these races with her (we usually do around couple per year ranging in distance from 5k to half marathon), but I think we’re at the point where we’re going to have to figure something else out because she’s gotten way too tall for our old, faithful, beat-up jogging stroller.  Time to start taking her on those 1-mile family fun runs and working our way up from there, I guess!  At least that way at the end we won’t have a kid who’s been sitting still and a mama who is exhausted.

Our wildlife observations today included many, many seagulls, at least two dozen dogs, several other kinds of sea birds, and the surfers.  We also got in some top-quality people-watching.  Races are always great for people-watching.  I think the highlights for her were the two Amtrak trains and the highway patrolman who waved at her – not things we get to see on our usual route!  Oh, and of course a finisher’s medal to add to her growing collection.  That’s how I bribe her to behave herself in the stroller throughout the longer races – snacks, coloring books, leaves, rocks, flowers, and the shiny finisher’s medal at the end are a surefire way to get us through even a half marathon.

Short post today because I’m exhausted and the laundry is calling.

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Pregnancy Small Talk for the Socially Impaired Geek Parent

A sidebar discussion from yesterday’s post ended up being about small talk and babies on the way.  One friend pointed out that the “boy or girl” question is, for many, the only safe thing we can think of to ask a pregnant or expecting person.  For those of us who aren’t very good at small talk to begin with, what are some topics we can safely bring up when talking to other parents and parents-to-be other than gender?

There is always advice available for what not to say to a pregnant person.  Obviously “Wow, you’re huge!” or, “I sure hope it doesn’t look like you!” or, “Gee, was it an accident?” aren’t remotely acceptable things to say.

But even seemingly innocent questions have a way of coming out wrong and getting us into trouble.  “When are you due?” can even be dangerous, since some women simply carry their weight in such a way that they look pregnant all the time – it is never safe to assume someone is pregnant unless she actually tells you she is, and it’s not really acceptable to ask.  There are also those of us who continue to look pregnant for several months after having the baby.  And “Are you excited?” can be construed as an underhanded way of asking “Did you actually want to get pregnant?” even if you don’t mean it like that.

But, given that you have absolutely solid evidence that someone is pregnant, what are some nice, non-gender related things to talk about?  Since I am one of those parents woefully untalented at small talk, this list will be on the short side.  Please help me come up with more!

The ones I know of are pretty generic, such as:

  • How exciting!
  • Congrats!
  • How are you feeling?
  • When are you due? (Really, seriously, only if you KNOW the person is pregnant!)

If the expectant parent is someone you know well enough to ask some slightly more personal questions or offer help to, you could try these:

  • What are your family’s plans for after the baby is born? (safe way to ask without making any stereotyped assumptions about childcare choices)
  • Is there anything you need to help you get ready?
  • Do you need someone on hot standby for pet-sitting (or watching the other kids) when the time comes?
  • Would you rather be left alone at first when the baby comes, or have someone come over right away for company/bringing food/assisting around the house/huffing that amazing baby smell?

Or introduce a little humor into the small-talk:

  • Have you memorized the wallpaper at your OB’s office yet?
  • So, what’s the most obnoxious unsolicited advice someone has given you so far?
  • Has a crazy stranger with no sense of personal space tried to touch you yet?

And, of course, if your friend is a fellow geek, you could try:

  • I’ll bet the force will be strong with this baby, with you as a parent
  • What age do you think is good for introducing a kid to Dr. Who?
  • If you could have any member of the Serenity crew as a godparent, who would you pick?
  • Too bad the Enterprise isn’t real, or you could take the kid to space with you!

Alright, that’s even shorter and less helpful than I feared it would be.  More socially adept people, help me out here and add more in the comments!

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What do Gender Reveal Parties Reveal About Us?

Ok, today I’m dipping my toe into the waters of blog posts that will probably get me hate mail.  The first big opinion piece that is likely to spark  a *ahem* lively conversation.

So… gender reveal parties.  The reveal takes many forms – cakes with blue or pink filling, blue and pink drinks, Oreos with blue or pink filling, secret envelopes with ultrasound pictures, and even moustaches vs. hair bows (this one especially gets rankles – a ‘manly’ object vs. a ‘little girl’ object is such an awful contrast).

There are usually games, secret ballots, extraordinarily creative ways to break the news, and people choose sides for “team pink” or “team blue.”  Gender reveal parties are all the rage for the pregnant/expecting crowd these days.  There are articles, pinterest sites, parenting blogs, entire websites even dedicated to these parties.

But why?  It seems that for a lot of people the gender of a baby has somehow become the single most important thing about bringing a new life into the world.  The first question someone asks expectant parents is almost always, “do you want a boy or a girl?” or, if late enough in the pregnancy to know, “is it a boy or a girl?”

Does it matter?  Shouldn’t the focus be on the fact that it’s a brand new human life you’re growing in there?  What does it say about us that the focus – earlier and earlier, now – is on pink vs. blue, boy vs. girl, dividing our kids into boxes and sets of strict expectations before they are even born.  Are we planning in advance to value one over the other, whether we do so consciously or not?

Why is gender the most important thing to know about a new baby?  Wouldn’t you rather talk about hopes and dreams for your child, or your plans for childcare and feeding, or your favorite parenting books and the best advice you have gotten?  Why is gender the single biggest focus?  It’s not like science has gotten us to the point where we get to choose in advance just yet.  And if you’re going to the trouble of having a gender reveal party, it’s fairly safe to assume you really want the baby.  Will you love the child less if the gender turns out to not be your first choice?  I know this is a reality in many parts of the world, but I have high hopes that eventually it won’t be that way, especially not in the U.S.

So help me out with some fun and more productive alternatives here – instead of a gender reveal party, how about a “guess the personality type” party or a “predict the future occupation” party – or something else that’s equally out of our control but perhaps a little less divisive.  Or you could even make it something constructive and have a “bring the book that influenced your childhood the most” party.

Please share in the comments – what are your thoughts on pink vs. blue and gender reveals?  Have you had one of these parties, hosted one, or attended one?  What is the upside?  Did you have a gender preference when you were expecting your child?

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Kids at Cons

This is something of a polarizing topic.  Geeks love to get together with other geeks.  There are conventions for just about anything, ranging from the very broad (general sci-fi/fantasy/comic/gaming conventions) to the specific (one fandom, such as Gallifrey One for Dr. Who).  Fans tend to be passionate and extremely particular.  And they also tend to hold very strong opinions about whether kids belong at cons.

On one side is the argument that we need to raise the next generation of con-goers and con-runners.  Plus kids generally love this kind of stuff and it’s easy to get them interested when they are young.  You want to get them really into it before they get old enough to be embarrassed!  On the other side are the folks, usually childless (but not always), who want to go enjoy the con in peace and not be bothered by those ‘snot-nosed kids’.

The issue gets even more complicated when you consider content and interest level of things at the con.  Comics, movies, games, TV shows, cartoons, manga, books, anime, and graphic novels can be very kid-friendly things, but there also some extremely adult ones out there.  My daughter loves any excuse to wear a costume, and sees cons as Halloween-like opportunities to dress up, eat too much junk, and run around with other kids a lot.

One of the issues that has come up in recent years – at San Diego Comic-Con, for example – is that there isn’t any attempt to keep these apart. There can be booths for Ni Hao Kai-lan next to booths selling artwork of a fantasy warrior woman with impossible proportions fighting in scraps of leather.  If your kid is in the “why?” and “what’s that” stages, this can make for some awkward conversations you would rather have a little later.  How do we balance wanting our Spiderman-obsessed kid to get to see all the people dressed as her favorite hero with not wanting her to see someone dressed in a BDSM-Spiderman mashup outfit or a booth selling graphic Spiderman slashfic?

Another dilemma is whether or not to stay at the con hotel(s).  It’s easy on parents to be able to take a tired kid back to a hotel room for some TV or a snack and a nap, but how close a room to the party floor did the hotel give you?  Will there be naked drunk people running around the hotel hallways after midnight?  Will the midnight drum circle be in the room directly below yours?

So what is a con-going geek parent to do?  First, gauge the family-friendliness level of the particular con as well as the ‘adult’ level.  Look at the website and see what kind of programming they will have.  Ask someone who has been to that con before not only what the nightlife is like, but how far it tends so spread from the party floor.  Check with the hotel to see if you  can get a room far, far away from the party floor – preferably in a separate tower if the hotel is big enough for that.

Judge the size and focus of the con as well.  Is it a small, fan-run literary convention or a large, for-profit convention run by professionals?  Both of these can end up being family-friendly, but in different ways.

Sometimes you can tell how family friendly a con is by looking at the average age of attendees. Are there mostly folks in their twenties, or is the average age closer to fifty or beyond?  This isn’t a perfect way to tell, though. Some of the cons with mostly older attendees are making concerted efforts to attract younger people and kids to keep the con from dying out (young volunteers have more energy!). And some of the younger crowd want to have their fun without little kids around.  But in general, the cons we have attended that consisted mostly of older people were the same ones where we were frowned upon for dragging a toddler around with us.

We haven’t actually had the experience of going to a con without a child.  Other than some Star Trek conventions I went to with my dad and older siblings as a youth, my first con was BaltiCon when my daughter was about 7 weeks.  We were “that couple with the baby.”

It was surprisingly easy to attend panels and enjoy programming with a newborn, because she slept through the entire thing in the Baby Bjorn.  We alternated who got to wear the baby and be sweaty, and I’d have to find a quiet corner to nurse her every few hours, but other than that it was pretty much a non-issue.  We sat through an entire reading by our favorite author without her making so much as a peep.  We did go home each night, though, since it was a short drive.  So our first con experience was a positive one, and an easy thing to manage even as new parents.

Things have gotten more complicated as she has grown older, though.  Age two was probably the hardest period for con-going. She was a little ball of energy who couldn’t hold still and couldn’t stay quiet no matter what activity or snack we gave her.  Toddlers are a difficult age at a con, because they’re too old to just sleep and too young to really do any of the kids programming.  So what is a geek parent to do?

Not going isn’t really an option.  Cons aren’t just for fun for us – I do panels on things like Women in STEM and getting kids interested in STEM fields, spacecraft design, military sci-fi, and anything else they’ll put me on that sounds interesting and matches my skill/experience set.

My husband is a writer and takes advantage of the cons for both education and networking.  The cons with a more literary bent almost always have a writer’s workshop and several panels on things like traditional publishing vs. e-publishing, worldbuilding, what the big publishers are looking for now, etc.  There are often representatives from the major publishing houses, magazines, and agencies, as well as big-name authors and well-respected editors.

So short of not going, let’s look at the options available for attending a con with kids.  First, in terms of judging things for kids to do and places for them to go at the con, here is the range we have seen at the cons we’ve been to (which is not that wide, so please feel free to comment and add others we haven’t seen yet):

  • Family friendly room: a designated space in the hotel or convention center where parents can take kids to run around and play.  Policies vary, but normally small kids must have a parent with them at all times and older kids can often be left there unsupervised.  Sometimes there will be formal programming going on in the room, but more often it’s just a big open room with toys and craft supplies, and some heroic volunteers. These are people who deserve medals and frequently end up totally frazzled by the end of the weekend.  Be sure to thank these kind souls.
  • Kids programming: an actual track of specific programming for kids, usually a mix of some science experiments, crafts such as making your own wand or lightsaber, kid-friendly musical events (we’ve seen a harp demonstration and sing-along g-rated filk sessions), foam sword-fighting, and Arduino projects.  There’s almost always something involving legos and some sort of workshop for making costume pieces.  At the larger cons, this programming is sometimes broken up into separate tracks by age ranges. The minimum age to participate varies. At some it’s 3-and-up (if potty trained) and at others it’s 6-and-up, etc.  Young kids normally have to be signed in and out, but policies vary by each con so be sure to ask.
  • Teen programming: pretty self-explanatory.  Stuff geared towards what the teens like, in an effort to let them enjoy the con away from their horribly embarrassing parents.
  • Professional, licensed childcare service: this is usually only available at the bigger cons.  We were able to take advantage of this at WorldCon last time.  The prices are around $10-15 an hour, and they have great hours (at Chicon7, at least) – they were open late enough that we could go to the Masquerade and the Hugo Awards Ceremony.  It seemed terribly under-utilized there, though.  Our daughter was usually one of a handful of kids, sometimes the only one. The kids were sometimes outnumbered by employees and had two whole rooms to roam.  I hope it doesn’t mean they will eventually get rid of this service because not enough people are using it.  The company they used was really good, and we were very impressed by the professional caregivers.  There was a state-law-mandated limit of 10 hours per day of care, but I don’t think we ever came anywhere near using that much.

Other than the con services and programming, there are a few other options for parents going to cons with their kids.  The one we fall back on the most is the tag-team parenting.

  • Trade off: pick which panels and events you really want to attend and tag-team the kid duties.  We go through the hardcopy schedule with a highlighter and mark which ones are most important to us, then negotiate over the ones that overlap.  Handoff can happen in the hallway between panels, at the hotel room, at the family friendly room, at the restaurant for lunch, wherever.  While one parent is attending something on the program, the other can be making a run to get food, taking kiddo up to the room for a nap, strolling through the dealer’s room, or finding something else on the program that is generally more kid-friendly to do.  Sword fighting demos, LARP, movie rooms or concerts (depending on what’s playing), and quidditch games are good for this. The big drawback to this method is the adults never get to really do anything together.
  • Roll the dice and take the kid along: Do this armed with many distractions, and hope he or she cooperates.  Only in appropriate events/panels of course.  Whenever possible, my husband comes along to the panels I speak on as moral support (and as a ringer in case the audience clams up at question time, which basically never happens).   He sits in the very back with our daughter, armed to the teeth with coloring books, toys, snacks, the iPad and headphones.  If she gets noisy, they sneak out the door.  We’ve also done this together when there is a panel, reading, or event we both really want to attend  The older the kid is, the easier this one is to pull off.  There’s usually another, older kid or two at the back of the room completely engrossed in texting or playing a PSP game – while mom or dad is watching the panel, pre-teen probably isn’t even aware it’s going on.
  • Spread the load: go to the con with some other parents you know, and trade off babysitting duties.  If there are friends you trust at the con,  one adult can watch all of the kids while the rest of the adults are off doing other things.  This is easier for folks who tend to go to the same cons each year and have well-established friendships with other geek families.  For us, this hasn’t been an option yet because we move every couple of years and we don’t have an established “home town con” we go to every year.
  • Don’t bring the kids at all: this option only works, of course, if you have someone to leave them with.  Again, the older the kids are, the easier this is to achieve.  The easiest way to manage this is to go to cons where your relatives live. My parents have helped us out with daytime con-babysitting twice, and we are hoping to get to a con this summer while our daughter is spending some time visiting my in-laws.
  • Bring backup: invite your favorite babysitter or a relative to stay with you, if you know someone who would like to go to the con.  Offer to pay for the ticket and the room (or share the room if you’re cheap like us and get along well with your relatives) in exchange for them babysitting for part of the con.  We were able to do this once and killed two birds with one stone – our daughter got some quality time with an aunt she doesn’t get to see very often, and we got some babysitting time and a nice visit with my SIL.

So what are your thoughts on kids at cons?  Any suggestions for methods we haven’t tried for dividing kid duties and making sure everyone has a good time while not annoying the other con-goers?  For our family, cons are both work and play, so we want to make sure we can get the work part done while ensuring our kid has a safe, fun, and educational experience.  Do you know of some particularly kid-friendly cons?

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