Monday, August 24, 2015


Notasium is open for business! 

Many Durham parents rallied together to contribute to Preston Clarke and Stephen Norman-Scott's kickstarter for a music based play space and now their dream has come to fruition! I took my kiddos to the soft opening this past Saturday and it was so much fun. It's an interactive, music-based play space and school designed to awaken the musician in any child at any age, and is completely fascinating to adults too.

When you walk in, there is a wall surrounding the fun play space, where the adults can sit and enjoy refreshments while the children play. Notasium will be offering Bean Traders delicious drip coffee and Portable Gourmet baked goods and prepackaged snacks, including healthy and vegan options. No food or drink in playspace, so those of you who have kids with food allergies can rest assured it's a safe area (same goes for the music studios - no one wants root beer spilled on their keyboard!). 

Once you check in, there is a half door leading in (with a kidproof handle on the inside so little ones can't escape) and a shoe shelf. Be sure to bring socks as no bare feet or shoes are allowed in the play space! 

I'm going to start with my favorite part and the signature structure of Notasium, the giant Climbing Guitar! As you climb up the frets, the children can press the silver letters and the guitar will play the note for that letter! The Climbing Guitar is geographically correct, meaning that it has 12 frets like a normal guitar, and the notes are exactly what they'd hear if playing a real guitar. There is a climbing wall on either side, one for taller kids and one for smaller, and the holds are shaped like notes! Then to the right is a smooth silver slide for the kids to ride down on soft mats shaped like guitar picks. When they zoom down, the Climbing Guitar makes one of five guitar slide sounds! It's soooo much fun and totally magnetizing for kids!  

Next to the climbing guitar is an upright handmade silver xylophone with flat paddles for you to pound, just like in the Blue Man Group! It makes a deep sound and as you can see, kids like figuring out where the sound is coming from!

Beside those is an incredibly creative invention! There is a double sided organ called the Flat Zone, Sharp Zone. The building previously housed Pearson Music, and when they left, they also left behind two pedal boxes. When you step up onto the platform, you can choose to play pedals on either side. If you take a "half step down", and sit on that side to play, you're playing flat notes. (Photo on the right, my son in the Hawaiian shirt). If you take a "half step up", you'll be playing sharp notes. The sound that comes out is trombone, but like everything else that they custom built for the space, they can alter it to their whim. Perhaps Christmas bells at the holidays? The beautiful part about it and all the play structures in Notasium is that they're all accurate representations of music and instruments, so they're learning as they have fun, not just making noise. When children play with their feet, the display lights up and shows them what note they are playing as they play it. It's super cool - did I mention two kids can play at once, one on each side?

Behind the curtain in a small room is the Beat Kitchen, containing found objects that make noise, also called a Sound Garden. They went to town gathering all kinds of kitchen utencils and other items that are perfect to make noise with - after all, that's where most children first experiment with drumming, is on the pots and pans in the kitchen. My daughter loved the standup washboard base - it reminded me of Emmet Otter's Jugband from the 80's! There were a ton of pots, pans, muffin tins, bundt cake drums, wok lid chimes... and every kid was going to town on every surface they could!

There is a wall separating the main area from the toddler area, and on one side is the Notasium Note Light Brite, based on a simple color system with infants and toddlers that Owner Preston created. Every note has a different color, and in group classes they use that corresponding information to learn basic melodies in C with handbells, then piano. It's an eye catching simple way to learn the beginnning concepts of music for non-readers within the context of staff. In the Note Light Brite, the clear cylinders can be taken out and rearranged and as you press them, a note is sung, "Doh re mi" in a child's voice.

Unfortunately I didn't a good picture of it, but next to the Note Light Brite is the World Music Wall, which has an interactive map of the world. When you touch a country, the maps plays music native to that area of the globe. Much like how in Willy Wonka the "schnozzberries taste like schnozzberries", Brazil plays Brazilian music, and so on! Such a creative way to teach about world music!

You certainly can't miss the custom made Double Drum Bounce House, where bouncing triggers a drum sound, complete with colorful lights. This of course is a hit!

Next to the bounce house is a Stage that will be used for recitals midway through and at end of semester. All they have to do for recitals is deflate the bounce house (like above, as Preston spoke to the open house crowd) and set up chairs, making the space really flexible. Normally the bounce house is up and the stage acts as a pretend performance space, with a mix of play instruments, real instruments and dress up costumes. 

Some kids jamming out on stage! I love how the stage encourages kids to cooperate and work together to make a band. I saw all different ages and talents of kids sharing gleefully.

If you go behind the bounce house drum, you'll notice it's dark, but that's only because you've entered a super secret fun area! There is a projected interactive xylophone which scrolls through three games, and can be adjusted to be other instruments as well. You can see in the video above how much my daughter loved it - it's very intuitive and fun! 

The doors behind you lead into two karaoke booths - each one has vocal effects they can play with that add harmonies or echo. There are built in ipads that have unlimited song choices in a simple to scroll through format. Older girls especially really dug these rooms, I could hear Taylor Swift blasting! (Although everyone enjoyed them - adults were definitely excited about them as well, and I saw a little guy no more than 3 who put on the alphabet song, pretty adorable. These professional quality rooms double as recording studios for students and bands after hours.

 Going back out to the main room, the other side of the wooden wall closest to the front desk has smaller play structures. It's made to be friendly to toddlers but all kids at the open house were having fun in it. There is a soft plastic molded drum musicmaker that plays a one of seven rotating drum patterns, and a matching xylophone that cycles through one of 7 melodies. Next to them is a small wooden slide that made a trombone noise when the child slides down! I saw several crawlers and new walkers enjoying themselves safely in this area.

Against the wall is a walk on piano - just like in FAO Schwartz, made famous in the movie Big! It is anatomically correct like a regular piano so the children even at a young age can start to gain an understanding of what keys make what sounds. (You can also see the windows for the karaoke studios above them.)

Then there is the other side of the wooden wall - this part they refer to as THE AWESOME WALL! On the left side is the Instrument symphony, a configuration of instruments where each one plays same melody but with their own unique sound, so kids can see how the tones and pitches of instruments differ from one to the next, even when playing the exact same notes. In this case, the melody is easily recognized by any lego fan, "Everything is awesome!" To the right is the Dynamic wall that teaches pianissimo and fortissimo, and crescendo and decrescendo, which refers to the volume at which something is sung or played. To demonstrate this, each symbol produces a voice when touched that says "awesome!" either loud or soft, depending on where it falls on the scale. Everything about this wall is indeed Awesome!

Once you exit the play space and put your shoes back on :) you can follow the back hallway to bathrooms and then you'll enter the second area and it's lobby. 
This is the Music School!

Comfy couches abound for parents waiting during a music lesson,
and the party room is ready to go for crafts, cake, and presents
so book your party now before they fill up!
* This space will also be used for summer camps come 2016! *

Here kids can take classes with a "more focused musical curriculum and private lessons when they’re ready to learn an instrument all the way up to advanced levels. Whatever the age or ability, Notasium™ will have something fun and musical for your child."

If you've been looking for a place for lessons, this couldn't be a better fit. Not only is the facility itself fun and inviting but Preston is a total professional, and someone who not only loves music but loves teaching music to kids. He has developed programs for multiple instruments that make learning music fun while teaching piano, voice, guitar, ukulele, bass and drum lessons for kids of all ages. For the last 3 years, Preston has been the lead instructor at the Rock n’ Roll High School in Apex, NC, teaching their Rock Band classes and camps for middle and high school students, as well as exploratory music classes and camps for young children. He’s led both adult and children’s choirs, and has brought his own brand of music enrichment regularly to Weaver Dairy Community Preschool with his original compositions and interactive versions of child favorites.

The space has 8 individual lesson rooms, as well as a larger space for group lessons, and a  heavily soundproofed drum room. Lessons will take place primarily in afternoons, from 3-7pm and all day Saturdays. Group lessons start Sept 1 so get signed up! Many people on SoDu Parents Posse have been asking about what classes there are for young children. Here's what I found out Notasium will be offering:

Notes-for-Tots – A weekly 45 min. group class of basic movement for toddlers to music, basic percussion instruction and rhythmic play led by qualified instructors. Parents are welcome to stay but not required.

Notemakers – Ages 5-8- A weekly 45min. group class with an introduction to singing, keyboard, drums and guitar.

Another view from the front door, behind the wall where parents can sit with food and drink - although not normally wine! ;) (L to R in background, Climbing Guitar, Beat Kitchen, Stage, Double Drum Bounce House)

The exterior - complete with southwest Durham's famous "pickle with a needle on top" building in the background!

What we loved: 

There is a lot to do for kids of all ages and interests, and the option of staying with one child in the playspace while another takes lessons is so unique. Plus it's a great option for birthday parties! There is ample parking and it's easy to get to. Plus it's a locally owned business and one of a kind, right here in Durham!

What we would change:

Not sure of anything now, and it's important to note that they welcome any and all suggestions customers might have as a new business. So let them know what you want to see or think should be changed - they want Notasium to be the best it can be!

The details:

3750 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.
Durham, NC 27705
email for more information at:
(919) 230-9321

Mon - Fri 9am - 7pm, Sat 9am - 9pm

Playspace is open play unless a birthday party is booked. Lessons are by appointment only.


Children: $8 (Children Under 1 are Free)
Parents/Guardians: Always free
All children must be accompanied by an adult and have a completed waiver. 
DISCOUNT: Children taking lessons and their siblings play for $5 each on the day of the lesson. If children are in a weekly contract for lessons or classes, they and their siblings may play at any time for $5 each.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ted's Montana Grill

One of my favorite restaurants in South Durham (SoDu for those of you in the know) is Ted's Montana Grill. It's less than 5 minutes from my house and honestly, the quality and service is superb. Our first outing with both my babies was here and we've known many servers and managers by name for years. 

I just realized that we haven't done a review on Stir Crazy and I knew I was the perfect person to delve into all things Ted, so I brought the kids by this month to grab some pics and background into the place "where everybody knows your name".

Ted's Montana Grill was founded by none other than magnet Ted Turner, philanthropist, environmentalist and avid outdoorsman. He has a ranch out west and decided to share his love of Big Sky Country and its tradition of hearty food. He also wanted to celebrate an American icon: the bison who once thundered across the Great Plains. Thirteen years after the first Ted's was founded, the restaurant features the biggest bison menu in the world, making responsibly farmed bison a popular menu choice today in dining and providing incentive for ranchers to actively grow their herds and keep the once endangered animal flourishing.

The best place to sit for families is in the comfy, warmly lit booths. (Although they do also have great high chairs with a unique design that work well at tables. Oh and the outdoor seating is excellent if it's a nice day, like it was when I took the photos here.) As soon as you're seated, the kiddos are given Wiki Sticks, a nice alternative to crayons, and the table is quickly greeted and given what are called half-sours, slices of cucumbers that are halfway to becoming pickles. They are addictive!

One of the things that makes Ted's unique is the impressive attention to details, like the gorgeous paintings of the Old West, the tin ceiling, and even the powdered Boraxo in the restrooms, which you use by getting your hands wet first, then getting the powder to soap up. “Eat Great. Do Good.” is their logo, where they sincerely make environmental considerations a priority in every decision. One example is their compostable paper straws, which I haven't seen anywhere else and the kids love. They also don't use frozen pouches, don't have any microwaves, and pride themselves on avoiding shortcuts. They don't just say they focus on sustainability, they make it a priority, and have partnered with Pro*Act in a groundbreaking, industry-wide sustainability and local produce initiative called Greener Fields Together. It’s the food service industry’s first comprehensive, national farm-to-fork sustainability program, focused on developing relationships with family-owned local farms that are located in our restaurants’ communities. They also partner with the No Kid Hungry campaign, and since 2008, they have raised over half a million dollars for the charity. This year, Ted's goal is to raise $200,000, which is equivalent to 2 million meals for hungry children in America as part of their larger commitment to eliminate childhood hunger in America.

Back to the bison, and why it's so great. It's naturally lean, with considerably less fat and fewer calories than beef. A 3.5 oz. serving of bison contains 2.42 g of fat while the same size of choice beef has 18.54 g, and 143 calories compared to 283. (WOW.) Bison is also more tender, has more protein and is nutrient-rich. The way they are raised is also important. Bison are grass-fed, allowed to roam, and are not given hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. Because of these reasons, I always get bison instead of a normal burger at Ted's, and this time was no different. 

For this visit, I decided to order something off their brand new gluten free menu. I got my favorite style burger, the Avalon, which has Gruy√®re, Blue Cheese, bacon caramelized onions, roasted garlic aioli, and baby arugula. I also always switch out the fries for parmesan broccoli and a sweet potato... just writing about it is making my mouth water! The bun is completely gluten free and the kitchen works hard to prevent cross contamination. If burgers aren't your thing, they offer several other GF options as well. In fact, readers voted their GF menu as best! (I also noticed another new menu addition, a kale salad, with roasted corn, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. Looked great but I knew I wouldn't have room for it!)

I also ordered a Ruby River cocktail, a blend of strawberry infused gin and lime juice - so refreshing. My other favorites are the Mountain Breeze and Buffalo 41, you honestly can't go wrong with any of them. My kids as always opted for the fresh squeezed lemonade - bless those strong arms of the bartenders. You can see them squeeze it from your table! 

Our food arrived and the kids dug into their sliders and grilled cheese, and I was really impressed with the gluten free bun. It looked delectable and tasted even better. If I hadn't known it was GF, I would have assumed it was a normal bun. It definitely was a healthy alternative to the one I usually get, and I plan on substituting it from now on. 

We were full so we didn't get dessert, but it was tempting. They now serve "adult shakes" if you're in the mood for dessert, made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and amazingly delicious combinations like Jack Daniel's and salted caramel, or Kahlua, Bailey's and chocolate. Yum.... But our family's favorite is their Strawberry Shortcake, which has a fresh made drop biscuit with berries and homemade whipped cream. 

If you haven't been, I urge you to check out Ted's Montana Grill, where they treat guests with the "big sky spirit", and serve fresh, sustainable American fare in a nostalgic atmosphere. I know I'm a fan for life.  

boraxo powdered soap

mounted bison above the bar

left side of the dining room

 the bar

the gorgeous lanterns and tin ceiling

a closer look at the gluten free bun

What we liked: Honestly, I kinda love everything about Ted's. As if you can't tell from the review!

What we would change: They used to have a delicious chicken fried chicken sandwich that was phenomenal, but they change out the menu to suit customer tastes, and added all the new dishes I mentioned above, so I can't fault them for that. 

The details: 
Ted's Montana Grill, 6911 Fayetteville Rd., Suite 102, Durham
Hours: Sun - Thurs 11 AM - 10 PM, Fri - Sat 11 AM - 11 PM

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Impossibilities Magic Show - Best night ever!

So last night we headed to Common Ground theater for 
which promised a night of magic, mind-reading and mayhem. And believe me, they delivered! With a combined 40+ years in the art of magic, Chris Collins and Erik Dobell have traveled from Las Vegas to South Korea performing their award winning shows for audiences and companies such as the NFL, Sony Electronics, and Carnival Cruise Lines. It was my turn to see what it's all about!

"a dynamic duo with a warm, friendly and all around dazzling show" - Jeff Messer, Mountain Xpress

The show was at Common Ground theater on Hillsborough Road, and it's a great venue, no bad seats in the house and locally owned. (Did I mention reasonably priced refreshments, beer and wine??) I'll definitely be back. 

The stage was set with mysterious blue lights and the excitement palpable. At last they came out, and got the audience warmed up immediately. 

Erik Dobell AKA the "mind invader" got started with an amazing first trick, which I obviously can't tell you about or it'd ruin it. People were laughing, intrigued and amazed. My son, who is almost 7 was loving it, eyes open with awe. There were plenty of other kiddos and teens there as well as adults of all ages, all equally enjoying themselves.

I've seen a couple magic shows in my day, and I gotta tell you this one, where we were up close and personal with two really engaging performers was the best. Oh, and did I mention that my lovely family volunteered me for a stunt with Chris Collins AKA the magical comedian? Oh wow, was it fun being on stage as part of the show! 

The show was 1.5 hours long - a real deal if you ask me, and impressively full of tricks and gags. There was an intermission halfway through, proceeded by an amazing act. I was pretty entranced by the show, so much that I couldn't take any more pics than this, and again, I can't ruin anything for you by telling you any details, but honestly, this show is worth every penny. It's a welcome change of pace from dinner and a movie, 
and leaves you thinking "HOW DID THEY DO THIS??" 

Here's the best part - there are still two shows this weekend, a matinee and evening show tomorrow, Sunday the 16th - but they're selling out fast, so get your tickets now at

Believe me, if you see only one magic show in your life, THIS IS ONE YOU CAN'T MISS!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Impossibilities Magic Show GIVEAWAY!!

Want to see a night of magic, mind reading and mayhem
You can in Durham this weekend! 
Better yet, you can win tickets to it! 

After a successfully first run, Chris Collins and Erik Dobell are returning to the Bull City for a new evening of magical mischief! Magical Comedian Chris Collins and Mentalist Erik Dobell have spent a combined 40+ years traveling from South Dakota to South Korea entertaining NFL football players and celebrities at private and public events. For their new project, they wondered what would happen if a Magician and a Mind Reader worked together as a duo? The result is the show Impossibilities: An Evening of Magic, Mind Reading and Mayhem which will be returning with a new show to the Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC from August 14th to August 16th.

“It was Chris’s idea originally,” said Erik Dobell. “I was hesitant at first, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was a great idea.” Chris came up with the idea with a specific goal in mind, “What we’ll be bringing to the stage is a show that literally has something for everybody. There’s comedy and drama, magic and mind reading and everything in between. Everyone will walk away with a favorite different part that they can tell their friends and family about.” 

Professional respect is what brought Erik Dobell and Chris Collins together. “Whatever show I do” explains Chris, “I want to make sure it’s the best show possible.” Erik explains that “Most people go their entire lives seeing only one magic show, if even that. So if we’re the show they see, I want to make sure it’s the best show possible. We owe them that.” 

For information and to purchase tickets for Impossibilities visit 

I'll be going to the show on Friday - so watch here for a full review! - Kat

GIVEAWAY: To win FOUR tickets to a show on Saturday or Sunday (including a matinee), comment below with what superpower you wish you had - be it invisibility, x-ray vision or... anything! Best answer wins!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Grayson Highlands State Park

High Country Escape with Wild Ponies
discovered for Stir Crazy by Jocelyn Neal

Grayson Highlands State Park, located just over the border in Virginia, is my favorite camping spot and weekend getaway from the Triangle, almost too good a secret to share!  I took my three kids, ages 8, 5, and 3, for a three-day, two-night car camping trip this summer, and the kids had a blast.  

The park is known for its wild ponies, which graze in the high open meadows.  Close to Mount Rogers, it features peaks over 5,000 feet, with spectacular views, and one of the most scenic stretches of the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the park and is easily accessible via short spur trails.  The park is also horse-friendly, with camping areas and trails specifically designated for horses.  As a destination for kids, the park has lots of amenities (including a playground), but my favorite feature is relatively short hiking trails (1.5-3 miles) that lead to really spectacular views, so the kids can get a full hiking experience and its rewards before their legs give out.

We camped at the park’s Hickory Ridge Campground, which has tent sites as well as full hook-ups for RVs.  Reservations are taken through the on-line parks reservations system, and I chose a standard tent site (to be selected upon arrival).  The campground is heavily wooded and quite nice, with standard picnic tables, a hanging post, campfire circle, and gravel tent pad.  The tent pads are a tad small, and the campsites rather close together (don’t expect too much campsite privacy).  Also, water spigots are not close to all the sites, which is a bit of a bother.  The bath houses, with hot showers, are also small, but quite clean, and have a separate room with dish-washing sinks.  We picked a site that backed into an open meadow of wildflowers – just about the prettiest “back yard” one could ask for, and my girls spent hours exploring the meadow and making a bouquet for our table.  The campground also has a large-group camping area and an amphitheater. 

The campground has a large open lawn with swings for the kids.  The campground’s store is delightful!  It stocks all the expected supplies one might have forgotten, plus some cute souvenirs, and a frozen slushy machine and ice cream bar freezer.  The slushies were the perfect incentive for hiking:  promises of getting to make their own slushies got the kids up those last few stretches of the hikes!  The store also has a pile of toys – Frisbees, jump ropes, etc.—that can be checked out for free to keep the kids entertained in the campground.  And of course ice and firewood are available for purchase (Virginia asks that campers not bring their own wood).

The park hosts a big music festival and several other events throughout the year, and so one section of the park is developed for day use, with swings, a big jungle-gym playground, huge open lawns, and historic buildings.  

The park office, located near the entrance gate, has park maps and information available.  The visitor’s center, located near the highest point in the park, has some lovely crafts for sale, a small museum with a great diorama showing the park’s animals including a black bear, and artifacts such as old weaving looms from the settlers who lived in the area.  It’s well worth a visit, and the park rangers also have great suggestions for where to hike.

We hiked a loop consisting of the Rhododendron Trail, across the Appalachian Trail along Wilburn Ridge, and down the Appalachian Spur Trail.  Even the three-year-old managed quite well.  Park rangers in the Massie Gap parking area told us where the ponies had last been sighted, and we enjoyed watching two herds that we found on the hike.  I could have spent all day just watching the ponies!  We also did some bouldering while on the Appalachian Trail, which was my oldest’s favorite part of the trip.

We hiked the Cabin Creek trail to the waterfall, which was beautiful.  And we hiked the Wilson Creek Trail that starts in the campground to see a couple of waterfalls.  There were places where one could certainly wade and play in the creek. 

We also hiked the Twin Pinnacles Trail, which is an easy loop departing from the Visitor’s Center.  The half of the trail that leads to Little Pinnacle and then Big Pinnacle is spectacular.  Views along the way are gorgeous, and there are a number of finds such as a tree perched on top of a four-foot boulder, with its roots wrapping all the way around the boulder.  There were lots of rocky outcroppings along the trail that my oldest two scrambled up, delighted to be climbing all along the hike.  The final stretch of the trail to Big Pinnacle winds around a somewhat steep set of stone steps laid in the trail (steep in terms of a hiking trail for a 3-year-old – adult hikers wouldn’t find this even remotely steep).  But the kids persevered to the top, my littlest declaring that we were “hiking into the sky!” The rocky peak of Big Pinnacle, with views of Massie Gap and Mount Rogers, etc., was my youngests’ favorite part of the trip.  I wish we had re-traced our steps on the way back, because the other half of the loop trail was just a walk through the woods – nowhere near as interesting as the first half of the trail.  

The park is relatively high in elevation – Little Pinnacle is 5,084 ft.—and visitors are warned to be prepared for sudden changes in the weather, as major storms do roll through pretty regularly.  All the trails we hiked had storm shelters and benches built along them, in most cases by boy scouts and girl scouts.  The elevation also means that the park is a heavenly escape from summer heat!  Remember to pack warm clothes, especially for the kids, as mine were happy to have long pants and hooded sweatshirts in the morning and evenings, even in July.  And it’s in a fairly remote location, so pack and plan accordingly for self-sufficient camping.  There is also no cell phone coverage at all throughout the park.  Old-fashioned maps may be needed to get to and from the park, if you are used to navigating with your cell phone.  

All in all, it was a fantastic camping trip with the kids, and I can’t wait to get back again.

What we liked:  great camping with kid-friendly amenities and excellent kid-accessible hikes, wild ponies, spectacular views, and just over three hours from Durham.

What we’d change:  the campground needs better access to water for campers, and the sites are a tad too close together for my preference.  And two nights wasn’t long enough! But those are the tiniest of details in an otherwise amazing vacation.

Visitor’s Center, with museum.

 Campground bath house.

 Tent site, very near the bathhouse and backing up to the meadow.

 Dessert every night!

 Meadow behind our tent site.

 Playground near the Henderson Stage.

View from Big Pinnacle, looking across Massie Gap.

Pony grazing along trail. 

 Waterfall on the Cabin Creek Trail

 View from Little Pinnacle (elevation 5,084 ft).

 Tree growing over a boulder on the Twin Pinnacles Trail.

 Watching the ponies on the Appalachian Trail.

Wilson Creek Trail 

The Details:

Grayson Highlands State Park

829 Grayson Highland Ln., Mouth of Wilson, VA 24363;
Phone: 276-579-7092;

PDF Trail Guide and park map:

Info: Standard tent site for out-of-state visitor was $24 per night.  Firewood bundle:  $5.

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