Friday, 13 November 2015

Autumn leaves and bark rubbings

 An invitation to the park for bark rubbing and other Autumn fun was gratefully received this week as it's been on my to do list for a while.

Our local park is perfect for learning about trees as it has a fantastic collection of common and unusual trees, from very common Ash trees to a very uncommon female Maidenhair Tree (complete with fruits that smell like manure, hence why female trees are rarely planted).

The kids had great fun making bark rubbings and playing in the fallen leaves, then made a leafy meteorite picture.

When we got home Ollie and Toby spent a lot of time examining the leaves we had collected.  Details we just hadn't noticed, such as the patterns of veins and the distribution of colours became very apparent under the microscope.

The next day we started up a tree scrap book, adding in our bark rubbings and any leaves we had collected, and looking up the Latin names of some I didn't know.  It was a good opportunity to explain why Latin names are useful - we had found two types of cedar in the park, but they looked completely different and were from different families - one a Cedrus, the other a Thuja, so it was a good example of how we can use Latin names to tell us about plants which have the same common name.

 We made an index page, with Ollie and I each doing some of the writing so he got his writing practice in without it being a complete hand ache to him.  Finally I made a list of what we had found, with things we needed for our book and stuck it in my bag - so now when we're out next time we know we need to look for certain leaves.

This kind of project can grow and grow, with tree outline images and pictures of flowers or seeds added over time.  A really nice way to encourage kids to really look at and feel the trees around them.

Whizz, Pop, Bang! Science magazine for kids

This week we had a really exciting opportunity to review a new Science Magazine for children.  It was perfect timing as Ollie is getting too old really for the magazines he's had previously (e.g. Octonauts), but the alternatives we have tried (Nat Geo Kids and Horrible Histories) weren't a good fit for him just at the moment either given his current skills, interests, and knowledge base.

Enter Whizz, Pop, Bang! Magazine.  The first things I noticed were the quality of the paper and printing (nice and sturdy for repeated enjoyment) and the lack of adverts
(the boys spend longer drooling over toy adverts than they do on the activities in other mags).  The next bonus point was for quantity of content - between the text to read, printed activities and experiments to conduct we should get at least several weeks of use out of each magazine (contrast with a maximum of a couple of hours from our usual mags).  Finally the price was a pleasant surprise.  At £34.99 for a year's subscription of 12 issues, that works out at around £2.95 an issue, (again contrasting with the mags we got previously which were between £2.99 and £3.99 when bought in store, although perhaps cheaper on subscription).  I almost forgot - there are also no cheap plastic toys and bags of sweets attached to the cover. The boys and I disagree on whether or not this is a good thing.

As with other kids magazines, the age range that the magazine suits depends on how much parental time you have to spend with your kids, with younger ones needing it to be read to them and older ones being more independent.  The age range seems wider than other mags though, which is helpful with more than one child in the household.  Little brother Toby has been getting just as much pleasure from participating in the experiments as Ollie has, and even came up with novel observations of his own that were not on the experiment plan (i.e. that the ice cube in oil didn't melt anything like as quickly as the one in water at the same temperature).  The only place where age would be an issue for us is on some of the paper based activities, but I headed that off at the pass by photocopying the activities on my printer/scanner so Ollie could do them as the instructions suggested, while Toby drew over them as he saw fit.

 We liked the mixture of practical activities to try in amongst the text.  There were even opportunities to submit results to the magazine for a chance to win prizes.  We have only had time to try out a couple of experiments so far, but the results of the shaving foam marbled planet were just beautiful, and the density experiment inspired Ollie so much that he insisted I filmed him explaining the results.  There's loads of great kitchen chemistry experiments available online, but I really liked the way this magazine not only set out how to do them clearly and simply, but also explained the science behind them in clear and simple terms too.  Very often
 science activities for kids miss out on explaining why the thing is interesting from a scientific point of view, or what the purpose is.  I also liked the way that each theme was no more than a few pages long, so the kids get a taste of lots of different topics, some briefly, others in more depth but with plenty of variety throughout.  It really supports what I'm trying to do with the boys in encouraging them to see that everything is science.  I think a printed list of experiments within the mag with ingredients and equipment needed would be useful though so I could get everything we need before I start reading - the kids were a bit frustrated we couldn't do the marble run roller coaster 'right now!' because I didn't have any pipe lagging to hand.

The science news was inspiring and relevant to the kids, and I liked the pages in each magazine which feature the life and discoveries of a different scientist each month, including female ones - a group who traditionally have been left out of the history books.  Having interviews with working scientists included in the magazines was a really good way of showing a range of different careers available and again contributed to the idea that everything is science - including making chocolate.  There's even a section on the back page to add to my store of terrible science and nature jokes.

Kids are natural scientists and engineers and often they lose this as they get older and exposed to a misconception from school that everything to be discovered has already been discovered, or that science is boring and irrelevant.  Resources such as this magazine are a vital way to address the issue and keep our science mad kids interested. It's also desperately needed as a resource at Primary School age where science is woefully under-represented in the curriculum. I think the usefulness extends to many kids in the early years of secondary school too, since when I taught 11 and 12 year olds they mostly had no science knowledge and this would be a good way to introduce it in a fun way.  As a resource for family learning, whether as part of a schooled child's leisure time or a home educated child's 'school' time it's equally valuable.  Finally, the issues contain seasonally themed information and activities, which all adds to the fun. I'm grateful to the folk behind it for putting so much hard work in producing it and getting it into print.  I will definitely be subscribing for the boys.

NB: I requested the magazine for product review for my blog because I saw an advert on Facebook and it looked like a great concept.  I'm really happy that the producers took me up on my offer and sent me all four currently in print as the magazine has far exceeded my expectations of a kids magazine.  No financial incentive involved.  Opinions and pictures are all my own.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Exploring Art at the Jerwood

 Introducing children to art is a really fun thing to do.  It doesn't have to be all serious.  I don't feel the need to overload small kids with names, dates, deep philosophical meaning. 

But what I can do is go along to art exhibitions and say, 'I like that picture over there by an artist called Lowri.  He's painted the seaside and I like the colours'.  I can ask my little art critic to pick something they like and tell me about it.  How do the colours make them feel?  What time of year is it?
 One of our local galleries is the Jerwood in Hastings.  As locals we get reduced rate entry, so for all four of us that's £6 currently.  This makes it reasonable to go to a few times a year, and worth repeat visits as they change exhibitions and have new displays.  The children's activity sheets available for free enable us to play treasure hunt with selected pictures, and guides us through questions and activities to get us thinking about the pieces, such as making a self portrait.  The gallery also runs kids activity days, which we've enjoyed in the past but which can be really busy, so it's nice to go at quieter times too.

Sometimes it's good to get a different perspective on a picture, as Toby demonstrated by spinning on the floor as he described the contents of one lino cut still life.

 Other times it's good to put yourself in the perspective of the artist.  Ollie here is examining a picture of a boy with a cat, and drawing a portrait of himself with his hamster.

It was the last day of an exhibition 'Lowry by the sea', which was really good to broaden my own horizons as I have only ever seen his pictures in books and they were all of people in cities. To see seaside images, and trials with water colour and felt tip pens was really interesting.

Ollie enjoyed the activity that called for him to add boats to a Lowry picture of the sea.  He took an interest this time in the medium that the pictures were made from, with the wide pallet knife marks in an oil painting capturing his attention.  He said it looked like a puzzle.  When I explained how it was made he requested some oil paints to try.  I've never used them myself, I think a trip to the discount bookshop that sells art supplies is needed so we can try it out.

The boys especially like the abstract and naïve art styles. I think seeing pictures like the ones they produce at home up on the walls of a real gallery inspires them and gives them confidence.  Finding styles that kids can relate to is the trick to opening a lifelong enjoyment of art.  Instead of looking at art as something grown ups do, that they could never achieve, they can see that they themselves are every bit as good as the pictures on the walls. 

 We spent the evening walking on the beach and watching with great excitement the slow drama unfolding of a fishing boat being pushed down to the sea ready for it's night's work.

The boys clapped and cheered when it finally launched, and seeing how much they liked it I took a couple of photos so they could look at them again, perhaps use them to make their own pictures.

Art is all around us, in the light shining through Autumn leaves thrown in the air, or the sculptures the kids make by balancing piles of pebbles.  It isn't just in a gallery, but sometimes it's nice to go and see that type of art too. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Cheese and Mushroom Omlette - perfect easy cooking for kids

 The boys love to cook, and at nearly 6 and nearly 4 they're quite proficient at doing several things for themselves, such as cracking eggs, so this recipe is perfect for them because they can do every element virtually unassisted apart from turning the omelette over in the pan and serving it.

For a medium omelette each we use two large eggs per person, cheddar cheese grated (a big handful between 4 omelettes) peas (about a cup for four omelettes) and mushrooms chopped into small chunks (about 8 for four omelettes).  Pinch of nutmeg, half a teaspoon of turmeric and anything else we fancy like tarragon also goes into the mix.

The boys do all the prep, then adult help to put the mix into a hot frying pan.  We find using a ladle helpful as it's easy and keeps little hands far away from the pan itself.

The adult then cooks the omelette, turning it over to ensure both sides are cooked and serves it up.

To complete the activity, the kids like to help set the table and prepare any sides such as salad.

Every kid can help with this kind of cooking, given assistance appropriate to their age and abilities.  They can adapt the recipe by coming up with new additions to the mix, for example let them smell things from the spice rack and choose what they want to add.  You could have a taste test - what's better, cheddar or another type of cheese?

Even the actions of breaking eggs, stirring and chopping are skills which many kids are lacking in our culture where an increasing number can swish a finger on a screen but little else, so never underestimate how important these seemingly basic tasks are for fine and gross motor skills. 

It's easy enough to make this one dairy free - just leave out the cheese or substitute for non-dairy.  Not sure I can veganise this one though as I'm not very familiar with egg substitutes.  I'd love to hear suggestions though.

Safety bit: usual sensible precautions.  Hand washing before and after food prep and make sure surfaces are clean.  Discourage kids from eating raw egg if you aren't confident it's free from salmonella etc... or have immune compromised kids.  Check eggs cracked into bowl are free from chunks of shell before adding other ingredients.  Be vigilant with hot pans and make sure kids know not to try cooking without an adult present.  Mushrooms can be cut with a butter knife, making them a good choice for littler cooks.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Mental Health awareness - anxiety

There's a lot of mental health awareness stuff floating around on social media at the moment, with high profile celebs admitting their own struggles, and it can only be to the good of us all when we are open about this stuff.  So here's my own confession - I suffer from anxiety, quite badly at times in the past, not so much now.

I got quite sick when I was 21.  It resulted in post viral fatigue/ME (which took years for a GP to suggest as the probable issue).  One of the things I noticed around this time was that when I did manage to get out and about, I couldn't deal at all with noise or crowds.  I used to love going dancing in the little clubs in Aberystwyth, but suddenly I couldn't even go into a busy café without feeling like I couldn't breathe, all I could hear was a rushing noise, my heart would start to bang, my vision dim.  I didn't realise at the time but I had started having weird surges of adrenaline which my body couldn't deal with.  I couldn't concentrate for long enough to read a book, which was devastating to a book worm like me.  CFS is a physical illness with mental health effects.  I was exhausted all the time, at the real low points I was awake for just a few hours a day.  Perhaps the worst thing was that previously I had been constantly on the go, working, studying, exercising, socialising.  I didn't do downtime, and suddenly I had an illness that made me seem like a lazy crazy introvert.

I recovered slowly and built up my confidence. Starting working in an outdoor job where I was in the air working with kids and on the move all day definitely helped, although I still had an occasional panic attack if my rota changed unexpectedly and I didn't have time to run through in my head what I would be doing and my coping strategies.

I completed teacher training at 25 and went to work in a school.  Again my health crashed.  I took some time off, then got a less stressful job.  I discovered 'I have a migraine' was a better explanation for incapacity than 'I had a panic attack and couldn't leave my house' (although this was pretty rare and I mostly functioned, although I was never awake past 9.30pm, my life was pretty much work and sleep).  I tackled the anxiety head on, reading up on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and applying some of the principles.

I improved, I went back to teaching.  I didn't really make friends because I got home from work, did lesson planning and marking, then went to bed at 9.30.  You only get asked out on evenings out so many times before people stop asking.  I felt very lonely when almost the whole staff room got asked to one teacher's wedding but not me.  The anxiety was pretty well in control, I just couldn't do crowded lifts etc (I still can't now, and regularly barge out past people if they keep piling in, although if it's an option I'll usually take the stairs). I leaned on Matt a great deal.  I still do, such as when I need to go to a new place and he drives me there, or at least does a drive past the night before if it's local.

When Ollie came along, the worst of the CFS departed.  I don't know why.  The day on antibiotics and an oxytocin drip perhaps altered something, but I realised at 11.30pm one night, dragging my catheter bag down to SCBU to attempt to feed Ollie that it was 11.30pm and I was awake.  In amongst the physical pain of the C-Section and mental guilt at feeling I had failed at the mothering before I'd even got started, was a little elation.  My baby would be ok, and I was awake.

Two small boys later I'm in pretty good shape mentally and physically.  The first year with a new baby and a 2 year old and no local friends or family able to drop by was tough and I cried a lot, but volunteering changed all that.  I still get every bug going, for longer than normal, which I guess is something to do with the CFS.  I got Scarlet Fever last year for goodness sake.  Adults aren't even supposed to get that.  The anxiety is something I continue to tackle head on.  I learned relaxation techniques, breathing and visualisation. I practice rock steady self confidence and the use of the 'sod it bin' - i.e. if I can't do anything about it, I mentally file it in the 'sod it' bin and move on.

The biggest thing I do though is to put myself in situations that stress me.  Mental block around Maths - I did a Maths for Science Uni course (98%, take that fear of maths).  Scared of heights - so up the castle towers I go.  Noisy, crowded places freak me out - so I do face painting and science at kids parties.  Screachy sports halls and group exercise makes me feel like I want to run (or perhaps wobble) away and hide - I started up a sports club.  You stress, and relax, stress and relax.  Eventually your brain starts to accept that nothing awful happened last time you were in the noisy, busy place, it'll be fine next time too.

 Becoming a volunteer gave me friends and the skills to help with, and now run, groups to try to help out other families.  Even when I'm really unwell I can pull it together for the couple of hours that it takes to be bright and bubbly at a party or a group event.  A couple of times a week I'll be in bed at 8pm, but generally it's back to burning the candle at both ends studying and whatnot.  In my heart is the fear every time I get sick that this is the one that will last for months, shutting down my ability to think and live my life, but every year that passes I am stronger and happier, and blessed in my family and friends for helping to keep me this way.  I have to be busy.  I cannot be alone. I can't spend too much time with negative people. Any confrontation at all makes my heart race and my hands shake, even having to deliver a polite message that may be taken wrong.  An old guy who lives opposite has had my favourite 100 year old Darwin book for two years and I haven't the guts to go ask for it back (what was I thinking lending books to people!).  I accept this, there are worse things.

I take the horned poppy as my symbol of resilience.  It stands there on the shingle, battered by storms, covered in salt spray, but still the most persistently cheerful blighter on the sea shore.  It could have been any other flower tucked in a comfy hedgerow somewhere, but it thrives on the excitement of the coast.

So that's my contribution to the mental health thing.  I'm a little crazy.  All the best people I know are.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Making a joke book - quick literacy idea

I'm trying to keep Ollie interested in learning to read and write by providing varied ideas which he can see the immediate relevance of.

One which we started this week taps into two things, one being his fascination with jokes (he likes them, but he gets frustrated because he can't work out what makes a joke funny), the other is his love of making books.

Each night I write a joke out on our white board.  Each morning when he comes down for breakfast Matt helps him read it.

After breakfast (and Octonauts) Ollie then copies the joke into a book that he is making for my Dad's birthday present.  When one joke is copied in, he can either tell me the next joke he wants written up for him, or I chose one.  The white board stays up on the kitchen table so that Ollie can come back and add to his book as he wants to.

I usually add a diagram to the whiteboard to help him work out what the joke is about, but then the final picture he adds is his own. 

So if you have any good, short, clean jokes we'd love to here them please!

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Chestnuts and toadstools

 We had a free afternoon today after we'd finished our morning 'school work' with no clubs or play dates planned, so off we went to the woods.

A post on Facebook by ethnobotanist James Wong reminded me it was the start of chestnut season, so hunting for nuts seemed a good aim for our walk.

We also took a flask of hot water to make bramble tip and nettle tea, so our first job was scouring the hedgerow for nice soft bramble tips and healthy looking nettle tops, which we stuffed in the flask ready for our tea break. 

The chestnuts were easy to find along the paths, and we had fun stomping the prickly cases to release the nuts inside.  I showed the boys how some nuts were thin and some nice and fat and helped them decide which ones would be best to collect.  We also compared sweet chestnuts (edible) with horse chestnuts (not edible) so they could really get a good idea about what they were collecting.

I wasn't sure what to do with the nuts them once we got them, but a fortuitous meeting with a lady while we were having our tea led to the revelation that she peeled a bit of skin off, then put them in a pyrex bowl of water and microwaved them for 20 minutes. 

I did this when we got home (carefully checking for evidence of maggots) and used the resultant soft sweet boiled chestnuts to make a nut loaf, recipe at bottom of page.

 The rest of the walk we spend hunting for toadstools to photograph.  I've no idea what most of them are, but it will make a fun project printing the pictures and trying to identify them.

Searching for bugs in amongst the moss and fallen leaves was a popular pass time, with plenty of wriggly critters to spot.

 Watching where you put your wellies was a constant reminder between the toadstools and the dog muck.
The boys were disappointed not to find any earthballs ready to 'poof' out spores this time, but there were plenty of other weird and wonderful fungi to see, including a purple deceiver, a blue mushroom, frilly pink ones and lots of sulphur caps.  I liked these rubbery ones (I'm good at plant identification, but fungi are a whole other world of learning which I'm yet to master).

Note:  Don't eat anything you're not 100% familiar with, and follow normal common sense and local guidelines when foraging.  I had to be really vigilant with what and where the boys were collecting as the woods are a popular dog toilet.  I don't allow the kids to handle any fungi I'm not certain I can identify as safe, which for me is most of them, but do encourage them to crouch down and have a good look at them.

Nut loaf recipe:
I made this up as I went along, but it worked pretty well.  Better cooks can probably refine it a lot.

2 slices wholemeal bread, whizzed in a blender to make breadcrumbs
1 cup of boiled, peeled chestnuts roughly chopped
1 tin of chickpeas, whizzed to a rough chunky paste
teaspoon of salt
1 egg (not desperately needed, leave out if vegan etc)

Mix it all up, spoon into an oiled loaf tin (I laid a strip of baking paper inside to make it easier to lift out), pat it down fairly tightly with a spoon. It about half fills the tin, so enough for us with 2 adults and 2 small kids, but double ingredients for bigger servings. Bake in a hot oven (220C) for about 30 to 40 mins. 

As I had the oven on I also did a crumble: 2 finely chopped eating apples and a cup of aronia berries (or any other tart berries) with a tablespoon of sugar (I actually use molasses) sprinkled over for the base.  The crumble top was 2 cups of rolled oats, half cup of dessicated coconut, 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, mixed and crumbled over the top of the base.  Cook for 30 mins in hot oven.  Good served with plain yoghurt or non-dairy alternative.