Tuesday, 31 January 2017

New name, new platform

I'd like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has stopped by the read this blog over the years - I've been blown away by the thousands of views it has had.

I've decided to step the blogging up and have rebranded, moved to another platform and bought a brand new domain, so I'd love it if you could join me there from now on. 

All the content from the Maz Shack2 has been migrated to the new site http://acornstem.co.uk/, and arranged by content for easier navigation.  I'm aiming to be more focused on STEM activities (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) but there will still be plenty of ideas for literacy, sensory play and all the other topics we covered before.

There is still a lot I need to learn for the new site to be just right, but I hope you will all be on hand with suggestions, advice and comments.

Thankyou xxx

Monday, 25 July 2016

Bedgebury Pinetum

 The glorious weather this weekend made us abandon our extensive DIY 'to do' list and head out into the sunshine.  After all, the jobs aren't going away, but the sun took so long to arrive this year we don't want to miss a minute of it.

On Saturday we spent the afternoon at Fort Fun in Eastbourne, a seafront play park with water slides which we hadn't visited before and which was enjoyed by the boys.  It was the perfect weather for it as the  greenish water was freezing and we needed the hot sunshine to keep the kids comfortable.  The kids haven't experienced water slides like it before and loved it, the staff were friendly (and very sweet with Ollie when we had to visit the first aider after he tore part of his toenail off) and the soft play was good, so it was worth the trip (although it was pricey to get into so I think it was pushing the limit of value for money).

On Sunday we headed to Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent, a favourite with families across Kent and East Sussex.  Owned and run by the Forestry Commission, you can't fault the site's well maintained play parks spread along the play trail. 

 The area is very beautiful, and despite the full car park it is a big enough area that you don't feel overcrowded.  The site is shared by cycle hire and is popular with families and adults to cycle in, which can be a bit of a hazard with small kids wandering across the paths, but most cyclists are pretty watchful and some even pay attention to the signage in non-cycling areas.  Bedgebury is also home to Go Ape tree top adventures which looks fantastic but is blisteringly expensive.

The woods themselves are good to visit, with the play areas being the kids favourite aspect of it (and we of course had to join in on the climbing areas and slides - hence why I always wear shorts under dresses). My favourite is the lovely walk around the lakes, bursting with wild flowers on the banks and lilies rising up through the inky, tannin stained waters.  I'm more of a broad-leaf kind of tree hugger, but the extensive collection of conifers here is really fascinating.

Watching bright jewels of dragonflies and damselflies whirring overhead.  Catching grasshoppers and creeping up on butterflies.  Investigating sticky amber coloured sap.  Chatting to the funny face tree with his bracket fungus mouth and beard of climbing hydrangeas.  This year there's a Stick Man trail to follow, so we decided that funny face tree was Stick Man's Grandfather.   There's something interesting to catch kids imaginations where ever they look at Bedgebury.  We've been in rain, even in ice and snow, and always had a good time, but the advent of proper summer weather definitely made it feel like a real treat to be there.

I have no financial interest in the locations mentioned.  Opinions and photos are my own.  Thanks are due to the staff at Fort Fun for their kindness to Ollie when he hurt himself.  Both sites were pretty good for accessibility, and had facilities including toilets and baby change.  Bedgebury has wooden walkways through tricky bits for prams and wheelchairs around the lakes walk, and paths in the woods are well maintained and level, but a bit steep in places which is worth bearing in mind if visiting with wheels other than a mountain bike.  Both sites had a cafĂ© and small shop selling gifts.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Cornflour and conditioner play dough

 I keep seeing a type of home made pay dough mentioned, which uses cornflour and hair conditioner.  Since we finally abandoned the last batch of regular home made play dough (a year of use, stored in a tub in the fridge!) we decided to have a go making some.  Even though the boys are now 4 and 6, they still enjoy and benefit from lots of tactile sensory play, and play dough is fantastic for imaginative play too.

The only ingredients required are cornflour (corn starch if you're reading this in America) and hair conditioner.  I bought some raspberry scented conditioner from Aldi for the purpose.  I didn't know what proportions to use, but this made for a good experiment for the boys.  We started out with about two cups of cornflour, and gradually added conditioner while the kids squished the mixture with their hands.  This dough doesn't require cooking, so is a good one that kids can make from start to finish with little adult help.  Too wet, add more cornflour, too dry add more conditioner.

Toby loved his pink dough, which incidentally made the whole kitchen smell delicious, but Ollie wanted blue, so when we made up a batch for him I added in blue food colouring.  I have found in the past that Lakeland blue food dye gives a blue that you would expect from shop bought play dough, while our experiments with supermarket brands resulted in grey or greenish colours.  The Lakeland dye did however result in blue stained hands with this recipe, which we haven't experienced with our normal salt, oil, flour and cream of tartar recipe - perhaps the cooking of the old recipe binds the dye more firmly.

As well as the two basic ingredients, we also added in glitter after we had made the dough.  The dough was great fun to shape and roll out, and the boys enjoyed playing with it using cookie cutters.  It didn't behave like normal dough however when we tried to use play dough toys, getting stuck in the moulds and gumming up our play dough garbage truck (that took a bit of scrubbing to fix).

On the plus side, it left our skin feeling lovely and conditioned, and any that dropped on the floor seemed far easier to clean up than normal play dough.  As it dries out it just turns back into crumbly cornflour, which is easily swept or vacuumed up.

I don't expect this would keep for the months and months that our normal dough does, as it is far less oily and dries out rapidly, but it's so quick to make and a new batch would mean the chance to try a new conditioner scent.  Coconut anyone?

If you check the ingredients on the conditioner you choose carefully, this play dough should be suitable for children with gluten and wheat allergy to handle.

If using with small children be vigilant they don't start snacking on it as it does smell appealing.

I would recommend using a plastic table cover and messy mat if you have nice furniture or carpets.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Cruelty-free luxury with Arbonne

 I'm a big believer in the old chestnut 'if you wouldn't put it in your mouth, don't put it on your skin', since our skin is very good at absorbing the products we use on it.  I also believe that the use of animal products in toiletries and cosmetics is unnecessary, and testing on animals is unethical, so while I'm not a vegan I do try to buy from cruelty-free producers.

For these reasons I was thrilled to have the opportunity to give an honest review of some products from Arbonne, a company I'll be honest I hadn't heard of until my friend and former mentor introduced me to them.  Arbonne originated in Switzerland and now have their base in the USA.  They started out in 1980 with a vision to produce products based on "pure, safe, beneficial" botanicals.  They don't sell over the internet or through retail outlets, preferring the personal touch of a trained Independent Consultant to identify each customer's needs and guide them to the products which will be of greatest benefit to that customer.  This is where my friend comes in. Lesley Lambeth is a walking advert for the company's ethos, with her dedication to improving the lives of the people around her.

I tried two product ranges.  The first was to be a treat for me, although we all ended up enjoying the products in the Aromassentials range.  The kids really loved the Unwind body mist, which I spritzed on their feet at bedtime.  It had an old fashioned aroma which, while pleasant, wasn't my favourite.  For me the best scent was that of the Awaken range.  Matt and I tried out the Awaken salt scrub after an afternoon at the allotment and watched the soil stains embedded in our skin melt away.  My hands felt great afterwards, it totally resolved the dry, after digging feel of them, and I kept sniffing the backs of my hands where the expensive-smelling aroma lingered for a long time.  I am also in love with the bath and shower gel from this range, although I don't always manage to wait until the morning to use it as it is equally delicious for a shower after a hot day (just in time for us getting a few days of actual summer weather).

The second product range we tried was the ABC Arbonne Baby Care set, including sunscreen, body wash, nappy cream and body lotion.  The timing of the sun arriving was perfect for trying out the sunscreen.  As much as I've wanted to, I've never got on with eco brands of sun cream, finding them thick and greasy, and the zinc oxide leaving the kids looking like the time they got hold of a pot of sudacrem and smothered it all over themselves.  The brands I tried before also left us sweating under the thick cream.  The Arbonne sunscreen seemed to have the same problem for us initially, going on as a thick white paste, but it actually rubbed in far more effectively and left our skin far less greasy.  The range is unperfumed, but the botanicals included give it a very faint and pleasant smell, which is a great contrast to the strong smell of our usual brand (which had butterflies trying to land on Toby's face in a tropical  glasshouse a few weeks ago).  There was no odd sensation of sweating under grease that we've had with other eco brands, and after trialing it on Toby at an afternoon at the allotment, and again during a hot morning at a car boot sale, it definitely seemed to work effectively.  I prefer the 'powder dry' sensation of our usual brand, but the Arbonne sunscreen comes without the dodgy chemicals and is less greasy even than the other mainstream brands we tried.

Since the boys are well past nappy days, I tried the nappy cream out myself - on my knees!  I can see this being a great secret ingredient to a beauty routine as it moisturises thoroughly without being too heavy, and allows skin to breathe as their are no pore blocking petrochemicals in it.  I used the body lotion on my legs after epilating them, and it soothed and moisturised effectively without being heavy.

From what we trialed, this seems like a really good set of products, and from what I've read the ethics of the producer is impeccable, so I was more than happy to get to keep my favourite of the things we trialed - the Awaken shower gel.  The quality of the ingredients is reflected in the price, but as with many expensive products a little goes a long way.  The scent of the shower gel will almost make me look forward to jumping out of bed in the morning.


I have no financial interest in this company.  I was lent the above products by my friend in return for an honest opinion on them, and I offered to write about them as I was impressed with the company ethos and the products I tried.  All opinions and the images above are my own.  For more information see Lesley's website here and Facebook page here, which is also a good source of healthy living tips and recipes.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Victorian Farm

 One of the boys favourite documentary series is the BBC production 'The Victorian Farm' featuring historians and archaeologists Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands living for a year as Victorian farmers.  As a result we had long been planning to visit the location where it was filmed, and I was really excited when I heard that my good friend and very talented former colleague was the Education Officer there.  Last week we finally got there, as we were travelling up to the region to visit family.

The series was filmed at Acton Scott working farm near Church Stretton in Shropshire.  Opening the farm as a working museum was the brain child of Thomas Acton and although the farm has been open to the public for more than 40 years, the family still live in the beautiful house overlooking the farm, although the farm itself is managed and funded by Shropshire County Council.  Thomas Acton wanted to preserve the farming techniques he had grown up with at a time when the traditional ways were being swept away in the rush to modernise.

The farm is home to a glorious collection of historic machinery and wagons, plus a growing population of farm animals, including the ever curious chickens.

We're big believers that a child's own eyes and ears are their best teacher and that by supporting the things they learn at home (or school) with opportunities to experience things first hand they develop a deeper understanding of their topic.  Visiting the Victorian Farm, seeing the buildings, talking to the hugely knowledgeable staff and handling the exhibits was a far more immersive way of learning about this period of history than anything we could provide indoors.

 The land is worked using traditional skills and visitors can accompany the shire horses or donkey as they perform the age old rituals of ploughing, sowing and hoeing.  The children all had a chance to feed chickens in the farm yard, and give the pigs in their stone sties a good scratch behind the ears.

The farm has a collection of interesting old buildings, including shepherds huts and a road menders wagon, which provided plenty of role play fun.  Simple additions such as the besom for sweeping and the boys were transported in their minds into the role of a 19th Century shepherd.  They spent a lot of time running around chasing wolves away (in their heads the role of shepherd is firmly woven into the story of the boy who cried wolf).

 More role play was to be had in the re-created Victorian school room, complete with the diary of the school that was built on the site in the late 1800s by Frances Stackhouse Acton.  It was amazing to read the neat ledger containing notes such as that there had been several children absent one day due to heavy rain, some of whom would have had to walk through four or five fields to get to school.

Toby had great fun shouting at Ollie to get on with his work quietly or he would get a whack!  I think they're both glad really that teaching methods have moved on.

The original building now houses a lovely cafe.  Converting the school house to a cafe was a perfect use of the beautiful building, which is a treat to visit with very generous children's lunch boxes and nice touches such as fresh flowers on each table. The memory of the old purpose of the building is displayed as school dairy entries printed onto the table mats - we couldn't resist passing ours around so we got to read all four examples on our table.

The small play area with it's wooden toy horse cart and gypsy caravan was a big hit with the boys.  It was almost their favourite part of the visit and we returned to this part a couple of times before we managed to drag the boys away.

The wool room was a real treat, with a series of spinning wheels and looms on display, along with examples of the effects to be achieved with a variety of natural dyes and mordants.

I also enjoyed the kitchen garden stocked with historically interesting varieties of plants, including ancient beans, with good information boards giving the vegetables provenance and interesting facts.

The boys were very interested to see the cider mill they had watched being used in the documentary series, with it's 'flat tyre' where the mill stone was thought to have been originally used as a whetstone for sharpening tools.
 One of the most magical parts of the visit was when the boys were asked if they would like to hold a four day old chick.

 They also had the opportunity to feed some of the biggest and happiest-looking lambs I've ever seen, and to be gently licked and nibbled by a friendly pedigree calf.
For Ollie though his favourite out of all of it (and I think mine too) was the mischievous grey donkey.  Not content with being in his barn for a rest after pulling the hoe to weed a row of mangelwurzels, he delicately nosed open his gate, had a wander around investigating the farm yard (while being adored by Ollie), then headed over to the lamb's field, where he again used his nose to open a latch and let himself in.

Toby's favourite thing was looking for the fairy doors hidden around the site.  He decided that it was a good place for fairies as they had plenty of places to hide and they most probably lived in the beams in the roof of the cafe.

This is a real gem of a place, and despite the publicity that must have come with its use as a filming location, and it's really reasonable entry price, it was also fairly quiet.  Museums are really struggling at the moment with all the budget cuts, so it is vital that if we want to be able to continue enjoying them we get out there and visit them this year - without our support they just won't be there in a year or two.  If you don't live anywhere near it, I can vouch that for us the 250 mile trip up there was well worth it as Shropshire is gorgeous and the farm is just one of dozens of fantastic days out to be found there.

The site has pretty good accessibility considering it's age and purpose, and a mobility scooter is available to borrow.  There is ample free parking, good accessible toilets and babychange facilities, a well stocked gift shop and a good cafe.  Due to budget restraints on staffing it is now open five days a week to the public, and is closed on Thursdays and Fridays except for pre-booked groups of more then 20 people.  Opening times and dates, and entry costs, are here.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Hengisbury Head

 If you're in Dorset and looking for a lovely day out, I can highly recommend Hengisbury Head near Christchurch.

You can follow the paths that lead over and around the nature reserve which is also important archaeological site.  In the Bronze Age Hengisbury Head was a cemetery, with barrow burials.  Then later Iron age people settled and exploited the ironstone found in abundance there.  There is an excellent visitor center where you can explore the history and natural history of the area.

 To one side of the headland there is ample opportunity for skimming stones and watching the boats in the shallow, calm waters of Chritchurch Harbour.  On the other side there are miles of sandy beaches.
 The wooded areas are a big draw for the boys, with excellent climbing trees and steep banks to explore.  The bird population really loves it too, and Ollie especially loves to climb up a tree and sit watching the woodland birds busy collecting food for their chicks.
 Toby finds plenty of trees he can access to, and his favourite is when we sometimes get a ride back on the land train from Sandbanks to the car park.  He also loves to peer over the fences into the ponds, which are home to rare Natterjack toads.
No visit is complete without a trip into the visitors center enjoy the hands-on exhibits and learn about the extensive archaeological finds from the area.

All in all, for the price of a car park ticket (which you can avoid if you don't mind parking a little way further along the entry road), this is a pretty special place to visit.

Good buggy and wheelchair access over much of the site.  Toilets, including changing facilities at the visitors center.  Cafe.  Ample pay and display car parking.  Good cycle routes around the area if you're coming by bike.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Grain-free banana pancakes

 We've had a big change in our diet recently as we have started following  tooth healing principles in an attempt to help Ollie's enamel hypoplasia (very frustrating and upsetting that he has dental problems given that we had what we thought was a super healthy diet and the kids have never been given much sugar).  I'll do a more thorough post on this another time, when I have time to collate the information sources that I read.  I'm neither a doctor, a dentist nor a nutritionist, so anything here is just a comment on something we're trying, not a recommendation for anyone else to change their normal diet without thorough research of their own.  Many of the elements of what we're doing would fit with what may be the more familiar paleo diet.

One element of the diet is a big reduction in the quantity of seeds we were consuming - which includes nuts, grains and pulses, plus virtually no sugar which includes fruit sugars.  This left breakfast being potentially tricky as our usual fare was porridge, cereal or toast followed by a big fruit snack plate.

I found a few recipes for pancakes (American style rather than crepes) which used just eggs and bananas, but I found this batter very runny and prone to become banana flavoured scrambled eggs.  With a bit of playing around I developed the recipe below, which is so delicious the kids even ask for it on 'treat day' - the day of the week they are allowed to have grainy treats like toast and pasta.

You can make it by mashing the banana and hand whisking the ingredients, but we have a blender so we use that.  It is easy for the kids to make and produces a lovely smooth batter.  We use coconut flour, but if you could substitute for any flour if you're not avoiding grains, for example buckwheat if you're gluten free, or regular flour if not.

For three people we use:
3 eggs (large, or 4 is small)
2 medium bananas
1 tablespoon coconut flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon

I've tried it with and without bicarb too, but find it makes little difference, so I leave it out now.

Blend it all up and use one dessertspoon of batter per pancake.  I have two pans on the go and fit 3 or 4 pancakes in each pan to speed things up, but a hot plate would be ideal if you have one.  I use cold pressed rapeseed oil (canola) but coconut oil is good too.  You have to watch the heat as the banana content can cause rapid burning, and it takes a bit of practice to get the pancakes to be set on top enough to turn over without burning them underneath.

Serve with a knob of grass fed butter (if you're in the UK that's just regular UK produced butter since we are currently not plagued by factory farmed milk).  On the day I took the photo below we also served it with blackberries and home made sugar-free jam (made using xylitol, recipe for that another time).

To keep the kids filled up for a couple of hours, I follow this up with plain full fat yoghurt with a teaspoon of our sugar-free jam, or sometimes honey or maple syrup.

We have followed the diet for a full calendar month now, and while we won't know until the next 6 monthly dental check up if there has been a measurable difference in Ollie's teeth, our own observations are that my gums and teeth feel in better condition, Ollie says his teeth don't hurt any more (this could be a placebo effect, we won't know until the dentist looks at him), and I have lost 7lbs while being less hungry, so who knows, we are tentatively hopeful that this may be a helpful change.  If not, it's certainly a tasty change.

Note: the misty effect on the pics isn't a camera filter attempting to make my kitchen look tidier or the food look mystical. I think it was a fingerprint on the phone lens :)