Monday, 30 December 2013

We're better outside

Kneeling on the bed this morning, staring at gusts of wind blowing the bamboos so hard they rocked the fence and horizontal rain hammering on the window, it didn't feel like a good day for going out.  We decided last week that today we would go to the zoo.  We have vouchers for annual membership of our local children's zoo every year for Christmas from my lovely in-laws and today was our last chance to renew if we wanted to make use of a 30% renewal discount.  Yet the weather was so foul we worried about the potential flooding on the roads, and the kids have had coughs again, and there was still another cupboard to fit in the almost completed kitchen, and, and, and ....  All in all we felt ...bleurgh.

In the end we let the cash savings be our deciding vote and jumped up, wrapped the kids up in layers (vest, long sleeved t-shirt, short sleeved T-shirt, jumper, coat, jeans, willies, scarfs, hats and gloves - they walked like they were in full body casts at first) and headed out into the wild Sussex weather.  Anyone living up North, or in a country where it's currently snowing, is probably shaking their head in disgust at my wimpiness having read this, but this is the south coast of England.  Apart from the last few years, when we've had a bit of snow in January and February, we mostly just get drizzly winters.

Generally, having both worked outdoors for years in all weathers, we generally go with the adage 'there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes' and today really proved it.  It peed down constantly all morning in a freezing, wind-blown assault.  We were the only people on the Thomas Train ride other than the driver and a sparrow.  In the outdoor areas we charged from exhibit to exhibit completely alone apart from keepers and other staff.  In the indoor sections we shared an impressed moment when a rhinoceros iguana sneezed snot all over the glass of it's habitat, and another stood with another family watching a monkey scratching it's bum.  The car park had been quite full - it turned out everyone else was squeezed into the soft play area that smells of nappies and over excited children.  We avoided that.  No-one else saw the beavers come right up to the wall to sniff at us - we kept our hand to ourselves, but they were close enough to tickle had I thought they would appreciate it and not mistake our fingers for food.  We got a personal talk about the Asian short-clawed otters.

It was fantastic.  Cold and wet, but immense fun.  We came home feeling less tired than when we left the house in the morning at 10am.  Very occasionally we prepare badly enough that we regret going out in bad weather, but usually it is like today and the very act of running around outside recharges us.  It drives me a little crazy when parents say their kids are 'naughty' when they just have energy they haven't been given a chance to burn off.  Walking and running around outside in the air every day is the best thing any of us can do for our kids, and ourselves.  So I'm off to hit the study books now, with the kids having sailed off to sleep happy and tired at 7pm and Matt swearing gently under his breath as he attempts to replace the inner tube on Ollie's bike ready for tomorrow's adventures. Hopefully without having caught pneumonia.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Gender equality in parenting, the media and toys

The boys whipping up a steamed
I'm a firm believer in something wonderful that is happening all over the country, and all over the world, right now.  Parents are providing great role models for their kids and breaking down gender stereotypes about 'boy jobs' and 'girl jobs'.  Dad's like Matt are making steamed puddings with their boys  just as well as they tackle the tiling, and mums like me are wielding the power saw with at least as much skill as the iron.  In some families this is about a couple helping each other out and playing to their strengths, and in other families there is a single parent, or two mums, or two dads, all working hard to provide their (or someone else's) children with a fantastic start in life by not limiting their expectations of themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if the media, including books and films, is lagging behind in the gender equality stakes.  When the fantastic newsreader Moira Stewart was dropped by the BBC she said 'it's not that they're ageist, racist or sexist, they just don't want an old, black woman reading the news'.  By limiting the people children see on TV to certain roles we are limiting their expectations of what is 'normal' for them to aspire to.  It's a difficult line to walk though between providing positive role models and making every show so politically correct it creaks.  For example there's a great show on CBeebies called Get Well Soon which explains to children about common ailments and injuries.  The doctor is a man and the nurse is a woman.  Is this reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuating an age old tradition of male doctors outnumbering female ones to some extent, or to an even greater extent female nurses outnumbering male ones?  Or is it just reflecting society as the child is most likely to encounter it and therefore representing a realistic view of the world which makes the show believable (singing fuzzy puppets aside)?  So should we be evangelically enthusiastic about promoting gender equality in every casting decision in every show?  I don't know the answer to that but I'm not sure we've got the balance right at the moment.
The kids admiring my floor laying skills 

One element of gender in the media that really does cause concern however is in the constant heavy handed bombardment of children with advertising for toys which are 'boys toys' or 'girls toys'.  In our house we sidestep it to a large extent by really limiting screen time in general, and not watching channels with advertising with the kids.  However, any walk down a supermarket toy aisle gives ample examples of the problem.  If you can only buy bright pink kitchens and pan sets, how does this tell children that everyone in a household should be able to enjoy and share in cooking? I suspect that most children will not be aware that pink only became a 'girl colour' in Victorian times - many a Viking warrior sailed to battle resplendent in pink in earlier times.   So what can we do about gender stereotyping in toys?

I think parental tolerance of children's preferences is the first step.  If your little boy has no interest in traditional girl's toys, don't make a big deal out of it in the name of equality - lots of stereotypical boy's toys are things that boys often show preference for, such as trains, to a greater extent than most of their female playmates.  In the same vein, if your daughter wants to be a pink princess, that's fine too, although many a parent feels that the only princess their daughter should be emulating is Princess Leia.  Conversely, most of the mums with boys that I know have at least one son who prefers pink, nurtures a baby doll and pushes a pram - both of my boys love their cheap pink toy pram.  Our job as parents is to provide varied opportunities for imaginative play and learning, and encourage the interests our children have as well as extending their experiences, but not necessarily to dictate what they play with.

The second step is looking for toys which are not so obviously stereotyped.  If you're looking to get a toy kitchen for example, you could hunt for one which isn't pink.  We got a lovely natural wood and painted white one from a certain Swedish furniture shop which has survived a year of boisterous daily play from two small boys so far (Toby squashed our donated plastic one flat when he was learning to walk).  The boys also have a yellow kettle and iron from a forward thinking supermarket - our nearest supermarket only had pink ones.  By boycotting 'blue for boys and pink for girls', and spending on less gender specific colours, manufacturers and shops are given a clear message about parents wishes.

The third step could be to contact toy makers and shops directly.  'I wanted to buy my daughter some of your building blocks recently but was surprised to see that you felt girls would only be interested in using pink bricks to build a beauty salon...' may be the route you wish to go if this is something that really bugs you.

Whatever they see in the toy shop, in books, films or television though, you are your children's most important role model when they are small, and it is your attitude to what you can or cannot do which ultimately will inform their expectations of themselves.  No pressure there then!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Festive salt dough decorations

 Making salt dough decorations is a firm favourite of a tradition in many families.  I came across it for the first time last year watching 'Kirstie's Homemade Christmas' on TV and we had great fun, if not the most attractive results.  This year we've refined our technique somewhat and have ended up with some prettier and less soggy decorations.  This is a lovely activity to be done in ten minute bursts, which suits small children's attention spans. It encourages creative play, basic maths skills in measuring, and makes children feel good in contributing to the family's preparations for Christmas.  If you don't celebrate Christmas, the activity is just as good for making fun decorations for any other festivity.

The basic recipe is really simple.  This year I used a recipe provided by my local children's center, but I halved the quantities as we ran out of table salt.  The children's center recipe: 2 cups plain flour. 1 cup salt. 1 cup water.  Mix to form a dough (adjust quantities of water or flour to get right texture).  Model into shapes (not too thick) and cook on a very low heat for several hours.  The models can then be painted.

 The boys helped with measuring out the ingredients, which is really simple in this recipe as you use cups rather than weights.  Don't panic if you don't have a standardised measuring cup (this is a more common measuring technique in America, here in the UK recipes usually give weights in grams, or ounces if it's an old recipe).  Getting it right is about ratios, so as long as you use the same sized container as your 'cup' it doesn't matter - e.g. a 'cup' could be a half filled mug, or a plastic drinking cup, or a small bowl so long as you use the same thing for each measurement.

From our experience last year, getting the dough rolled out fairly thin helps in the drying process later on.  This needed surprisingly little intervention from me as both boys are becoming dab hands with the rolling pin.  Sharing the rolling pin is something they were initially not keen on, but it all builds social skills.  We then shared a star shaped cookie cutter to make the shapes, but any shape you have would work fine.  I'd avoid anything with details that are too fiddly and liable to break off like the thin legs on reindeer shapes.  I then put the shapes on a sheet of baking paper on a metal baking tray into a low temperature oven (about 80 centigrade).  Before you put them in the oven don't forget to make a hole in each one if you intend to string them up - a skewer wiggled around to make a hole worked well, making the hole a bit bigger than you want as they tend to close up a bit in the oven.

To make cleaning up the table more fun, we rolled straight into another messy play activity - rolling toy cars and trains through shaving foam.  If you haven't read about this before, the 'value' cheap shaving foam has the least perfumes and is just soap, so even if your little ones ingest some it is pretty harmless - obviously avoid eyes and use your judgement about when your child is old enough to enjoy this.  I find it helpful to have a clean damp flannel on hand for when one of them does get some in their eye.

The next stage of the 'clean up' tends to cause even more mess, but the laughter is worth it.  The boys get a cloth each to help wipe the table, and then a bowl of warm water on the floor to wash the foam off their toys.  This usually ends up with the boys and the floor soaking wet, so to avoid slipping I try to be prepared with old towels and also supervise closely by getting down on the floor and splashing their toys with them.  In this picture the we had floor was ideal for messy wet play.   It was the old stick-on floor tiles that were underneath the floor we had to remove following our washing machine leak.  I put down new laminate tiles yesterday, which I don't think will take so kindly to being really soaked so this phase of the activity will have to move upstairs to the bath in the future.  The bath is where we end up anyway to make sure the last of the soap foam is removed and everyone is warmed up and dressed in dry clothes.

I baked the shapes for 5 hours, then left them to dry outside the oven, then put them in again for another couple of hours.  It has to be a really low heat as you are just drying them, not cooking them.  We found last year that a higher heat just burns them in patches.  This is the big reason for getting your shapes thin - uneven or thick shapes don't dry well.

When the shapes were dry and cool we painted them with poster paint.  This made the shapes a little soggy and cracked when it dried, so I'm sure someone will have a better alternative, but poster paint is child safe so I'm not worried about an imperfect finish.  Besides which, the following day we then put so much glitter on the shapes it's hard to tell they were painted in the first place.  The final stage (tomorrow) will be stringing them up on very thin ribbon, interspersed with some silvery metal charms we kept from some Christmas crackers.  Another lesson from last year though - if you want to keep the shapes, put them in an airtight container with a desiccant added, for example a plastic tub with salt in it, or sachets of silica gel.  We did not do this and stored them in a cardboard box in the loft with the other baubles.  When we got the decorations down we had a lot of mushy dough shapes sticking the baubles together, oops!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Santa doesn't stop here

Free image
The parent forums on Facebook are full of debate at the moment about what to do about Santa and whether or not to perpetuate the myth.

I wouldn't dream of telling anyone what they should do with regards this, but if you're looking for 'middle way' ideas that allow kids to join in but without the full on deal, this post may be of interest.  Nothing in it is intended to say anyone else's ideas and traditions are wrong so hopefully no offense is given, this is just our own ideas and rationale.

We decided that we want the kids to know that the gifts they get are made or chosen by family and friends, not a magical stranger with the ability to give them anything in the world that they want.  This means that expectations are kept realistic and there's no heartbroken children who didn't find a pony under the tree on Christmas morning.

Santa doesn't come to our house because we're helping him out when he's very very busy by going to see him before Christmas.  We take the boys to see Santa in his house at our zoo where he stays for a few weeks before Christmas.  The boys get a gift from Santa, and we tell them they're really lucky because if he came to our house they wouldn't get to see him because he comes very late and they'd be asleep in bed and miss him.  Toby's too young to understand and Ollie seems satisfied with this explanation so far.

We have never told the boys that they must be good or they won't get Christmas presents.  For us gifts are a demonstration of affection, not a bribe for behaving in a way that we would expect them to anyway.  Unless you would seriously consider withholding gifts it's not a good idea to threaten it.

We don't do Christmas wish lists.  We ask the boys if there is anything in particular they'd like and try to keep our eyes open to any particular interests they have in the run up to Christmas.  Ollie named three Octonauts toys last year that he liked, so we got one of them for his birthday last November, his grandparents got another, and the third he waited for until this year's birthday.  It means that each toy is well played with and not just lost in the jumble of the toy box.  We got a lovely book from a friend for his birthday last year - The Dinosaur That Pooped Out Christmas - about Santa sending a boy who was too greedy a dinosaur which ate everything.  This has been a favourite all year and may be helping with Ollie's understanding of how much stuff he already has and how lucky we are.  It's also something we talk about from time to time - not asking for things all the time because we have lots.  When Santa asked him this year what he wanted Ollie said 'whatever's in here' holding up his parcel from Santa.  When pressed did he want a car he said 'no it's OK I've got lots of stuff'.  He'd wanted his Octonauts toy for so long it's like he's not bothered about anything else.  Toby said 'choo choo' which is pretty much his answer to everything.

I'm hoping we're getting a middle ground - the excitement of decorating the house and tree, of choosing, making and giving gifts, but without the emotional exhaustion of kids who's expectations are sky high and end up being disappointed.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Scarlet fever - not quite consigned to the history books

This week had a rather unpleasant surprise in store for us as both the boys and myself came down with a mysterious illness.  Vomiting, fever and sore throats were followed by a rough-feeling red rash and extreme tiredness.  The strangest symptom was Ollie developing a bright red tongue as his rash started to fade.  Toby developed from the  slight rash on his face in this picture to a huge red rash coating his cheeks and forehead.

We eventually managed to get an appointment to see a doctor, and were told it could be viral, but the red tongue looked bacterial, so Toby and I were prescribed antibiotics.  Fortunately Matt was looking after us and took us to the doctor as I had lost my voice by this point.  The doctor said my throat was 'disgusting'.  After we had gone to the supermarket pharmacy to get our prescriptions and driven home, we got a message from the doctor saying we needed to go back and pick up a leaflet and a prescription for antibiotics for Ollie.  Matt duly went back out, and I got a message from him that we had, wait for it... Scarlet Fever!

I had no idea this was a disease people got any more.  Apparently it's quite rare now and not as serious as it used to be (no confinement to an isolation hospital for a start).  It mostly affects children between two and eight years old, and according to the NHS website there are between 2,000 and 4,000 cases diagnosed each year.  The sore throat is caused by Streptococcus bacteria and the rash result from toxins produced by the bacteria.  Most children over 10 will have developed immunity to these toxins, hence why adult cases are so rare.  I seem to have a rubbish immune system and I think was already weakened by having had bronchitis for the last three months (I'm a non-smoker, so this in itself is a bit of a mystery).

Ollie had started being tired and unwell on Friday, which I had put down to a chill from him getting soaked during water play at his nursery on thursday.  By Saturday he was vomiting and really unwell.  On Saturday evening he started to develop the rash.  By Wednesday he was just as cheerful as normal, although the rash has lingered.  I wasn't overly concerned as it looked like a viral rash he's had in the past and he seemed to be recovering well and not overly poorly, but the red tongue was a thing that didn't seem right at all.  Toby started to get ill a couple of days after Ollie and seemed worse affected, although is now making leaps forward with the antibiotics.  I got hit very hard with the throat - it was agony and there was very little gap between my tonsils.  My throat was even bleeding.  I was quite confused and was sleeping most of the time.  The antibiotics have also really started kicking in for me, to the point that I have been out of bed and awake for most of today.  Everything tastes really weird and metallic though and my tongue is starting to look like I've sucked one of those lollipops with the red dye in it.

This has been an educational experience in a way, although I could have been quite happy bumbling through life unaware that Scarlet Fever was not just a disease of the past.  Hopefully there isn't much else out there that the kids can catch.  Ollie got measles a few days before he was due his first MMR jab as a baby, and both boys have had chickenpox, and now Scarlet Fever.  These are all really easily transmissible diseases and by going to playgroups, nurseries, crèches and generally being out and about I have increased the chances of the boys being exposed to childhood illnesses.  this seems bad, but hopefully in the long term it is a good thing because their immune systems will be super tough and they won't suffer the worse symptoms and complications of developing childhood diseases in later life.

I don't intend to panic monger that there is some terrible epidemic spreading - there isn't - non of the groups such as nursery and crèche, or friends we saw during the week, have children with any symptoms so it looks like it was just one of those rare bugs that crops up from time to time.  I'm also not a doctor or a medical advice page - these are just our own experiences of this weird illness.  Further information is available in the link to the NHS page on the subject here.  Fingers crossed no-one reading this will need to know the symptoms and you are all having a healthy and happy time.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Arrrh is for Rainy - Pirate fun

Since it has been pouring down with rain here today I thought I'd share an easy idea that will keep small people amused for literally hours.  We were busy out and about all day today despite the rain, so the pics are from a couple of weeks ago.  I've added in rough timings, ideas for how to go about each activity and also an idea of how the skills they are promoting would be expressed in other early years platforms such as magazines aimed at pre-schoolers, but I'd love to hear any ideas for adding to this activity that you already do at home or out of doors.

You will need:
- things to make a treasure map - we used coloured paper, pens, glue sticks and lots and lots of glitter
- treasure - we used Ollie's treasure box - an old box that a candle came in covered in glitter and filled with tumbled crystals, but you could wrap baking foil around a cardboard circle to make big coins, or use anything at all you fancy
- pirate books - Toby had a noisy pirates book from Lidls and Ollie had 'the skeleton pirate' by David Lucas from the library.
- head scarfs, or any other piratey paraphernalia you happen to have
- any other bits that will add to the fun, for example you might have pirate themed paper plates left over from a party

Part 1: Making the treasure map
Time: Up to 30 mins depending on how many maps you make, how elaborate you make them and the attention span of your children
Skills: Creating (deciding what to put where), Fine motor skills (using scissors, or tearing paper to make islands, using glue stick, manipulating pen to draw on the islands), Literacy (you may want to add labels - we just put an X to mark the spots where there was treasure buried)
How to: You can make a map however you want to, but Toby drew his map and Ollie cut out paper islands to stick to his map and then drew on them.  Both boys added glitter.

Part 2: Making/assembling treasure
Time: varies depending on what you have to hand and if you are making from scratch
Skills: Creating

Part 3: Making and eating pirate snacks/lunch
Time: Up to 30 mins
Skills: Creating, Feeling good (healthy eating)
How to: 'Pirate Fish' - normal peanut butter on granary sandwiches cut into the shape of a fish.  The boys helped to spread the peanut butter and I did the cutting, but if you have fish shaped cookie cutters they could do the whole thing themselves.  'Pirate gold' - carrot sticks, baby corn-on-the-cob etc.. 'Seaweed' - raw fine beans, cucumber, lettuce... you get the idea.  We also drank some 'grog' (cooled strawberry tea with a half teaspoon of agave syrup stirred in)

Part 4: Reading pirate books together
Time: Up to 30 minutes, but probably less - it's to give some ideas to inform imaginative play but also to give their food a chance to go down before they start charging around
Skills: Literacy (obviously), Feeling good (reading together is one of the easiest ways for a parent or carer to show the child they have their undivided attention)
How to: choose books suitable to their age range to read together, encouraging them to pick out details on the pages, or letters and words as they're ready

Part 5: The treasure hunt
Time: hours and hours and hours, long after you have lost the energy to go on
Skills: Physical (get active and charge around the house), Feeling good (this is a shared activity so again they have your whole attention and a 100% success rate)
How to: The following are my boys rules: Put the treasure box down the back of the sofa.  Lead mummy on a chase using the map over chairs, under the table, into the play tent round and round and round, then end up at the sofa to 'dig up' the treasure.  Repeat, making sure to place the treasure in the same place again.

Part 6:  After you can't take any more fun, have a cup of coffee and take a picture of yourself looking suitably silly, then catch up on all the things you didn't do because you were taking time out to make sure that as often as you can those little folk have your undivided attention.  The screams of laughter from the boys lets me know it's worthwhile, and the two days following of Ollie taking his treasure map to nursery shows me that for at least a couple of days afterwards it made a big impression on him.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Herstmonceux Science Center

Yesterday for Ollie's birthday we descended on the Herstmonceux Science Center with a bunch of the best friends a family could wish for.  Before we moved to Sussex I had never heard of it, but it certainly deserves more recognition as a first rate family attraction.  I usually go in the summer, especially during school holidays to take advantage of the great program of extra events and shows on offer, so I wasn't sure how going there in potentially stormy mid-November would work out.

I expected rain, and thought that even with the worst weather there would still be enough inside activities to keep the kids amused for a couple of hours.  On the day it was clear and sunny, so the couple of hours easily expanded to fill the whole afternoon until it got dark at 4.30pm and the site shut.

We were a group consisting of adults and children from almost two to eight years old, which at a traditional party would have consisted of increasingly frayed adults trying to entertain and contain the exuberance of the kids.  This venue was such a great alternative because there was so much to play with that appealed to the littlest with no idea of the science concepts behind the displays right through to the the adults (who I'm sure won't mind admitting are all quite geeky in their own fields of expertise).  The patience of the demonstrator handling the solar viewer was phenomenal as each of our kids managed to lean on it and swing the telescope of target.  The hands-on-approach means that the kids pick up knowledge about cause and effect and scientific observational skills without realising they're doing it.  The center also has a great breadth of topic material, which I found a relief when we first went because as much as I admire astronomy it's one of the areas where my knowledge has planet-sized holes.  With an unfenced pond though I was glad of the extra adults to keep an eye or two out on for the small people.

For the first time since I've been visiting the center we took part in the tour of one of the domes, which was a fun and informative retrospective on astronomy from the founding the the Observatory at Greenwich to the present day, including the founding of the Herstmonceaux site when light pollution became too great for the Greenwich Observatory to function effectively in the 1950s.  We were also treated to seeing the dome open up, which prompted a lot of interest from Toby (it gave him something to look at while he munched the fig roll he had begged from another family).

After the tour we had lots more fun playing with the indoor and outdoor exhibits.  Science doesn't get a lot more physical for small children than climbing up a helical DNA strand ladder or swinging on a rope from a huge lever.  The indoor displays have been refreshed with new activities at least a couple of times this year, but the boys favourite as always was the outdoors display of different ways of raising water with lots of handles to turn and water to splash.  This time a close second was the overhead train track complete with a train powered by the kids turning a handle.

A perfect visit was completed with a huge moon on the East and a glorious fiery sunset to the west.  All of the images here are courtesy of
the skill and artistry of David Fisher.  Part two of the day was a visit to the torch parade and fireworks at Robertsbridge with Matt's folks and friends, which was phenomenal.  We told Ollie everyone had come out and put on the fireworks for his birthday.  When the finale went off, filling the sky with silver bursts of rockets Ollie shouted "look, they've done domes like at the observatory for my birthday - this is the best birthday ever!"

A massive thank you is due to everyone who made this day perfect from start to finish.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Creating family traditions

Tomorrow it will be four years since my eldest was born and I know it's a worn-out phrase but I don't know where the time has gone.  We have been adding in new family traditions with each birthday, and now set up a birthday breakfast the night before so the kids can come down to everything set up for them.  After breakfast I sit down with the birthday boy and we look through their memory box of things saved from their first year or so - their hospital tags, first booties, baby photos, cards from well wishers.  Then we go for a day out with friends invited along for the fun.  Last year we went to the Science Museum in London which was a wonderful opportunity to take along friends from home and
to meet up with old friends that we don't see often enough.  This proved to be the winning formula - no wasted food when people dropped out at the last minute, no stress over hiring a venue of decorating a house, and a brilliant day out into the bargain.  I'm glad we did this last year since no less than 20 people cancelled the day before, mainly with an outbreak of Norovirus.  This is also a good budget option since anyone who wants to come sorts out transport and food for themselves.  We also put out the message that no gifts are necessary, since the effort of getting there and spending the day with them is the best gift anyone could give to the boys.

This year since I'm blogging perhaps this is the start of a new tradition - I little look back through past birthdays :)

Ollie at a day old.

First birthday - an early party at home with a Halloween theme and the cutest pumpkin ever (I may be biased of course)

Ollie's second birthday, a party shared with his cousin and the last he'd have as an only child since Toby made an appearance the following month.
Ollie's third birthday, and his first as an amazing big brother to an adoring little brother.

The boys a couple of weeks ago getting ready to go to our friend's Halloween party.  After he dived headlong into a puddle today I'm not sure if the outfit will be ready to see another outing tomorrow :)

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Celebrating Putoniumsox's 100th Post by joining in her challenge

A while ago I introduced my friend to blogging, and being the superwoman she is she ran with it and is beating me at my own game :)  She is now celebrating her 100th post with this centennial challenge:

Here's how it works. Take  (Natalie's) 10 headings and change the 10 words in each section to words of your own. Sentences, lists, jokes, however you want to do it, 10 words only per section. Then pop a link at the bottom, have a read of some other blogs and leave them some lovely comments. You could even follow your favourites! 

1. Things I love

My boys (big and small), my friends, writing. 

2. Places I love

Anywhere there are forests and coasts and/or mountains. 

3. I love this photograph because... 

We turned a horrible morning into a beautiful afternoon.

4. Charities that deserve some love 

Kiva microlending

Retired greyhound trust 

5. What's funny? 

Two nuns in a car. A vampire jumps on the windscreen.  The first nun says 'quick, show him your cross' so the second nun shouts 'get off my effing car!'

6. On a desert island I would need... 

My boys, an endless supply of contact lenses, marmite

7. This week's news

My baby is going to be 4 this week!

8. My best ever bargain

Stacks of free training with my local children's centers 

9. What I enjoy doing

Walking, writing, playing, painting on people, learning

10. What I hate

I don't hate, but lots of things make me angry or sad. 

That's me done.  If you want to play along, visit and tag in

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Pint sized paleontologists - Walking with Dinosaurs the 3D Movie books

 We are our children's first, and perhaps most important, teacher.  However, if we get it right most of what teachers do is not actually 'teaching' as such, but 'facilitating learning'.  How much of what you know now did you learn by a parent or teacher lecturing you, and how much did you learn by them helping you to find out for yourself?  You may be surprised when you really think about it how much of what you retain you discovered for yourself.
 You've probably heard of  'home education' or 'home schooling' (the American term) which conjures images of sitting down with textbooks at home, but perhaps 'unschooling' is a less familiar term.  Yet this is the crucial learning style that most pre-school children and their parents or carers are actively involved in every day.  For many this is an instinctive process - you teach your children to count by singing counting rhymes at bedtime, counting as you walk down steps or when sharing out treats.  Very few people would sit a 2 year old down with numbers on flashcards, but by exposing children to numbers in every day situations most will pick up counting as naturally as they learn to talk.

One of the benefits of the unschooled learning that we do with our little ones is that we can spontaneously engage with them in whatever their current interest is, and provide opportunities for them to immerse themselves in learning about all sorts of things through this topic.  If they show a fascination for Egyptian mummies at age 5, why wait until they cover it in their learning journey at school at age 11, by which time their interest may have moved on to something else?  The downside could be children who are bored at school having already thoroughly covered a topic, but a good teacher will be able to draw on their past learning and provide them with stretch to take their knowledge further, and for children who continue to be home educated this issue won't come up anyway.  When, or if, we send them to school we can continue this partnership in their learning because as a parent you can support and extend their own interests and the topics they want and need to cover.

My boys are pretty typical of small children and share a love of anything to do with dinosaurs.  We have a big box of plastic dinosaurs donated to us by a lovely friend and these have had all sorts of adventures and educational uses.  One of the most basic activities is dinosaur grouping.  I've mentioned in a previous post how grouping items is a step towards shape recognition, which is in itself a step towards reading and maths.  You can group your dinosaurs by species, by colour, by size or by stance for example.  If you know the names you can introduce them 'can you find me another Triceratops - that's the one with three horns on its head'.  If you're learning Makaton together, you can sign for the dinosaur you want as you say it 'I would like the blue dinosaur please'.  You can introduce comparative sizes 'can you find me a dinosaur that is bigger than the one I have' and positional language 'can you put that dinosaur behind the one I have here'.

Today though we hit the jackpot as far as the boys are concerned.  Courtesy of the amazing folks at Macmillan Children's Books  we were sent a parcel full of the most beautiful dinosaur books.  They are based around an exciting new Walking with Dinosaurs 3D film coming out in December and the boys wasted no time in climbing onto the sofa and surrounding themselves with their haul of treasure.  We have read several dinosaur books together, but these are the first where the dinosaurs look so real and not like cartoons, which really caught the boy's attention.

The first book out of the box was the Dinopedia.  This is  a lovely hardback encyclopedia covering the dinosaurs that are in the film, including Pachyrhinosaurus (pronounced 'patchy - rhino -sore -us'), the species of the film's main character.  Each pair of pages is brought to life with a full page still from the film alongside simple and informative text.  The Dinopedia also explains about the evolutionary transition between dinosaurs and birds, how dinosaurs nested, whether they were warm blooded or not and how they grew among other things.  Up to date paleontological knowledge is presented in a way that you don't have to be an expert to understand, which makes it perfect to read out loud to smaller children or for confident readers to enjoy by themselves.  Ollie loved the images of the Ankylosaurus - he often draws them but had never seen one that looked so lifelike.  Toby loved the early birds and Pterosaurs and kept shouting 'duck' and signing 'bird'.  My favourite element was the introduction to a real scientist on every page, with a photo and a brief bio about their work.  The scientists featured are fairly young, of several different nationalities and there's even a lot of women, all of which is fantastic for breaking down the stereotypes that scientists, paleontologists and geologists are all old men.  This makes it much easier for children to picture themselves in these roles in the future and have a reason to hang on to childhood interests as they grow.

 The next book we looked at was the Walking with Dinosaurs the 3D Movie Handbook.  The Handbook sees the basic story of the film narrated by one of the characters, Alex the Alexornis bird.  It is beautifully illustrated throughout with stills from the film on every page.  There are also fantastic information boxes as you progress through the story each of which explain a key idea or introduce a species. The book is presented as chapters, which makes it ideal for Ollie as I can use a chapter at a time as one of his three bedtime books without having to attempt the whole book each time.  The way the information boxes are scattered through the pages means that you can either read the chapter straight through and miss them out, or take breaks from the story to read them depending on how your little one's attention is holding.  I think we will be returning to this and the Dinopedia over and over in the future because the knowledge to be gleaned will grow as Ollie's understanding increases.
 The third book Patchi's Big Adventure is a really novel concept for the boys - a story book that comes with a pair of 3D glasses which you can use to marvel at the large 3D pull-out poster in the center of the book.  The rest of the book is a straightforward story book following one of the adventures of the main character of the film, Patchi the Pachyrhinosaurus.  As with the other books it is rich with gorgeous stills from the film.  I like that it is not 3D all the way through as it would have been difficult to maintain the pace of the story for an older child reading alone if they had to keep putting on and taking off the 3D glasses.  Ollie was particularly taken with the picture of the baby dinosaur next to a Fly Agaric toadstool.  He has the very common misconception that dinosaurs were all massive like the impressive skeletons he's seen at the Natural History Museum, so he took a lot of convincing that it wasn't a 'normal sized' dinosaur and a giant mushroom.

As you can see from my pictures above, both boys had a great time with the Sticker Book that we were sent.  The backdrops were made from lovely scenery from the film and there were plenty of great quality reusable stickers to add to the backdrops.  We used the stickers to work out which characters would walk on the ground and which would fly in the sky, and in Toby's case which were the funniest ones to stick to his face.  The stickers were well made and peeled off cleanly, which you will know to be really important if you've ever had a toddler upset because a leg or tail tore off a sticker they were trying to peel from it's backing.  They are strong enough that you really can keep peeling them off and sticking them on different scenes.  There is also some basic large text on each page which is useful to set the scenes and to encourage new readers to pick out some words for themselves.
The final book was our choice for a bedtime book tonight.  The Great Migration  is a lovely story from the film following the main character from hatching to the successful completion of his first seasonal migration, with plenty of adventure along the way.  As well as being a very positive story in it's own right, The Great Migration is also a good introduction to the concept that many animals move around to find food or to escape harsh weather conditions, which is handy at this time of year as we see the geese flocking into Britain for the winter in their V formations.  You can springboard into talking about food chains too since there are encounters with predators and herbivores.  This book also comes with a detachable page of stickers, which is always a winning addition to books for children.

Overall then I would highly recommend this set of books for any child, but especially if you are doing what comes naturally and facilitating a child delving more deeply into their current obsession.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Halloween carrots, science and art

 This year our local supermarket was stocking purple carrots called 'Witches Noses'.  This might sound like some kind of GM Frankenfood, but actually orange carrots are the more recent type (17th Century) prior to which they were purple.  The purple carrots we bought were a modern breed, but it's nice to support a greater variety of vegetables than we have been used to seeing.  The purple colour is caused by anthocyanins which you may have heard of because they are a group of antioxidants also present in fruit such as blueberries and credited with all sorts of health enhancing properties.

The colour was so strong it bled and made soup look a bit unappetising , and when we ate them raw we ended up with stained fingers I cooked the last batch of them on their
own by simply boiling in water.  This produced a deep purple liquid and made me wonder if it would make a good indicator solution in the way that red cabbage water
does.  A quick shake of vinegar in a sample on a spoon later and my hopes were confirmed, so I saved the juice for some after dinner fun.

I started by pouring a couple of tablespoons of the carrot water onto a plate and giving the kids vinegar and bicarbonate of soda to add to the liquid.  It's better to start by letting children experiment and make observations by themselves without telling them what to expect at first.  You can draw out their observations with comments and questions 'wow, look at that, what colour did it go when you added the vinegar? Now what happens if you add bicarb?'

Once they've had a few goes turning the solution to red, blue, back to red you can start to introduce some of the correct terminology.  Here's roughly how I explained things as we went along:  The liquid is an indicator solution. Indicator solutions change colour if you add an acid or an alkali.  They
'indicate' which means they show you whether you have added and acid or an alkali.  Our indicator solution goes pinky red when you add an acid and blue when you an an alkali.  Vinegar makes the solution go red, so do you
think it is an acid or an alkali?  Taste the vinegar, what does it make your
mouth feel like?  What else makes your mouth feel like that? Lemons? Brilliant, lets see what happens when we add lemon juice.  The bicarb made the solution go blue, so do you think it's an acid or an alkali? Alkalis sometimes feel soapy, what else can we test that feels soapy? ...

After the boys were in bed, I dipped some strips of paper in the remaining solution, then added some salt as a mordant (something that fixes a dye) and boiled some cotton rag in it for a few minutes, cold rinsed it and then hung it to dry.  I wanted to make indicator strips, and thought it might work to make 'permanent' indicator fabric which we could play with, rinse out and use again another day since purple carrots are a rarity in the shops if we wanted to repeat the experiment.  I found the paper I had cut up from an old envelope must have been a bit posh - acid free -as it went blue.  The cotton dyed beautifully, so we were all set for the next day.

 This time I lined up some safe, everyday household items to test, including milk, washing up liquid, more bicarb mixed with water, vinegar and some carbolic soap scrapings mixed with water.  Ollie added most of them himself to glass ramekins and then dipped a strip of indicator fabric into each one, laying the dipped strip in front of the relevant ramekin.  At the end, we talked about what colours they had gone, how light or dark a change and what the colours meant.  Getting it right whether the colour indicates it is an acid or an alkali is very hit and miss for Ollie, but even for him I would have been surprised if he remembered all of it first time.  This activity is just about enjoying making things change colour and introducing the words for young children, as they get older you can focus more on the science of what is going on.  You can even baffle older kids with the irritating statement that all alkalis are bases, but not all bases are alkalis (alkalis are just bases that can be dissolved in water, and not all bases can be dissolved in water).  Even little ones Toby's age enjoy seeing the effect they have on the colours by dipping them into different liquids, and will likely at some point start mixing the liquids together in experiments of their own design.  With Ollie we also keep a little science experiments log book because he likes to look
back on the experiments he's done before.  Sometimes he'll add drawings of the experiment, today he
was happy to supply reminders about what colours things had turned, what that meant, and to chose some
different coloured strips to stick in.

 When we had suitably covered the dining table in multicoloured gloop, I had a quick wipe down and gave each of the boys a square of the indicator fabric, a ramekin of vinegar and another of bicarb in water.  They had free reign then to create whatever took their fancy - at first dipping chopsticks daintily into the liquids and onto the fabric, then using their fingers, and finally pouring the liquids out completely.  They were really pleased with their finished artworks and I think they're so pretty I'm going to pop them into frames so we can see their science and art up on the wall.  I don't know how well the colours will keep, but then, that's just another experiment.

If you can't find purple carrots (which is fairly likely) then this works well with the liquid saved from boiling red cabbage.  Letting kids choose what the want to test really gets them involved in the whole activity, but make sure you stress that they don't try out the things that lurk under the kitchen sink for example if you use things like bleach in your home.  I'm working on the assumption with kids of the age of mine are that telling them not to put thing in their mouth is not fail safe, so I opt for things which are either edible, or at least won't do them any harm if ingested in small amounts, such as soap. If you make up just liquid indicator it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, the paper strips and fabric for a lot longer so long as they're kept dry.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Halloween crafty day

 Last night and this morning we had the worst storm the South East of England has seen in several years, and although we came through completely unscathed our thoughts are with all those who suffered damage to property, homes, travel misery and worse.  Most of today wasn't more than 'seasonally blustery' (weatherman speak for 'hang on to your children or they'll get blown in to a bush') but, since littlest is producing volumes of snot usually only witnessed in nature by someone annoying a hagfish, I thought indoor activities would be sensible today.

Big brother Ollie has been well and truly bitten by the Halloween bug after going to our friend's Halloween party on Saturday, so he was really keen to dress up our house to be as 'spooky amazing' as their house was.  I don't think we're quite up to our friend's creative flair, but here's what we got up to today.  None of it is particularly original, but that's the great thing about having kids - they neither know nor care if something has been done a hundred times before.  For littlies they rather like it if they themselves have done it a hundred times before since they crave repetition in all sorts of things, including play.

The first thing we made were paper chains to add to our skull as part of a 'dungeon'.  This seems really simple, but actually is really useful for children Ollie's age (nearly 4) as it gets them used to using scissors, at first with help and then by themselves.  I found the best place to start this skill off was with plastic scissors and play dough at 18 months or so.  Don't push too much at first for them to hold the scissors as an adult would, they don't necessarily have the reach or strength to cut anything as an adult would, but will get by fine for several months using two hands to manipulate the scissors to chop in to balls of dough or cut up dough sausages.  Once they're getting more confident and their hands are big enough, you can show them how to hold the scissors properly, but don't get frustrated if they don't go for it - they'll get there in their own time so long as you keep modelling what you want them to do by letting them see you cutting dough using the scissors.  Paper chains were also good because we could all get involved and 'work as a team like Cranky in Thomas' as Ollie put it, with one of the boys choosing the next colour and the other adding glue, with lots of turn taking and sticking things to themselves, each other, but mainly to me.  I found a green coloured glue stick and I find this really useful because the boys can see where they've put their glue.

 Next up we made a cobweb.  Toby and I held the wool at either end while Ollie cut in between until we had a few lengths of wool.  I then tied some together to make a basic shape and Ollie threaded longer bits through to fill in the middle.  We added the web to the spider in our hall.  As before, the useful skills here are dexterity and safety in using scissors 'scissors are sharp, everybody knows, point them down to your toes' as they say on the kids cooking show on CBeebies.

Ollie asked to wrap up a mummy, so I taped a half a helmet from one of his Octonauts toys to a small empty drinks bottle, wrapped it up in a cheap finger bandage from the first aid kit, taped it into an empty cardboard box and then added googly eyes and a drawn on mouth.  I taped some wool to the top of the box and our mummy is now hanging in the kitchen window, along with a ghost we made from a craft set on a kids magazine that I had saved from last year when Ollie was a bit to small to manage it.  I know that hoarding too much stuff can get to be a clutter problem, but a couple of boxes of things saved from the recycling bin makes life a lot easier when the littlies decide they must build a rocket right now.

I had saved a couple of fruit nets to use to make things such as pretend rock pooling fishing gear, goals for finger football or a fishing net for an underwater picture, but we decided that this one would make a good spider web picture.  The plastic spiders were also left overs saved from a kit on a kids magazine last year and we added glue and glitter to make web shapes.  Glitter shakers are one of Toby's favourite things and I'm so happy I found some in a sale this year with proper shaker caps. The tubes we had been using were a pain as the tops were so hard to get off the glitter would fly everywhere when the cap finally did give way.  Ollie got to use his beloved scissors again and we all put on glue and glitter.  We used glue stick to attach the net to the paper, then PVA glue to make the web shape and stick on the spiders.

Our last make was soap bubble monster pictures.  A good squeeze of washing up liquid, a splash of water, a straw, some paper and some pens is all that's needed for this one.  I think Ollie would have been happy just blowing bubbles all day, without the added extra of using them for printing.
The process is really simple.  Mix up the soap liquid, the water and some food dye, blow bubbles, splat a sheet of paper down on top of the bubbles (without dipping it in the liquid underneath).  You can use the resulting prints for all sorts of things, but since we were going with the Halloween theme today we used the shapes made by the bubbles to make monster faces.  Toby was napping while Ollie blew the bubbles and I'm not sure if he would have stuck to blowing, or tried sucking up the soap mix - best

to rely on your own judgement about what your child is ready for for this one.   When the pictures were dry, and Toby was awake, Ollie followed the shapes to make eyes for his monsters, which is good writing practice.  Toby was very keen on selecting the colours he was going to use, which was great as I could name the colours he chose and sign them in Makaton at the same time, helping his speech acquisition and encouraging him to say 'yes' and 'no' when I offered him other colours.

These activities kept us busy on and off all day, with breaks for food, and in Toby's case a very snuffly nap.  The house is now nice and spooky, and with the exception of the skull and spider (which cost £2 for both) and a few sheets of coloured paper it hasn't cost us anything.

We still have a couple of days to get busy if anyone has any ideas for cheap/free Halloween makes or bakes that we can try, please do leave your suggestions below.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Autumn gardening

 After the torrential rains and high winds of the last week we finally decided to give up on our tomato plants and make the most if a sunny spell to sort out the garden.  Our garden is a postage stamp sized top patio, then a couple of steps down to an area about the same size but with flag stones and slate chipping where we gave up on trying to grow a lawn.  It is on the teeny size, but we're so lucky to have it as it means we can do some REALLY messy play involving making puddles with the water butt or digging out a pot of compost over the patio looking for bugs.

Our first job today was pulling out the old tomato plants, which led to a nice discussion about compost and how the 'goodness' in dead plants and animals is recycled to make lovely compost that new plants can grow in.  I did the trip down to the compost bin
solo though since one of the neighbourhood cats is currently using the slate chippings as a toilet and I couldn't face cleaning cat muck off the kids boots again.  This was a shame as the compost bin is heaving with worms at the moment which the boys love to watch.

Next Ollie carefully dug over the soil while Toby carefully emptied a bucket of water over himself.  Ollie went through the soil picking out snails and inspecting the other residents, including woodlice, spiders, worms and a big centipede. This was a good starter for talking about which minibeasts bite and which don't, and why that is, which was a lead into talking some more about foodchains.  Ollie laid out the plants he wanted to put in and then dug the holes and plopped in his chosen plants - cyclamens at the front and sides and pansies at the back.  I helped him to firm them in to make sure the roots are well covered by soil.

Next we tidied up the big decking board trough that hubby Matt made a couple of years ago and where we plant the majority of our crops.  We thinned out the strawberries and then planted garlic cloves in between them.  I don't know if there is any science behind it, but we found this year that the strawberries companion planted with garlic were huge and bountiful compared to those in a pot without garlic.  We pulled out another finished tomato plant and filled up some gaps were something had eaten some of the herbs we planted a couple of months ago.  The chamomiles had just died, which retrospectively was just my poor crop cycling - chamomile likes it fairly dry and nutrient poor but I planted the poor things in the space where the broad beans had been.  Beans are wonderful at fixing nitrogen in the soil due to the action of symbiotic bacteria living in nodules in the roots of the beans, so I should have followed with something
that appreciates a fertile soil.  I've plopped in some wallflowers to fill the gap for the moment, but I'm not sure how well these will fare either for the same reason - they're not called 'wall' flowers for nothing.

While we were digging around, Toby found the biggest worm.  He is hugely interested in animals, but not quite keen on touching them, so he kept putting his hands out to hold the worm and them backing away when it actually got close to him.  Ollie had no such worry, holding the worm out to Toby and saying 'it's Ok Toby, we like worms, they drag down own leaves and eat them and poop out soil for our flowers'.  I couldn't have put it better myself.  Toby, however, remains unconvinced that anything so wiggly is quite alright.

Gardening with kids does require an extra measure of patience, especially when they're small.  You have to accept a certain amount of collateral damage in flowers picked off for close examination and things dug up that you've just put in.  As Toby heads towards his second birthday and Ollie his fourth we are starting to get to the point where there are less random decapitation of plants and far less leaping to remove pebbles from mouths.  We may even get to the point of totally relaxed pottering about in the garden with children that you see on the gardening shows.  In the meantime we have fun learning about garden science, the environment, water cycles, food cycles and all sorts of things, while getting a little late autumn sunshine on our faces, and enough dirt on us to boost those growing immune systems and ward off allergies.  A tidy garden can wait.