Thursday, 21 March 2013

When eggs go bad

It's been a while since I promised to post the results of our Easter egg project, but between us all having chest infections (which is particularly not fun as little Toby already has sleep apnoea) plus me trying to get ahead and finish my OU assignment, I've been even more strapped for time and energy than usual in the evenings.

Anyhow, here it is :)  The idea was suggested by Natalie, and the instruction's she found for it looked really straightforward, with a really appealing looking end product:  Take one water balloon and a mini egg.  Insert mini egg into water balloon and blow up partially, so it is the size of a hen's egg.  Mix equal parts PVA glue and water.  Dip a length of string in this mixture and wind it round the balloon.  Repeat with more string, making a mesh.  Allow to dry, then pop the balloon.  Hey presto, an adorable egg inside an  egg gift is born.

I think I went wrong from stage one, when I used regular balloons because I couldn't find anywhere selling water balloons.  I blew them up as small as I could, but as you can see from the picture, any hen trying to lay an egg that size would have been shouting for an epidural!

 I started off with really short lengths of wool, because I thought the boys would find these easier to handle, but they just slid off.  Second try with longer lengths worked well, with quite a bit of help for Ollie.  Toby is going through a stage where he doesn't like sticky or dirty hands, and so protested about the glue until I gave up and gave him just dry wool to play with.  Ollie really enjoyed winding the wool around.  He said he was making a spider web egg.  So far so good (see the second picture).

The next day when the wool had dried out it was all looking very promising, and Ollie had great fun popping the first balloon with a skewer (and close parental supervision!).  Our poor egg promptly collapsed in on itself.  We went wrong somewhere that's for sure, and I think the most likely candidate was the size of the balloon.  I think I will up the percentage of PVA in our mixture next time to be on the safe side too.

A great thing about doing craft projects with kids is that the outcome is generally less important than the process.  Ollie got a lot out of measuring out the glue and water and stirring it, and both boys were really taken with the wool.  Toby draped lengths of it across his face and head, enjoying the different textures of the fluffy and smooth wools.  Once the wool was dipped in glue, Ollie was the only one who was keen on it, but repeated chances for messy play for both the boys is really important.  Even the failed eggs aren't a waste as the slightly crispy wool has gone back in the craft box to be reincarnated at some future time as a nest, or hair, or a spider web.

I'd love to know if anyone else has had a crack at this project, and what tips you can give me for next time :)

Friday, 15 March 2013

Early Easter egg hunt

With the boys chickenpox flowing seamlessly into coughs and fevers, there have been a lot of indoor crafts activities on the books during the last few weeks.  Today, inspired by a suggestion by the lovely Natalie, we started making wool cage Easter eggs, but more on that in a couple of days when our handiwork has dried and I can photograph the finished articles.  Following on in the Easter theme, we then painted card egg shapes and basic baskets (simply made by folding an A5 piece of card, sticking the edges with double sided tape and adding a card handle).  When the eggs and baskets were dry, I distributed the eggs around the living room for an Easter egg hunt, with pots of bubbles to blow for prizes.  I know it's all really early, but Ollie loves playing treasure hunt so the promise of an egg hunt seemed a good bribe to get him to eat up his dinner relatively quickly.

The boys (including big kid husband) really enjoyed the hunt, and it was incredibly cute watching Toby toddling around with his little basket grasped firmly in his fist.  We had four encores, with the final one being me hunting for eggs that Ollie had hidden.  Ollie spectacularly doesn't understand hide and seek or treasure hunt games, so I got a lot of help 'It's over there mummy, I put one there on the sofa!'.

Definitely a game we will be returning to.  As well as the creative stimulation and fine motor skills involved in painting the eggs themselves, the boys both had plenty of chance to work on their gross motor skills charging around looking for the eggs, and climbing over cushion obstacles, under chairs and in their play tent.  It's really important to encourage crawling in kids even when they can walk as it is thought to help the development of their general coordination and fine motor skills as well as the more obvious gross motor skills.  There is even a therapy for helping dyslexia and dyspraxia in older children that involves making movements that simulate crawling type motions as it is thought that even at a later stage these can help forge brain connections that help to overcome these conditions.  And as with all the games we return to time and again, we mainly do it because they boys have a great time :)

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

We're international!

I've just looked at the stats for the blog, and we're currently being viewed by folks in: the UK, the USA, Jersey, France, Germany, China and the Philippines.  Thank you xxx

String painting

Painting of any kind is always good fun, but I like to explore different materials with the boys to make sure I'm not limiting their perceptions early on of what art is.  Maybe then they won't grow up thinking the contents of the Tate Modern is a load of old tosh like I'm afraid to admit I do :) Today a hunt through the junk drawer in the kitchen (you know the one, you can barely open it but it's full of odd things that you can't live without but don't tidy away to anywhere less junky) revealed a ball of string, so that gave me this idea.  Cut up string into different lengths, squirt paint on a plate, encourage two small boys to squish the string around in the paint and then drag it over the paper and hey presto, string painting.

I think I was more impressed with the results than either of the boys.  Toby dumped the plate, string and paper on the floor within a couple of minutes.  When I cleaned up and
replaced it with playdough for him, Ollie decided that playdough looked much more fun too, so we all spent half and hour rolling and cutting and squishing (and in one case eating) the dough instead.  All in all a really fun half hour, even if it wasn't quite what I had in mind at the start.

Snow castles

Winter made a reappearance yesterday, to the delight of the boys who wrapped up warm and braved the patio to build a tiny snowman yesterday.  Today however Ollie was poorly, so I decided that if he couldn't go to the snow, the snow could  come to him.  I scooped up clean snow into a clean bowl (the significance of making sure everything was pristine is that Toby treats snow as his own personal icecream factory). Initially the boys explored the snow with spoons and cups.  After about ten minutes, I then added food colouring and vanilla essence to add a different dimension to their sensory experience.  Ten minutes after that I got out a big plastic tray so we could transfer the coloured snow between the bowl and the tray.  Finally, I got out some toy cars and Bob the Builder and we flattened the snow down into roads and played rescue truck where one car has to tow the other out of the snow.

Building on the basic activity with new variations keeps kids interest for longer, which is especially helpful if it's an activity that has taken you time to set up, or will take time to pack away and clean up after.  I've had plenty of experiences where the preparation and cleanup has taken longer than the actual activity itself. An example being playing in the snow yesterday - twenty minutes to get them ready to go outside (pre-parenting I would not have believed how long it takes to simply leave the house!), ten minutes playing in the snow, then twenty minutes de-booting and de-coating them and mopping the floor where they'd shed snow all over it.

Varying the activity also targets different parts of their experience of the materials you are using.  The plain snow was interesting in itself and we talked about how it felt, and looked and tasted.  Adding the food colouring and flavouring added new descriptive language and ideas for play.  Building snow castles was Ollie's idea and developed on from the sand castles he spends all day making at nursery.  Finally bringing in the cars stimulated more imaginative play, rather than the sensory exploration we had been focusing on.  By looking at how his cars fared when driven over the snow, we talked about the difference the size of the wheels made, and what happened when we compacted the snow into an icy road.  In total the activity lasted half an hour, with very minimal clean up time (Ollie even enjoyed drying the floor with an old towel).  It could have stretched even further, but as Ollie already had a cold I thought that thirty minutes of playing with a cold material was enough, and followed up with his favourite 'warm hot chocolate milk' (half and half milk and hot water, with a quarter of a teaspoon of chocolate milkshake powder in it).

Monday, 11 March 2013

Messy foam writing

The half hour or so before dinner is always a bit of a challenge since the kids are hungry and needing more attention than I can give them while I'm doing the 'hot bits' of the cooking.  So this is the solution I came up with this weekend.  I gave each of the boys a generous squirt of value shaving foam bought for home experiments and messy play.  The value foam is best as it has less perfume in it, and it is the perfume that can cause skin irritation and itching.  It is also an insanely cheap resource - I paid just 25p for it at our local supermarket.

The first time Ollie was given shaving foam to play with was as a nine month old baby at nursery, and I have to say I was very dubious about this material and actually quite worried, so I did a lot of ringing around and internet searching into its use and potential toxicity.  It turns out it is very commonly used in preschool settings and is just soap, so if ingested the worst that will happen is a laxative effect.  I still think nine months was too young for Ollie to have been left alone to play with it, as he had got it in his eyes as well as eating a lot and was in a sorry state when I picked him up that day.  For this reason I've held off using shaving foam for play with Toby until recently, but he seems to have got the idea quickly that this isn't tasty and not to rub it on his face.

Both boys played happily with the foam for about ten minutes, at which point Toby got bored and 'asked' to be released from his booster seat.  Ollie however kept playing with it for half an hour,  filling up various small containers such as milk powder scoops, smearing it and squishing it.  I then showed him that if he smoothed it out he could draw patterns in it.  Ollie straight away started writing his name out, and then insisted that Matt and I both took turns in writing our names too, which he did his best to copy.  I've noticed that his writing with a pen took a leap forward after this, so I think that presenting writing in a different way has stimulated an area of understanding that he hadn't reached before.  I've seen examples of good practice in helping dyslexic children learn to write using trays of wet sand and their finger, so this foam play writing probably falls into the same category of multisensory learning. By tracing out large letters in the air, or in another medium such as sand, it stimulates the brain differently to writing small letters with a pen.  Even for children as young as Toby, all that squishing and smoothing is building fine motor skills which ultimately help to prepare them for more complex tasks.

A great benefit of using shaving foam in this way is that because it is just soap, although it counts as messy play a quick wipe with a cloth and for once the table was actually cleaner after we'd played on it than before, perfect for getting ready for dinner.

Friday, 8 March 2013

World book day

Yesterday was World Book Day, as anyone with nursery or school aged kids most likely already knows.  Ollie started nursery in January two days a week and has screamed and made himself sick every time he's had to go in since.  Forcing him to go went completely against my child-led learning philosophy, and I was on the brink of pulling him out.  This week was suddenly different and I think the nursery's idea of getting the kids to dress up as characters from Alice in Wonderland may have been part of the cure.

Ollie has limited screen time, as more than an hour a day of TV or computer time is really negative to children's development, and he had never seen the Disney film.  He's definitely not ready to sit through the actual unabridged book, so I thought a film night was in order.  We made popcorn and watched the film together, while I sewed a pompom tail on his white rabbit outfit and made him a cardboard pocket watch.  Ollie was actually looking forward to getting dressed up and showing his teachers and the next morning, for the first time, we had no tears.  When I picked him up he was also really happy for the first time, back to his normal (extremely) chatty self, not the silent, depressed little boy I'd been bringing home for the last two months.  To the contrary, he spent the next few hours until bedtime running around and shouting 'I'm late, I'm late!'.

I'm really lucky, as I seem to have had a much less stressful World Book Day than the other mums at the playgroup I took Toby to that day, whose children announced minutes before they left the house that they couldn't wear the costume that had been procured for them because they didn't have the book that went with it.  At least at age three I expect Ollie to only give me a fraction of the information I need to get him ready for events at nursery - I must never lose this expectation in favour of the idea that older kids can and will relay on all the information they're supposed to :)  Parents who manage to get their kids to school with even half the things they need, I salute you!

Environmental enrichment

What can you do with an hour of peace while your toddler naps?  The temptation for me is always to buzz around doing housework, but this week I decided to reclaim a bit of me time.  So one hour, a scruffy egg box door,  and less than a fivers worth of tester pots produced this.  I've never made a big painting, or done much painting at all in the (too many) years since I left school, so the potential of this to go pear shaped was high.  If it was truly terrible though, I figured the worse thing that would happen was that I'd need to repaint the door.  So there I was, wearing my old lab coat and singing to myself and pretending I was an artist.  I readily admit I am not technically proficient in the slightest, but I am surprised at how chuffed I am with this experiment.

What's the rationale for over sized artwork in the house?  As well as it being really healthy for your own mind to have some kind of creative outlet, it is also fantastic for babies and children to have a bright, visually stimulating environment.  Interesting things to look at stimulate brain development in the same way that any other sensory stimulation does.  I didn't want to make the room too chaotic looking though, as this is a space for sleeping as well as playing, so I'm hoping that opting for a natural scene I have struck a good balance.  I left the bottom third of the door painted as plain sand so that as we find or produce pictures of savanna dwelling plants and animals the boys can add them in, probably with bluetack so they can be regularly added to and updated.  Ollie's response was to ask if he could paint on the walls, so he seemed keen on the idea of banishing the magnolia, although I don't think I'm brave enough to let him free rein with his paintbox straight onto the walls.  A big pinboard for his paper creations is definitely in order methinks.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Play tent library

Here's an idea Toby came up with by himself.  He likes to spend ten minutes pootling about gathering up books and depositing them in the play tent.  He'll then retire to his 'library' for quite long stretches, looking at his books and playing with a toy he's picked out to take in with him.  Everyone with kids knows they like small, private spaces and hidey holes.  Ollie's favourite used to be a cupboard in the dresser, until I had to take the doors off because he kept slamming them and giving the fish in the tank above palpitations.  This is now the third incarnation of the play tent, through general wear and tear (Ollie is 'wear' and Toby is 'Tear').  To Ollie the tent is the cabin on a boat into which he dives if it starts to rain, or there's a crocodile, or a naughty dinosaur.  To Toby it is a place to pile cushion and roll around, or relax with a good book, preferably about trains or tractors.

Sunshine and sea air

We were very fortunate from Sunday to today to get a dry stretch in the weather, and even a couple of days of glorious sunshine.  This was especially wonderful as poor little Toby has had a bad dose of chickenpox and I was glad to be able to get us all outside without getting too cold.  As I look at this picture and I can fantasize about the amazing, relaxed family experience we had with Ollie excitedly riding his Christmas bike in the sunshine.  This wasn't quite what happened.  It started with "I don't want to go out, I want to stay in and play boats" (the boat is a blanket on the living room floor where I spend many hours mending leaks and fending off crocodiles).  It continued with "I'm tired, I need a nap, my little legs hurt, I'm hungry, I need a drink, I want to go home, I can't see the car, I want an ice cream, I want to go on the pebbles, I want to ride up that hill (near vertical grass slope), my tummy hurts, my welly fell off, I fell off...." ad infinitum all the way up the seafront and all the way back to the car.

I write this not to moan, although it was making an otherwise lovely walk a bit miserable.  I write it because when you read parenting magazines and blogs there can be a tendency to rose tint the parenting experience, and then you start to doubt your own parenting abilities when your experience differs from the one you're 'supposed' to be having.  Kids have off days, just like adults, and when they're little especially there can be a seemingly unending ungrateful stream of moaning at times.  Distraction and humour can help, but other times it's enough just to try to get through it without blowing a gasket.  The biggest temptation to avoid is just giving up and not taking them out when they're moaning they don't want to.  Nine times out of ten they will end up having a great time, and it is especially important for kids to get out in the air for as much of the day as they  can.  Every day where the boys spend a couple of hours outside they are better behaved, eat well and sleep well.  They're getting fresh air into their lungs, light on their faces (maybe not always sunshine in the goldenest sense of the word) and lots of exercise to help burn off their boundless energy.  There has also been some suggestion recently that shortsightedness is massively on the rise due to the short distances children now spend most of their lives focusing on - the not very distant walls of their home and their t.v. screen.  It may just be that by providing your little one with plenty of distant vistas, you are also safguarding the functioning of their eyes.

Build a sandwich

 Activities with little ones don't have to take a lot of time to set up, or be very arty or scientific.  Here's a really simple idea that could transform your mealtimes into a fun interactive experience.

Instead of making a healthy sandwich for my boys, only to despair when they open them up and tip out half the contents, I decided to put the ball in their court and get them to make their own sarnies.  I sliced up some favourite fillers such as cucumber and cheese and helped the boys to spread their butter, then left them to build whatever they fancied.  I had envisioned that Ollie would patiently stack item on item between two slices of bread as he does over and over with his play food.  However he quickly decided that since he was in charge of his sandwich, he'd eat it his way, and follow fashion with a deconstructed dish.  So he ate the middle out of the bread first (after carefully removing the tomato as he 'couldn't see the butter'), then munched
his way bit by bit through a mound of other ingredients.  Toby plumped for rolling his bread over cheese and cucumber slices, then demolishing it fajita style, followed by sitting on my knee and shoving lettuce in my mouth faster than I could swallow it.  However they got there, the outcome was that both boys got a big helping of healthy food that they might otherwise have fussed over.

This is a good activity for developing creativity and decision making skills, as well as involving lots of sensory stimulation in seeing, tasting, smelling and feeling the different foods.  You can use it to develop language skills by directing questions throughout the meal to encourage your kids to describe what they're experiencing, name the food types, and think about their favourite tastes, smells or colours.

An added bonus is that any time you can spend with your children where you are preparing and eating food together helps to banish food fears and fussy eating.  Kids will eat pretty much anything if they've had a hand in making it themselves.  You are also priming your kids to avoid prepackaged convenience foods later in life when they see food preparation as something fun and communal rather than just domestic drudgery. You might even come up with a killer sandwich recipe you wouldn't have dreamed could work (peanut butter is awesome with salad!).

Friday, 1 March 2013

Little aquarist

Little brother has chicken pox, so this afternoon we left him home with Matt (who fortunately works short lunches and has a POETS day on Friday instead) and had a rare trip out with just the two of us.  After picking up some homeopathic medicine for Toby (thanks for the suggestion Nat, I hadn't thought to try it) we walked down to the West Cliff Railway.  Ollie thought this was brilliant, and it was a new experience for him too.  Ollie wanted to know where the petrol went, which led to an interesting discussion of how the cliff railway worked - the carriage descending the hill pulls the cable which tows the ascending carriage up.  I reinforced this idea a little more at bedtime when he wanted to know about the counterweight on the crane in his book.  We did a physical demonstration where I was the counterweight and he was the load and I sat down and pulled him up, which created a lot of giggling and calls for repeat performances.
Spot the angel shark? 
 From our return trip on the cliff railway, we walked down to the aquarium.  This is a place that used to cause me a lot of frustration as it is quite expensive to get in, but Ollie often just wanted to charge from one thing to the next, missing out whole tanks, and ending up with us spending about 20 minutes there in total (not including the time he spend trying to wheedle toys out of me in the gift shop.  While this kind of short time was still a good time to him, it left me frazzled.

Mermaids purses
 Fortunately a year pass was relatively cheap and has proved to be a real stress reducer as I don't feel I've wasted money when he is on a fly through. Other days he will spend ages in there, gazing at the fish and talking to the splashy, inquisitive rays.  Today was such a day, probably helped by us being almost on our own with only one other mother and son there at the same time as us.

Among the creatures of fascination where the anemones ("look mummy, anemones, like in Nemo"), the dogfish, sharks and rays that kept popping their noses out of the water right in front of him, and the shark egg cases (mermaids purses).  Ollie was really amazed that the 'pebble' in the egg was a baby shark (or ray, I admit I can't tell the difference between their eggs without a field guide).

He also watched the Gurnard for ages, and had lots of questions about why it had 'legs' and why other fish don't have legs.  The gurnard has specialised fin rays which it uses to feel in the sand for prey species, such as smaller fish, but it does really seem to walk on the sand.  Ollie didn't quite get the idea that it is easier to swim in water with fins and a tail than to walk through water, so as soon as his chickenpox scabs really heal up we'll be off to the swimming pool to stride around in the water and then swim in it to see which is easier.
Gurnard, with specialised fin rays

I've had folks ask me when he was a baby why I bothered to take him to places like this, as 'he won't remember it anyway', but anyone looking at his little face gazing intently at the shifting colours and lights in the tanks would know instinctively the answer to this question.  Any further justification needed?  Well, the more new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feels your little one is exposed to, the more neural pathways they form, and the more their interest in the world around them awakens.  So the kids have always been to zoos, and aquariums and museums and galleries.  They might not understand the same things from the experience that an older child would, but be sure they are taking away heaps of good stuff just the same.