Saturday, 28 September 2013

Bug palace

You've probably heard of a bug hotel.  These are often the shabby chic kind of boutique bug hotels made from a stack of logs or some pallets and sticks.  They provide a useful refuge for all sorts of minibeasts which are useful in your garden, such as spiders which eat all kinds of flies depending on their size and species, including nomming on aphids.  Spiders not your favourite?  Then maybe you'd prefer to thing of the gorgeous glossy groundbeetles which dine on the age old gardener's nemesis, the slug.  Useful as the bug hotel is, I wonder how many would be described as attractive garden features?

Today we found the answer while wandering around Merriments Garden in East Sussex - I can't resist calling it Bugginham Palace, I'm very sorry.  Here is a sculptural take on the bug hotel that I think would not just look good, but would also be fantastic fun to build with Lego obsessed children.

The structure was constructed from reclaimed materials (modern jargon for 'rubbish') including concrete blocks, paving slabs, clay drainage pipes and chopped up bamboo canes, plus a couple of purpose built wooden bug boxes.  The actual effectiveness of this design is probably not as helpful to bugs as the more familiar rough stack due to the large gaps between and within the elements - any minibeast trying to shelter in some of the more open tubes would get cold, dry out or find itself snaffled up by a bird or mouse (although web building spider would appreciate the gaps).  It could however be easily improved by adding more packing materials such as twigs and leaves and perhaps being used as an attractive fascia to a more traditional log pile which would also help to reduce drafts blowing through the structure.

If you have a little (or a large) space that you want to turn into a bug hotel (or palace) you can produce a really fun and informative series of activities.

1) Go on a bug hunt and try to get your children to describe what the places they found the bugs were like - it's a good activity to build on children's observational skills and use of descriptive language, and will help to inform the next step.  You could also start to discuss why the creatures like the places they were found in - for example woodlice and pillbugs are the only land dwelling form of their kind - all the other arthropods live in water (e.g. sea slaters) - woodlice have very poor ability to retain water and regulate body temperature, and therefore tend to shelter together in damp places such as under piles of rotting leaves.

2) Design your bug hotel.  Get your kids to do this verbally, or through drawings, or a collage.  You can guide them with ideas about what materials you can use - what will you be able to forage or find?  How are you going to put them together?  You may want to add in a foraging/gleaning step before this if you're not sure what materials you'll be able to get hold of.  If you're kids are small, plan small too - the last thing you want is a tall 5 pallet bug house collapsing on them when they inevitable pull it to pieces to see who has taken up residence.  This is a good opportunity to talk about food chains - who are your intended guests going to be hiding from or eating?

3) Gather your materials.  Wood that is treated will be useful for building the structure (e.g. pallets, old fence posts and panels) but since it is likely to have been pressure treated with cyanide it will rot slowly and not be as useful a food source as untreated wood.  Likewise for stone, clay pots and pipes, flagstones etc...  Pack these materials will items that will provide small hidey holes, such as sections of bamboo canes which will provide homes for overwintering lacewings (useful for munching aphids) and all year round for solitary bees.  Other useful packing materials include leaves that will rot fairly slowly (a year or so to turn into leafmould depending on how damp they are) and will provide food and shelter for woodlice and millipedes, and their predators.  Sticks of all sorts are a useful addition, but especially those from deciduous species (those that drop their leaves in the Autumn) since evergreens such as pines have a different carbon to nitrogen ratio that means they rot slower and they may also contain resins that slow decay and make them unappealing foodstuffs (think how a pine forest floor is covered in pine needles, while an oak woodland is crumbly brown earth).

4)  Build your bug hotel.  Where you put it is going to depend on your available space and how prominent a feature you want it to be, but as a rule of thumb damp, shady areas will attract a different mixture of species to dry, sunny spots.  For example, siting your hotel near a pond may result in a fat crop of slugs, their predators and possibly even a toad (also a slug predator).  A warm, sunny spot may be attractive to solitary bees, spiders and overwintering butterflies.

Make sure you instill handwashing as a routine after bug hunting since there are parasites and pathogens associated with some minibeasts, such as lungworm in slugs. I find it worth thoroughly checking over our intended area for cat mess before we start digging around.  Avoid any areas that are obviously soiled by bird droppings.

If you live in a region with potentially risky species such as vipers which may take up residence, follow the guidelines issued by your local wildlife authorities.  Even here in the UK there are areas with populations of Adders which have a painful bite that requires immediate medical treatment.  I personally avoid handling centipedes too as they have a hefty bite, even if UK species are not life threatening.  Several beetles can bite, as can ants and some spiders, so I find a little plastic scoop and a small bucket or ice cream tub are useful for bug hunting.

If you build a log pile, don't let your kids walk or climb over it as logs can roll suddenly, trapping fingers or worse.

Be aware that some species are protected, so if you find them living in your hotel you mustn't handle them.  Slow worms were my favourite species to find when minibeast hunting while I worked as a Fieldstudies Instructor, but these harmless legless lizards are protected and you should avoid handling them.  Again, follow whatever your local wildlife authority's advice is on this.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nature Deficit Disorder

 I'd heard the term 'Nature Deficit Disorder' bandied around for a couple of years, for example in National Trust literature, but to be honest I didn't know much about it, other than the images that jump to mind of kids staring at grey concrete walls and slowly going out of their minds.  So I thought that for this post I would share what I have learned about it and a few thoughts I have on it.

The term was coined by the American author and child advocate Richard Louv in his 2005 book 'Last Child in the Woods'.  In the book he apparently linked worrying trends in increasing levels of childhood obesity, depression and attention disorders to the decreasing amount of time children now spend outdoors. 

Even for me growing up in the 1980s I saw there was already a divide between the parents who kept there children in out of fear of 'stranger danger' and road traffic and those who let their children play out as they had done themselves.  The motivations of both groups were solidly with their child's welfare at heart, but the 'keep them in, keep them safe' group of parents has increasingly gained numbers, with good reasons when it comes to the increasing risk from volume of traffic on the roads, and understandable reasons with regards to child abduction risk (although this is supposedly actually a very low risk, blown out of proportion by the media, since most child abductions and homicides are committed by family members, not strangers).

Even walking to school has become an unusual thing as the old catchment area boundaries have been changed (UK) so that children do not automatically go to the nearest primary school to their home, and small schools are often closed in favour of large 'efficient' schools.  At school and at home much of children's time is now spent in front of a screen of some sort, it doesn't seem like a huge leap of the imagination to make the connection between this rapid change in how children experience childhood and some of the social and health concerns we currently face.

I can't quote any of the research that has been done into this to judge whether it is a real phenomenon, but it certainly sounds plausible.  My own experience of working in the Outdoor Education Industry and as a mainstream teacher is that children labelled as disruptive, unmotivated and behaviourally difficult are often unrecognisable when given the opportunity to learn outside.  I'm a big fan of the Forest Schools initiative in which trained staff bring children into a natural woodland setting to deliver a wide range of lessons.  Children learn best by doing, whether it is the fine motor skills associated with gathering and manipulating woodland materials to make a mandala, or learning the maths skills necessary to calculate the height of a tree.  Even when they're 'just playing' they are developing all sorts of skills - your homework for today is to think of all the skills involved in a group of kids, or a family, building a stick den together.

The National Trust and the Forestry Commission are leading the way in providing opportunities for families to spend time experiencing nature in a way that benefits everyone.  This weekend we spend an afternoon at Bolderwood in the New Forest in Hampshire and, in addition to the pleasant ramble we expected, we were pleased to find that there was a children's activity van set up with items such as different deer antlers and skins to handle, plus active encouragement and provision of resources for den building. 

Even the parts of childhood that can be so frustrating to parents are of immense value to children.  Ollie insisted on taking a picture of every fungus he found, which meant for a slow walk but one packed with interest for him in hunting them out and crouching down to examine them.  Toby is obsessed with stones and minibeasts, and I'm not sure which ultimately held his interest the longest on this walk, but it involved him lying full length on the path staring at something and refusing to carry on until he had inspected it fully.  If you're planning on a brisk hike through the trees, you're in for a frustrating afternoon, so we have to try to step back and think what we're actually there for.  Cardio workout it was not, but perhaps it does your heart just as much good to try to relax and enjoy kids exploring at their own pace.

I haven't done a top five of anything in a post before, but here's my own top five reasons (in no order)why I think it's important to get outside:

1) Our eyes benefit from looking at objects at different distances in order to build the muscles we use for focussing.  That old adage that sitting too close to the telly gives you bad eyes might just be true (or with your nose constantly in a book like I was as a child.  As a -10 myopic you can't get much more short sighted than me).  Our eyes also need plenty of fresh, clean air and unless you're there when the trees are shedding pollen forest air is about as clean as you'll find  anywhere.

2) Walking on uneven surfaces is important for developing obvious things such as children's sense of balance, but may also be linked to the development of their cognitive abilities because uneven ground requires more concentration to navigate than a flat path that allows your brain to zone out.

3) The air in our homes is often heavily polluted with Volatile Organic Compounds from paint, carpets and furnishings, and the air in our cars has all of these plus fumes from the engine, which have been shown to be in greatest concentration in the rear seats, so getting out into the woods gives our bodies a break from trying to protect us from these air borne nasties.  There are some studies that suggest that walking in pine forests in particular has a beneficial effect on lung health.

4)  The colour green has been shown to have a calming effect, reducing high blood pressure and mental stress, so time spent in the predominantly green environment of a forest is a good way of helping children (and adults) to offload a stressful week, which in turn will improve concentration.

5)  Fun together, which in these time pressed days is possibly the most important benefit of all.

This post isn't sponsored, all the linkies are just for information x

Monday, 16 September 2013

Wildlife friendly gardening with children

We have had a lovely productive year in our tiny garden, with crops of broad beans, purple mange tout peas, Swiss chard, garlic, potatoes, blackcurrants and bumper harvests of strawberries and raspberries.  The children have had a lovely time sowing and growing all these tasty treats, and I think our success this year has been partly down to the weather, and partly down to our wildlife helpers keeping many of the herbivorous pests at bay.

Normally I find black aphids a problem on our broadbeans - not spoiling the crop entirely but certainly making for messy, black stained fingers when harvesting and podding the beans.  This year we didn't have any problems, which may be due to help from the bugs and birds we have been encouraging into our garden.

Beneficial, predatory insects such as centipedes, spiders, lacewings and even wasps can be of major help - when we had an allotment I watched in amazement as wasps carried off little fat green caterpillars from our kale crop.  Minibeast helpers can be encouraged by leaving areas a little less than pristine -  a pile of logs and sticks in a corner for example provides a useful place to hide and to overwinter.  You can easily make a home for solitary bees and lacewings by bunching up short lengths of garden cane and wedging them into a plant pot, then hanging it somewhere unobtrusive (we have ours suspended in the small gap between the shed and the fence).  I have also purposely left a few small troughs to self seed with 'weeds' this year.  Placed near the productive containers they seemed to reduce the load of aphids on our crops - the weeds had plenty on them, but hardly any on the veg.  I did this initially to provide flowers to attract in hoverflies and bees, but the aphid effect was an unexpected bonus.

Our biggest problems are slugs and snails, and for this we need to encourage Thrushes and Blackbirds into our garden.  These are ground feeding birds, so a tray on short legs is best.  Simply throwing food on the ground is a recipe for mess and a potential source of infection for the birds - a tray is better because you can give it a good scrub down with a bird-safe disinfectant every week or so.

Smaller birds such as Bluetits are fantastic at getting rid of caterpillars and I've also seen them feeding on roses covered in greenfly - hopefully eating the greenfly and not the unappetising Ladybirds.  These can generally fend for themselves in the spring when there are lots of insects about - which is what their chicks need to grow - but later on in the year benefit from hanging bird feeders filled with bird seed.  If you're going to feed with peanuts, it's a good idea to make sure these are bird-grade since they will have been guaranteed to be free from pathogens which could cause illness in the birds you are trying to attract.  Small birds also appreciate really fatty foods, such as fat balls and coconut feeders.  Peanut and seed tubs popular with birds and are fun and easy to make with your kids.   Simply mix up a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter with a couple of tablespoons of bird seed and smear into containers such as yoghurt pots or old coconut feeders, then hang out of reach of cats.

We had success one year with a hanging feeder filled with niger seed - these tiny black seeds brought in Goldfinches, which were a glowing whirl of colour and incredibly exotic looking.  They normally feed on thistle and teasel seeds, so if you have a big enough garden to leave a wild patch with native wild flowers in, make sure you leave it alone when it runs to seed and don't mow it down too enthusiastically.  All year round, but especially in winter it is also vital to provide water, both for drinking and bathing.  Important for the birds, but also you will see water sources often visited by bees in the warmer months.

As well as benefiting your crops, kids gain a great deal from watching wildlife visitors to the garden.  You can use it as a catalyst for all kinds of learning, from learning how to make tally charts and recognise different types of birds and insects, to introducing ideas about food chains and life cycles.

This post was sponsored, but the images, anecdotes and nommy veg are genuine and all mine

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Garden spirits (seasonal clay modelling)

We went to a village fete last weekend and Ollie became totally engrossed in an excellent activity being run by a lovely local mum (Toby fell asleep unfortunately and missed out on this one).

The idea was to use clay and a selection of seasonal gathered items and other bits and bobs, including feathers, leaves and wool, to create a spirit for your garden.  The image to the left is a fab one made by someone else - perhaps the lady running the activity.  Ollie decided to make a dinosaur, complete with lots of spiky bits 'so bigger dinosaurs don't eat him'.  I was incredibly impressed by the way this activity brought together found objects and creative play.

The lady running it was so taken by Ollie's enthusiasm that she kindly gave us some clay to take home for further exploration.  Ollie decided to make a pot with a lid on for his Daddy 'to keep acorns in'.  I gave him some help building up the pot and making sure it had thick enough walls and base to stay together when it dried out, but he made the lid entirely by himself and was so proud of himself when it fit perfectly.

Clay is such a lovely tactile material and this activity seemed so perfect for the Autumn.  I can see many trips ahead of us looking for acorns to add to Matt's new collection (I don't think Matt knows he's collecting acorns yet - not until he read this post anyway).  For Toby, the clay was a perfect medium for practicing rolling things out into sausages which he loves to make almost as much as he loves flinging the finished items at our heads while roaring with laughter.

It's always worth going to new things such a village fetes as you never know what creative people will have come up with to add to your own repertoire of fun activities. Let me know if you've got a 'must do' Autumn craft, I'd love to hear other people's ideas :)

Saturday, 7 September 2013

STEM for kids

STEM is the acronym for Science Technology Engineering and Maths.  They're subjects that as a country (UK) we generate many people who are world leaders in their fields, but which our Government underfunds and which is undervalued by much of our society.  This is bad for several reasons, not least of which is that not enough young people are studying these subjects and therefore we have a shortage of people entering STEM professions. 

Children are often put off STEM subjects at an early age as they are not exposed to enough exciting, hands on activities.  By the time they get to secondary school, only a handful of kids actually know what jobs in these subjects involve.  Science is for 'boffins' (a word used by kids to describe children who actually concentrated and tried hard in lessons at the school I taught in when I first qualified as a Science teacher).  Technology is 'something to do with phones and TV and that'.  Engineering is 'fixing cars'.  Maths is 'a load of stuff we're never going to use when we leave school'.  The only kids I talked to who had any better idea of the subjects were a couple whose parents worked in related disciplines, and a couple of kids who had parents keen on
education who took them out to science centres and museums.

Maths is slowly gaining some ground in the UK in being regarded as an important subject that you need for life, as evidenced by the UK Government's recent decision that all children must not only stay on in education until they are 18, but must also continue to study maths if they failed to achieve a C grade in it at GCSE.  I have some issues with this in that, as it stands, Maths GCSE does contain a lot of things which could be substituted for more relevant life skills, focusing on everyday maths such as what the repayment rates on payday loans actually mean perhaps.  Nonetheless, for maths as a subject this is probably a step in the right direction.

It still may not make maths more appealing to children as a subject to take on to further and higher education though.  STEM subjects are harder to achieve high grades in than arts and humanities, which puts off a fair number of students who want high grades at A-Level and aren't too concerned about the subjects they take.  The only children who therefore take them on tend to be those who already know what degree they want to do at University and that STEM subjects are an entry requirement for it, or those who have discovered a real passion for a STEM subject.

We can easily dampen even the greatest enthusiasm by failing to provide opportunities for exploration, moaning about mess when they do experiment with things at home, refusing to answer their endless questions, making them feel that it is wrong to ask questions just because we as adults think it's obvious, or we don't know ourselves, or are just too tired and busy to think about it.  Every time a bright child raises their hand to answer a question in class and gets the eye-rolling treatment from the teacher whose job it is to get every child to respond is receiving the message that they are a nuisance, dumb down, be more like everyone else, be average, sacrifice 'boffin' for popular.

Children are born as scientists.  They come into the world full of questions and brimming with excitement for discovering how things work.  Every baby repeatedly pouring water out of a cup in the bath is discovering about the properties of liquids, about changes in energy state, and the action of forces such as gravity.  As parents we can do our very best to promote this curiosity by providing opportunities for exploration, sensory play and experimentation.  There are a wealth of
easy experiments you can do with your kids from a very early age, some of which I've blogged about in the past.  The National STEM Centre has activities which you can download for different age groups from first years at school right through to college age. I also love taking the boys to STEM attractions.  The Science Museum in London was a huge hit from the first time I took Ollie at about 18 months.  The chaotic sensory fun of the 'garden' in the basement was his favourite.

Locally (East Sussex, UK), we visit Herstmonceux Observatory Science Centre at least once a year, which is best in summer when you can take full advantage of it's outdoor water exploration and giant hands on science exhibits, as well as science shows in the geodesic domes.  Even when it's wet outside though there are the telescope domes and an amazing array of science exhibits to entertain children and adults.  We have also, just today, discovered a new awesome place to go - Brede Steam Giants - who would have thought that steam pumping engines and water heritage collections could be so amazing.  It's open on the first Saturday of every month, plus bank holidays, and if you want something big and showing to impress your little ones, I cannot recommend it enough.  Even little Toby stared and stared at the huge wheels and pumps in motion. As an example of superb British and American engineering from the days when, just because only a handful of engineers would likely ever see it, there was no excuse not to make machines for public works grand and beautiful works of art.

We can also support our kids by trying to answer those tricky questions that we don't always know off the top of our heads.  For this the internet is incredibly handy for quick look ups (Ollie made me phone Matt at work while we were out the other day to ask him how far away the moon was for example, which Matt  quickly looked up online).  I still think you can't beat books though for sitting down together and exploring a topic and really getting to grips with those questions.  The most entertaining one I've come across recently was 'Poo! What is that smell?', kindly sent to us for review by Macmillan Children's Books.  As soon as I saw who the author was I knew we were in for a good read, since Glenn Murphy is well known for his popular science for children series, including 'Does farting make you faster' and the hugely popular 'Why snot is green'.  'Poo! What is that smell?' does not disappoint.  Illustrations by Lorna Murphy, the author's sister, help to get the points across and make understanding ideas such as the evolution of the eyeball easy.  Glenn Murphy's background in science communication makes this so much more than just the list of gross science factoids you find in some kids popular science books.  Some of the concepts are a little above my three year olds grasp as yet, but by reading material such as this myself I am getting ready for future tricky questions.  I have a degree in Environmental Biology, but I found this book really valuable for providing explanations that were concise, at a level children will understand, but without being dumbed down.  I decided a long time ago that when my kids ask questions, I will do my best to answer them even if the answer is tricky for them to follow, because the ideas often do start to stick.  Hearing my three year old telling his toy that 'snails are boys and girls AT THE SAME TIME! They are called hermaphrodites' blew me away.  Science, technology, engineering and maths then are subjects I can generally cope with.  'Mummy, why is that tree green?' no problem, that I can answer.  'Mummy, why is that tree?' now, there's one I struggled with.  Any philosophers out there want to give me a hand?

Our thanks to Macmillan Children's Books for 'Poo! What is that smell'.  Opinions, teaching experiences and pictures of great days out are all my own.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Last chance to see

Hi folks, just a quick shout out for anyone who wanted to see my latest article for families with older kids in print - the issue of The Green Parent Magazine containing my article on Inspiring Teenagers is only available for a few more days (stocked in W.H.Smiths, Sainsbury's etc...) since the next edition is out soon.

Also, let me know what you think about the Amazon link.  If anyone makes a purchase from Amazon after clicking on the icon on my blog then Amazon will give me a small percentage of the sale in Amazon vouchers. My friend has added them to her blog and I find the content of the scrolling advert on her site really useful as it is items on sale in the topic areas she blogs about, so very relevant to me too.  I think I will go for the same thing as it adds a bit of interest and movement and may help fund my extravagant lifestyle (ha ha ha ha ha - my last sponsorship went on two pairs of Gruffalo wellies and four pairs of kids pajamas).

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Raising helpful kids

Toby 'helping' build our new
kitchen after our washing
machine flooded
I'm a lucky lady.  My husband has parents who shared household jobs and taught their children to do the same.  Matt learned his Mum's flare for cooking and his Dad's fearlessness around irons.  In this modern age it is baffling to me how many men still regard anything indoors as women's work.  Recently my neighbour when poorly was 'kindly' told by her husband that she could have an early night - as soon as she'd cooked his tea that is!  It's an attitude that starts very young, with kids treating their parents like slaves and then expecting to be paid for every job they do themselves.  Looking after a home is something that you can make your family feel proud to help with, and in turn you will have more quality time to spend together.  On top of the practical skills they will pick up, and the attitude that family units work together as a team, helping around the house is an almost Montessori style learning experience, where children master the skills to look after themselves quickly because they are allowed to play with real items, not just plastic toys.  When the battery ran down on the drill for example, Toby got a chance to safely act out putting together a new kitchen in a way that stimulated him far more than his little Bob the Builder drill ever did.  I was amazed that my 20 month old could even pick the heavy drill up, but allowing and encouraging children to help and act out helping is always full of surprises.

Before tidy away time
One of the simplest ways to get kids involved in helping around the house is in letting them know right from day one (or maybe month 8) that it's up to them to help put away the things they have been playing with.  I never use the word 'chore'.  We just shout 'tidy away time, who's going to be the quickest!' and dive in.  'You've pulled all the cushions off the sofa and emptied out every toy to make a boat?  That's fine, but you have to help put it all back when the game is over'.  When Ollie went through a phase of complaining and asking why he had to tidy away with me -  'you could just do it mummy' - I asked him if he liked the room messy all the time, or tidy so he could find the car he was looking for.  He admitted he liked it tidy, so off we went in our dive around the room to see who could pile the most stuff back into the toy box the quickest. When Toby empties the bookcases, it is Ollie who does the re-shelving.

Both boys enjoy helping out with all sorts of jobs, and apart from tidying up I leave it to them to decide if they want to help or not.  They both like to help load and unload the washing machine, fold clothes (I secretly refold afterwards, but never when they can see me undoing their efforts), help with cooking.  A couple of buckets accidentally tipped over by Ollie means floor washing is one I insist on doing by myself, as is anything dangerous such as ironing (or even better, ask Matt to do it).  Pretty much anything else is fair game.  The boys always want to help wash the car - Matt blames Ollie for the missed patches, but they are always strangely at Matt height, not Ollie height.  They like to wash the patio door window, occasionally with actual water, mainly with pilfered greasy baby wipes. Both help to put their clean clothes away, although Toby detours sometimes from putting socks in his sock drawer to putting them down the toilet.  When I hurt my back recently they were awesome in taking over weeding the patio and watering the flowers, working as a team to fill up the watering can at the tap and tip it up over the plant pots, and themselves, and each other.  Today they enjoyed helping strip the leaves from corn on the cob for dinner, with some of the leaves and stringy bits even making it into the compost caddy and not just onto the floor.  Preparing food is always popular with them as they get to stuff their faces.  They are also a bit OCD when it comes to things that are in the wrong place in shops, regularly moving misplaced items and putting away things that have fallen on the floor.  The helpfulness even extended to them insisting on helping our Viking friends to carry wooden poles for a sail tent at the show we did on Sunday - watching a baby dressed as a Viking nonchalantly carrying one end of a pole across a field made a few people smile.

One of the absolute favourites of both boys is the vacuum cleaner.  It wasn't always like this - our old upright was so piercingly noisy it sounded like a jet taking off and blew hot air over the ankles of anyone using it.  Ollie used to wrap the oven gloves over his ears and scream crying every time I got it out (a couple of times a day given our mixture of mucky pup kids and show-every-crumb laminate floors).  The solution came in the form of an incredibly generous gift from my parents of a new cylinder vacuum - blissfully quiet, light enough for even the smallest hands to push around, and also according to Toby it makes a great horsey.  The boys love playing house and cleaning with it so much I have to mediate so that we all get a turn (I try to whizz round quickly to get the worst of the dirt and then turn it down to the lowest setting to let them take their turns).  The bags are however expensive to replace, so I think that should we ever need to replace it I would consider a Dyson such as the Multifloor Cylinder vacuum cleaner that we saw on the easy to use John Lewis website.

I know the concept of kids pulling their weight around the house is not a new one, but it still causes a surprising amount of debate on the parenting forums.  Some folks find paying per job works for them, and argue that it instils a work ethos and the idea that if you work hard then you will be paid and can save up to buy things you want.  I suspect this may be better left to big jobs for older kids, such as the teenager sent up a ladder to clean out the gutters.  Other folk feel that paying for things that need to be done in order for the home to run smoothly is imprinting in children's minds that these things are menial and you should be paying a subordinate to do them.  Gender equality is another issue that raises it's head.  I can remember having boy jobs and girl jobs as a kid - my brother did lawn mowing and I did polishing for example (although since I had horrible hay fever this may have been more about my health than my gender).  Having defined gender roles in household jobs is pretty much impractical in the modern world where relationship and work dynamics are usually light years away from the 1950s stereotypes.  Having fun as a family cleaning together and showing your children that Mum can use power tools and Dad can do the laundry just as well as each other is something that will be as valuable a lesson to them as any amount of educational hothousing.  So whether you have a nuclear family with 2.4 kids or any of the variety of households that are likely to outnumber the old family structure in the near future, your kids will grow up to be adults who don't feel helpless in the face of a pile of laundry, a room that needs painting or dinner guests to feed, unlike my unfortunate former housemate 'Toast Boy' who was unable to cook anything apart from beans on toast.  By getting your children helping now, you are empowering them to be independent later on.

This blog post was sponsored, but the opinions, anecdotes and tool wielding offspring are all my own.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Little linguists - introducing different languages and dialects

Ollie reading his new Rastamouse
In England we lag well behind our European neighbours in our foreign language skills, with many adults too shy or lacking the skills to try even basic pleasantries such as please and thank you while abroad. One of the greatest gifts we can give to our kids is the opportunity to communicate effectively where ever they are, and the first stage of this is exposing your child to the idea at as early an age as possible that different people speak in a different way to your own family.  If you already live in a bilingual home,  this could mean playing  songs from a third language for example.  For the majority of us not blessed with diversity in our home languages, any other language is fair game for familiarising your children to other speech sounds.

It has been shown through simple observational experiments that even very tiny babies will preferentially turn their head towards people speaking in the language of their parents.  It has been hypothesised that this is because as infants in the womb we hear our parents pattern of language and learn to recognise it.  I also found from my own observations that when Ollie was just learning to say a few words that he would focus more interestedly on children's shows in English than the ones in German which my friend kindly sent to me.  It got me thinking that since language recognition and preference is present so early on, it was important to give children access to hearing other languages as early on in order to help them 'get their ear in' for any language learning they had available later on.

I went to a private school for a couple of years from when I was seven and for this brief time I was fortunate enough to start to learn French.  After returning to regular middle school, I then didn't learn any French until I went to secondary school at twelve.  Even now, the French that I recall with greatest ease is that which I learnt at aged seven.  Trying to learn it later on was so much harder that, although I got a B in my GCSE, I really lost a lot of confidence in the whole concept that I could be a fluent speaker of another language.  I learned to pass an exam, not to be able to communicate with other human beings.  I would love my kids to pick up languages as naturally as they do everything else, before they start to think that there are things that they can't do.

What Toby was doing while Ollie
was reading Rastamouse
The general advice for parents is that, unless you are properly bilingual yourself, don't try to teach your kids languages.  I can see the sense in this as a way of protecting children from pushy parents armed with flashcards and horrible pronunciation, but there must be a happy medium between inflicting cruel and unusual linguistic punishment and simply not trying at all.

For us, we walk that line by attempting to pass on the bits we know, such as counting down the stairs in different languages - I do French and German, Matt does Spanish, we both count in English (usually in the voice of The Count from Sesame Street 'Von step, Ha Ha Ha...').  We have borrowed bilingual French/English books from our library, and have a few French and German books of our own (including Ollie's favourite book on Castles which we bought when my parents took us on holiday to France when Ollie was just 5 months old).  Another of his favourites is 'Zilli, Billi unt Willi' a three little pigs story in German.

When we were preparing to visit Ben, Michelle and Isaac in France earlier this year (see the post 'We built a polytunnel in France') we got Ollie and Isaac each a bilingual 'The Cat in the Hat'.  I have been astonished at how patiently Ollie listens to first the French and then the English version of each paragraph.  Before we went I got out a couple of bilingual books from the library, and Ollie loved one 'Depeche-toi Molly' by Lone Morton and Gill Scriven so much that he insisted we renewed it for months.  I would introduce a few things he could say when we got to France, and Ollie would reply 'not now mummy, I'll talk French when we're at France' (he was three years and four months old at the time).  He wasn't kidding.  Playing with French kids in play parks on the journey, and talking to locals in shops, sure enough he rolled out his couple of French phrases 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you' and 'sweeties please' which got him lots of amused smiles (I won't insult you with my French spelling of these).  Funniest of all was when he was chatting away in a nonsense language out of the window of our friend's house, and when asked what he was doing he said 'talking French to the cars on the road'.  So although we may not be gifted linguists ourselves, I'm happy that the kids will at least grow up confident that they can be.

So what has this all got to do with Rastamouse?  We were sent this fantastically bright and fun book to review by Macmillan Children's Books this week, and as I was at first stumbling over and then having fun with the Jamaican dialect it is written in, it struck me that learning to understand dialect is just as important in Britain as learning any other language.  We have an incredibly rich heritage of spoken dialects in Britain, with strong accents and even different use of words across the country,  from the heavily Gaelic and Norse influenced dialects of the North to the lilt of Wales and the burr of the West country.  We also have greater population mobility than ever before, leading to the high likelihood that we will hear accents and dialects of English from not just a few counties away, but from whole different continents.  My favourite doctor at my GP surgery is an Indian from Birmingham, with a broad brummy accent that I find very comforting since I spent some of my teenage years down the road from Birmingham in Malvern.

Having taught students who complained to me that they couldn't understand the accent of another teacher who was Indian, but who I found to be perfectly comprehensible, I started to realise that even in multicultural Britain many of our kids are surprisingly limited in their ability to understand accents.  This is solely through lack of contact - anyone from the South of England talking to a Glaswegian with a strong accent for example will rapidly begin to understand more and more as they go on.  Just as we can expose our children to foreign languages, we can also make sure they start getting familiar with foreign accents and dialects.  Books and TV shows such as Rastamouse are a really useful tool in this broadening of children's horizons, as well as providing representation in the media to children who come from backgrounds that use this dialect at home and who may otherwise feel left out.

In the Rastamouse book we were sent 'Rastamouse and da Micespace mystery', by Michael De Sousa and Genevieve Webster
the authors also introduce other interesting concepts which small children are perhaps increasingly exposed to, such as the importance of internet security.  We didn't even have the internet when I was Ollie's age, so it tickles me to be explaining the concept of internet banking theft to my three year old.  Some of the dialect needed explaining- one of the mice said 'check out my bad boy moves' referring to his tricks with his skateboard, but this left Ollie searching for where the 'bad boy' was and worried what the 'bad boy' was going to do (he has a strange thing at the moment for checking I've locked the door when we go out in case a 'bad boy comes and steals our fruit' !?).  Both kids like this book though - the artwork is so eye catching that they have regularly picked it out in the couple of days that we've had it.  I think Ollie will increasingly start to follow the story as he gets used to the language and the new concepts.  It's interesting trialling resources based on TV shows with the boys since they are less exposed to TV, films and computers than most kids their age.  It means you can see if a book works as a stand alone product, or only appeals because it is about a beloved TV character.  We have a Bob the Builder book for example from when Ollie was younger which is thoroughly worn from being read so many times, despite the fact that he had never seen the TV show.  I think that the way the authors of Rastamouse have presented this story as rhyming couplets rather than just a TV script bodes well for it's surviving the initial interest in anything new, and it becoming a regular favourite in our house.

Our thanks to Macmillan Children's books for this book to review.  The opinions, musing and pictures of cheeky boys are all my own.