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.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Seasonal activities - fungi foray

Following on from my post on embracing serendipity, today we went on a fungi foray at Mallydams Wood led by the lovely mum I met in the park in the summer and who's woodland birthday party I have previously posted about.  I hadn't been sure about going due to the age of the boys, but last week I finally asked her to book us a place and I'm so glad I did.

The last time I went on an organised fungi hunt I was 11. My school friend's family were members of some sort of wildlife organisation and were kind enough to take me along.  I have really clear memories of rambling around the misty autumn woods and being spellbound by the huge variety of fungi to be found, including ones that changed colour or were spicy to taste when the guide gave us a little to lick.  I don't remember a time when I wasn't crazy about the natural world, so this was one of those perfect days that I held on to in my mind and hoped someday to recreate for my own students or family.

It poured down with rain today, but that only added to the fun for the kids who were well wrapped up in their cosy waterproofs.  Our guide gave us a little talk on the history of the uses of fungi - fungi were two of the possessions found in a pouch on the preserved body of Otzi the Iceman and are among the oldest organisms on the Earth, vital for creating soil and recycling nutrients.  I was expecting to see a handful of edible mushrooms and wasn't sure how we were going to make lunch for the large group from what we found, but the woods were bountiful with all sorts of fungi.  Most were inedible or downright deadly, but there were also basketfulls of delicious varieties.  Lots and lots of little yellow mushrooms that our guide called yellow trumpets, all sorts of boletes, amethyst deceivers and red blushers went into our baskets and later on into our noodle soup.  I was particularly proud of the little cauliflower fungus I found as we were heading back to the education center.  I think several people tried our haul with some trepidation, but we were in safe hands and had a thoroughly yummy and wholesome lunch as a result of our foraging.

I have a couple of species now that I would feel confident to pick, but would advise against just picking up a mushroom book and heading out because there were several fungi that were edible that had very similar poisonous versions and without seeing them compared in the flesh I don't think I could have told them apart from the pictures in the books.  I would also suggest keeping a close watch on any little people you take with you and making sure you get across the rule of no picking without checking with your expert guide - mostly for safety, but also to prevent damaging species that you aren't going to use.  We found that the kids had a fantastic sociable morning clambering around the woods and shouting with excitement every time they spotted a fungus.  Ollie also attracted the admiration of a tame Jay that lives in the woods and apparently kept landing on his head - I wish I'd seen and got a photo of that!  I don't know that their memories will be as clear of their fungi hunting experience as mine were as an older child experiencing it for the first time, but they certainly had a wonderful time.

If you fancy having a go, this is the perfect time of year, with events being organised all over the country by organisations such as the Woodland Trust who have an event at Brede High Woods in East Sussex in early November.  Even if you can't get to an organised event where you can safely handle and possibly eat the fungi, you can still have lots of fun going on a camera safari around your local park or woods and seeing how many different types of fungi you can photograph.  Little ones might like the extension of drawing, painting or collaging pictures of fungi, and older children can be helped to find out how fungi fit into food chains and classification trees.  You may even get hooked enough that foraging your dinner becomes a regular event, as it has for our friends on their small holding in France.  If you want some serious lifestyle envy it's worth hopping over to their blog for a look!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Beach art sorting activity

What on earth has playing on the beach got to do with maths and literacy?  You may have come across lots of sorting activities and games for pre-schoolers and wondered what the obsession is for getting kids matching shapes, colours, types of toy...

Sorting is the first step towards learning how to recognise shapes, numbers and letters.  Fostering a child's abilities to recognise patterns is therefore a vital step in their journey towards learning how to count, do calculations, read and write.  It's also something children do very naturally, as anyone with a child with a trajectory schema who likes to line up toy cars will have noticed.  Chances are those cars will be lined up in groups of size or colour.

Today we had a fun morning on the beach to which I added a sorting element by bringing along buckets (Lidls yoghurt containers for the recycling fans out there) and encouraging the boys to help me on a treasure hunt for dark pebbles, and then light pebbles and shells.
Once we had a few we started piling them up to make a shape, and then hunted for more to make the shape bigger.  At sing and sign this week we learned the Makaton sign for brown, which must have made an impression on Toby because he kept bringing me brown pebbles and touching his sleeve.

I like activities like this because they are outside, free and the kids are learning skills and being creative without noticing that it's anything more than a fun game.  We followed up with building a big pebble castle of the boys design, complete with seaweed moat, which was enthusiastically destroyed in a freak giant related accident.  Finally a bit more physical play with pebble throwing into the sea and then a race up the beach to get our hearts racing and the sea air rushing into our lungs.

If you're not near the sea, this sorting game can be easily adapted for any situation.  A perfect variant for this time of year is making shapes such as mandalas using fallen leaves, nuts and seeds.  Just don't forget your camera so you can stick the picture of their artwork up on the fridge with the rest of their masterpieces.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Tackling isolation and embracing serendipity

One of the things that can take you by surprise when you become a parent is the unexpected feelings of isolation that can come with your change in role from a part of a work team to being a parent at home.  Even returning to work full-time or part-time may not help with this as social networks change when you're rushing from work to collecting kids from childcare and not necessarily engaging fully in all the human contact around work hours.

Many of us now don't have a home town as such, with relatives and lifelong friends popping round to shore us up when we need it, and it can quickly become apparent that, as adorable as that amazing little creature we have produced is, a baby is not enough of a conversationalist to satisfy the deep seated needs of the social animals that we are.

The solution takes a bit of courage and a level of organisation that can make it seem like an unachievable goal in the first weeks and months with a newborn.  Here in the UK we are lucky enough to currently have Children's Centers.  A number of years ago the government of the time recognised that in order to tackle the problems in our society, it was important to provide support from birth for parents and families.  Children's Centers were opened, providing baby weigh-in clinics, organised play groups and classes for parents.

I first accessed the Children's Center through the weigh-in and a baby massage course.  Unfortunately due to funding cuts this year, many of the services provided by the Centers are being disbanded, and baby massage is now only available to 'at risk' parents and babies referred by social workers.  This is really sad because a number of parents I have talked to were like me in experiencing baby massage as a first point of contact that put them into the routine of going to the Centers and accessing other services.  After the baby massage came an invitation to go to a playgroup for babies who were not yet walking.  As well as being a fantastic opportunity for Ollie to socialise with other babies, it was also a lifeline to me.  There where other mums and dads there to share experiences with and work out what I was supposed to be doing.  Ollie and I also met a lovely mum and son there who we're both still great friends with.

Going back to work I lost contact with the groups for a while, until Toby came along and I decided to stay off work this time.  We started going to playgroups organised by the Children's Centers a couple of times a week, then I signed up for a cookery class they were running which had a creche.  I spent most of my time out of the lesson consoling a screaming Toby, but it was a start.  Gaining the confidence to go to these classes meant I signed up for a Face Painting course, thinking it might be useful for Ollie's nursery and school summer fairs.  The class was fantastic, and it lead to two further networks.

The first was a group of community mums who invited us along on a tour they had organised of the local police station, complete with dressing up and sitting in a police car.  The second was a training course for people who wanted to become volunteers.  This is an accredited course covering aspects such as first aid and child safeguarding, and wanting to give something back in return for the free courses I had been on, I signed up.

This course connected me with a group of the most welcoming, strong, funny women you could wish for.  Through this I met the volunteers who have set up a speech and language support playgroup, which I now take the boys to in order to help Toby who's struggling with speech acquisition.  Toby is making leaps with a new word each week or so, Ollie is getting bitten a lot less by him, and this week the Fire Brigade were there for a demonstration and let the kids play with the hose pipes and sit in the Fire Engine, which was completely awesome.

Walking into a room of strangers with children and being expected to strike up a conversation with them, maybe feeling like you're intruding on an existing clique's conversation, is really daunting. With courage and persistence making this effort to go outside your own comfort zone can pay dividends to your mental wellbeing and your enjoyment of the parenting journey.   I felt like an idiot asking for people's contact details at the Face Painting class, but I have as a result maintained contact with some lovely people and had opportunities for myself and my kids that would not have happened if I had kept my mouth shut and worried that people would think I was pushy.  We don't need to be lonely just because we're afraid of what others might think of us.  Join groups, talk to parents in the park, invite people you've only just met to hang out again.  Serendipity is a 'happy accident' and the more we get ourselves out there, the more of these happy accidents occur.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Exams all done

So that's our exams done.  Matt's now planning on starting a Masters Degree, while I'm off now to look at what modules I might be able to do next towards my Second Degree.  Ollie seems to take it for granted that everyone studies, and that when he asks to do some of his writing or maths books it's just the same as his mum and dad do of an evening so hopefully we're making learning a normal part of every day life for the kids.  Almost ready to crack on with the blogging xx

Friday, 4 October 2013

Exams, eek!

Might be a quiet month for blog posts as we both have exams next week.  Hubby has his final for his OU Hons degree and I'm sitting my end of module exam for S366 Evolution, also with the OU.  Back soon xx