Thursday, 27 February 2014

Official: Indoors more risky than outdoors

In what may count as irony, a couple of days after blogging about the relative risks and rewards of outdoor play, Ollie injured himself somewhere personal being silly indoors and sliding off his bed. 

Overnight observation, ultrasound scan and several warm baths and doses of Calpol later, plus the longest lie in he's ever had and he's right as rain. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

My 100th Post: Risk and reward in outdoor play

 There has been a wealth of articles and research recently extolling the virtues of playing outside and laying all the problems of the current generation on the fact that they don't. 

I totally appreciate the reasons why parent's stopped letting their kids play outside.  When I was a kid I was 'the one with weird parents who won't let her out' (in the words of my classmates at age 10 or so), but now it has become the norm. 

Whether it's fears over stranger danger or the increased business and recklessness on our roads, I think that articles which try to make parent's feel stupid for not understanding the real levels of risk are unkind.  The risk may be smaller of a child being hit by a car as a pedestrian than the risk of them being involved in an accident while riding in a car, but it is counterintuitive to us that they are not safer while cocooned in a car under our watchful eye, so we are unable to process an appropriate perception of the real risk.  To poo poo that is to mock our fundamental nature. 

The only solution I can suggest is to get outside WITH your children as often as possible from an early age, so that when you decide they are old enough to go out by themselves they are in possession of enough experience of crossing roads and climbing trees with your guidance that they reduce their chances of doing something really silly when they are in charge of their own actions.  This is what my folks did, and we spent most of our childhood out on our bikes exploring the redways and play parks of Milton Keynes.  I may have been dissatisfied at the time with the lack of 'real' freedom and the way it isolated me from my peers, but each generation does what it feels is best to care for their own most precious children.

I don't know what ages my boys will be when they're allowed out alone, I guess it will depend on circumstances and where we're living at the time.  In the meantime, while they're so little I am bucking the trend of my neighbourhood of allowing them to join the small packs of very sweet but quite feral children that roam the estate.  I may have been impressed by the vocabulary of the youngster who told us to 'stay away from that girl she's addicted to fornication' but I'd rather avoid that future for my kids if I can.

The risk then of abduction, squashing, falling from trees or learning to swear like a well travelled sailor are real, but what of the risks of staying indoors?  These have been well documented, including potential links to increased childhood obesity and associated health problems, hyperactivity, poor attention spans, poor concentration, weaker muscles and bones, reduced digestive health from inactivity, increased allergies from lack of exposure to dirt, even some suggestions of an increase in poor eyesight.  These are correlative conditions rather than a definite cause and effect relationship, but the evidence does seem to be trending towards the obvious 'spend lots of time outside in a natural or semi-natural environment, good, spend lots of time indoors glued to a screen, bad'. 

What did we gain from our trip to the play park today?  I put my back out again last week, so our trips to the local play park have involved a much less hands-on approach from me.  Instead of climbing up the steep hill of the slide hanging on to Toby while Ollie whizzed round and round overtaking us repeatedly, I put Ollie in charge.  He was only allowed to play on the big hill slide if he helped Toby up each time.  My heart was in my mouth the first few times, with images of Toby getting a smashed head on the boulders or breaking his neck rolling off the top awkwardly. 

Ollie took his responsibility well (with a fair bit of encouragement to start with to keep him behind Toby up the slope and not just charging past him).  He quickly found they could slide down faster on their bellies, so started loading Toby on to the slide that way round.  When Ollie discovered that sliding down head first on his back made him go too fast so he flew off the end and hurt himself a little, he then took care to flip Toby over back onto his tummy when he tried to copy his big brother in that manoeuvre on the next time round.  They discovered that climbing up the side was quicker than going round the proper route at the back, and that trying to walk up the slide itself was harder.  By helping his little brother, Ollie found that the reward was not just a happy mum, but also more fun than barging past and playing on his own.  Toby gained a lot more turns than if I had been helping him and it was Ollie he turned to each time his boot came off or he got stuck.  Opportunities to build up reliance on each other and to build trust and compassion will hopefully help them to stay great friends into adulthood. The boys gained physical exercise, development of gross motor skills, problem solving skills, teamwork skills.  It is thought that the mental stimulation and low level of stress hormones produced during slightly risky play helps to acclimate the body to stressful situations resulting in children growing into adults who react less adversely to stressful situation.  In addition, this kind of play makes children feel good and increases their sense of self esteem as they conquer challenges.

Yes there are risks from playing outdoors, but there's so much to gain, even if it's just an hour out in the air every day.  Sometimes I get disheartened by the rubbish and the dog muck and the vandalism and I resort to driving them to places that I deem to be less unsanitary such as the indoor play gym, but when you get smiles and sunshine like today it fortifies you to keep going and keep getting outside.

Encouraging independence

This post is a suggestion of an easy way to encourage independence in your little ones.  For second breakfast today (I have Hobbits, not children) Toby was asking for toast.  By asking I mean he was using his new vocabulary to chant at the top of his lungs 'MARMITE TOAST!! MARMITE TOAST!!' which gave me a subtle hint about what he wanted.  When time allows, it's always a good idea to take children's requests and turn them into an activity which enriches their experience and gives them a chance to try things out for themselves.  In this case the simple (for an adult) task of putting their own spreads on their toast.  I do the hot bit of the toaster myself, but you'll know the abilities of your own kids in respect to the hot stuff.

Handing over the butter dish and whole jars of spread has proved a recipe for the whole lot being eaten straight from the container, so I learned early on with Ollie to give him the choice of what he wanted, then portion it out into a bowl.  Ollie opted for jam today and Toby, surprise surprise, went for the marmite (for reader outside the UK this is a yeast extract spread that divides the population into people who love it and people who hate it.  I love it, the kids love it, my husband says it smells like a sweaty bum and makes a gagging face every time the kids come near when they've been eating it)
Toby is getting quite proficient at spreading, but is playing by nobody's rules when it comes to the order the butter and marmite should go down in.  I think it's fine to demonstrate how I'd do it on my own toast, but it's then up to the kids to experiment and do things their own way whenever possible. As parents and teachers it pays to try and step back and not direct every move - being overly concerned in doing things 'the right way' stifles kids creativity and is frustrating and dis-empowering for everyone.  Taking it easy when you can means they'll also be more likely to co-operate when you do need (age and development level appropriate) things done in a particular way.
Ollie has been doing this for nearly three years.  Increasingly he is adopting a 'standard' approach of carefully spreading butter all over his toast and then covering it in jam.
Toby has a go at spreading, then eats the rest of the butter and marmite with a spoon.

This is all really basic, as with most of the ideas on this blog, and I apologise to everyone saying 'well, duh, of course I get my two year old to practice spreading toast'.  However, I worked for years at an outdoor education center and was continually astounded at the number of quite old children (even as old as 12 or more) who had never made a sandwich for themselves, or made their own bed.  One 8 year old had never had a bath without adult help and didn't know what to do in the shower so went home quite grubby and smelly.

As well as preparing them for adult life, achieving self care and proficiency in household activities for themselves builds self-confidence and turns simple activities into opportunities for creative learning.  It's at the heart of a Montessori approach to learning where your role is to facilitate independence and freedom within sensible limits.  I don't subscribe wholly to any particular learning philosophy, but there is definitely a lot of good sense in the Montessori ideals.

Even this simple task of spreading toast also provides opportunities to hone hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills.  You could say that encouraging children to achieve independence is the best thing since sliced bread (groan).

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Smoothies for strong bones and teeth

 We found some seriously reduced price bananas and strawberries last week, perfect for making smoothies.  Here's how we did it.

I removed the leaves and stalk from the strawberries, washed them, then gave to the boys along with the peeled bananas to chop with plastic knives.  We used about 8 strawberries and 2 bananas.
The boys then dolloped in about 8 dessert spoons of plain live yoghurt (Yeo Valley is our favourite, but substitute for whatever brand or type your family likes and can tolerate, for example sheep milk yoghurt is a great alternative).
 Ollie then poured in some milk (organic full fat, again substitute for your own favourite, we like hemp milk in smoothies too).  Toby added a squirt of agave nectar for sweetness and then I held the stick blender while the boys took turns to push the button.

The boys helped to pour out the smoothy for themselves and we all sat down together at the table to drink it.

This is such an easy thing to make, but the ingredients pack in a load of useful nutrients and fiber.  You can talk to your kids during the activity to help them think about the difference between 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' foods.  You can engage their creativity in making recipe cards for this recipe, or for new recipes with their own improvements.  You can use the chopping of the fruit to talk about numbers and fractions - 'can you chop that banana into quarters for me, that means into four equal sized pieces'.  It is also a feel good activity because they are making something with you that they can enjoy pretty much instantly.

If you're interested in the nutritional side of this one, read on:

Strawberries are full of vitamin C - 8 strawberries have more vitamin C than an orange (although since ours were a bit on the aging side this may have been lower - the fresher, the more vitamins is a general rule).  They contain good levels of manganese and potassium which are important for building healthy bones.  They are also full of antioxidants and are a good source of fiber.

Bananas are a good source of vitamin B6, important for healthy brain function, immune response and production of red blood cells.  Like strawberries they are a source of vitamin C, manganese, potassium and fiber.  In addition they are a good source of a prebiotic which nourishes the 'healthy bacteria' in your gut.  The live bacteria in the yoghurt may help to boost levels of healthy bacteria in the gut too.  There is evidence that a healthy gut flora helps our bodies to absorb vitamins and minerals from our diet, including a significant effect on the absorption of calcium, provided in this recipe by the milk and yoghurt.

The milk is also a great source of omega 3 fatty acids and helps to balance the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 acids - we currently tend to get too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3.  The correct balance is important in healthy brain function.  Omega 3s are also really looking like being a key to all sorts of health improvements, from increasing concentration and memory in children and adults, healthy heart function, reduction in skin problems such as eczema and also as an anti-inflammatory to help with joint problems. I'm happy with the research I've done on the internet into whether it's worth buying organic milk, and the result seems to be that there is about 60% more omega 3 in organic milk and 25% less omega 6, although this is based on american factory farmed milk versus pastured organic cows, so the difference may not be as great in the UK.  We used to drink semi-skimmed, but since switching to full fat, plus swapping from vegetable oil spread to real butter, and full fat yoghurt, in conjunction with eating more raw foods, I've actually lost weight - 12lb so far since this time last year.

A little note about agave nectar.  Some (mainly American) websites claim it is just as bad for you as high fructose corn syrup.  There are also concerns about it's sustainability as it has gained in popularity as people try to reduce sugar in their diets.  My own research of the internet suggests that used in moderation, from a good ethical organic supplier it is a useful addition to the store cupboard.  It has a lower glycaemic index, which means you don't get the blood sugar peaks and crashes associated with regular sugar, so it's useful if you want to give your kids the occasional sweet treat without the resultant hyperactivity.  However, it does contain fructose, which if consumed in excess leads to a fatty liver, so exercising a bit of common sense in it's use is, well, sensible.  I guess it's a bit like maple syrup.  Pay £5 a bottle and you'll get the sap from a maple tree, pay £3 and you'll get a bit of sap but mostly just regular sugar syrup and artificial flavourings.

Common sense in the amount of fruit you give to kids is good too - it's far better than giving them sweets and processed junk, but it is still a source of sugar and some fruits can be quite acidic on the teeth.  My general rule is to give plenty of fruit but avoid fruit juice most of the time and provide plenty of milk and water to drink after eating fruit.  If you can bias your family's fruit and vegetables intake towards a higher proportion of vegetables you will get more vitamins and fiber and less sugar overall.

I'm not a nutritionist, but this is just my own thoughts based on what I've looked in to.  If you know more, or have different ideas I'd love to here them as I know I have some super fit and healthy folk reading this who are brilliant at all this.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Sew knightly

 This week Ollie has been interested in all things 'Knightly', fuelled by a toy knight on horseback at our signing playgroup and the Thomas film and books 'King of the railway'.  I thought it would make a great opportunity to introduce him to sewing, since he could have a try at making a tabard. 

First we had a look in one of his castles books so he could see what the Knights in the book were wearing - a tabard with a crest on it worn over their armour.  Next I dug out a length of curtain liner fabric that I had dyed experimentally when I was dying some trousers in the summer.  I cut a neck hole out and laid a piece of fabric behind for Ollie to mark in chalk, then I cut out this neck facing piece.  I started Ollie off with whip stitch round and round to join the facing on in a way that would stop the edges fraying, then showed him running stitch which he used to attach the facing more securely.

After checking again that the tabard fit over his head, we then did the hems.  I rolled the edges over and pinned them, and Ollie did his running stitch along them and removed the pins as we went.  We made the whole thing in three days, with about 20 minutes sewing at a time.  Ollie has also drawn onto paper a shield with a crown on it which I'm trying to work out how to transfer onto his tabard, most probably I'll copy it onto craft foam and then stick it on with double sided tape.

My mum taught me to mend and sew on buttons, but everything else I have picked up since joining the Vikings historical re-enactment group a couple of years ago since I suddenly had to learn how to make re-enactment clothes.  I'm still not very confident with a sewing machine, so am very lucky that Matt's mum taught him well and he can get me set up and sort me out when I go wrong, although I mostly stick to hand sewing.  As a life skill sewing is something that had been declining but which has enjoyed a resurgence recently, so it is something I am glad I can now start to pass on.  For anyone daring to say that sewing is for girls, they can just try that line on some of my Viking chaps as they make their own kit with far more skill and flare than I could ever match. 

For the rest of the 'Knightly' outfit I initially tried to make a helmet and armour from a corrugated cardboard box, but a combination of my rubbish design and parcel tape which wouldn't stick made this attempt a flop.

I had a thought that we could make something out of craft foam, so we tried that next.  Ollie really wanted a helmet with a visor he could pull down, but in the end I made something that was based on a Mike the Knight helmet he'd had as a card cut out from a magazine. 

The picture below is of Toby in his choice of a pink helmet.  My lack of skill has left the helmet looking more like a tiara but Toby seemed to understand and kept saying 'nigh hah' (knight hat).  I used the spare piece of foam left over from the helmet to make a sort of armour breastplate - everything is just stuck with double sided tape.  I expected the helmets to last about five minutes, but we've had a couple of days of play from them so far without them getting pulled to pieces.

I can see me spending at least part of next week working out how to make leg and arm armour out of A4 sheets of craft foam, and the rest of the week on the floor being 'Galahad'.  Perhaps the first thing I should make from the craft foam is some knee pads for myself.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Old catalogues and language skills

Folk who regularly follow this blog will know that Toby is a late bloomer when it comes to his speech.  After a course of antibiotics before Christmas he suddenly started talking, and this is a little post about one of the activities I do with him to ensure he gets focussed time during each day to speak and be heard.  With older brother Ollie engaged in the excitement of cutting up stuff with his own little scissors, Toby and I spent some quality time with a clothes catalogue.

I touch Toby's face to get his attention and say 'Toby, can you choose clothes for Mummy?' (while signing 'clothes' and 'mummy' in Makaton) then started to leaf through the catalogue saying 'this one for mummy?' and waiting for his response.  He says 'no - ah' and gives me a cheeky look until we get to something he likes. 'Da' he says pointing.  I cut the dress out that he has chosen, then he glues it with a gluestick and sticks it on to card.  I say 'I like that dress, that is a pretty dress, thank you' (I sign 'good' 'clothes' 'thank you').

I draw on a round head to give him the idea we are drawing now and say 'Toby, can you draw hands for Mummy?' (signing 'draw' and wiggling my fingers because I can't remember what the sign for hands is).  Toby chooses purple for my hands and scribbles in the right places.  I say 'yes, there's mummy's hands' (signing 'yes' 'mummy' and wiggling my fingers again). 

We repeat this for feet and hair, then go back to the catalogue to choose shoes and a bag, all the time catching Toby's attention to look at me when I speak to him and signing the main words.  Toby takes a long time choosing just the right shoes and bag, and when we find a page with shoes he likes points and says 'da, shoe' and 'da, bag'.  I praise and model what he is saying 'those shoes' and 'that bag'.  We don't correct, just repeat back what he is saying as we would say it.  With the picture finished he proudly says 'look, mummy' which is brilliant as he is now forging ahead with new words and with using words to make simple sentences.  Toby then says 'an Daddy', so I'm happy that he is enjoying this and wants to do a clothes picture of Matt too.

We repeat the process again.  Toby spends even longer picking Matt's outfit.  When both are finished we run through what we have a few times in his favourite 'where's the...' game.  'Where's the dress' etc... is good for showing understanding and feeling good about themselves but I'm consciously pushing a little more now for more than pointing so I look puzzled and point to the lady and say 'who's that', Toby says 'Mummy!', 'and who's that?', 'Daddy!'.  'Toby, what's that?' 'A Bag!' he shouts.

This is a specific example, but it can easily be adapted to any activity your little one enjoys doing with you.  It is also specific to my little lad's speech delay, but is great fun to do with younger children with no speech delay, or even older ones as it is something you can lead into other skills such as literacy.  For example, write the words for the clothes and get your child to draw lines from the word to the picture, or take it further by drawing a line yourself and a box for them to write the word in.  Do it in another language if that's what you're working on - it's the mixture of choosing, cutting out, sticking and talking that keeps the child interested in a way that flash cards never could.

This is really simple stuff, but for a little lad who could only say about six indistinct words a couple of months ago it is really exciting.  Funnily enough for the little monkey one of his first words was 'tuck!' (stuck, as in stuck up on top of something).  Hearing him say 'baubles' and 'tree' at Christmas was astonishing, and to jump from that to the simple sentences he is using now is beautiful to watch. His first sentence was 'ju ju daddy' - 'thank you daddy', copying his big brother being given a drink.

Currently his longest sentence is 'hoh choh choh mik' (hot chocolate milk).  He is certainly finding his voice, shouting 'mummy mummy mamma mamma mum mum...' for an entire half hour car ride home after he dropped something.  I kept having to remind myself that time that it really was brilliant.

I completed an introductory course on Makaton last week and the tutor had lots of wise words that re-enforced what we have been doing, challenged me to do more and informed me with new things to try.  One of the things I find really valuable about using signing alongside speech is that it slows me down, makes me discard a lot of the 'stuff noise' that we fill our speech with and make sure I have eye contact and give full attention while talking to Toby.  It's something that benefits all kids, not just ones with hearing problems or developmental delays. 

Children are like sponges for information because they generally have much greater input from their senses than we do, but the flip side to all this extra information is that they process it more slowly than we do.  So rather than expecting them to process and respond to us in a way they will not be capable of until after their brain reshuffles during their teens, we need to focus on slowing down, giving them what they actually need to know, and giving them time to process and respond.  Apparently their Dads respond well to this approach also.  Rumour has it men don't need to know a blow by blow account of who said what to whom with a task we need them to complete cunningly hidden in the middle.  Who knew?