Friday, 30 May 2014

Good eaters - independent, non-fussy children

I was talking to a grandmother at a playgroup this week (she's very much on my guru list for her brilliant advice) and she mentioned how she had her little two year old grandson buttering his own toast when he had breakfast at hers.  He buttered it, ate the lot and asked for more, possibly in part due to the enjoyment of doing this for himself.

It really made me think that this is such a simple thing that we can do to improve children's self esteem, eating habits and independence, it is a shame it is yet another thing that gets sidelined when we become too busy.  Preparing food together is part of our ethos in raising the boys and we try to involve them in cooking and food preparation whenever possible.  The only downside is that it often does take extra time and usually a big dose of patience, but this is seriously outweighed by the benefits.

Here's one of our regular lunches to give an idea of what I mean.  I chopped vegetables into sticks, spooned out some pitted olives from a jar and put some vegetarian chorizo and 'party eggs' on a chopping board, plus soft cheese in individual bowls.  I helped the boys by opening the bread rolls, then they spread the soft cheese themselves and chose what they wanted to put on their rolls.

All of the veggie chorizo, the cheese, the peppers and the olives got used up, plus a lot of the carrot and celery sticks.  One of the things I love about this lunch is that there is zero waste - the boys are asked to finish what is on their plate before they take more, but they can eat as much as they like.  Any left over veggies become snacks during the afternoon that my constantly hungry boys can help themselves to (and me too, which helps to keep the lid firmly on the cookie jar).  If we aren't going to eat the left over veg during the afternoon, it goes back in the fridge and will become part of dinner later.

My top tips for 'good eaters':

1. Get kids involved in choosing and preparing meals, growing food if you can, letting them pick out veg in the shops, picking a recipe from two or three that you show them or constructing meals for themselves such as home made pizzas.

2. Offer a wide variety of foods - little and often.  Let them see you eating a wide variety of healthy food - try to conceal it if there are things you don't like because kids imitate the people around them.  We did not talk about why daddy never eats fruit - if the boys gave him a piece of fruit from their plate he would pretend to eat it and then sneak it back onto their plate, there was a ban on saying 'I don't like' we say 'that's not my favourite, but maybe I'll like it next time I try it'.

3. Share the same meal  - if you give kids fish fingers and spaghetti hoops for their tea and them cook something different for your own supper you end up doubling the effort, but also raising kids who will seek out sugary pap when they're older.  Plus you're a family, not a restaurant.  It makes me crazy when people tell me they're cooking four different things every night, because that's when people end up resorting to ready meals from the freezer which are low in essential nutrients and high in fat, sugar and salt.

Feeding a young toddler?  Aim to cook things that you can just blend up a portion of for them to save time and ensure they're getting well rounded taste buds right from the start.  Stick a couple of bowls of blended meals in the fridge for when they're hungry when you haven't had the time or energy to cook yet.

The exception is I guess if you have someone with a dietary preference or requirement not shared by the whole family, but even then I would go for trying to cook something nice that suits everyone rather than trying to cater for different people.  Before we were vegetarian I would make a veggie meal for everyone if we had a vegetarian guest, rather than making something separate. Likewise if you have a family member with an allergy or intolerance - by eating to their requirements you include them in normal family meals rather than making them feel left out, so they're less likely to rebel and make themselves ill eating the banned foods when they get the chance.

4. Require that children try a bite of each thing at each meal even if they don't like it, but once they've had the bite that's it, don't pester to eat all of it.  If they really hate something and won't eat enough dinner to fill them up, they get wholemeal bread and real butter - not exciting enough for them to avoid dinner on purpose for it, but not leaving them hungry either.  Trying not to make a big deal out of it helps, although it can be hugely frustrating when they turn their nose up at something they previously loved and that you've spent time and money making.  Trying to stay consistent and firm in your approach makes children feel secure - they will keep testing the boundaries but need you to keep those boundaries in place.  Consider treating yourself like a child - I'm not a big aubergine fan, but I try it every so often because that's what I expect of my kids.  It takes something like 10 to 20 tries of a new food before it becomes accepted, but then a disliked food can become a favourite - I have two small olive addicts now.

5.  Keep portions small - if you have a 'clear the plate' approach, start them off with a tiny dinner that they can add to, rather than a mound of food that puts them off.  It saves waste as uneaten food left in the pan can be recycled as another meal but the revolting scrapings from a child's plate cannot.  You may find that your little ones will eat masses of food stolen from your plate while they ignore the identical food on their own - go with it, at least they're eating.

6.  Try to avoid using pudding as a bribe.  If you have puddings such as a nice bowl of strawberries and creme fraiche planned, don't use the phrase 'eat up or there's no pudding' unless you actually intend to deny them a pudding.  In a cafe I used the 'sit still and eat nicely or there's no ice cream' and then had to sit mortified through Ollie's crying when he didn't comply and I didn't let him have the ice cream. I should have handled it differently and not said that, but having done it I felt I had to be consistent.  I was on edge in the presence of an elderly relative and placed unreasonable expectations on my wriggly and excited child.  I should have taken the boys to the play park first to run off that energy first, or just not put Ollie in a situation I know he would struggle with as he genuinely can't sit still and wriggles to the point that he regularly falls off chairs.

Note: As with anything, each family is different and the ideas above are just what works for us in our situation and are not intended to lecture or judge anyone doing things differently and happy with their choices. I don't get it right at every meal, and sometimes I get frustrated and tired of the constant feeding and clearing up, but it is always worth the effort.  I certainly wouldn't swap it for peeling lids off microwave tubs of slop for every meal.  Lots of folks are so time-poor it has become a way of life, but it's worth trying to rebel against this modern trend as often as possible.  Most of my meals take less than half an hour to prep and cook, far less in many cases, so it's not about spending hours slaving over a stove.  It's about eating fresh, eating varied and eating together.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Time to look

How many times have you been trying to get somewhere fast and your little one dawdled, picking up every pebble and pointing out every snail while you snap at them 'come on, I know you can go quicker because I can hardly catch you sometimes'?  I promise they aren't doing this to be aggravating.  It's just that children are scientists, they wonder, they experiment, they observe, they question all the time.  The Velcro fastening on their shoe that they just have to keep unpeeling for the millionth time while you are trying to get out of the front door is just fascinating to them, they can't help it.  Often we are in a rush and just have to take a deep breath and help them to get to where we need to be.

To balance this when we can it's good to try to relax and let them explore.  Perhaps that beach walk you'd planned might only progress a few yards, but let go of your frustration that they literally leave no stone unturned and just go with it.

As adults we block out  much of the information reaching our brains from our senses as we need speed of thinking more than attention to detail.  Adults often see a beach full of pebbles that are pretty much like every other pebble on the beach.  For kids however each pebble really is different, and all those different colours and shapes and textures must be explored. 

We learn a great deal from our children, as clich├ęd as that sounds.  For many of us that lesson is that it is good to let go of our mental to-do list and just take a really good look at some bugs visiting a Sea Kale flower.  If we constantly hurry little children and tell them to stop looking, listening, touching then right from the start we are crushing the scientist out of them, only to moan later on that older kids in the science lab don't want to make their own observations, they just want to copy the 'correct' answer from a book or the internet.  This then is a plea to let kids stop and stare.

Slowing down when we can and being present in the moment is good for our own mental wellbeing, and it is also a lovely way to connect with kids and make them feel validated because we are taking an interest in the things they want to show us.  Maybe on our list of things to do tomorrow we can pencil in 'go stare at stuff on the ground'.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Paint the shed with water

Looking for something easy to get the kids outside today?   This might just be the answer - paint your shed/ patio/windows/ the street...

All you need are clean(ish) paintbrushes and water - plus I've added a little eco washing up liquid and a couple of drops of tea tree.  Our shed was covered in algae, cobwebs and chalk drawings so before I paint it with linseed oil to preserve it I thought it would be fun to get the boys helping to clean it by 'painting' it themselves.

This activity, plus painting the patio and squirting everything with flower misters, kept us outside having fun for a good hour.  This deceptively simple activity also works on teamwork, co-ordination and gross motor skills, plus gives a sense of achievement from working together with you to complete a game.

Silent Sunday

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Finally! Vegetarian children's vitamins

I'm a big advocate of growing your own and foraging food as a great way to ensure that the family is getting the very best, freshest fruit and vegetables with the highest nutrient content.  As well as the excitement and educational value of growing your own, that radish the kids pull straight from the pot is far higher in nutrients and enzymes than one that has spent a few days or weeks getting from farm to fork.  For us, with our little patio, growing our own is only ever going to be about adding interest and variety since we are never going to be anything like self sufficient from our containers.

Because I can't know how nutrient rich the vegetables from the store are, and because we don't eat things like processed cereals which have been 'fortified' with added nutrients, I like to top the kids up with vitamins a few times a week.  I think it is helpful to supplement during the winter especially, when fresh food is less fresh and we're not getting vitamin D from the sun.

Up until now I've used vitamin syrup, but I've thought it a shame the kids don't get to try the more fun option of vitamin sweets because I try to limit synthetic colourings and sweeteners (mainly due to the effect they have on Ollie).  I also avoid gelatin.  I'm a vegetarian but am pretty relaxed if the kids want to try some decent quality outdoor reared meat.  However I draw the line at gelatin products where I can have no idea of the welfare standards of the pigs or cows boiled up to make it, which rules out standard vitamin sweets

For this reason I was really pleased when I spotted that Holland and Barrett was stocking a new range of kids vitamins.  Jelly Bears are from a British company called Mill House and are made with Pectin, which comes from plant sources, instead of Gelatin from animal sources.  I can see this being popular with my vegetarian friends, but also with my friends who avoid pork gelatin due to religious observances.  Mill House Jelly Bears are made with 100% natural ingredients, so no funny stuff that's going to send Ollie off the rails, and are gluten free, which is handy for me when I sneak one or two.

The vitamin sweets are designed for children over 3 and contain essential nutrients to support healthy growth and development.  They come in three varieties, Summer Berry flavour multivitamins, Orange flavour Zinc and Mulitivitamins, and Orange flavour Omega 3 plus Vitamins A, C, D, E and B vits.  We've been trialing them for a couple of weeks and so far our favourites are the Orange flavour Omega 3 sweets because it's a great way of getting Omega 3 without using rancid smelling fish oil - Jelly Bears use flax seed oil instead of fish.

The Jelly Bears come in lovely reusable packaging - a cute bear pot which is going to be popular for storing treasures such as sea shells when it's empty.  There are 50 bears in a pot though, so with a recommended provision of one to two bears a day the kids aren't going to be playing with that empty pot for some time yet.  As with any vitamin sweets, we'll keep these in an inaccessible place to prevent the little ones helping themselves.

No vitamins supplements should ever replace a healthy and varied diet, and getting kids to grow their own is my favourite way to encourage them to eat their veg.  For my parent friends and readers who manage to eat super healthily all the time and live off their allotments and gardens you may not feel the need to supplement at all.  But for us, with out mainly supermarket vegetable diet, we really appreciate having this new fun option to top the kids up.

Note:  we received a pack of each of the varieties of Jelly Bears to trial, plus face packs from a sister company, but the photos and opinions are all my own (and that of Ollie).  The only tricky bit has been sneaking one to Ollie without 2 year old Toby seeing and demanding 'ME SWEETY!!!' (and getting a chance to sit in the bath by myself to use the face packs for some much needed me time).

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Wild garlic, falafel and minor disasters

One beautiful sunny morning last week, with that kind of drowsy promise of a scorching (by UK standards) afternoon on it's way, we decided to head out foraging before it got too hot and all our quarry wilted.  We packed up a bottle of water and some snacks into Ollie's backpack, I removed the spare clothes from mine since we surely wouldn't need them so close to home and just carried nappies, wipes and baggies.

Off we went, the kids eyes shining with the excitement of the adventure into the tiny strip of woodland near our house.  We found heaps of wild garlic straight away and I set the boys the challenge of picking the nicest, cleanest, greenest leaves they could find.  Ollie picked carefully and proudly showed me the 'bestest leaves' that he'd picked.  Toby picked equally carefully but preferred the white garlic flowers to picking leaves.  Then we had our first minor disaster as Ollie ran along the path and fell over, right onto a protruding root and bruising his hip.  Commence the first barrage of crying (Ollie can be quite a toughy, but this one really hurt).  I applied a dob of 'magic cream' (a tin of lipsalve), Toby gave Ollie cuddles and off we went again.

 We walked further along the path, and as Ollie was calming down we stood in a patch of sunshine with our eyes closed and breathed and listened to the birds ecstatic chorus (and the nearby road, and the scary sounding light aircraft that kept flying around overhead).  We ducked under one fallen tree, watched butterflies lazily dancing over the flowers, then found another fallen tree blocking our path.  This was perfect for climbing over, and was a bit bouncy so we sat on it gently bouncing.  Then second minor disaster.  Ollie hadn't noticed that something had left a smelly present on the log.  It was all over his hands, up his arms, over his t-shirt and his jeans.  I had left that change of clothes at home.  Doh!  Wet wipes and a baggy came to the rescue, but we decided to head home to change.  There was a second round of crying as Ollie was not happy about being covered in poo and having to leave the woods 'but I haven't been here for a long time' he wailed.  We had been there recently, but that was not what he meant.

Off we stomped, recovering the situation enough to marvel at an ermine moth that the boys found on a fence on the way home.  Then minor disaster number three when Ollie somehow managed to stab himself with the stick he was carrying, grazing his neck.  More tears.  We got in, clothes straight into the washing machine, kids straight into the bath, antiseptic wipe applied to grazes, clean outfits on, breathe all is well again.

We used the wild garlic to make my version of falafel.  I carefully washed and shredded the garlic.  The kids helped me mush up two tins of chickpeas with the blender, to which we added the garlic, a teaspoon each of coriander and cumin, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of mixed sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds.  We patted them into small patties.  I shallow fried the patties for a couple of minutes each side then banged them into a hot oven for 20 minutes.  I made a salad to go with our falafel and toasted some pitta breads.  I took the falafel out of the oven for the final minor disaster of the day - when I tried to lift the falafel from the oven tray they completely smooshed.  So we had a delicious dinner of chickpea and wild garlic smoosh in pittas with avocado salad.  Not winning any prizes for beauty, but the plates empty at the end of dinner, which is pretty much my only measure of the success of a meal.

I wanted to write this not to put anyone off going outside, having adventures, cooking with kids or any of the other things I advocate.  I just wanted to say that sometimes things go a bit wrong, but that's ok.  If we spend all our time idealising about this amazing experience we're expecting because we saw it in a magazine we can give ourselves a hard time when reality isn't like that.  So yes, sometime poop will (quite literally) happen, but it's not the end of the world and so long as we've packed the wipes, maybe some hand sanitizer, if you're super organised some spare clothes too, then it's all pretty quickly fixed.    It's so good for a parent's mental state.  I don't know if I'd have dealt with it all with patience and good humour if I hadn't spent time first just breathing in the woods, smelling the smells and filling my brain with birdsong instead of the incessant demands of my own little chicks.  As for the kids, they forget the poop and just remember the brilliant time they had having an adventure with you.

Note, foraging is loads of fun, but if you're not completely certain what something is, don't eat it.  Follow your local advice and laws regarding what and where you can pick.  Drum it into your little folk not to put anything in their mouth that they haven't showed you first, or that you have given to them.  use your best judgement for when your kids are ready to go foraging because they can follow this rule.  Organised groups are a great way to get involved in foraging with an expert to give you peace of mind, and gut, that you're not picking anything unsavoury.  Usual common sense - you know the drill.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Building dens and climbing trees

 As members of the National Trust I was really pleased to see in the latest edition of their magazine that we could phone and request a free copy of the recent film 'Project Wild Thing' following father of two David Bond as he appoints himself 'Marketing Director for nature' and attempts to promote the benefits of children being outside.  The DVD arrived this morning, perfect timing since we had spent the previous day at the glorious NT Scotney Castle doing all the things that the film shows David promoting, including climbing trees and rolling down grassy hills. 

Scotney is amazing because as well as not one, but two, historic properties to visit, it has stunning grounds that provide enough space that kids can be kids without upsetting anyone by trampling the flower beds.  One of the best areas that is specifically designed for children is the Wilderness Camp.  After a little adventure down a country lane running away from the main house you find yourself in an area of coppiced woodland, complete with swing, ropes and also poles for den building.

 I love the collaborative feel of the film, with so many people and organisations getting on board to help push the project forwards.  The project comes with a website and an ap which gives suggestions of things to do outside, all you have to do is select how much time you have available, from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  The project aims to get parents pledging that they will get their kids outside to play more often and gives loads of great reasons why this is so important.

One of the projects that David visited was a small not-for-profit organisation called Monkey Do who promote tree climbing.  In order to satisfy parent's call for health and safety, they do this by stringing up nets in areas of woodland that children can climb and jump all over safely.  The interviewee pointed out that children have an inbuilt desire to seek out risk and challenge as this is a vital part of how we develop.  Just watching children playing on the nets for a few minutes was enough to give a good reason to encourage it - huge smiles and laughter that was completely absent from the face of David's three year old when he sat motionless watching a show on a tablet computer.

This project has found support in the National Trust as it fits in beautifully with their own campaign trying to reconnect our children with the natural world '50 things to do before you're 11 3/4'.  It also fits in nicely with another National Trust collaboration which is close to my heart, the 'Pledge one hour' campaign which aims to get time-short parents connecting with their children through play. 

The Pledge one Hour website has lots of great indoor activities to do too, but all of these projects recognise that if you talk to children the things that they most love in the world are playing with their families and that a whole stack of research is mounting up that our children just don't get enough of the things they need.  The Pledge one Hour campaign funded independent research which found that 40% of parents spend less than 1 hour a day quality time with their children.  How much of the time we might have available is spent staring at a screen.  A friend recently told me she'd disconnected from social media after realising that she was pushing her children away when they wanted her attention because she was staring at her phone.  I suspect a lot of us are guilty of that at some time or other.

Screens are alluring and addictive.  Games manufacturers and TV show producers aren't doing this with a maniacal laugh as they set our kids on the road to obesity, depression and behavioural disorders, it's just that they get paid to produce a product that sells well because it's popular and kids (and parents) can't get enough of it.  But the good news is that there is a rising tide of support for parents to move away from this sedentary zombification of both our kids and ourselves.  Paraphrasing a comment made by David in the film what if we advertised Nature in the same way we sell merchandise?  Would it suddenly seem more exciting and appealing, and less lonely and frightening?

For a generation of children set on the road to becoming mindless absorbers of content I desperately hope that there is a better way that can be embraced by all the people that need to get on board, including town planners.  There's a wealth of studies showing improvements in academic performance and behaviour with exposure to natural environments, but ultimately what I think we really crave is happy, healthy, creative, independent decendents. 

Note:  This post wasn't sponsored, but I think the organisations mentioned are doing a good thing and I wanted to share their resources with as many folk as possible so do head over to the websites linked and make the most of all their great free ideas.  The DVD of Project Wild Thing is available free to National Trust members this month, while stocks last, information is in the latest edition of the magazine (time of writing this is May 2014)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Museums are fun

 We're very lucky to have loads of great small museums around our area, staffed by enthusiastic employees and volunteers who do everything they can to keep exhibits interesting and in great condition and in some cases even put on extra fun days.  They're also either free or low cost, although obviously leaving a donation helps to keep them that way.

One of our favourites is the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.  We've been twice in the last couple of weeks because they currently have a fantastic display of coral reef photography and objects which is a great thing to stop at on the way down to the aquarium.

Museums shouldn't be a dull experience that parents force unwilling kids around.  The key I think is to introduce them to visiting regularly while they're as young as possible and understand that they may spend ages in one area and show no interest in others.  Any idea that you might get a chance to gaze at exhibits and read the information yourself should be abandoned at the door as you will spend a large portion of your time chasing small people and trying to speed read signs so you can answer their questions about the things that have caught their attention.

Hastings Museum is very well set up for children because it provides stopping places where you can sit and do an activity and gather your wits. It is also very accessible and has good toilets. We love the drawing station - getting Ollie to pick a feather to draw means he actually focuses enough on the exhibit to ask questions and listen to the information about them.

We particularly like the little Japanese tea set in the dressing up area.  There are a selection of world story books there too so it is a good chance to read traditional stories or look at celebrations  from different cultures.

Toby's favourite areas are the dinosaur gallery. He likes to pretend the Iguanodon is nibbling his fingers, pressing his hand to the glass and then pulling back and shouting 'ow, bit me' and laughing while holding his hand up for me to inspect.

The kids love familiar routines, so are happy visiting the same museums over and over in a way that might drive older kids or adults round the bend.  Much as we love the occasional foray up to the big museums in London, these small local museums are actually of greater enjoyment to the kids in many ways because they tend to be much quieter so you can actually get to see the exhibits in your own time, rather than being swirled along by a crowd.

Your local tourist information office will be usually able to give you a map with all your local museums and other attractions marked on, and being close at hand means that even if your little ones are in school you might be able to pop in for an hour before dinner.  It's also worth asking what activities they have for children since they are often used as venues for baby and toddler group activities or have extras on during school holidays.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Easy chocolate cake

I love cooking with the kids, and it's such a brilliant thing to do with littlies because as well as being a lot of fun it gives them great self esteem from having spent time with an adult carer producing something that they can feel proud of.  It is also helpful for developing numeracy skills in measuring, language and communication in talking about what you're doing, literacy if you're getting them to help follow a recipe, taking turns, the motor skills involved in transferring, cutting, stirring...  The list of benefits is endless.  I would normally add in that it also helps to foster a grounding in healthy eating, but this recipe is probably not going to fall into that category!

There are healthier recipes out there for baking with your kids, but in developing this one all I'm really aiming for is reliability and being delicious.  I've chosen to do the measurements in spoonfulls because now Toby can hear we are working on his counting. I've found the recipe works fine even if the spoonfulls are sometimes hugely mounded and other times almost level, so precision is not a big requirement of this recipe.  I took out butter and substituted for oil largely because it makes it easier for kids to make, but it's also possibly a little better in the health stakes as real butter has more saturated fat.  We avoid 'vegetable spread' though as I think that stuff is poison.

This recipe is vegetarian but you need to use egg and milk substitutes if you're vegan.

You will need:
8 tablespoons (tbsp) flour (plain white wheat flour or white spelt works best)
8 tbsp sugar (white caster works best, but I often use less processed sugars and you get a denser but still tasty cake)
4 tbsp cocoa powder (seriously worth getting the good stuff - Green and Black's organic cocoa powder yielded dark brown chocolatey heaven, cheaper brands pale brown flavourless cakes)
2 medium eggs (free range organic by preference - better welfare and also more brain boosting omegas)
6 tbsp milk (again organic if you can get it)
6 tbsp vegetable oil (cold pressed rapeseed has a great ratio of omegas and is probably the healthiest option, but any oil that doesn't have a strong flavour will work)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (real, not synthetic)
optional: 4 tbspn roughly chopped nuts - I use cashews as they're not too hard
optional (see below) 2 teaspoons baking powder

The reason this recipe is so easy is that there is no set order needed - spoon everything on the list into a big bowl and stir it up.  Then you have some options:

Quickest: leave out the baking powder, just make your mixture in a microwave safe bowl then microwave for around 5 minutes - zap for 4 minutes to test and then add more time if you think it needs it.  I'm not the hugest fan of microwaves, but for immediate results if you want a sticky chocolate pudding to serve with ice cream this is a winner.

Slower, but still simple:  Add in 2 teaspoons of baking powder, divide the mixture between muffin cases (makes about 12) and bake for around 25 minutes at around 180 oC - if it smells cakey in your kitchen pull them out after 20mins and check by poking with a fork - if the fork comes out clean they're done, if not whack back in the oven for another 5 or 10 minutes.  The timings are a bit vague here because it depends how much mix your kids managed to get into each case and besides I tend to cook by smell, the wall clock is largely just for decoration.  Note about baking powder: it starts to produce carbon dioxide bubbles as soon as it gets into contact with the 'wet' ingredients, so if you're kids are really little and want to stir for a long time, add it in at the end of the mixing stage and give it a thorough stir in yourself to avoid flat cakes.

Prettiest but even less healthy:  Let your cupcakes cool and then ice them and add sprinkles.  A basic frosting recipe is 140g softened butter (i.e. not straight from the fridge), 280 g icing sugar, up to 2 tbsp milk (to loosen the icing for piping if it's too stiff).  Matt did this part with the boys and they added cocoa powder to this too.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Minibeast explorers

 There are few activities as absorbing as bug hunting, so why not set up your own minibeast safari in your back yard or local park.

I'm lucky to have a few handy bits of kit, including some bug viewers and a plastic tank, but you can make your own kit very easily by using an old clean ice cream tub to observe your finds in.   You might like to use identification guides.  The field studies council has some lovely fold out guides that are perfect for surviving being taken outside where books might get soggy and dog-eared.

We started by talking about what we were going hunting for today while the kids got their boots on.  I haven't found their appetite for bug hunting ever diminishes with repetition, but just to add an extra sense of purpose we'll pick a particular creature we especially want to find.  On this day it was a millipede, so we talked about where we might find millipedes - what kind of habitat they might like and what they eat.  Millipedes are herbivorous and well adapted to wriggling down into the soil to get to roots and decaying leaves, so we decided to dig around the plants for them and look under rocks and pots.  We looked in a book to see what they looked like, and how they are different to a centipede.

Moving the plant pots around we mostly found woodlice and worms, to Toby's great delight.  I reminded the boys that these creatures like to be cool and damp so our hands can hurt them, so we gently transferred our finds to a plastic tank with some damp compost in it to observe them further.

Toby particularly liked watching the big pill bug type woodlice roll up into a ball and I talked to the boys about why the bugs did this.  Ollie couldn't quite grasp that this might protect them from predators because, in his words 'we could just swallow them whole'.  We talked about it until he decided it might help if it was a very tiny thing trying to eat them.

We did eventually find a millipede, but it was so tiny I'm not sure it was much use for the boys to see very clearly what they look like.  Hopefully we'll have better luck another day, although we never get particularly big ones here.

After we had a good hunt round the garden we went inside and did a thorough hand wash - Ollie discovered how difficult it is to wash off slug slime.  Then we sat down with a tray to look at our finds in a bit more detail.  I keep this part fairly quick as we don't want to cause discomfort to the animals.

We decided to look at a snail and a woodlouse as these look very different from each other.  In the boy's first pictures they each drew the snail and the woodlouse.  Ollie was a bit worried he couldn't draw 14 legs, but was pleased with his squiggly legs in the end.  This time the only thing I prompted Ollie to add was the segments on its body, but other times the conversation might go like this -  'first draw a long rounded body, now he needs some legs, look at him, does he have any antennae? Great, lets draw those on - do you think the antennae are on his head or his bottom?  Why?  What are they for...' until your little one is happy with their picture.  You may want to label the parts with them. 

Guiding what to look for is helpful and helps to build the vocabulary that your kids will want so they can describe to you what they're looking at, but after we've produced one guided picture I take a more hands-off approach and see what the boys want to draw next.  Ollie decided to draw the plastic tank, including leaves for 'homes for the animals'.  Toby made one lovely drawing of a snail while saying 'round a round a round a round' and also a woodlouse that surprising looks quite like a woodlouse.  Ollie's first picture is here on the blog.

Safety bit: as I've mentioned on previous similar posts, check your local guidelines for whether you have any hazardous creatures living in your local area if you are outside the UK - in our garden we might get a nip from a centipede or a sting from a bee, but most of our wildlife is pretty harmless.  I encourage the kids to only pick up familiar things that they have held before such as snails and to check with me before they handle anything unfamiliar.  Hand washing is really important too.  Soap and water is best, but I carry a hand sanitizer liquid for when we're exploring away from home.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Plant science for junior horticulturalists

 The UK has a skills shortage in the horticultural sector, despite this area of the economy being really important both to the wealth it brings in to the country and for our self sufficiency and food security.  Botany was phased out of the schools curriculum many years ago and as the current generation of horticulturalists and plant scientists retire they are not being replaced in sufficient numbers.

I'm not suggesting we start hothousing our toddlers into a career in plant science, but by providing them with lots of varied experiences we can at least give them a flavour of the huge diversity of different things they could do in the future and perhaps nurture their preferences, fleeting and changeable as these interests will usually be in the early years.

Growing anything at all with little ones is an immensely rewarding activity that you both will enjoy, even if it's cress seeds on damp cotton wool.  The bean in a jar activity was one of the very first things I ever blogged about here and a year on this is how we have extended our early investigation.

Last year we grew our bean in a jar and did some work on recognising the parts of a plant by drawing and labelling the roots, stem and leaves.  This year we transferred our bean seedling from a jar to a transparent plastic yoghurt pot filled with soil so we could continue to watch how it grew.  The pot is on Ollie's window sill, along with our tomato seedlings, so he can keep a close eye on their progress.  When the bean plants were about a foot high I pinched out the tips to see if I could encourage them to stay small and bushy.  A week later Ollie announced with great excitement that his plants had flowers on them.

We had been reading a book from the library about a beaver growing beans on his window sill, so the boys took it as completely normal that they should grow and flower so well.

We talked about what else we would need for beans to grow and I led the conversation around to bees, which we have talked about a lot before.  Ollie suggested we put the plant outside so the bees could visit, but I offered an alternative - we could hand pollinate the flowers ourselves.  So, two days later and armed with a paintbrush, I gently teased open the flowers to reveal the anthers  (male part) complete with pollen and the stigma (female part) that we needed to transfer pollen
from a different flower on to.  We talked about how every type of plant has it's own special shape of pollen so only pollen from a bean plant can make a bean grow.  Both boys had a go at 'tickling' the pollen around the flowers, waiting patiently to take their turn at it.

 Afterwards we looked in Ollie's plant book (Inside Plants by Miles Kelly, bought from Lidls for about £2).  We looked at how the pollen gets stuck onto the stigma and then sends a tube down the style to the ovary where the male information from the pollen joins up with the female information so a new seed can start to grow.  I use the words as I've written them above as it seems to be a level that Ollie understands.  We don't want to lose their interest by droning on about things that are incomprehensible, but I think we often underestimate what children can understand if we present information simply and regularly. 

Ollie used his book to draw what was happening when we pollinated his plants.  He did it a step at a time, sometimes asking me to trace over the book with my finger to show the next bit to add.  I labelled the parts for him with Ollie helping when he knew the part and drawing on yellow arrows to the correct bits. Then he drew a bee to show how it all should have been done if we hadn't been tickling his plants with a paintbrush.  As much as possible I let Ollie lead and don't fuss if things aren't quite right - the pink petals on his flower for example are the way he has interpreted them rather than being an exact copy of the picture in the book - this is good and he gets praised for lovely pink petals, not told they look different in the book!  If you're starting to over control what your kids produce stop, sit back and just marvel at what they're actually showing you about how they interpret what they see.

Note on providing opportunities versus trying to force kids to be academic:
When we looked at the book together I asked Ollie if he'd like to make a science drawing about his experiment - if he'd said no that would have been it for the day and we would have done something else. At no point should there be any pushing of a little one who isn't interested or isn't ready.  As soon as I mentioned that you can hand pollinate flowers with a paintbrush Ollie wanted to try, and pestered for two days before we actually got time to carry it out (he wanted to do it after nursery on the two days he attends, but as he was playing box forts with Matt and Toby both nights after dinner I didn't want to interrupt that time together by reminding him about the plants and waited instead until we had a morning free).  

There's a line between providing stimulating activities to keep kids entertained, and pressurising little ones into things they're developmentally not ready for.  Ollie happens to love this stuff at 4 years old, and he did at 3 years old too, but other kids this age would be happier kicking a ball or building bricks or whatever, so the activities I do are only here online as ideas to try if they suit you and your kids. 

Every child is so different, all we have to do is try to provide them with opportunities to express that.  Toby at 2 enjoyed tickling the flowers, and then when Ollie was making his picture Toby was doing his own picture with pens and stickers in a much more patient and methodical way than Ollie did at that age, so even kids raised together will have different preferences and abilities and I don't want to add to the pressure parents have of feeling that kids 'should' be doing certain things at certain times.  Lots of kids aren't developmentally ready to hold a pen comfortably by 4, let alone write words, so there is a great deal of debate at the moment about the pressures on small children with proposed testing to be brought in for very young children to test literacy and numeracy.  The only important thing kids 'should' be doing in the early years is playing, and playing as regularly with parents and with other children as possible. 

If your kids happen to show interest in science, maths, art, history and so on then that can become part of your play.  When he does his experiments and 'writes them up' Ollie is playing at being a scientist in the same way that ten minutes later we will all be playing at building forts together and chasing away imaginary invaders.  The minute you stop playing and get out the flashcards to hothouse your little one, you are in danger of turning them off to the big fact of life that so many people are missing - playing is learning and learning should be fun so we want to keep doing it for our whole lives because it brings us joy.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Thank you

March was my highest rated month for blog views - it had been increasing nice and steadily to that point.  I just looked at my stats for April and it beat my last highest views by 150 views.  I'd just like to say a big thank you to everyone who stops by, and virtual hugs to everyone who hits the Google plus button, shares and comments on the blog, my FB site and in person since taking the time to do this means a lot to me and I know you guys are all super busy.

Also thank you to the lovely folks I've reviewed for, including Macmillan Children's books, the Weekend Box Club,  and Denise who developed the BeltLock (mine is currently on visit with a friend who has a little boy with global developmental issues and making their journeys safer and happier).