Thursday, 31 July 2014

How to get 20 minutes peace

We've all been there - we love cooking with kids but sometimes we're in a rush and just want to get dinner done quickly without 'help' from small people.  This is precisely the time of day when they will therefor start hanging off you, grizzling and making demands however full and busy a day you have had with them, they want your attention RIGHT NOW.  So how do you head this off at the pass and get your job done without losing it and becoming a shouty monster?

This is such a simple solution you may already be doing it, or if not will wonder why you didn't think of it.  It also helps to prevent the snowstorm of toys all over the house that are never played with.  It will take a couple of hours to set up initially if you haven't already done it, but after that it is super fast to implement.

You will need an empty bookcase somewhere that the kids don't spend a lot of time, plus enough boxes to sort out the toys into groups - I find the cheap fold out fabric ones from IKEA fit two boxes to a shelf, which is handy.  I group by type of toy, a box of wooden tracks and trains for example, another of Lego, one of plastic animals and so on.  The trick is that the toys are out of sight and out of mind - this is not a self service area.  Our toy bookcase is in one of the kids rooms because they are a bit too little to play upstairs by themselves so we spend most of our time downstairs together, in the back yard, or out and about.

When you need the kids to be busy doing their own thing, take down a box of toys from the shelf and give it to them to play with.  No more than one box out at a time so that it stays fresh and interesting.  Today I put away the Chuggington train set they had been playing with for a few days and gradually losing interest in.  At that time when I needed peace to cook I pulled down the box of Megablocks and put it in the living room for them to play with.  Dinner was cooked, served and on the table with no grizzling or moaning, and dinner eaten peacefully with the promise that Daddy would play Megablocks with them after dinner.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

How to grow an artist

I was just making lunch for the boys and when it was ready they were busy outside on the patio, so I thought I'd leave them play a bit longer before I called them in as they were obviously having fun.  Ollie came in 10 minutes later - "come and look at my green stone Mummy", so off I went expecting a heap of stones or general play chaos.

I was not expecting a chalk circle, containing a chalk grid, with a slate chipping in each square and the central stone coloured green.  This is not a copy of something I had done with them before - this was entirely self directed creativity.

Children all have this creativity within them. They may have varying levels of conformity to what we would regard as being 'good at painting', but encouragement of an outlet for their creativity is an important part of caring for children.

There is a theory within childcare settings at the moment that providing children with pictures to colour in, or stickers, stamps and templates, gives them the message that their own work is inferior and we should therefore only give them free-drawing materials.  This seems a bit too far for me since kids tend to adapt any resource to their own ideas - I've never seen a pink crocodile but that's what colour Toby decided to colour the one in his colouring book.  Where it becomes a problem is if that is all they have, and if we sit there nagging them to use certain colours, keep inside the lines and so on.

The boys enjoying the cool floor in the Quentin Blake exhibition
 Adult artists also tend to learn about the work of other artists and how to use a variety of different media before they go on to develop their own style, and this is true of children too.  So the way to grow an artist (in my definition this is someone who embraces creativity and produces something that satisfies their creative thoughts and feelings) is to provide materials, show ways they can be used yourself, and also go and see what other people have produced.
Toby drawing his self portrait

Galleries are a great place to do this, and are increasingly welcoming of children and families.  So long as you can keep sticky fingers off the art (unless it is a touch gallery) and they aren't charging around, most Galleries are very happy to see you.  The key to these two caveats are vigilance and timing.  Feed the kids before you start trying to look at anything, keep their attention by holding them up to a picture in each gallery, saying what you like about it and challenging them to find their favourite and tell you about it, use any resources the gallery provides such as worksheets but don't feel you have to stick to them and do every activity, and keep the time frame small.  It is better to look at a couple of things and try out the ideas at home then it is to try to look at everything and then get cross with overloaded children.  When I talk about science topics I always say 'if you know the correct terminology, use it' but if you are like me and have more enjoyment of art than actual knowledge then don't feel pressured to look clever in front of other gallery users and staff.  Just use the words you think will help to develop your child's vocabulary and reasoning for example comments such as "does that picture make you feel happy or sad?  It makes me feel sad, maybe because of the colours the artist used" works for us.

Ollie's self portrait
On Sunday it was Pirate Day here in Hastings and we used the opportunity to have lunch in the Jerwood Gallery Cafe (the kids love the macaroni cheese on the kids menu) and then see the new Quentin Blake display.

The Gallery provided pencils, clipboards and a new summer activity booklet with things to look for and spaces to draw things for yourself.

The boys particularly enjoyed making their own self portraits and lay on the cool floor for a long time, recovering from the heat and crowds outside as well as having fun drawing.

If you are interested in your children learning about specific artists, you could even pick up books from the library and have a go at making something together in the style of that artist, just as Quentin Blake's exhibit explored the artists he has enjoyed looking at himself at the Jerwood.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How to make an eggcellent pirate treasure box toy

 With Pirate Day coming up soon in Hastings our minds have been on Pirate themed activities this week.  I noticed that Tesco's have started selling craft kits to turn items saved from the recycling box into toys so I decided to do what I do when I see ready meals - pinch the idea but make it from scratch myself.  The kits do look cool and would make nice gifts - perhaps something to do at a grandparent's house if they have long ago cleared away all the paint and glue from when they raised you - but since we're regular junk modellers we have stacks of crafty bits put by already.

Today we decided to make egg box treasure chests.  All we used were two cardboard egg boxes - ours were already brown so we didn't need to paint them (If all you have are plastic ones, then you can either mix poster paint half and half with PVA (white) glue to make it stick to the plastic, or use brown tissue paper with a half and half water and PVA glue mix to make paper mache to cover the box).

Next we glued strips of thin yellow card to the lid of the box to look like metal bands.  The boys coloured in the fastening of the box
 with a black felt tip pen to make it look like a lock and drew lines on the lid to show the wooden planks the chest would be made from.

The final stage was to make some treasure - you can be really imaginative here with making bead necklaces, foil rings, plastic gem stones etc...  We went with the simpler option of scrunching aluminium foil into coin shapes.

Toby has also coloured his on the inside with wax crayons, then used the treasure chest to store the crayons, the aluminium 'coins' and a Thomas the Tank Engine train.

If you're looking for a super quick 10 minute filler activity that takes almost no time to set up or pack away and doesn't cause a lot of mess, this is ideal.  It's not the most impressively realistic treasure box you will ever see, but the kids don't seem to care about that and have been 'burying' their treasure in the sofa cushions and under the raspberry bushes in the garden all afternoon.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Face painting for fun and community

Last year I saw an advert for a free professional face painting course run by my local Children's Centers.  I jumped at the chance because I could see it being a really useful skill to bring to friend's parties and community events.  I had a brilliant time doing the course and it turned out to be more useful than I could have imagined because I got recruited at the end of the course to become a Children's Center volunteer.

A year on from the course and I have painted on quite literally hundreds of children and adults, including my own long-suffering husband who gets volunteered to be my practice face on a regular basis.  He is also absolutely essential in my ability to offer my face painting to help at parties and events because he is the one chasing our boys around and trying to keep them out of trouble while they're full of party food and adrenaline.

I don't post a lot about the face painting, even though it can take over at least of part of most weekends.  This isn't through any lack of enthusiasm - just lack of photos since I don't take pictures of the kids I paint on - mainly for safeguarding reasons as I don't think it's the done thing these days - but also because at a normal event I spend the whole session glued to a chair painting constantly without a chance to take a slurp of water, never mind a photo.

This picture is a rare one then - Ollie was my first customer at a local school fete where I was painting to raise funds for them (over £30 in two hours).  I love it when he does want to be painted because it breaks the ice and once one person has had it done, all the other kids flock in.  It's funny though that my own kids are often the only ones without any paint on them at the end of the party - partly because it's no novelty to them, but also because Ollie loves a certain Superman costume and generally doesn't want his face painted while he's wearing it.  Toby will only let me paint him if it's reciprocal and he's allowed to paint on me - fine at home maybe not when I'm in public.

It might also strike people as strange that I don't face paint at our own parties, but painting takes me completely away from being able to do anything else and there's definitely not time to host the party and paint the guests.  For this reason when friends ask me to teach them so they can do their own parties I always say "yes, ... but.. just shout and I'll come and paint" - I love to spread the things I've learned, but since my kit as it stands currently represents about £100 of paint, sponges, brushes and glitters  (and a basic starter kit costs about £25), that's a lot for friends to lay out for a particular event when they will find out they can't use it because it's so time consuming.  I'm not a registered face painter with liability insurance, so I just paint for free for friends or as a volunteer at events.  So how do I pay for my kit?  I sometimes get small donations from friends or event planners, which is totally voluntary and not a 'fee', and this is ploughed straight back into replacing used paints, expanding my colour pallet, buying a few select more expensive paints for line work, new sponges and brushes, and don't forget lots and lots of glitter gel.  Maybe at some point I will go professional but I like the 'pay it forward' way I have of working as a volunteer - some folks give a little, most don't, but those that do pay for those that don't and in the meantime I get to help raise money for schools, help with groups events, provide entertainment for the public at big events, and best of all see my friends kids (and my own) with great big smiles on their faces.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Play dough volcano

Ollie was 'reading' one of his science books in the car the other day and wanted to do 'an experiment with volcanoes'.  It sounded like a great idea to me, so when we got home from swimming I decided that making a bicarbonate volcano would be a fun activity.

The first step was to make some play dough.  I like the recipe I'm giving below because it measures in cups and tablespoons rather than grams, which makes it easier for the kids to help to measure out the quantities:
2 cups plain flour
2 cups water
1 cup salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cream of tartar (optional but helps the play dough to keep longer without going slimey - unlikely you'll want to save the dough after this activity though so you may as well leave it out)
1-2 teaspoons colouring - we used blue because ours is a bit rubbish at being blue but makes a good rocky grey colour.

Help your kids to measure, add and stir the ingredients, then put into a saucepan and cook on a medium heat stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and looks like dough. it will obviously be hot at this point, so when we make play dough I add in another activity while we wait for it to cool.

 For our 'cooling' activity on this day Matt and Ollie made a volcano picture.  Matt drew the cone, magma chamber and vents, then Ollie coloured it.  Matt drew guide lines for Ollie's words and they worked out what to write letter by letter "What is this red stuff you've drawn inside the volcano? That's right it's magma.  What do you think the word 'magma' starts with..." with some help over shaping the letters by writing each out on a separate piece of paper (while Ollie tuts "I know how to write a 'm'!"). 

I was surprised when Ollie said that the stuff coming out of the volcano was lava and chunks of rock blown off the top - I didn't realise he had remembered that the molten rock is magma when it's inside the volcano and lava when it's outside - I've had A-level students that didn't remember the difference.

In the end they labelled the vent, cone, lava and the magma chamber, by which time Toby had made a birthday card for his friend and our play dough was cool enough for the next stage.

I save plastic pots and tubs for our experiments and activities, and today a pot which had previously contained a small fairy cake in an Asda children's lunch pack was the perfect one - small, plastic and with a push fit lid into which I could easily cut a small round hole in the centre.  I added a couple of teaspoons of red food colouring to the pot, then four teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda and put the lid on.  This formed our magma chamber and the boys modelled the volcano around it.

Next I filled a large medicine syringe with vinegar and the boys took turns squirting it into the magma chamber and laughing at the explosive results.  The first couple of goes where a bit too tame, just gently bubbling down the volcanoes sides, so Matt added some sticky tape to make the aperture in the lid of the chamber smaller.  The resulting fountains of bicarb and vinegar caused great delight.  This video isn't the biggest eruption we had, but for some reason the other footage isn't working.

So what are the science bits from this?  The bicarb and vinegar experiment is an old favourite - adding the acid vinegar to the alkaline* bicarbonate of soda causes the release of carbon dioxide bubbles.  If you add pressure by having a lid on the container with a hole in it, the results can fountain up quite impressively - for a really impressive version look online for videos of the 'mentos and cola' experiment.

What has this got to do with volcanoes?  Quite a bit surprisingly, since there are different types of volcanoes but the one that every kid draws, the cone shape, is an explosive volcano**.  Famous examples of this type include Mount St Helens and Mount Pinatubo.  These volcanoes are explosive because of the presence of gasses dissolved under pressure in hot, highly viscous (thick) magma.  When sufficient pressure builds up to blow a hole in the top (or sometimes side if the vent to the summit is plugged) of the volcano, the pressure is released and the gases suddenly come out of a dissolved state into a gaseous state which froths up the newly emerging lava to form volcanic ash, which, along with other pyroclastic material, rockets up into the atmosphere until it runs out of energy and then collapses on itself, at which point it rushes down the sides of the volcano as a pyroclastic flow, a very fast deadly wave of burning hot poisonous gases and ash.  Very few people actually die from lava flowing from a volcano - it's the pyroclastic flow which is the real danger.  The bubbles you create by adding vinegar to bicarb are about the safest way you can demonstrate how important gases are in an explosive eruption.

As always, don't be afraid to use the proper terminology if you know it when explaining and describing what's happening as kids are amazingly receptive and will surprise you with what they retain over time.  If you don't feel confident explaining what's happening, do the activity anyway and then have fun together looking up explanations in books or the internet.  Finding videos of real volcanoes is a good follow up activity, and if you have some don't forget to try floating your pumice stone foot rubber in a bowl of water - rock shouldn't float right?  Pumice is special and it's all down to those gasses that were in the magma.

Safety bit: Things to be careful of - usual care to be taken with hot stove/hot play dough while you're making the dough; during the chemistry bit be careful of getting bicarb/ vinegar in eyes - wear eye protection if you are concerned, wash eyes immediately with luke warm water if you do get any in there as both will sting.  It can be fun to see how high you can make the volcano jet out, but you don't want to be showering bystanders with the discharge so do exercise sense and start small.

*ok chemistry purists, technically it's a base because it's dry, but acid and alkali are everyday terminology.

** the other main type is an effusive volcano - one that oozes over a long period of time, such as those on Hawaii.  Once upon a time there were also vast lava flows called 'flood basalts' but we can all be glad we haven't any of these now - look up 'Deccan traps' if you want to know why.  Other less impressive but still interesting types of volcanoes are less well known, including mud volcanoes.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Making the most of our time

Last Sunday we had a choice - we could either lay floor in the bathroom, a job that has needed doing for a long time, or we could take the kids out to see the Emergency Services day at Eastbourne.  We decided on the day out - house stuff could be done any day, but the next Emergency Services day would be a whole year away.

The kids were so excited to sit in all the vehicles and get splashed by the bomb disposal diver in the giant training tank.  Ollie said it was the best surprise ever.  Both boys have spent most of this week playing firemen as a result.

While the kids are little and actually want to do stuff with us we will take every opportunity to enjoy our time together.  Completed D.I.Y. and a showroom house might happen when they're older and naturally want to be out with their friends instead of being with us so much.

This has been a week full of tragedy, injustice and health worries for a number of our friends both locally and further away.  The one thing they have in common is my immense respect for each of them - they are all people who stand up as individuals and approach life with humour and compassion for others.  I can only hope that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery as we continue to follow their lead in making the most of every minute we have together.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Grow Hope Gallery

I'm taking part in the Grow Hope Gallery for leading international children's charity World Vision.

The charity is collecting together images of what hope means to people - a plant they've grown in flower, family together, a meal that brings happiness.  I chose this image of Ollie leaping into a garden, arms outstretched, just for a moment flying.  I think we all hope to fly when we leap.

I think 'hope' is a word that has been diluted to mean a sort of vapid wish for a future that might be different, 'I wish' 'I hope' but I do nothing to make it happen. 

No, HOPE is actually a powerful word, it is turning our faces to the sky and believing in good things because, whatever has gone before, right now we are strong and loving and can work together to do great things.

There are all sorts of great quotes about hope, but for me I rather like this one from Will Smith because it sums up my attitude to pretty much everything I've ever done in my life.  I jump in with no idea whether I can do the thing I'm proposing to do, but no reason to believe that I can't:

“Because that's what people do... they leap and hope to God they can fly!"

NB there's a prize draw entry with posts for the Grow Hope Gallery, but my motivation for posting is because I think it's a wonderful idea to fill as much of the internet with images of hope as possible :) 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Milky surface tension experiment

This experiment is another kitchen cupboard favourite that we learned how to do after a lovely friend shared a video of it on my FaceBook wall.  All you need is milk, food colourings, a container and some liquid soap.

Put some full fat milk into your container, add a few drops of food colourings to make little blobs of it floating in the milk- you may want to experiment with what colouring works best as we found our blue sank and red floated.  Add a few drops of liquid soap, e.g. washing up liquid, on to the blobs of food colouring and your little ones will be amazed as straight away the colouring starts swirling out into the milk.

 The original video that was shared with me didn't have an explanation, but if your little ones are looking for an explanation this is what I think is happening: for very little ones you can tell them that the soap is helping the milk and the colours to mix together.  For older children you can talk about surface tension.  Surface tension is the ability of a liquid to resist an external force - a really good example that you can observe this effect with is to find video footage on the internet of a pond skater walking on water.  The effect is caused by the cohesive properties of molecules in the liquid - the ability of the bits to stick together.  It is responsible for lots of the properties of liquids, for example the way rain falls as drops instead of just remaining in the atmosphere as separate water molecules.

 This experiment works best with full fat milk I think because the fat molecules in the milk are evenly distributed  and when you add the food colouring to the milk the fats prevent the colouring from diffusing (mixing) quickly into the liquid as would happen if you dripped colourings into plain water.  When you add soap I think two main things happen, firstly the soap is a surfactant so it breaks up the bonds between the fat and water in the milk, plus it disrupts the surface tension of the water in the milk - it makes the sticky molecules come unstuck, both of which allows the colours to spread out.  Even more exciting, this is not now a gradual dilution that you get in plain water, the colours shoot around the dish in waves as the colours are driven by movements in the milk as the stronger surface tension areas pull away from the soapy areas where the surface tension is weaker.

After we played with the original set up a few times by replacing the ingredients with a fresh set up in a cleaned dish, we then brought in the idea of scientific method by keeping some parts of our experiment the same and just changing one part - on this day we tried using a different type of liquid soap - hand soap - to see if one soap made the colour mix in faster.  We used simple equipment to measure out our quantities to keep them standard - medicine spoons for the soap, medicine syringes for the colouring and glasses for the milk.  The boys then added the ingredients of their experiment at the same time and watched to see what happened - in our basic set up we didn't see much difference.  I thought there might be because our hand soap was a standard brand while the washing up liquid is an eco brand so I expected it to be less strong of a surfactant.  As it happened it looks like it was just as effective at breaking up the fat molecules and surface tension as the regular soap.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Butterfly life cycle activity

Ollie often asks to read about butterflies and so today I thought it would be fun to do a butterfly themed activity.  Toby loves to paint so I set up an activity that both boys would enjoy.

The first step was to colour large pictures of butterflies that I drew for them.  It's great to let kids be totally free with their art work a lot of the time, but in this case I had a specific outcome in mind so pre-drawing the images was helpful to the pace of the activity.

 Toby chose to paint his butterfly in green and pink, Ollie chose to do a fold print and painted half of his butterfly in blue.  He folded it to make the print, then decided it wasn't filled in enough and painted over the other half too, finishing by printing pink spots on it.  I retrieved his picture to set to one side to dry at that point because Ollie doesn't have an 'enough paint' moment and will just keep adding until he ends up with a mushy bit of paper mache.

We then painted in outlines of caterpillars, cocoons and eggs on a leaf that I had drawn on separate pieces of paper.  Ollie chose to do some leaf printing around his caterpillar for it to eat.  Interestingly Toby painted on his caterpillar inside the lines for the most part - not something that Ollie was doing at two.  This is a great activity for working on communication - "what is that you are painting Toby?  What colours are you using? Is it a big butterfly or a small butterfly?... I like the way you are making spots with your brush, would you like a different colour?... "  After painting two pictures Toby then wandered off to wash his hands and play with his trains.

Our next step was to label Ollie's pictures.  It can be frustrating to Ollie if he makes a mistake writing on a picture he's spent a long time on, so I cut rectangles of paper to write on which he could glue on if he was happy with them.  I don't tell him to re-do writing if he is with it, the point of the activity is to be creative and explore how we can use writing to communicate our science ideas, not to produce something 'perfect' by repetition and in so doing squash the fun out of it.

I drew lines on the paper to guide where each letter could go - simply to make sure there was space for the whole word as without them we end up with C............aterpllr.  I then asked what Ollie thought the word caterpillar started with - he said 'c' like 'cat' then had this lightbulb moment when he realised that 'caterpillar' had 'cat' in it - a word he already knew how to spell.  I wrote the letters out on my own piece of paper so he could remind himself of how to write them and see the rest of the word written letter by letter.  He likes to write 'T' instead of 't' and at this point all I do is show him how I write a 't' in the middle of a word and then praise him for his concentration on writing neatly.  Praising the things they get right, or nearly right, builds them up and makes them want to continue.  Say 'that's wrong' and they will be afraid to do anything in case they make a mistake.

 Ollie wanted to label up his other pictures, so we followed the same procedure for 'butterfly' (another big laugh when he realised he had written 'butter' - "it's butter!  Like we eat butter!".  Toby noticed we were gluing at this point and rejoined us to glue scraps of paper together, enough of a distraction that Ollie wrote 'Cocoon' with more 'o's than is strictly necessary and 'eggs' with a sort of a 'z'.  Again, praise 'hey, that's almost like mine, well done for trying to concentrate when Toby is making that great sticky picture'.

After it was all done and his labels were stuck on (a couple upside down to start with, but gently peeled off and reattached right way up) we talked about what order to put the pictures in, and how we couldn't just do them as a line because each led to the next stage round and round as a cycle.

I bluetacked them up on the wall with arrows to show the direction of the cycle, plus Toby's beautiful paintings so that he was part of our gallery too.

When Matt came home from work the boys pounced on him to 'come and see what we have done in the corridor' and excitedly showed off their work to him.

Later on we went for a caterpillar hunt in the garden.  The first ones we found were teeny tiny newly hatched moth caterpillars on our tomato plant - Toby held the leaf gently and kept repeating 'me caparpillars' while studying them intently, so I found a plastic vivarium to put them in so he could watch them for a bit longer.  Then we found a Large White caterpillar munching on our nasturtiums and Toby again said 'me caperpillar - me BIG caperpillar!' so we evicted the moth caterpillars down to the end of the garden and replaced them with the big caterpillar and a supply of leaves.  Toby has decided to name it 'Ra Ra the caperpillar' so I guess caterpillar is going to stay with us for a while, giving us the chance to watch it change first hand.  I'm conscious of it's welfare, but it has already fared rather better than the other caterpillars I find on our plants which get gently but firmly moved on to a patch of weeds near our house and which I suspect the birds make short work of despite my efforts to treat them humanely.  With due care and a bit of luck the boys should be able to see much of the cycle they painted happening for real in front of their eyes over the next few weeks.

This activity is useful for the following learning and development areas (amongst others): language and communication, literacy, natural history awareness - life cycles, creativity, fine motor skills, reasoning skills (the order events happen in) and feeling good by working together to produce something they are proud of.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Starting the home education journey

We had a great deal of discussion when it came to applying for Ollie's first school last winter (in the UK the cut off date for school applications is mid January of the year your child is due to start school and the school year starts in September).

It wasn't quite the discussion that goes on in most homes in the UK however, where after visiting every remotely local school and poring over OFSTED reports parents write down their order of preference and then wait for the intervening months to pass until they find out if they got their first choice.

Our discussion focused on a different issue - was Ollie going to go to school at all, and if he was, what age should he start?

I'm a teacher myself by training and experience, and as a child went to a wide variety of different types of school, all of which I enjoyed for the most part, but all with widely different ideologies, provision and academic expectation.  So I wasn't coming to the table with any great angst over my own experiences clouding my thoughts, just a fair insight into what was available and what the issues are.  Most children will enjoy school and will do well in school.  School has a host of benefits, including well trained, well motivated teachers who genuinely care about their students and a good range of resources to aid learning.  I don't intend this post to be 'school bashing' or to try to convince people not to send their kids to school.  It's just an explanation of our choice given our individual circumstances.

My first intention was that Ollie would spend a couple of years at the nursery attached to the school we thought would be a good one for him, based on a range of factors including a good provision of outside green space, good provision of resources, teaching which seemed good and a Head who seemed keen to provide challenge and stretch.

What ensued was a year of Ollie screaming until he literally vomited every time I took him to nursery.  The staff would have to drag him off me to get him into the room while he sobbed and promised to be a good boy (as though my abandonment was because he thought he had been naughty).  It broke my heart, but everyone around me said 'they settle down quickly when you leave', 'they need to do this so they're ready to go to school' and a host of other things that made me feel like an overbearing mummy making a baby of my child (he was 3).  Alarm bells rang every time.  His 'key member of staff' would say 'he settles down quickly when you leave - he goes for a nap under the play house'.  A nap.  Ollie.  This didn't make sense as he never napped.  I would pick him up early because he was exhausted by 2pm, often ravenously hungry even though there was food still uneaten in his lunch box, usually filthy, often with torn trousers.  Eventually it all came together and I realised what was happening - he was 'napping' because he was utterly depressed, he was ravenous because no-one had helped him with his lunch, he often had a dirty bottom because no-one helped him in the toilet, he was dirty because no-one helped him put on an apron.  He never brought home anything he had made.  When I asked him what he had done he would say 'nuthin',.. 'who did you play with?'... 'no-one' which I knew wasn't true.  One day I arrived to pick him up during story time - the staff had 50 or so kids in two groups sitting next to each other in the same room and were shouting different stories at them - my head was spinning after a few minutes.  Yes he did often also have a good time playing with sand, or water, or on trikes outside, but his overall experience was of chaos without enough adults to make sure his basic needs for help and affection were being met - all within Government guidelines for ratios, but clearly not a nurturing environment for a child.

I was given a recommendation for another nursery - this time with just 20 kids at a time with 4 or 5 adults.  I got on the waiting list and when Ollie's place came up started him with just a couple of half days to see how he settled.  It could not have been more different.  Ollie was excited to get there in the morning, went straight in, when I picked him up he always had some art or food he had made.  Despite the evidence of having done messy play, he was clean and dry.  His lunch box was empty and his tummy full.  He wanted to stay longer, so we rapidly extended to the two long days he does now - 9 to 4.  His teachers can't believe that the confident, mature, happy little ring leader they see could have been a child who screamed like a banshee at the thought of going to his old nursery. He could not be happier - he tells me he wishes he could go there forever.  Seeing how different he was in this setting sealed the deal for us in our schooling decision.  It also made me feel like a complete monster - how could I have followed what others advised in the face of my own instincts and observations and have let my child be so unhappy, even if it was for 'just' two days a week? 

As far as we could make out, the problem with the other place hadn't been anything that could have been fixed by something like staff training, it just came down to the sheer number of children.  By the time Ollie was due to go, the school would have expanded it's intake to 90 children in reception year - with part of the time in their own classes but a lot of 'free flow time' all together.  Research shows that children learn best in small classes (wedging in TAs into a large class isn't as effective as one teacher in a small class), and that schools should have no more than 200 to 300 pupils, yet here we are with 30 in a class (I've taught up to 38 in a class myself while teaching science in a high school) in schools of 800 or more pupils.  So size of class and school was the first issue.

The next issue was age of entry.  I believe that 4 is just too young for many children to be in a formal educational setting all day, five days a week.  We still often have lazy Monday and Friday mornings at home, where even though we're up at normal times we do quiet things at home because the boys are recovering from either the busy weekend's activities or the equally busy weekday ones.  Ollie is however generally a bundle of energy and isn't designed for sitting still and being quiet for any length of time - he is well above expected ability in reading, writing, numeracy but this takes a back seat to the more important business at this age of playing, running, stretching, rolling, climbing and doing all the things young children need to do to develop good co-ordination, strength, balance and social skills.  Most schools have a play centred approach during Reception Year, but at age 5 in Year 1 children are expected to spend an increasing amount of time sitting still and concentrating.  This isn't developmentally appropriate for many children, and I think especially not boys.  From an early age they are therefore being fed the idea that there is something wrong with them because they can't sit still.  A 5 year old isn't designed to sit still.  Research into learning and achievement around the world backs this up - countries which delay formal education until the age of 7 have higher literacy and numeracy rates that those with an earlier starting age. 

This is a snapshot of our decision when it came to Ollie's education - and I say 'our' because it was really important that both Matt and I were happy with the decision.  I leaned more pro home ed, Matt more pro school, but in the end we came up with a compromise that we think will work.

We will follow the research and keep Ollie out of school until he is 7, at which point we will try to get him a place in one of the smaller village school outside our town but within a sensible driving radius of around half an hour.  Class sizes may well still be up to 30, but at least the school overall will be a more manageable size for staff to get to know the kids as individuals.  If Toby wants desperately to go to school when Ollie does, then we'll give him the option to try it, as we would if Ollie had seemed really keen to go this year.  Eventually we will try to move out of town and find a new home close to the smallest secondary school in our area, avoiding the huge failing Academies which would be our current options.

In the mean time, it is a continuation of what we do already - we learn through experience and through play, as well as sitting down for half an hour or so quiet time most days with one of Ollie's books to fill in activities on writing, numeracy, science, history etc... all just the ones that are available from the supermarkets.  We read, three books at bed time, often more in the course of the day if one of the boys brings me a book to read to them.  We sing learning songs and nursery rhymes.  We watch videos online from time to time if that's the best way to answer a question like 'where does rubber come from'.

Ollie's current nursery time is coming to an end soon, and the staff have been wonderful in adapting their school transition program for Ollie's circumstances, as the pages he filled out in a transitions booklet this week show.  He certainly seems to have decided for himself what our curriculum will be composed of - learning to read and studying about butterflies apparently.

A lot of friends and family have been supportive of the idea, especially after I pointed out that the socially acceptable thing for me to do would be to go back to teaching full time, hardly ever have any time to spend with the boys but be able to pay for them to go to private school if the local ones were too big or too bad to serve their needs.  So why not cut out the middle man, teach them myself and actually get to spend a couple more precious years with the boys, while at the same time adhering to the good practice of the research that has been done? 

Others are less enthusiastic towards our choice, taking it a bit personally perhaps 'well it's all very well but some of us have to work full time'... full time school for 4 year olds is therefore actually free childcare  - desperately needed by many working parents, but not automatically therefore what is best for every child.  I have no judgement over other folks decisions - each child and each family circumstance is unique and we each make the decisions based on what is best for our families based on our circumstances.  Maybe you have a great local school, maybe your child thrives in large groups, maybe you love the extra curricular activities that will be available and you own individual child is hugely independent and desperate to go to school, these are all brilliant reasons to send your child to school at 4.  Maybe you are a single parent, or a couple on low incomes and the best thing for your family in the current economic climate is for your child to go to school at 4 freeing you up to bring in vital wages, that is a blooming good reason too.  Sending them to school when you don't feel it's right for them just because that's 'what everyone else does' maybe isn't such a great reason.

There are also bad reasons to home educate - fear of professionals becoming involved in your family, fear over pressure to return to work if your child is at school all day, fear about change in general, a misconception that this would be an easier option - talk to anyone who home educates, it is very much the hard option compared to dropping kids off at school for someone else to entertain and educate.  The whole argument that you have to home educate because 'no-one understands my little Bobby, he's just high spirited' as he smashes things and swears at people - no, unless there's an underlying medical or mental issue, that's just bad manners and home educating won't fix it until you seek help in learning how to manage poor behaviour effectively.  Kids can be free spirits without being obnoxious.  Unless you are committed to putting in the work to provide a varied and interesting learning experience that will provide challenge and stretch, plus seek out every opportunity for your child to have access most days to other children and adults to socialise and play with, home education is probably not the right choice.  The law doesn't say that children must attend school, but it does say that they must be receiving an education and plugging them into TV all day does not count as this.  If you don't like studying and reading yourself home ed isn't your best option (and reading the home ed forums there's a surprising number of people out there trying to home educate while not enjoying study and reading themselves?!).  Again, I don't want to sound like I'm judging other's decisions, but you can see my point I hope - home education should involve an actual education, whether this is through disciplined 'home schooling' or a more free-flow unschooled approach.

Ultimately, send them, don't send them, send them later, find an alternative such as Montessori schooling, send them to a faith school, a small school, a forest school, to the moon - it's totally up to individual preferences but what we can all hopefully do is try to understand the decisions made by other parents and support each other because we are all just trying to do the best for our kids and every one of us needs the support of other parents one way or another.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Busy A-Viking

I've been a bit quiet with the posts this week because we spent the weekend being Saxons with our Viking friends at the Chalke Valley history fair near Salisbury (UK) and then catching up on other things when we got home.

It was a fantastic weekend of camping, fun with friends and learning about other periods since this was a multi-period event.  Each day had battles re-enacted from various periods, air displays and living history demonstrations, plus a variety of food and craft stalls to visit and, for the members of the public, celebrity speakers including Ian Hislop.

We're still very green members of the Vikings (just two years), but it has been a great experience.  Toby was born into the group and Ollie was just two years old when we joined, so they have known their Viking friends for pretty much their whole lives, which shows in the excitement of seeing their play mates at shows.
I don't often get many pictures of the kids in kit, since cameras are banned during public hours for obvious reasons, but here's a couple from after 'wimples off' time at 5pm.

One of my favourite memories from this show will be the slight absurdity of drinking coffee from a tin mug served from an American truck by an ex pirate re-enactor while chatting with a group of mediaeval men.  We will also be eternally grateful to the lovely friend who let us shelter from the sun and rain under her awning and helped us to keep up with the kids constant demands for food, and all the others who as always provided great company.

If you have any interest in history and are looking for a fun family activity to make friends, learn new skills and visit amazing places for free, why not look into joining one of the many re-enactment groups around. 

We don't get paid for shows (apart from occasionally a petrol contribution if it's a major event) but we do get to camp for free and visit events that would normally cost an arm and a leg to get in to.  For example, this weekend would have cost us £60 in day passes alone, without adding in camping fees. The opportunities for learning are immense - both in terms of historical information gained and the confidence and general social skills that come with talking to a wide variety of people, including other re-enactors and members of the public.  It's no surprise that many re-enactment children grow up excelling at History in school and go on to study it at University.  However I've also found they show a self confidence in speaking in front of others which is unusual in our modern culture of tech obsessed text-speaking kids.  Even if they're plugged in at home just as much as the next kid, for several weekends a year they are unplugged and charging around in the open air.

It takes a village to raise a child.  No one said that your village has to be from this century.