Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Milk bottle animals (and fighting for family services)

A quick post to cheer myself up after the rather sad Local Area Group meeting I went to this morning where the lack of communication to parents/ apathy of parents means that virtually no-one attended a set of consultation meetings about the future of our local children's centers which has led to some of them being about to be 'de-designated' (read that as 'closed down').  Over the whole county of East Sussex there were only 180 responses to questionnaires asking for people's opinions on the proposals to close the centers, which could have had a lot to do with the use of the meaningless word 'de-designate' instead of 'close'.

Added to this, the unrelated loss of my closest venue means that there is potentially no children's center within sensible walking distance of my street, which is in the middle of one of the most deprived areas of one of the most deprived towns in Britain.  I'm fortunate to have a car, but I can see how this decision will impact on other local families, especially with current proposals for cuts in bus services.

 Even with a car, unrelated changes to the venues and groups mean that I am no longer attending Children's Center play groups, which had been the backbone of our week and of my volunteering, and have lost touch with most of the families I was supporting through the groups.  I'm no political radical, but the apathy of folks locally to get involved and feel like they can make a difference is a real problem.  We won't move forward as a society until decisions are made with the people they affect rather than a top down approach were things are done 'for' or 'to' people.

I want to make it clear I feel there is no allocation of blame to the Children's Centers themselves who did the very best they could with the hand they were dealt, hosting consultations and providing opportunities for people to have their say, and who continue to provide many amazing services and opportunities.

I'm doing my best by nudging anyone who's nearby and even half interested into training and volunteering opportunities, going to meetings to try to give families a voice, and generally promoting the work of any organisation I come across who is involved in families, including education opportunities for parents, but we need more people with access to the 'target' groups who need the services most (and use them least) to give the families they know a little push to go along to all the amazing opportunities that are on offer.  The target groups include young parents (under 20's), incoming families for whom English is not their first language, unemployed parents and families on low incomes among others.  Most of us know, or are, families that hit one or more of these targets, so everybody has a chance to make sure services are well used and that everybody benefits from what is already on offer.  If we don't use them, and fight for the ones that are already well used, we will lose them.

Anyhow, on to the cheery stuff.  We all know recycling is a good thing, and that it doesn't have to always mean chucking stuff in the recyclables wheely bin for the council to send off to be re-used.  Here's a simple use for a 2 liter (4 pint) plastic milk carton to make an elephant and a weird-looking rhino.  This is an idea I pinched from an advert for a craft pack in a Tesco's magazine, but mine definitely looks as though the kids made them rather than an Art Graduate!

You will need:
A plastic milk carton with a handle
PVA Glue (white gloopy glue)
Old magazines, newspaper or any other thinnish paper
Smallish pieces of thicker card - ceral packet card is ideal (to roll into a cone for rhino's nose and to block the hole where top of his head will be)
Optional stick on googly eyes/ ready mix paint

How to do it:


  • Cut your bottle in half so that your cut is at the level of the bottom of the handle  - the handle will be the elephants trunk (the circular hole in the bottom half of the bottle will be where you poke a horn through for your rhino).
  • Mix half and half PVA and water in an old pot (about a tablespoon of each is a good starting amount - you can always make up more if you need it)
  • Tear strips from your magazine, dip in the PVA/water mix and lay over the half a bottle which will be your elephant
  • Leave to dry for a couple of hours, or overnight
  • When it's dry you can paint if you chose to, or just stick on googly eyes if you like the magazine effect
  •  Sames as above, but this time roll some card into a long narrow cone, poke it up through the hole left by the handle of the bottle, secure with sticky tape.  
  • I poked a lolly stick into the cone and secured it in the base of the bottle with blue-tack so the horn wouldn't be pushed in when the boys play with the rhino.  
  • Tape card over the bigger of the two holes left by removing the top of the bottle to use for the elephant.  
  • Cover everything as above with strips of paper, leave to dry and paint if you wish to.
If you don't feel like making the rhino, as Toby didn't, you can just leave the container open, cover it in paper and decorate how you like to make a pen pot.

The cutting is best done with big people scissors, so if you have small children I would do the cutting for them.  The edges of the carton can be a bit sharp, so you may want to cover these first by papering over them before you let you littlies loose on the rest of it.  Googly eyes are a choke hazard so avoid with smaller littlies.  The milk bottle top is also a choke hazard, so ensure it's pasted over with paper.  In general supervised making, supervised play, discard if it's starting to fall to bits - usual stuff.

How is it educational?
This activity targets creativity, imagination and also fine motor skills - the act of tearing up the magazine for example is a lovely sensory activity that builds fine grip and hand control.  You can use images to show little ones what they are making, and also use the finished items as part of a home-made safari collection (we have a cardboard box giraffe too) which you can use as part of an imaginary zoo adventure or visit to Africa.  Extensions include showing children on a map or globe where your animals come from and talking about the kinds of things they will need in their home, such as water and food.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Number play everywhere

Just a short post today as I have an OU Geology exam in a couple of weeks with a stack of revision for that plus a load of reading and a reflective log to write for my PACT course.

We took the boys to the beach this evening to blow away the cobwebs and found this great sundial - perfect for all sorts of number games.

The tying together of a cognitive skill such as counting and a physical one such as jumping seems to be a fantastic way to help our brains to learn.  For Toby this is a simple game of jumping on 1, 2 and 3, or looking for those characters in other numbers.

For Ollie we are starting to move beyond counting in single numbers to counting in multiples by jumping from 2 to 4 to 6 and so on.  This was an unplanned game resulting from numbers we found, but other old favourites such as hopscotch exploit exactly the same principal of learning numbers while doing a physical activity.  A brilliant idea I saw on the site 'no time for flash cards' had kids doing number recognition and maths by throwing water balloons on to numbered targets.

I'd love to hear what other folks favourite physical type number games are :)

Friday, 19 September 2014

Learning through play dough

The National Curriculum has changed in England, causing a mixed response from parents.  For those who have children who take naturally to numbers, the change in the requirement for the number children should be able to count to by the end of reception year from 20 to 100 seems like a better goal.  When you have a pre-schooler who can already count to 20, that being the goal by the end of their first year at school can seem limiting.

However for a huge number of kids who are struggling with the basics, a goal of 100 is a lot of stress at an age when the focus of education should perhaps be on gaining confidence, interpersonal skills and self care.  So what can you do to support gaining literacy and numeracy skills in a way that won't cause stress and in a way better suited to small children's development needs and abilities?

One fantastic medium for play that I have written about before is play dough.  It is easy, cheap and fun to make and can be used for an endless array of play learning.  A fantastic medium in itself for developing fine motor skills, add in colourings and scents and you have a dough that stimulates several areas of the brain as it processes the texture, colour and smell of the dough.  For kids of Toby's age (2) the experience of trying out plastic scissors, rolling pins and cutters all helps to develop the muscles in his hands and the dough offers a great material for creative play.
 For older children like Ollie (4) this play can also be guided into playing number, letter and word games.  Start children off by helping them to model the first letter of their name, then perhaps their whole name, or another word they want to make.  Ollie is currently fascinated with working out what letters are in words, and reading what words say.  In the picture he has made the word 'cat'.  You could do the same with number characters - again starting with something relevant to them such as their age.

By creating 3D shapes of number and letter characters you are doing three things.  The first is that by sitting with your child and playing with them you are making them feel good about themselves. Nothing is more precious to your child than your time - even if it's the half an hour after work and before bedtime, this time spent focusing on them will be their favourite part of the day.  The second thing is that you are making learning into a game and introducing letters and numbers without coercion and stress "hey look, I made an 'm' for 'mummy', can you help me to make an 'o' for 'Ollie'".  Lastly, presenting numbers and letters in different formats helps to cement the recognition of their shapes - written on paper, printed in a book, seen on an educational show like Numtums, printed with a stamper, written in glitter on card, made out of sticks - the more your little one is exposed to the shapes the better chance they have of becoming familiar with them.  For the thousands of children with dylexia and visual stress this hands on play approach is especially helpful.

Anything that you can make into a game helps to prevent the mental block that kids often develop when learning is made too serious and either too boring or too hard.  In our dough printing game Ollie stamped out numbers for me to read to him - when Ollie stamped out numbers over a billion he gave me a cheeky smile and said "that's how old you are mummy".  In the picture he is finding out how adding zeros changed the value of the number from 5, to 50, to 500 to 5000.

Dough can also be used to introduce the basics of addition, subtraction and division - make little balls to count and add etc...  Division can be taught by playing at cafes with play dough pizza "I'd like to buy half a pizza please", "there are three of us so we need to divide this pizza by three to make thirds"...  I introduce this language well before I expect them to be able to understand the concepts just as part of everyday speech and as a result they develop the understanding without really noticing they are doing maths.  Never say "No that's wrong" as they will become afraid to try - say "almost there, we just need to ..." instead.

Finally a note on the pace of learning.  It can feel like a competition when people tell you what their kids are doing, but the goal of this play learning is principally just to have fun with you little ones.  Ollie was fairly early with some of these skills, but other friends have kids who were counting earlier, or later, and it really doesn't matter so long as you are supporting them to progress at their own pace.  The aim of play learning is to provide opportunities for learning as opposed to having a list of what they 'should' be doing by a particular age.  If your little one wants to stop looking at letters and make a play dough rocket, then go with the rocket.  Little and often is the key to learning any new skill.

If you have kids already at school who are struggling, don't be afraid to go back to playing with the basics and make sure they have firm foundations to build the trickier stuff on.  If the basics are missed, everything else becomes impossible.  I listened to a colleague at the 6th Form College (where I taught A-Levels) trying unsuccessfully to explain to a 16 year old resitting her maths GCSE that 10 divided by 5 was 2.  Even when the teacher brought out 2p coins to help make it more visual the youngster still couldn't grasp it.  Not every child is going to grow up to be friends with advanced mathematics, but we should be sending each and every one of them out into the world with the ability to work out if they've got the correct change in a shop, and starting early with playing with numbers is a great way to get this basic life skill embedded.

Play dough recipe:
2 cups plain flour (shops own value flour is fine)
2 cups water
1 cup salt
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon cream of tartar (helps to prevent the dough going slimy if you're planning on keeping it for a few days)
colours and food flavourings as you want - turmeric, cinammon, jelly crystals, peppermint essence, lavender oil are all fun choices - I've also seen sand and glitter added but I don't like the texture.

Cook on a medium heat until it looks like dough instead of gloop.  Leave to cool before playing with it.  I store ours wrapped in clingfilm

Safety - keep littlies away from the stove when you're cooking the dough.  Avoid them eating it too as the salt is bad news for small children.

Friday, 12 September 2014

A year of volunteering

A lovely friend I met through a Children's Center playgroup reminded me this morning that it is a year today that we started on the Children's Center Volunteering Program.  It is not the first time I have been a volunteer - I started as a teenager working weekends and holidays in a Shaw Trust charity shop helping to raise money to help disabled people access employment and have given my time to a variety of different things over the years, but this is the first time I have experienced such a long lasting change to my every day life.

The volunteering training was a very enlightening experience, confirming some training I had previously received in other roles, such as child safeguarding, and opening a window on other areas I knew less about.  The people I met through the course have become good and hopefully lifelong friends who I learn so much from in their creativity, compassion and resilience.

The first aid training I received was put into practice a couple of days ago when Ollie choked on his dinner - a couple of firm strikes to the back, the food was dislodged and he carried on eating his dinner like nothing had happened.  A seemingly minor occurrence, but every year we have stories in the papers of children choking and dying at school during lunch time, a clear indication to me that everyone should receive basic first aid training.

So what does volunteering involve?  It can be anything you want it to be and we very much chose the roles we do and the projects we get involved in.  My activities this year included working with other volunteers and our co-ordinator to create a new role of 'Parent Supporter' which meant we could volunteer in play groups with our own children present - we didn't want our volunteering to detract too much from our own precious time with our children, and creches are too costly to run for every activity anyway.  This role resulted in four hours a week of volunteering, helping parents and providing a spare pair of hands for staff at two play groups, listening to people's concerns, successes and problems and signposting them on to other support if it was needed, helping to show new visitors to the groups where all the facilities were and generally helping out.  I also attend monthly Volunteers meetings where I take the minutes and type them up afterwards.  I have been able to put my Facepainting training to use at one-off events in the community and enjoyed attending other events such as the Toddle Waddle just as a parent helping to raise money for new toys for our centers.  This summer I helped to research events for children running over the summer holidays for the Children's Center's 'fun alert' - an e-mail listing and website with the most comprehensive guide to free and low-cost activities for under-5 year olds.

We have attended consultation meetings to try to save our Children's Centers from 'de-designation' (effectively closure) and I have become involved in a group which meets monthly with a range of bodies interested in local services including local Councillors and service providers - my role is to provide a voice for service users.

The opportunities for further training have been amazing, from supporting families with a family member in prison (which I'll be quite honest left me in tears - more children in the UK are affected by a family member in prison than are affected by divorce!) to Makaton training.  The Makaton training was initially useful to us as a family when Toby had communication difficulties, but also the day after I completed the second level of training I used it to communicate with my first customers at the Face painting stall I ran for a local school's summer fair.  It has also led to my involvement in running a 'Shine and Sign' group for children with language delay at a new venue - we had our planning meeting for the term this week and will be delivering our first session in a fortnight.

This week I helped to test the local council's new website and guides for families to try to bring information about what help and playgroups are available to a wider audience for less cost than the old website and printed guides.  I walked with the boys through the park with their scooters to get to the session, they had fun in creche for an hour, and then afterwards we spent a fun morning playing in the park.  Home for lunch and then back to the park to ride bikes and meet a volunteer friend to put together a proposal for a new group we feel there is a need for following talking to parents in our groups.

Birth and the first days and weeks with a new baby are something which for a lot of people, myself included, are nothing short of horrific due to the negligence and lack of compassion of hospital staff and we were shocked by how many people are carrying the trauma of these early days with them years after the event.  We are proposing to put together a monthly session with a creche and a health visitor present where mums can get it all off their chests.  We found that the general experience is that we expect to be able to have a natural birth, followed by breastfeeding and cloth nappies, and when this doesn't work out mums feel like absolute failures.  Compounded by attitudes of hospital staff and lack of basic care, such as provision of pain relief post Caesarian section, mums come out of hospital to a world that doesn't want to hear what happened because we hold the ideal of motherhood being natural and instinctive - if it's not like that there must be something wrong with you and we don't want to hear your moaning.  I was fortunate to have a husband with the compassion to listen and help get me through but too many people are lacking someone to just listen to them.  For the thousands of families who need help getting pregnant in the first place this stress happens well before they even get to the birth.  Others have trouble bonding with the screaming little bundle of rage placed in their exhausted arms when they expected the 5 minute TV delivery and the airbrushed image of contented mother and child nestled in soft white linen together.  So we want a place where we can tell mums that we do want to listen to whatever they want to tell us, get it out in the open and then look at ways of letting it go and moving on and that they're not stupid or a failure, they're real women who are doing great and to share the help that is available when things are not so great.

Other volunteers contribute hundreds of hours between them to supporting an astounding array of groups and events, including baby swimming, music groups, craft and messy play groups, young parents, new parents with twins, book bugs, a Saturday Dad's group and even online support through Facebook groups.  Whatever you think there might be a need for, you can find an opportunity to volunteer doing it - and if it doesn't already exist and you can make a good case for it being needed, you will be provided support, advice and possibly even a venue to make it happen.  You don't have to be a particular type of person, volunteers come from all walks of life, ages, genders and physical abilities.  Some volunteers work full or part time, or aren't in paid employment, some are parents, some are grandparents.  The only thing they seem to have in common is a compassionate non-judgmental mentality and a fantastic sense of humour.  I'm also hoping that we are raising our boys with the idea that helping others is a normal part of life and with a fantastic community of like-minded people around us with their own compassionate kids for the boys to play with - some of their best friends are the children of other volunteers.  The only drawback is the nagging suspicion that we're getting more back than we're giving.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Our new classroom - the unexpected allotment

A serendipitous meeting with a lady at a playgroup led to us getting an unexpected allotment just over a week ago.  Ollie had been wanting a bigger garden for  along time, and our patio fruit and veg were taking over the small space we have at home, so when I met a lady who said there were plots being made available at her allotments I decided to take the plunge.  I was expecting a long wait - typically it can take years, but the day after she took a request letter in to her allotment association for me I got a phone call asking if I wanted to go an view a plot.

The plot looked in bad condition with every inch covered in weeds, including some dock and  a lot of large bindweed, but the soil looked reasonable when I poked in a scraping made by a badger and the allotment people seemed welcoming and helpful.  There is even a clubhouse shed where you can buy reduced rate seeds and composts, plus kids and sheds are welcome, so we signed up and got stuck in.  The plot had been split in half and a '5 rod' plot was still three times the size of our back yard so it seemed more manageable for us while we're learning.

Much to our delight it turns out that a lot of work had been done by the previous tenant, who unfortunately had to give it up.  Under the weeds we found compost bins and areas under plastic which were weed-free and ready to dig over.  I cleared the bindweed and bagged it up to take to the green waste recycling place at our local tip.  I know this is a weed experienced allotmenteers tend to burn but I though it unlikely to dry out enough for that before it rooted again.  Since it grows from any scrap of broken root I expect to be trying to keep on top of the bindweed for a long long time.  The boys enjoyed pulling it up (wearing gloves) and helping to push weeds around in their little plastic wheelbarrow.

I then moved on to digging, while the boys built sides around the first bed using wood found on the plot and some slats from our old bed.  They were so excited to be using the hammer and saw (under close supervision), so we have unexpectedly added woodworking skills to our home education curriculum.  Working with their hands to pull, push, grasp and manipulate are all fantastic for building up the muscles in their hands they need for writing and other fine skills.  Building is also a great feel-good experience because they have undivided attention while they do it and can look back at the end of the brilliant structure they have contributed to.

While I was digging a slow worm (a legless lizard) shot out from under my fork, so we all stopped to admire the beautiful creature before finding a nice quiet space by the compost bins for it.  I was 23 when I saw my first slow worm, despite having great parents who took us out and about in the fresh air all the time, so I'm amazed about the things the boys have already seen.

We have put in a cloche with winter cabbages, sprouting broccoli and leeks, plus transplanted some over-crowded strawberries from our pots at home.  The allotment will certainly cement the boys understanding of where food comes from, how plants grow, and why we don't waste food.  I'm hoping to get another cloche and sow some salad leaves and pak choi this afternoon.  We got a great haul of discounted packets of seeds (50p a pack) from our local garden center so it seems worth the gamble of sowing a few things this late in the season.  We've also sourced an almost free shed because we can use our Tesco clubcard vouchers to pay for one on their website (£80 of vouchers for a £160 shed).

This outside space is already proving to be an exciting learning space and the possibilities for it are endless as we find ways to integrate encouraging wildlife with growing our own food.