Thursday, 29 January 2015

Chinese New Year with a Weekend Box

 With Chinese New Year fast approaching (in 2015 it falls on the 19th of February) we were really happy to receive a Weekend Box to review that was packed with four fantastic ideas for New Year themed activities.

The box arrived while we were out, but has been designed to fit through a standard letterbox, so no annoying the neighbours by taking in post for us or having to trek across town to the post collection office.  The materials are all also either recycled or recyclable so there's no waste when we're finished with it.

 The boys were really excited to try out the cooking activity first - as much as they love crafts, they love cooking even more.  The activity was to make fortune cookies and came with an instruction card and a packet containing sesame seeds and dried strawberries to decorate the finished cookies.  All we needed to provide were store cupboard staples - olive oil and wholemeal soft tortilla wraps, plus chocolate and honey for the decorations.

 The instructions called for us to use a big cookie cutter to cut out rounds, but since we didn't have one it was simple just to cut around a template - in this case a small bowl was ideal.  The boys then added paper fortunes that I had written out (I included great wisdom such as 'you have just eaten a tasty Chinese meal' which confused Ollie when he opened his cookie after dinner 'how did it know!').  Our results looked very little like the picture on the instruction card, but the kids had a lot of fun making and eating them.

The next activity we tried was to make a Chinese Dragon using coloured card and lolly sticks.  Everything we needed was in the pack, including powder paint, coloured card, googly eyes, lolly sticks and double sided tape

 The dragon was really simple to make, and to help the boys to understand what it was Matt found footage on YouTube of Dragon dancing in New Year Celebrations in New York, which the boys watched while painting their dragon.  We enjoyed this so much we have used our own resources to make more of these dragons.

There were a further two activities to try, but we will keep those for next weekend.  The Weekend Box is send out every two weeks, so there is no pressure to try to complete everything in one go.

To round off the experience we had vegetable stir fry and noodles for dinner with Chinese style starters such as prawn toast, using children's chopsticks from the supermarket.

The Weekend Box was a really good way to spend time with the children and helped to take the thinking out of planning activities for them.  If you fancy trying one yourself then the promotional code below will entitle new customers to a free trial:

Notes: The weekend box was provided free for me to review, but the cheeky boys, experiences and wobbly cookies are all my own. Use my code before 9th Feb 2015 and I might be in with a chance of winning a voucher.  Cheers m'dears.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Encouraging strong spirited, resilient children

 I have a confession to make.  I'm a bit of a cry baby.  I don't seem to be able to tune out the misery of others and if I watch the horrors on the news or if I am around folk going through painful times I feel that knot building in my throat and the prickle of tears behind my eyes.  I don't get how it's possible to turn that off - to watch the pain of others without feeling involved and devastated for them.  It's something that will be derided as weakness by others, but I've come to the conclusion that actually I'm fine.  I'm just empathic towards others and if the world had more empathy then we'd be better off in the long run, even if it might mean a shortage of handkerchiefs and runaway sales of waterproof mascara.

 So, there it is, I'm a sensitive little flower and probably would collect unicorns and rainbows if there was space in my home not covered in books and toys.  But I have also learned to stand up for myself, to stand firm when my instinct is to walk away from failure, to be stubborn - in other words over time I have learned resilience.

Some kids are more sensitive naturally than others, and in our sensitive, naturally empathic kids it is important to give them the skills they will need to survive with their minds healthy in a world filled with everyday failures and disappointments.  For our naturally less sensitive children it is important to foster the empathy for others that they are born with, even if it isn't always so obvious in them as in our 'sensies'.

Take a typical day with a sensitive kid.  They wake up  brimming with excitement about a friend coming over to visit because they love their friends in a way that less sensitive people can't understand, and are already planning out ways to make their friend welcome, what toys they will share and what games they will play.  The friend cancels.  The sensitive child dissolves into a howling mess, sobbing out their grief and a barrage of questions about why can't they come, did they do something wrong and now the friend doesn't want to see them, did you cancel the meet up because they did something wrong, what is the friend doing instead that's more important, if they're sick exactly what is wrong and can they go and look after them, exactly when will they see them again....

How do you answer?  Do you get irritated and tell them to stop being a cry baby, they will see them when they see them? No!  It may be tempting, and not dealing with their upset ourselves may lead us all down that path on occasion, but by invalidating their feelings of grief you are deepening the wound they feel.  They may start to react less, but they are then internalising their angst and letting it fester rather than learning the skills to deal with their feelings, which they will need when disappointment continues to raise it's head throughout their lives.  If they don't learn how to deal with these strong emotions, they grow up to be people who are constantly looking for validation from other people and over dependent emotionally on the people around them. 

Breathe deeply, hold them close and explain as gently as you can that the thing that happened is not their fault, or anybody's fault, it's just that sometimes things don't work out as you want them to.  This is ok, another time will be different and in the meantime there are other great things they can be doing when they feel ready.  It's ok to be sad and angry but we can let it go and move on to the next thing.  Keep holding them while they need it.  Don't try to reason away why they shouldn't feel sad, just emphasise that there are other fun things that can be done when they are ready.  Tell them that you are sad too, but you will both feel better again soon.  If they are really howling, just hold them and listen to them until they are calm enough for you to talk to.  They will not appreciate a lecture on life, just let them know as simply as possible that you hear how they are feeling and it's understandable.  If they are older and stomp off to be alone, give them time to process how they're feeling and then take them a cup of tea when you think they are ready (the universal sign of 'I recognise you're upset and I care, even if I can't fix it for you).

If you have other children around who express concern - even very small kids will often approach to see what's wrong and offer a pat - encourage their natural empathy with praise 'thank you for coming to see if he's ok, that's very kind of you'.  If they do the opposite and laugh at the tearful one, say quietly but firmly that we do not laugh at people who are sad or hurt as it is not kind.

The biggest way our kids learn to be resilient is by watching the role models around them.  Are you able to express that you are upset about something and tell them how you deal with it?  'I'm really sad about not seeing my friend today so I'd like to go for a walk to make me feel better'.  If every time something doesn't work out you react in high drama, then that is what your kids see as being the correct way to react.

Today has been a tough day in terms of disappointments and unwelcome changes, but I'm aware of what I'm modelling for my kids, so instead of going off to wallow in my feelings of upset and throwing my hands up in the air and giving up, I have got my 'work' related angst off my chest to friends over a cuppa and then moved on to start thinking of solutions to the issues that have presented themselves while considering how the changes affect other folks too.  I made a table of problems, solutions and actions.  I suspect this may not appeal to crying five year olds 'but darling, if you just look at the chart you can see that by week two we will have actioned the plan to develop a better system of communication with regards play dates'....

Here's a few things you might like to try with your sensitive child to help them deal with strong emotions which will stand them in good stead as they grow:

1) Art therapy - provide an outlet for how they're feeling, perhaps by painting how they feel now and how they would like to feel later.  It doesn't have to look like anything - scribbling and splatting is good for this and they are likely to associate colours with how they feel.

2) Go outside for a walk - exercise releases endorphins to help them feel good, and being outside, especially in green spaces, is really calming to children and adults alike. 

3) Introduce mindfulness techniques, such as concentrating on blowing a feather gently and watching how it moves, or blowing bubbles, or lying down and placing their hand on their tummy, feeling it rise and fall as they breathe in and out.

4) Give them the vocabulary to express how they are feeling - I produced a little book for use in our Makaton group to introduce simple expressive words like 'sad', 'angry', 'scared' and 'happy'.

5) Be observant - what do they naturally do that calms and sustains them?  If they always feel good snuggled up with a book, then try to sit them down and read with them when they are over the worst of the crying. 

6) If the angst is caused by perceived failure, encourage them to try again.  I enlist the help of TV characters 'Does Mike the Knight give up when he couldn't do x or did he keep trying until he could? Shall we have another go at it now?'.  This can be a tricky one though - there's a fine line between encouraging and putting them off by insisting on too much, you will feel the difference.

None of us get it right every time, and the world can be a harsh place with grief to bear, but at least we can validate our children's feelings and help to guide them towards containment and knowing how to comfort themselves ready for when they're one day an adult and sitting on the floor and howling is going to get them funny looks from strangers.  Crying when the dog dies in 'Marley and Me' is probably unavoidable though, whatever age you are.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Map skills and den building at Sheffield Park NT

After having Matt home for over a week during Christmas we wanted to make the most of the sunshine and do something really lovely for his last day off before it was back to the normal work routine.  We also didn't want to spend much (in additional to the normal Christmas expenses, a stone hit our windscreen on the way to visit family so we have an insurance excess of £75 for the replacement windscreen to stump up this week).

Fortunately we invest in national Trust membership and are in a part of the country with plenty of NT properties, so there is always a great selection of free days out to choose from within an hour's drive.  Much of what we enjoy about the parks and gardens could be achieved through visiting public woods and parks, but to be perfectly honest it's the absence of dog muck that draws us as much as anything else the NT has on offer.  I can't put a price on the freedom for the kids to kick around in piles of leaves and roll on the grass without my constant 'not there, it's full of poo'.

On Sunday we decided to visit Sheffield Park again (which is in East Sussex, not Sheffield).  After exploring the beautiful 'Capability' Brown landscaped gardens and Toby's favourite bridge over a rushing weir we decided to do something new and head out over the fields with the free map provided on entry to the site.  We wanted to build on the boys map reading skills and using the simply drawn, clear map to find the woodland play area was an ideal opportunity.

The countryside surrounding Sheffield Park is made up of gently rolling farmland and small woods and in the photograph the white smoke visible is from a Steam Train on the Bluebell Railway.  The station is a ten minute walk from Sheffield Park, so if you're travelling without a car you can get public transport to East Grinstead and then catch the steamy the rest of the way.

The first job in learning to map read is to orientate yourself - working out which way up to hold the map by looking for things you recognise on it, so this is what we did with the boys, first at the gate to the car park and then at every signpost.  It's a much more complex skill to hold the map with North up and then work out which way to walk if you're not going North than to simply turn the map to the direction you are going in.

The landmarks drawn on the map were all clear and easy to pick out for the boys, including a fence with a gate and small woodlands.  It was also a great place to start map reading because there was zero chance of getting lost with the open site and the provision of regular signposts.  Using a map in the real world builds on from the map games we play at home, drawing maps of the house and then hiding treasure and marking it on the map.

The biggest challenge was helping the boys visualise what they were looking at on the map by frequently stopping and looking carefully at the surroundings.  If you pointed to the woods on the map they would tell you they were woods, but then asked to point to the woods shown on the map in the real world caused confusion about what side of the path they were on.  They picked it up pretty quickly though and we had no trouble finding the woodland which contained the play trail.

 As we entered the wood it was thick with mud and there was no play equipment in sight at first, but then we rounded a corner, the paths dried out and the den building area appeared.  This is an activity the boys will spend all day doing given the opportunity, and they had soon co-opted in other children to help.  A little boy approached Toby and said 'hello I'm Tom'.  Toby looked at him for a minute and then said 'hello Tom, you help me build a fireplace please', which given his history of speech delay was a really exciting moment for me (he used his own name for the first time on his third birthday a few weeks ago - 'Toby' instead of 'beh beh').

We had great fun building, but took a break part way through to take our turns on the brilliant rope swing suspended from a grand old tree.

The National Trust have really embraced the concept of introducing the adventurous and slightly risky activities that children need to develop skills such as balance and risk awareness.

Slipping in mud, balancing on logs, playing with their whole bodies as they climb and swing and run is necessary to children's proper development and as well as the more sedate opportunities to admire flowers and grand buildings, the National Trust has also started to provide opportunities for adventurous play across many of their properties.

It turned out to be a very long day as Toby slept so deeply in the car on the way home that he then didn't go back to sleep until nearly 11pm and spent the evening lamenting the stick he'd had to leave behind, but the mud in the bottom of the bath at bedtime attested to how good a day the boys had, and they were still talking excitedly about what they had done the next day and asking to go back again soon.  I'm sure it is somewhere we will return to again and again.