Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Get gaming - Monopoly for hippies and kids

Monopoly is one of the most common games owned, but is also regarded by serious board game fans as one of the worst to play because you can end up stuck in a hopeless slow decline, be out before the game is over, and be stuck playing for hours with very little gain.  As a family game it can be tediously slow and aggressively cut throat.

We play Monopoly in a very different way that would drive lots of purists nuts, but for us makes the game fast, family friendly, less ruthless and more fun.

Here's our take on it:

1: Play in teams so that kids don't get bored waiting too long for their turn.

2:  Forget the amount of money you are supposed to start with.  Be generous dishing out the dosh - more money at the start means a much faster game where the aim is to get complete sets of properties by either buying them or trading them.

3.  Keep the money perks rolling - we dish out £200 for landing on go, as well as the normal £200 for passing it.

4. Taxes get tucked under the corner of 'Free Parking' to be collected by anyone who lands on that space.

5. Game is played for no more than 1hr, then the winner determined by a quick tally such as number of £100 and £500 notes, number of sets of properties and number houses depending on how far along the game got.

I know a lot of folks will roll their eyes at all of this, but it means that we are able to play a fairly complex game with a three and a five year old, with all the benefits that are inherent in the game, including time doing an activity together as a family, the numeracy skills including counting along the right number of places, adding up the numbers on the dice, counting out correct money to buy properties and pay rent, and the literacy skills of reading the names of the properties.  For very young players even just matching groups of colours of properties is a good skill - Toby was in charge of rolling the dice, organising our properties and handing over cash in return for properties.  For Ollie in addition to this he added up the dice, moved the pieces and helped to count out the money.  Importantly you also get to model gracious game playing and being a good winner/loser.

So, how could you adapt the games you have in your cupboard?  I'd love to hear your ideas.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Wild Garlic Time

South of England foraging friends - it's that time of year again! The Wild Garlic is in leaf this week (mid March 2015), making our whole neighbourhood smell like a hot dog van replete with fried onions. 

We've been out picking just a few leaves - it's easy to get carried away and think you have to bring home a bag full, but unless you plan on freezing as a herb butter it's really only a few fresh leaves that you need.  One of the most special aspects of foraging is it's seasonal nature, and this couple of weeks where we can wander to the strip of woodland near our house to harvest a couple of leaves each is made more sweet by it's brevity.

Pick clean, healthy looking leaves that you are 100% sure you have correctly identified, away from roads and sources of contamination (I'm not counting the vacuum cleaner or supermarket trolleys in the local 'stream' as contamination). I don't pick more than one leaf from each plant and only where it is growing really abundantly.  Watch out for kids picking poisonous leaves poking through at this time of year, including lords and ladies.  I have a policy that the kids show me what they want to pick and get my Ok for each time we move to a new patch.  They also are taught from very early on to never ever put anything in their mouths without showing me first - including things like blackberries as there are often very poisonous berries such as bittersweet growing amongst them.

Wild garlic, or ramsons as it is sometimes known, is good in stir fries, with scrambled eggs and omelettes, in noodle soup and a whole host of other delicious places you would normally use spring onions.

Ancient Egypt Project

the eagle eyed will spot a
mummified Captain Barnacles
 Project based learning is a bit of a Holy Grail in education.  The idea is that rather than teaching isolated subjects (which are hard to learn because they have no context to the child) you replace traditional subjects with an immersion in a project that is approached from all angles.  Because everything is discovered and taught in context, the ideas are easier to assimilate, and the nature of topic based learning seems to match the way we learn naturally as children - to become obsessed wholly with a particular topic for a period of time.  Dinosaurs, Thomas the Tank Engine, Disney Princesses, Pirates, Vehicles and Poo are all subjects which spring to mind when thinking about the recent obsessions of my own and my friend's kids.
 Up until now we have been not really following a project - just dipping in and out of things which catch the boys attention.  Toby recently showed a lot of interest in space and astronauts for example, so we did extra reading around that at bed time, had astronaut colouring, played building rockets out of furniture and looked at a solar system display at a local science centre.  At five and a half Ollie has however suddenly decided he wants to know all about mummies (after very intense questioning about the fake one at our local zoo this week).  I have been expecting this moment, although unsure when it would come, so fortunately was prepared.

I have a great book 'The Children's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World' by Hermes House picked up for £5 from a service station last year ready for just such a moment, plus an unexpected bounty this week of a pop out Hysterical Histories book 'Egyptians and Mummies' from a sale (£1.50 at Tesco), which with additional material from The British Museum's website on Ancient Egypt has given us two days worth of material so far and seems fit to last for at least a few more.

 Ollie is using this material to create a project book all about Ancient Egypt, which Toby is starting to lose interest in (apart from mummifying toys which he very much liked) so in order to make him feel included we brought in one of his favourite activities to the project - cooking.  The Encyclopaedia has lots of great practical ideas and one of them was a recipe for a honey and caraway seed cake.

The boys rubbed 75g butter into 200g flour, 1 teaspoon salt and half a teaspoon baking powder. They then stirred in 40g runny honey and 3 tablespoons of milk.  This dough was rolled out into long sausages, coiled up, glazed with more honey and sprinkled with caraway seeds.  The cakes were baked at 180C (the recipe said 20 minutes but ours looked fatter so I left them in for 30 minutes).
(Vegan friends - try substituting 75ml oil for butter and agave syrup for honey).

It will be really fun to find out how ingredients were weighed in Ancient Egypt and make a set of scales for the next time we cook, which will fit in nicely with other maths and science areas of the project.  Another part of the project to encourage numeracy skills will be to make an ancient gaming board called a Mehen Board, which hopefully both boys will be able to play (although given Toby's 'I win' attitude to snakes and ladders I'm not entirely convinced this will proceed smoothly). For older kids concepts such as calculating the volume of a pyramid and looking at the geometry and techniques used by the architects are the sort of ways you can use maths in a project format.

 To describe this project as an obsession is too understated a word.  Ollie spent hours sitting down to it yesterday (an occurrence never seen before in this very active child) and it was the first thing he asked to do as he tried to bounce me awake at 6am this morning.  We were thwarted in the end yesterday by using up all three glue sticks, and he pestered all day today to get more glue, satiated only by a morning using the British Museum's website to find out about daily life and cut and paste pictures to print (and of course the baking).  Most of the writing is falling to me so far as his 'Royal Scribe', but tomorrow he will be given the task of writing out the recipe we used today and working out how to make twice as much dough.

We have touched on Gods and Goddesses, funerary practices and artefacts, food, customs, entertainment, clothes, geography, farming and a host of other ideas to be explored further.  Hopefully some time this weekend we will make a water clock with an old plant pot and perhaps attempt to recreate the toy horse on wheels we saw.  Eventually we will hopefully get up to London to see the artefacts first hand.  As much as I worry they are somehow disrespectful to the dead I will never forget my own first experiences with seeing genuine artefacts and mummies in a museum in Liverpool when I must have been quite small.

So often Matt comes home from work to be told 'we did no school work today' because Ollie hasn't twigged that all the number games and reading and visits to museums are 'school work'.  A book to fill in or a worksheet to do are 'work' to Ollie, but making his book - that's just playing isn't it?

P.S. he's planning on making his 'best book ever on ancient Egypt' available to friends to borrow on a three week loan provided they don't draw in it, so it's time to book your slot!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Slimetastic New Job

My lovely regular  readers may remember that back in February I reviewed a free book download from award winning science party company Sublime Science.

Well, I have randomly scored a job working for them.  An advert was posted on the local Children's Centre Face Book wall for science communication presenters, and although I wasn't looking for work it just looked too perfect not to apply.  Got an interview.  Passed the interview.  Now I'm raring to get going with training and getting my hands on the presenter kit full of brilliant gear with which to perform feats of scientific magic and hands-on experiences to fire the imagination of kids.  I am ridiculously happy about being able to go to work in my lab coat again (I felt strangely under-dressed at the jobs I've had since being a Science Teacher).

Sublime Science operates parties and events over a wide swath of the country (England), so if you want to book a party that's going to be that bit different from the usual discos and bouncy castles, be the talk of the playground for weeks, and even sneak in some learning that will get kids excited about science, then take a look at their website for details.  If I wasn't going to be working for them I would book one for myself!

Wish me luck, and if you're at a science party in the East Sussex area look out for 'Maz Scientist' ;)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Science and Engineering Week

This week is British Science and Engineering week (13th to 22nd March 2015) and in celebration of the fact people involved in science communication have been holding special events.  You can find out what's happening at the British Science Association microsite here.

We joined in the fun on Monday, when the Observatory Science Centre at Herstmonceux hosted a home educators discount day.  As well as old favourites, including the opportunity to test your building design against an earthquake, there were also new interactive displays, such as the medieval innovations area.

 There really is something for every age to enjoy, with the smallest babies being fascinated watching the light elements such as the plasma balls, and the toddlers loving my boys favourite - the water discovery area where they can test out different ways to raise water including an Archimedes screw and hand pump.

Each time we go the boys find something new to discover for themselves by trying out the activities while I use the interpretation boards to explain the science of what they're doing.  Being able to go in term time makes this easier as during holidays it can get very busy, making it hard for me to keep track of both boys and spend the amount of time on each activity that they would like to.  School holidays do however have the added benefit of the science shows that the centre puts on in the dome behind the main building, so we were really pleased to find out that they were running the shows this Monday too.

 After enjoying joining in the show about light, we had lunch in the very reasonably priced café.  We spent the afternoon playing with the outside elements at the centre and listening to the history of the telescopes in the domes as part of the centre tour. 

In cold weather we save the water exploration for last in case the kids do get themselves soaked, but generally they do stay dry as they build dams and direct flow to water wheels.

All in all I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate science and engineering than by getting stuck in with hands on fun.  More fun to come before the end of the week too as we look forward to the partial eclipse on Friday (20th March 2015) at around 9.30am.  Now just need to find our stash of cardboard boxes to make pinhole cameras to safely view the eclipse ...

Notes: the site is accessible but as there are steps up from the entrance you will need to ask to go around by the disabled entrance if you have a wheelchair or can't manage your pushchair up the steps.  Inside the site is accessible with ramps where needed.  There are toilet facilities, including a disabled toilet and baby change.  There is a café serving reasonably priced food including freshly made sandwiches, soup and jacket potatoes.  Picnic benches are provided too for you to enjoy your own packet lunches.  The only safety concern to be aware of is unfenced high(ish) walkways and an unfenced pond, which used to make me very nervous when the kids were at the toddling and legging it stage.  Apparently it was not unusual for the odd astronomer to end up in the pond after finishing a shift when this site was operating purely as an observatory.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Paradise Park - better than NHM for kids?

There's a place in Newhaven that I am proposing, in ultimate sacrilege, as being possibly a better day out for kids than the Natural History Museum in London.  I love the NHM, the cathedral of natural history with it's amazing collections and world leading scientists.  For the kids it is an exciting day out and one we all enjoy, but it is also a marathon of train rides and tubes or buses and walking, and often very crowded when we get there.  Enter the surprise local gem, which I must have blogged about before in the mists of time.  Paradise Park is a random mixture of Earth Science exhibition, glass houses, gardens, play areas and garden centre, with a miniature railway and huge dinosaur models as well as animatronic exhibits.

 The kids would be happy to go just for the play parks and the opportunity to ride the miniature railway and play the steel drums, but it also provides a perfect opportunity for learning about a vast array of earth and human history.  I can't begin to describe the non-stop sucking in of information by the kids as they interacted with the exhibits, made us read every information board and demanded answers to thousands of questions that arose. 

This was a sunny day and as such most folk were outside in the play areas, so the rather confined walk through inside area was much more pleasant than on a busy day inside - we went round twice and were able to stand and really look at each exhibit without getting barged along from behind by giant buggies and noisy families charging through without much interest in the science as has happened before.

 The horseshow crabs caused a lot of interest, as did the earthquake simulator (ok, not as impressive as the one at the NHM, but less scary for Toby) and all the artefacts from our ancestors and near ancestors such as Neanderthal tools.

Ollie is dreaming of the day when he has saved up enough for a giant geode like the one in the crystal galleries, while Toby enjoyed the frisson of being mock frightened by the movement and noises of the animatronic dinosaurs.  He said his favourite was the Pterodactyl.

 For young botanists it is also a good day out, with interesting displays about plants and their uses, and zoned glass houses including a cactus house, fern house, Italian garden and Japanese garden.

 Toby was entranced by the huge fish gaping up at him from the numerous ponds.  Outside the gardens lead you around a selection of miniature versions of local landmarks, with great information boards describing smugglers pubs, haunted railway cottages and the folly buildings of Mad Jack Fuller.  Our net stores at Hastings even get their own miniatures.

There's more to this site than I could describe in a 3000 word essay, but for anyone looking for a great fun and educational destination for kids to learn about earth sciences, it's well worth taking a look at what's on offer. 

Notes on the site
The site is accessible throughout, although narrow in places for wheelchairs and prams if it is busy.  There are toilets with baby change facilities and also there is a café in the extensive garden and pet centre.  Play areas are zoned by age appropriateness and are well maintained.  There is indoor soft play and coin slot operated entertainment such as remote controlled lorries.  The miniature railway is an additional small charge.  There are no restrictions on bringing picnics to eat outside and seating and tables are provided.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Forest School

 One of the benefits of home education is that we can match our curriculum to the kids energy levels, the weather and what happens to be going on that day. 

Today was warm and gloriously sunny.  We started with Guitar, then a play date, then home for snacks and French and Phonics, then lunch followed by the afternoon spent in imaginative play in the local woods, where we also told stories, sung songs and chatted to dog walkers.

The main game was part of a story Ollie was dreaming up about living in the woods, so naturally we needed a den and a campfire.

 The boys worked co-operatively and showed perseverance in gathering the materials they felt were needed, giving and taking directions from each other and assigning themselves areas of responsibility.  I could not have crafted a lesson plan to have as effectively drawn these features from them as simply going to play in the woods achieved with no pre-planning.

 There were times the boys were feverishly active, and at others they just sat by my side on a log, eyes closed, faces up to the sunshine listening to the birds.

 I love the rich social element to our lives and frankly go a bit mental when I don't see friends for a few days, but I also relish these other times when it's just us and I am focused entirely on the boys.  No housework shouting at me, no trying to hold on to the thread of a conversation with a friend in the midst of constant interruptions of 'I done poo! Wipe my bum!' and the like.  Just us, the wind, the sunshine, the birds, the trees, the mud and the bugs.

Ollie found he could swing himself upside down under a log.  Toby found, repeatedly, that he could not, but he seemed to enjoy the sensation of falling off enough to keep doing it. 

I have read that spinning around, hanging upside down and moving all parts of their bodies in all ways are vital to children's development of balance and the eventual ability to sit still.  There's a theory that children fidget in class because they haven't had the opportunities to develop in this way.  I think children fidget in class because they're children and their brains haven't yet learned to ignore the messages from their body that sitting still for long periods of time is horrible for your health.
We watched little hunting spiders racing around on the log piles, and examined the perfectly sculpted tiny sporangia of the moss growing at the base of the coppiced sweet chestnuts.  We talked about how coppicing works, why it was done to produce poles and wood for charcoal manufacture, what that charcoal was used for (the name of a nearby estate 'Tilekiln' gives a clue).  We looked at newly coppiced areas compared to those with a full season of regrowth, and others that looked like they hadn't been cut for 30 years or more, and the difference this made to the light levels reaching the ground, and the flowers that would grow, and the butterflies that would come.

There was even time for what Ollie called 'arts and crafts' where the boys used charcoal they found to decorate the cut faces of the log piles before our slow meander home when the little voices piped up 'I'm huuuungry'.

Note to folk reading this and thinking this is some kind of magic because walks with kids don't go down like that for them, or feeling incompetent because the parenting blogs make it all seem so easy:

        It all sounds pretty idyllic, and it was, but I don't want to put pressure on folks whose experiences of going out with kids may differ by not giving the full picture.  This day was lovely, but we've had our fair share of whinging, griping, incessant demands for food, or the toilet, or being too tired on other days.  We've had dog dirt.  Lots of dog dirt. 

On this day our walk to the woods was marred by the discovery on the path running behind our house of a load of fly tipped pig parts including trotters, an abandoned cooker and a kettle barbecue.  All of which had to be reported to the council when we got home. 

I walked home by a different route despite the protests of the boys who wanted to see the 'dead meat and flies' again (not sure if this is just because they're kids, or if our being vegetarian adds an element of interest in the less known).  This different route took us through the thickest stickiest yellow clay you ever saw, which necessitated me standing outside for 20 minutes scrubbing boots under the outside tap.  Fortunately the boys are now big enough to be given instructions to put dirty clothes by the washing machine and put clean ones on and to mostly do it first time, although sometimes it's 'funner' to run around with pants on their heads instead.

Is doing stuff with kids tough?  Often.  It can be tougher than anyone would ever believe before they had kids.  Just leaving the house with everyone dressed can be a major challenge in the early days.  But the key to anything is perseverance - the same thing we want to see in our kids.  So, you went for a walk after spending 45 minutes trying to get everyone out of the house, you got a bit lost, someone wet themselves, you had a moment when you thought you'd lose your mind if you told someone one more time not to put that stick up their nose.... if nothing else you had an adventure, the kids were away from four square walls for a couple of hours, you saw them light up inside when they got filthy and didn't get told off, and each time the outing gets easier, the kids get more self reliant and you get more and more idyllic moments to hold in your head for when you need it most.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Bournemouth Aviation Museum

 Ever wanted to sit in the cockpit of a light aircraft?   How about also climbing up into the cockpit of a Sea King rescue helicopter, or a fighter plane, or playing at being a fire fighter or a bus driver?  We love the Bournemouth Aviation Museum for making all these experiences possible for a really low entrance cost.

Staffed by friendly and knowledgeable volunteers and stuffed with cool planes to play in and admire, this is the first place my kids ask to go to when visiting my folks.  My favourite is the PalmAir fuselage you can walk inside, complete with displays about the history of the airline.
 The museum is an open air site located directly opposite Bournemouth Airport, so one of the kids highlights of a visit is standing on a viewing platform and watching the passenger planes taxi along on the other side of the road, and seeing them take off.

The displays of vehicles at places like the Science Museum are really interesting, but all the 'do not touch' signs, necessary as they may be, make the experience a lot less fun for the kids.  The active encouragement for visitors to explore the exhibits at Bournemouth make this a fairly unique experience and one which has the kids begging to go back time and again.
I particularly love the hands-on approach as it really encourages imaginative play.  We usually spend half an hour as passengers at the mercy of my Ollie the bus driver, being directed to which seat we are allowed to sit on and handing over pretend bus fares for trips all over the country as his imagination dictates.  Toby loves squirreling away into the hardest to access cockpits where Matt can only just squeeze in with him.  We all love the big rescue helicopter. 

The site is family friendly, with toilets and well maintained  grass that is easy to push a buggy on.  Access to exhibits is often by steps, necessarily, and it's up to parents to keep kids under close supervision, especially when climbing up into cockpits high off the ground. There picnic bench  seating provided should you wish to take a break and a small gift shop for bringing home pocket money toy planes or other memorabilia of your visit.