Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Wakehurst Place National Trust/Kew Gardens

 This weekend we visited Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, somewhere we last visited before the kids were born.  We tried to go last year, but the London to Brighton bike race foiled our plans and after a couple of hours of traffic and diversions we gave up, but this year all went well and we finally made our long wished for return visit.  A bit of a shock was that having previously got in completely free as National Trust members, we now had to pay £10 to park for the day which wasn't great as the National Trust membership already costs us a small fortune. However it goes to support the work of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, so at least it was for a good cause.
Wakehurst Place is a country house with a large beautiful garden, including woodlands and ponds, but more than that it is the home of the Millennium Seedbank, a hugely important facility which collects and stores seed from all over the world, as well as engaging in training, education and cutting edge horticultural science.  We were really excited to find that on the weekend we visited there were special events taking place, including guided tours of the underground storage facility (for an extra £5 per adult, kids under 17 free).  We arrived in time for one tour advertised, but must have just missed it as we couldn't see anyone around, so we waited and enjoyed the exhibits for an hour until the next one.  We decided Toby was too young and fidgety to enjoy it, but Ollie (who wants to be a 'scientist explorer and history farmer' when he grows up) was really looking forward to seeing it.  However, when the staff arrived, first of all the tickets were apparently on sale at the entrance desk (not mentioned on the sign) so we and another family had to wait to see if there were spare places.  Then, when it was confirmed there was space they looked at Ollie (and another child waiting to go in) and enquired who would be looking after the children.  Also not on the sign (which stated just that under 17s were free) was that under 10s were not allowed for insurance reasons.  Poor Ollie, it's going to be a long wait until he's allowed in those hallowed vaults then.

Still he enjoyed peering through the windows at the lab equipment and investigating the xeromorphic plants growing alongside the other displays.
 Fortunately the rest of the visit went far more smoothly, with excellent activities being run for families and other visitors, including a lovely pond life activity with knowledgeable folk on hand to help with identification of the various beasties.

There was also a fun vegetable art opportunity for kids to make pictures using seasonal vegetables.
 In a nearby tent we learned about seed collection and storage, took part in a seed identification competition and played tractors in a tray of wheat grain.  There were also opportunities for seed planting and taking cuttings, amongst other stalls.

A wide range of stall holders were present at the event, selling everything from seasonal soups to bags of cobnuts.
 One of our favourite displays was the local bee-keepers association talk on bees and honey.  The kids had a chance to get close to honey comb on frames, dressing up as bee keepers and honey tasting.  Ollie even had a go at turning the handle on the honey centrifuge extractor and watching the honey poured into jars from it.  The bee keepers were a really friendly and knowledgeable bunch keen to stress that their purpose as an association was to preserve and care for bees, including feeding their hives through the winter if they had not produced enough honey to support themselves after a bad year.  Given how much we owe bees to pollinate so many of our food crops, it's great to meet people so passionate about them and get really good hints on what flowers to plant at our allotment to give them a helping hand.
There is so much of the garden left to see that we will definitely need several return visits, but we were really glad to manage a good long walk through the wooded valley, past huge basketry artworks and down to a peaceful pond.  I can see it as being a garden that's worth visiting in each season to get the best of the careful planting.

Notes:  The site has full facilities including cafes, toilets, disabled toilets and baby change.  Most of the site is accessible, apart from a couple of paths which are marked as unsuitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.  The house itself doesn't have much to see compared to other National Trust properties, but is not really the main attraction of visiting the place.  At time of writing entry is free for NT members, but parking is £10 for the whole day.  Alternatively a day ticket costs £12.50 per adult, with kids under 17 free and that provides inclusive parking.  Registered disabled visitors are charged normal entry, but can take an essential carer for free if applicable.  Registered blind/partially sighted visitors can visit for free, as can their essential carers (if applicable).  Not a cheap day out, but definitely supporting important work.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Differentiated dinners - is it OK to cook separate meals?

 The boys love to prepare meals and are really unfussy most of the time, embracing all sorts of savoury flavours such as olives, sauerkraut and pickled seafood.  The only real bone of contention when it comes to meal times is hot spicy food.  Matt loves it, 3 year old Toby and I like very mildly hot spice, but 5 year old Ollie can't bear it at all.  Even a whisper of pepper or chili near his food sends him running crying for water and causes complete meal refusal.  So we had resorted to spicing Matt's food by chopping raw chilli peppers from our garden over the top of his food.
It occurred to me this week however to slacken my general house rule of 'one meal, eat it or get plain bread and butter'.  Our gorgeous new Ozeri Green Earth ceramic non-stick pans came in different sizes and it seemed simple enough to portion off some of our stir fry into the smaller of the two for Matt, to which I added two nice big chilli peppers for him.  Fruit is to Matt what chilli is to Ollie, so it also meant that I could add sultanas to our big stir fry pan without spending the meal watching him pick bits out of his dinner.

I don't think I have the patience to spend time cooking completely separate meals for different family members, and if we have guests who have something they can't eat, for example because they're vegan, we just make food that everyone can enjoy together.  However, having a smaller pan in which slight tweaks can be made to food which has already been prepared for the big pan was something that proved useful.

I know people can have really strong opinions on any household issues, so it would be interesting to see how you guys feel about cooking separate dinners.  Do you do it?  What are the reasons?  Is it working well or a big extra chore?  I'm always interested to see a point of view from the other side.

My easy mid-week recipe for anyone who wants to try it:

Rainbow stir fry with quinoa
Half a teaspoon vegetable oil (drizzle in pan and wipe out again just to season the non-stick coating)
Quarter of a red cabbage finely sliced
Handful of French beans/fine beans sliced
A leek finely sliced
Two large carrots, grated
A bell pepper sliced and deseeded (any colour, but yellow or red is sweeter)
Handful of cashew nuts
Handful of raisins/sultanas
Chopped chili peppers (I used 2 fairly mild ones in Matt's portion, and chopped them with scissors because I hate getting chili on my hands and this seems to be the safest way to cut them)

Stir fry on a medium heat (if in an Ozeri pan, a bit higher if in a wok) until it is cooked how you like it (some like a stir fry almost raw, others prefer a softer texture).  Serve with quinoa cooked as indicated by pack instructions and drizzle with a little sesame oil.  There's not a lot of extra strong flavours in this one, such as ginger or lemongrass, because leaving them out allows the milder flavours of the fresh veg to star, and the little drizzle of sesame oil is surprisingly strong.  I add it after cooking to prevent fouling the pans with oily residues and because sesame oil doesn't really like being heated too much - it changes the flavour in my experience.

Safety:  Toby is using a small cheese knife, which while just sharp enough to chop beans, is small and has a two-pronged edge which I feel makes it slightly less hazardous than a standard paring knife.  A pair of childrens scissors is a safer option for small hands.  Both boys are closely supervised while using knives or the grater.  I took my hand off the pan handle to take the photo of Ollie, but as he is stood on a low kitchen step stool I  keep one hand on him and one pan while he stirs in case he slips.  Of course use your own knowledge of your kids to decide when they are ready for sharp or hot kitchen tasks and err on the side of caution if you are not confident that they are ready for a task, but I have started letting Ollie have a little bit of a stir while under very very close supervision.  We don't let the boys near boiling water or ultra hot things like jam making though as these are really very dangerous. 

Note: I was sent the Ozeri Pans (full details below) to review for another site, but I liked them so much I mentioned them in this post too.

Details from the packaging: Ozeri Green Earth Pans, 26cm and 20cm diameters, with Greblon(R) PTFE and PFOA free ceramic non-stick coating. Patterned cooking surface helps prevent food bonding for superior non-stick performance and easy cleaning.  Induction stove safe.  Scratch resistant durable ceramic coating.  Comfortable silicone handle.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

RSPB Dungeness, brilliant introduction to wetland wildlife

 To start a post off with a picture of some poo may not seem like a normal thing to do, but when you couple that poo (a badgers) with two small boys newly armed with backpacks full identification charts and binoculars, poo suddenly becomes one of the highlights of a brilliant first ever trip to visit RSPB Dungeness.  Ollie had a fantastic Christmas present from my in laws last year - a year's membership of the RSPB's kids club, complete with identification book and bimonthly activity magazines.  With one thing and another, it's taken us far too long to go and make use of Ollie's free entry pass to visit a reserve.

I wasn't sure how well the boys would take to bird watching - I was worried that the requirement to sit still and quiet so as not to offend people who know what they're doing was  going to be too much for a three year old and a five year old.  I anticipated a bit of a trudge with moaning kids followed by two minute sit downs with lots of shushing while we peered at distant unidentifiable blobs (we only have kids binoculars, which actually make it harder to see than using nothing).  As it turned out, the RSPB was well set up for kids, with backpacks available to borrow filled with everything we could need.  Binoculars and ID guides were accompanied by colouring and tick sheets, bug pots and magnifiers.  The binoculars were really good quality ones, not the plastic kid toys you might expect in a junior pack.  I have weird eyes which prevent me from seeing properly through bins, but Ollie's joyous reaction to seeing clouds and birds in the distance told me how good they were, as did Matt's assurance of how much clearer the duck-looking-things were.

I want to be good at birds, but much as I like them I can't tell many of the duck-looking-things, ducks-on-stilts, seagull-looking-things and sparrow-looking-things apart. When a kind young birder in a hide hushedly told us 'there's a rough over there on that island' he must have thought me a complete idiot with my vague 'oo, is there, thanks'.  I looked it up when he'd gone, apparently it is not a 'rough' as my brain interpreted the word, but a 'ruff' - in my vocabulary one of the 'ducks-on-stilts' group. 

As well as an assortment of ducks, ducks on stilts and seagulls (which Ollie corrected us on 'not seagulls, just gulls, proper scientists don't call them seagulls') there were also an amazing array of beautiful dragonflies and damselflies whirring around, with swallows whizzing past attempting to match their insect rivals for title of best flyer.  We saw butterflies enjoying the rich habitat and Matt even saw a lizard scuttle across the path in front of him while I was immersed in watching a cool parasitic ichneumon wasp hunting for hosts.
Toby got a little restless in the hides, but the backpack kept him occupied and I'd bring him out a bit before Matt and Ollie to give them a chance to have a good look.  Ollie sat with rapt attention, really enjoying searching out the birds with the binoculars.  While they were in the hide, I scruffled around the plants looking for bugs and showing Toby the interesting flowers, like this lovely mullein complete with wonderfully downy leaves.

 There were several hides, all looking out onto different aspects of the site, all with panoramas of an interesting mixture of wild-looking wetlands and very obviously industrial additions such as the Dungeness Power Station and the multitude of electricity pylons.  I liked the light here, something about it makes the colours stand out.  The waters were a deep blue beneath the pale sky, with golds and greens in the reeds dividing up the image.  The camera on my phone doesn't do justice to it.
 Wildlife jumped out at us from every direction - there was even a frog in one the puddles the heavy rain last week left on the track as we walked back to the centre.  This provided great interest to the kids as they then had to check every puddle for frogs.
 Some of the watery inhabitants were familiar but lovely to find even so, like this ramshorn snail, probably the biggest I've seen outside of an aquarium tank.  Other finds were more unexpected, such as weathered and gnarly whale bones which I might have walked past thinking they were driftwood if it hadn't have been for the helpful signpost.


 So I think today was a real success, and a large part of that was down to the kindness of the RSPB staff in providing the activity backpacks for the kids to borrow.  I would definitely recommend it as a great place to visit, whether you are a seasoned birder or just starting out.

Notes:  The site is accessible for pushchairs and wheelchairs.  There are toilets available in the car park, including disabled and baby change facilities.  There are also few picnic benches in the car park (we fed the kids an early lunch before entering to avoid trailing round with the chorus of 'I'm hungry').  There is a gift shop but I didn't notice a café so bring a thermos if you're planning on making a day of it.  No dogs (except guide dogs) allowed on site, but if you have a dog there is the nearby Rye Nature Reserve as a dog walking alternative where you can still see lots of wetland birds.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Creating opportunities for kids

 We had a bit of a disappointment this week as a new sports group we signed on with fell over at the last hurdle.  The organizers where struggling for enough people willing to commit to paying £18 up front for six weeks of sessions, so I hit my contacts list and drummed up enough interest for it to go ahead.  Then the morning of the first session we received a message that it was cancelled because the venue had failed to reserve the hall as they had promised to.  It was too much for the organizers, for whom it had all become too complicated and difficult to get off the ground, so they understandably gave up. 

My boys already do gymnastics lessons, plus fairly regular yoga and swimming, but I really wanted them to have the chance to do proper PE type lessons where they could develop hand-eye co-ordination and simple abilities such as kicking and throwing a ball that we just can't do very well in our tiny back yard.  Socially it would also be beneficial to get several of our friends together in one place once a week, rather than trying to squeeze in folk separately in our free afternoons after we finish our sit down 'school' work and projects.  Plus we wanted it to be for littlies - pre-schoolers and younger home educated kids - in an environment where the emphasis was on fun, not working towards matches or badges as they can do that elsewhere.

My lack of sporty photos on this post may be a give away that the next step I took was somewhat unlikely for me (a picture of my joggling shoes, and one of the stadium where I sat my exam for my oceanography module.  In the division of sporty folk and nerds, I am firmly in the nerd camp). 

I said 'hey guys' to a couple of my friends 'how do you feel about splitting the hire of a hall with me?'.  They said, 'sure' in varying degrees of certainty and came on board with a commitment of time and a load of great ideas.  In a previous incarnation I was a multi-activity instructor for an outdoor education company (I was hired as a field studies instructor, but we all got trained and ran all sorts of fun sessions too) and have volunteered for a long time with kids groups, and my friends have a wealth of experience and training in working with kids too, so as far as a skills base for actually delivering the sessions we're in a good position.

I found a venue, booked a reasonably practical time slot which doesn't suit all my friends but is ok for several of them,  worked out a group name (thank you Facebook suggestions) and an idea of running orders and activities (to be planned out properly soon). 

Now I'm having palpitations thinking about paperwork and public liability insurance and whatnot as I'm sure this is all going to be a lot more complicated than I'm hoping, but I've sent some hopefully not too complicated e-mails begging advice from some folk in the know and I have my fingers crossed this will be a suitably low hurdle for us to cross.  The group is likely to only ever consist of close friends, but in these litigious times it's something we need to think about. However, I feel that this momentum to get it up and running is really vital and I don't want it to be just another idea someone had for improving kids and parents access to sports and fitness that fell by the wayside due to bureaucracy.

So all being well we start next week (pretty crazy since it will be just a week from the conception of the idea).  It may all go pear shaped, but it won't be from lack of trying at least.  I think we too often say 'wouldn't it be nice if someone organized ...' while being too timid or busy to have a go at filling the void ourselves.  I guess I'm 'someone' - maybe not the best someone, but someone nonetheless, and I have the support of really great 'someone's who are far more organized and fabulous than me.   As far as setting up a group goes I'm either being too naïve or too worried, I'm not sure which yet.  But I also have a lifetime of cracking on and doing really well with things that I would never have tried if I thought about things too much (whoever heard of a climbing instructor with a fear of heights, or a published writer with visual stress which makes the words dance on the page - well now you have).

So wish us luck and the blowing of fair winds so that my post next week about it isn't 'Well, that didn't work AT all...'.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Smelly potions activity

This activity hails back to my days as a field studies instructor with an outdoor education company where 'smelly potions' was one of the sensory activities we did with the younger guests.

All you need is a container of some sort - we used a 1kg yoghurt bucket - plus a little water and an area with an assortment of safe weeds and herbs to pick.  If you don't have an outdoor area, you could replicate the fun using old herbs, spices, food colourings and other store cupboard ingredients.

The aim is for your child to really use their nose to select ingredients for their smelly potion - encourage them to pick a small amount, crush it and smell it and then decide whether it goes in or not, and if they need more.  It's not just a grab handfuls and make gunge activity, although this is fun for younger ones too.

Into our stinky pot the boys added herbs such as thyme and mint, but also tomato leaves which they decided were particularly potent smelling.  It's good to encourage gentle picking of small amounts of materials.  If you don't think your kids are old enough to understand this, stick to lawn weeds you don't mind them beheading in quantity.

After a good old stir and sniff, including 'cooking' over a fire made of stone chips, the contents were added to the compost heap for the worms to enjoy.  You can get a useful insight into their thoughts by asking kids to decide what the potion is for - is it a magic flying potion, a medicine, a monster repellent?  My boys decided it was skin cream to make your hands nice and soft (perhaps influenced by them watching me making up creams - singing to the beeswax, honey and oils as I make up bottom butters and skin balms for friends and family).

This activity is great to encourage the use of kids senses and is also a useful inclusive activity for children with impairment of eyesight or hearing or mobility problems.  Since Ollie seems to have picked up a nervous habit of constantly smelling his hands I've also been trying to give him things to do using his sense of smell that don't involve him having his hands plastered to his face.  At least he's not chewing holes in his tops now I guess.

Safety: usual common sense - supervise and assist kids doing this activity so you don't end up with them decimating the flower borders or grabbing poisonous or irritating plants, plus make sure you emphasise this is a smelly potion, and not one for drinking.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Glashutte - staying in an amazing historic village near Berlin

We went on a brilliant holiday last week to Germany to visit my friend and her family and join them for her daughter's first day of school celebration.  We haven't seen them for years - the children weren't even born the last time we got together.  It was also the boys first flight (and only my second trip on a plane) so we were all very excited.

On my friend's recommendation we stayed in the next village to hers, at a historic building in a place called Glashutte (please forgive the missing umlaut on the 'a' I can't see how to type it). 

The Museumsherberg Glashutte is a former school building providing youth hostel style accommodation with rooms containing 4 bunks and shared bathrooms, but it is incredibly reasonably priced (it cost us about 35 euros a night for our room and hire of bedding and towels), the owners are warm and friendly and the location is fantastic.  It even has its own reed bed cleaned outdoor swimming pool which was a big hit with the school group we shared the accommodation with during the first few days (I imagine very welcome as the temperature was 34 degrees C on our first day).  If you wanted to spend more and get something more private there are double rooms available in the main building and also other buildings you can hire in the historic village.

The village itself is well worth visiting, with a wide variety of craft shops and demonstrations of tradition skills, including the glass making which gave the village its name. 

For us the main draw was the proximity to our friends, but the peaceful location in the forest, near farmland and only a short journey to other attractions was a winner.  We did so much it will take me a serious essay to cover it all, so for now I'm sticking just to Glashutte itself.  Walking out the door we were straight into forest walks, complete with information boards and activities, such as this one 'how far can you jump?'.

 The boards covered all sorts of topics, including the different types of trees and animals that inhabited the area.  As a way of moving from my basic 'where is the library' school taught German and expanding our vocabulary these were really useful. 

As we were walking it started to rain, and at points when the kids were peaceful the total quiet except for the noise of the rain falling and our feet snapping sticks was something we don't experience at home where the woods are ringed with major roads and crossed by flight paths.

Ollie lay down and stared up at the canopy, which seemed a good idea so we all followed suit.  In the midst of constant busy activity taking time to stop, breathe, listen to the forest and watch the rain drops falling through the canopy was magic.

It's funny, we had a fantastic time with our friends, exploring museums, a wildlife park and so on.  We were welcomed into their family and made to feel really at home. We even went swimming in a swimming pool with penguins.  But one of the strongest memories for me will be that ten minutes spent meditating in the forest.