Saturday, 15 December 2012


Sauntering along the back of the sofa is no longer allowed!
Headstand practice.
Jumping off the windowsill.
Ho hum, just a v quicky! We've been inside all day today- Danny is ill so was confined to the sofa. This meant Zac was in maximum bounce mode. I cannot stop him jumping on the furniture! When they were little this didn't matter much- our furniture is pretty old and the kids were very light so not much damage could be done, but now Zac's nearly 6 we're getting to the point where we could end up needing a new sofa because of their antics and I need to persuade them to stop. I was trying to remember how they burned off energy on stuck-inside days in the past and I remembered the mattress.
Why pay for soft play!
We have a big old one that used to live on the floor in the boys room in case Zac fell out of bed when he first transferred to a proper one. It was the ideal trampoline/crash mat/slide/den roof. They leapt off the windowsill onto it,  practised their forwards rolls and headstands on it, bounced endlessly and propped it up against their beds so they could slide or roll down it. It was a lot of fun and burned off a lot of energy. So here's a few pics to accompany my tip for the day. For free, fun and active entertainment that practises lots of gross motor skills and tires the critters out when it's just too miserable to get them outside, get hold of an old mattress and let them at it!
Mattress roof.

Here's a clip of Danny "Flying" off the windowsill when he was a baby:

Thank goodness for soft matresses!


Not sure how I can get this one past health and safety... but there's nothing more fun for kids than mucking about in a river.
For little ones you have to pick a place where the water is shallow and slow moving, and be ready to leap in after them if they take a tumble. It's a good idea to put them in jelly shoes or something similar which will protect their feet from anything sharp on the bottom without filling up with water and making it hard to paddle about. And you have to accept that they will get wet, quite possibly all over. (Don't look too closely at my pics, I break most of these recommendations, tho I am always ready to leap in and save them. So far, no disasters!)

Thrill seeking under the bridge.
"I caught something!"
Generally, just paddling about and looking for anything interesting on the bottom is fun enough. The boys like the excitement of going under the bridge, where it's a bit deep and dark, to look for trolls and make their voices echoey. We sometimes take little fishing nets although it's usually highly unlikely they'll catch anything as they're incapable of being quiet or moving gently through the water. Zac did catch a minnow once tho I have no idea how! I have told them how to catch a bullhead by turning stones over very gently so that the current carries any silt away and then grabbing the unsuspecting little fish lurking underneath, but they haven't managed it yet. We used to do it as children and once managed to con our parents out of quite a lot of money by initiating a "sponsored bullhead catch" and managing to catch about 30 in the space of half an hour. I could see the boys were skeptical when I told them about this, sitting on the river bank, so I paddled in, lifted a stone and miraculously managed to instantly catch one of the slippery creatures. Big cred for mummy!!

There's one stream we visit which is really shallow but quite fast-moving and is perfect for building dams. This can keep the little 'uns entertained for ages as it's a great challenge to find enough big stones to build a wall right across the stream so that a new pool forms behind. It's also a great place to have races with sticks or leaves.

Playing "Pooh sticks" when the river's full.
In winter I won't let them go in. The water's often too high/ fast moving, and even if it isn't, getting wet when you're going to have a cold walk home is no fun. But it's a good time to play "pooh sticks"- the sticks travel under the bridge a bit quicker, and it's always fun to throw stuff in to see if it floats or sinks, or to see who can make the biggest splash, or who can hit a floating target.
"Fishing" in the rain.
Raisins by the river.

But in summer, the banks of a river are the perfect place to have a relaxing family picnic.

So, as long as you've got safety in mind, I reckon a bit of river-time is an essential life experience for young boys.

What else could you get up to?

Friday, 7 December 2012


As an add-on to my post about walks, there are various times of year when persuading the little darlings to come for a walk is dead easy, and that's when there's something edible on offer.
Danny noshing.
Family foraging.
I like to believe my children have inherited their love of foraging from their Grampa- he's always been addicted to collecting free produce when it's available! The obvious one around here is blackberries. The boys absolutely love them and will trek a fair way to find them during the autumn. Even when they were little they would wade into the bushes with sandwich bags and help with the harvest, though very few of the berries they picked made it home and those that did were not always prime specimens! You do need to point out that they're only tasty once they're properly black, and it's a good idea to remind them to check the berries for bugs before putting them in their mouth- Martin once spotted Zac nearly ingesting a creepy-crawly in his haste to shovel them in!
Hurrah! Enough for a pie!
Wild raspberries in the woods.

For a happy blackberrying outing it's worth making sure they've got reasonably prickle-proof clothes and footwear on to avoid the worst of the brambles, and you need to look out for places where they're growing low down if you don't want to have to keep lifting the little pickers up to reach.

Other berries the boys have collected include wild raspberries, which grow in a forest near my parents' house and elderberries, so that Daddy can make wine. They also quite like tasting sloes- the extreme bitterness dries your tongue out which is a very strange sensation. Of course it's extremely important to tell children that berries can be dangerous and they must always check with you before they start eating them.  When we see any berries growing mine say, "They're just for birds," unless I tell them otherwise.
Preparing the puffball!
The same is true of mushrooms. I'm really wary of fungi, although my dad was a big fan of taking us to pick field mushrooms. At least you can tell children never to put one in their mouth. You have to take them home, check they are safe in a book and cook them before you tuck in. That said, we once found a field with lots of puffball mushrooms growing. The cows had stepped on most of them and the boys enjoyed kicking them too, but we found one large and untouched puffball which Martin persuaded us would be fine to eat. It seemed pretty exotic and the boys really enjoyed it when it was fried up.

Our other Autumn favourite is chestnuts, although this year was a total fail. I think the wet weather just meant they never ripened up properly.  They smell so delicious when they're roasting, and if you manage not to cremate them they taste pretty delicious too. It's quite a challenge to get them out of their prickly cases. As Zac said, "They're like conker shells only with lots more sharp teeth!"
Gathering chestnuts with Granny.

So long as you're careful about what you eat, foraging is another fun and free thing to do with children. Wandering around the countryside in Autumn and gathering tasty, free treats seems like a great antidote to our modern consumer society; and if you manage to bring some home for tea, even better!

Couldn't resist adding a pic of this week's puffball find. What a whopper! We had puffball korma for supper and it was pretty delicious (if a slightly weird texture.)
Is it a football?

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Walking to the hollow tree.
My earliest memory is of a walk. I'm walking to playgroup, aged about 3, with my mum pushing my baby brother in a giant pram. At one point along the way there's a path lined by a row of tall trees and on one of the trees towards the end there's a huge fungus. As I remember it, I had a stick which I used to take with me especially to whack the fungus. Why this particular memory has stuck with me I'm not sure. I suppose we did the same walk over and over and the little rituals which grew up helped to cement it in my memory. I definitely regret that I don't remember some of the much more notable events in my life before that point! I also find it incredible that my entirely conscious children are probably only just coming to the age where they'll be able to recall what they experience now, when they're adults.

Going for a walk is free, healthy and hopefully fun. When the boys were little I read various bits of advice about encouraging them to be good walkers. Not in the sense of learning how to walk, but in terms of enjoying going for a walk and having the stamina to do it without lots of whinging or needing to be carried. I learned that with small children there is no point walking simply to reach a destination, you have to enjoy the walk itself. Not that there's anything wrong with having somewhere to aim for- knowing you get to feed a horse, or paddle in a stream, or see a tractor when you get where you're going, is a great motivator. However resisting the temptation to drag them on a route march, and being relaxed enough to go at their speed and appreciate all the millions of little things that catch their attention along the way, definitely makes it a more pleasurable experience for everyone. We quite regularly took the best part of half an hour to get to the end of our road (less than 200m). We had to:
1. Look down every drain to see if there was anything in there, and probably poke a stick or drop a stone in for good measure.
Inspecting a digger.
2. Be lifted up to see over at least three different neighbour's walls because they had quirky garden ornaments, a little fountain, a cat etc.
3. Check out the state of the chestnut tree in case it had conkers.
4. Balance along the kerb where the pavement ends.
5. Inspect any creatures we might find along the way.
6. Pick up pretty much anything that happened to be lying on the pavement or in the gutter (Danny has a vast collection of hair bands, clips and bobbles that he's amassed over time!)
Plus, if we were lucky we would encounter someone doing something interesting- someone from the council mowing or hedge-trimming, someone washing their car, the road sweeping machine going by, builders putting up scaffolding; and on a really good day, the drain blasters or roadwork men. The boys were always very happy to interrogate any unsuspecting workman about what exactly it was they were doing and WHY? And already, the walk had become an adventure, without actually getting out of sight of the back gate.

Sliding into the leaf-filled hole.
Whilst walking in an urban area often provides lots of interesting humans to watch, where we live we are usually trying to get out into the country for a bit of nature appreciation. Different walks give different joys. Walking through woodland is a totally different experience from climbing up a  high hill on a windy day.
Combine-spotting in summer.
 I love it that the boys get a feeling for the passing year and its seasons when they're out on a walk. I mentioned the conker tree. Whether it's bare branches, the new bright-green leaves, the spike of blossoms, the first prickly cases visible high up, or the arrival of conker treasure after a windy day, the boys definitely use it as a measure of where we are in the year. We also walk to see the daffodils on the rec, ("It must be SPRING!") trek across the fields to see the combine harvester in action every summer, and have a favourite Autumn walk to a clump of beech trees which surround a massive hole that fills up with fallen leaves.

As well as getting an understanding of the changing seasons, children can pick up all sorts of knowledge about nature from a walk in the countryside.  Looking for acorns, fircones or conkers as well as comparing different leaf shapes helps them learn how to identify some of our native trees. Watching birds and describing their colour or size, and talking about the way they fly or the sound they make, helps children to recognise the more familiar ones for themselves. The boys are pretty reliable about knowing a sparrow from a swallow, a rook from a robin etc. They know the swallows make their nests out of mud in the roof of our end shed, and that rooks make big, messy stick nests. They know the call of a pigeon or the scream of swifts as they zoom overhead.
They can also name quite a few of the wildflowers and plants we encounter and are well able to look out for stingers and to find a doc leaf  (or doctor leaf as Danny calls them) if they get too close.
Blowing dandelion clocks to tell the time or throwing sycamore seeds to see them spinning like helicopters is a fun way to show how some plants can spread their seeds on the wind; whilst throwing goose-grass or sticky burrs at each other so they latch on to your clothes shows a different way they might spread.

Apart from taking your time and walking at toddler-speed whenever possible, my other advice for happy walks is to have a drink or snack available for moments when they really flag, and to have a little bag you can give them to collect treasures in. We do a walk in a local park that has a lake and waterfall at the end. Easy to get them there, not so easy to get them all the way back to the carpark! I've found that giving them a bag and challenging them to find eg 10 feathers, 6 different shaped leaves etc helps distract them from the long trudge home, plus you can bribe them with a reward if they succeed (if you aren't averse to a bit of bribery!)

So if you're stuck for something to do and want to get them out of the house without spending any cash, wrap up and go for a wander about- who knows what you might find!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


My little scrubbers prepare for Daddy's wine making.
I read a really interesting series of articles recently from New York Magazine. The main heading was, "Why Parents Hate Parenting," which was a bit of an attention grabber! There were loads of interesting points made, some of which I totally got, and others which made my blood boil a bit- I recommend reading it:

 In one section it was talking about how the idea of childhood has changed so radically. Here's an abbreviated excerpt:
"Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time.... Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses."

It's certainly true that I never thought of having kids as an economic asset, and I would love to think I can give them a happy and care-free childhood, however I don't think there's anything wrong with expecting them to help out a bit! In fact, so far they generally seem to enjoy being helpful and being given the responsibility to complete a task. So long as it doesn't seem never-ending, and it has been sold to them as something fun rather than a chore, I reckon doing jobs can be as entertaining as any other activity.

Car washing.
As I've mentioned, the boys love nothing more than getting wet so washing anything is always a popular job. Needless to say they do not wash the car as well as the local carwash, but with plenty of warm, soapy water to start, and a session with the hose to finish,they do a perfectly adequate job- for free.

I've also let them wash the downstairs windows on the outside, and they actually want to be allowed to wash up after they've done some cooking with me or had the paints out- in fact they seem to get as much enjoyment from the clear up as from the original activity!

Hoovering your fingers = hilarious!

When it comes to housework, they both like hoovering and are pretty efficient at it too. As a baby Danny used to spend most of the time with the vacuum sucking his hands, feet, tummy...  but he's a bit more focused now! They're pretty good at mopping too, tho I learned early on to only put a very small amount of water in the bucket if you don't want the kitchen floor to end up like a swimming pool.

Sock-matching turned out harder than I thought!

 I once dreamed up a great game of hunt-the-sock, followed by intensive sock-matching. Only to discover that we had over 20 odd socks- who knows where they go?

I can't say they often volunteer to tidy their bedroom, which generally looks like a bomb site, but even that can be turned into a game- if you don't mind a bit of bribery. We have a load of those big, plastic tubs which are supposed to store their toys neatly in some big old wardrobes we inherited. I even labelled them Cars, Lego, Track etc dreaming of being organised and efficient. Unfortunately, small children love the sound of things being tipped, so it was often the case that toys got tipped out everywhere and not necessarily played with, leading to general chaos. However, they also love a challenge, so I discovered that if held the "vehicles" box and offered "a smartie if you can find 10 things with wheels..." etc they could be occupied for ages and would eventually pick up almost everything.
Other indoor jobs they seem to enjoy are- sorting the recycling, especially if it includes crushing cardboard boxes or the occasional drinks can; putting the washing into piles belonging to each family member; bringing in logs for the woodstove and stacking them in a neat pile; laying the table; feeding the cats etc

Any chance it'll end up IN the compost bin?

In the garden there are lots more useful things to do. Raking up leaves, grass cuttings or hedge-trimmings to put them in the compost bin is popular because they both love transporting stuff about in the wheel barrow.

They also love to be hoiked into the garden bin to squash down the contents for me, making room for more. In fact, it can be quite tricky to persuade them out again!
Now they are a bit older they know enough about plants that I trust them to do some weeding without pulling up all the plants in the flowerbed. When they were younger they used to pull weeds on our gravel drive- which is actually quite satisfying because they come up really easily with long stringy roots attached. They also like doing a bit of pruning- but still under supervision.

Three men went to mow...
After years of following Daddy around with their toy mowers, this summer Zac (aged 5)was allowed to do mowing for real for the first time. Martin offered him a pound to mow the back garden with the fly-mo (with its plastic blade attachment.) Zac was so thrilled to be allowed to do it he never claimed his pound but just pestered to be allowed to do it again, even though it took him over an hour to do the whole lot!
So grown up!

When I said I didn't see the children as economic assets that wasn't strictly true. I'm fully expecting them to cost us loads at this end of our lives together, but I'm hoping they may save us a fair bit in the future!! I'm extremely lucky to have a husband who is a DIY genius. He can turn his hand to pretty much anything, and if he doesn't know how to do something he'll find out and learn on the job. I encourage the boys to "help" him at every opportunity in the hopes that they will turn out to be just as handy as adults. I can't begin to work out how much it saves us not having to hire a mechanic to fix the vehicles, or a builder to improve the house, or  a chimney sweep, piano tuner, log man, dishwasher repair man etc etc! So far the kids help mostly extends to handing him screws or tools but they are definitely picking up some very useful skills...

Aaaah, the joys of power-tools and big machines!

Monday, 26 November 2012


Hunting for minibeasts.
Thinking about getting enjoyment from wet weather made me wonder about other things I appreciate now that I have small boys, which I may not have done before. One of these is definitely "minibeasts." I'm still pretty reluctant to handle the slimy ones- slugs, worms and the like, (or the scuttley ones for that matter!) but I am grateful to them for providing plenty of free entertainment over the years.
 A bug safari in your back garden or the local park is a free and educational way to pass a bit of time. You don't really need anything, but you can add to the experience by taking a magnifying glass or one of those magnifying pots to see things up close, or you can lend the children a camera to take pictures of all the creatures they see on their trip. If you're lucky you might see a spider building a web or catching a fly. You might find an ant city made of lots of tunnels and be able to watch them hurrying to get their eggs underground when you expose them to the light. You might see a bumble bee collecting pollen til the yellow sacks on his legs are bulging.
The Wiggley-White-One in his hole!
 Several years ago we put some logs down the bottom of the garden to be stepping stones or seats for the boys, and within weeks a whole range of little creatures had set up home underneath them. It became a favourite garden ritual- bug hunting under the logs. The boys learned to identify woodlice, slugs, worms, ants (red or black) centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and beetles by tipping the logs to see what they could find. We even had a frog who set up residence under a log with a hollow-ish bottom. One year there was huge excitement when a number of enormous white grubs appeared under them. Affectionately known as the "Wiggley White Ones" they got a visit nearly every day!
Kids are not only able to identify minibeasts and describe their colours, shapes, number of legs etc but they can learn about their favourite habitats- dark and damp, dry and shady etc, and what they eat.
They can also learn a bit about whether they are garden friends or garden pests. When we made the veggie bed we employed the boys to find as many worms as they could around the garden and relocate them there to help mix the soil and compost so the veggies would have the best growing conditions. They also hunt ladybirds to put on my aphid infested roses, and understand that the flying insects they see on flowers are pollinating them which can make fruits develop.
The "Biggest slug in the world!"
Similarly, they know that some creatures are not the gardener's best friend. Danny grew some courgette plants from seed in the greenhouse this year. When they were big enough we planted them in a patch of soil at the bottom of the garden. The next day, you could barely tell where they'd been, "Naughty Slugs!" So they are well trained in putting slugs and snails into the brown garden bin to be happily composted somewhere else.
We had a bit of fun with snails this year. We were in France on Danny's 4th birthday and persuaded him that in France you have to eat snails for a birthday treat. We duly found some in a lovely French market and both boys were game enough to try some with chips (in fact Zac ate about 20!) My sister-in-law told us that they feed them carrots until their pooh turns orange, so you know they haven't got anything nasty in their stomachs. Once home the boys had a collection of snails in an icecream tub with holes, all snacking on carrots until sure enough, their pooh did go orange!
"Catty" Zac's furry caterpillar.

Caterpillar accessories.
Cute and cuddly caterpillar!
 We do struggle to see caterpillars as pests, though we've watched them eat through our brussel sprout plants. Eric Carle has done too good a job of making them seem like friends. Add the fact that they come in a range of colours and patterns, can be smooth or furry and are always tickly and happy to walk up your arm without instantly flying off which makes them great temporary pets! As I mentioned in my "growing things" post, you can also see the different stages in the life-cycle of a butterfly if you can put up with the very hungry creatures.

Love 'em or hate 'em they're pretty amazing.

I guess the other thing kids learn from looking for minibeasts is that we should be kind to other living things. When Zac was very young I handed him a baby snail I'd found. Thinking he would let it slime across his hand I was somewhat horrified when he promptly crushed it! We had a discussion about creatures being much smaller than us but still having feelings, and agreed that we should try to take care of them, and he seemed to get the message, though he still teases the cat at every opportunity.

An idea we haven't tried yet, but that I hope we will some day, is to make a bug hotel. Basically you make layers of things which will provide a habitat for all sorts of different creatures. If you include things with small holes, like bits of bamboo, and others with larger gaps you should get ladybirds, lacewings, bumble bees and all sorts nesting in there.We saw one at a local farm park and I took this picture for inspiration:
A very grand example of a bug hotel!

So, if you can, put any squeamishness aside and go on a bug safari. It doesn't cost anything and boys especially will probably enjoy it just as much as a trip to the zoo!