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!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


Dancing in the rain.
One of the joys of living in the UK is that we get weather. How dull would it be if it was sunny everyday? What on earth would we talk about? I love to have a good old moan about it like everyone else, especially on a day like today when we've had cold rain pretty much from start to finish. BUT it's another of the benefits of having children- you do start to see positives in things where you might not have done before.
Wet day? "Hurrah, puddles!"
Cold day? "Hurrah we can puff like steam trains!"
Too hot? "Hurrah, we can strip off and spray each other with the hose."
Danny did once comment, aged about 20 months, "It's a bit droopy!" on a particularly drizzly day; however on the whole I think children enjoy weather. I'm pretty sure they only learn to complain about it from listening to us mums on the playground.

I've learned from bitter experience that trying to keep kids inside for a whole day only leads to misery, so whatever the weather's doing we try to get out for at least a small part of it, in order to let off steam. Hence my thought for the day on free entertainment for small children is "Weather Appreciation!"
Ripples and reflections.

A wet walk through the puddles.
As I mentioned, it has been a very wet day today. Infact some of our village is flooded, so I apologise to anyone who's not seeing the fun side of massive puddles just now. Grown-ups generally see rain as a problem, unless we're very keen gardeners and have been short of the stuff for some time. My boys see rain and think puddles.
Jumping in them to splash anyone in sight, seeing if they can find one deep enough to go over the top of their wellies, checking out their reflections in them, stirring them with sticks, throwing stones in and looking at how ripples move, they are a source of fascination. Bonus if you find one with petrol on the surface making rainbow colours. We have had a range of hand-me-down waterproofs, some a bit more successful than others, but I've yet to manage to get them home from a wet walk dry. You just have to accept that they will have to strip off at the back door and put everything straight in the wash.
It's raining? Let's strip off and sit in tubs of sandy water!

Graffiti in the frost.
A sledge ice sculpture!
To be honest, at this time of year I'd much rather it was cold than wet. A hard frost on a clear sunny day is my ideal. Kids aren't generally in a hurry to get somewhere so they can stop and really appreciate the beauty of frost patterns and frozen cobwebs, and there's something very entertaining about seeing your own breath. A couple of years ago we had the most incredible hoare frost on the fence of our local playground and after admiring the amazing crystals, the boys experimented with drawing great long lines through it like a kind of temporary graffiti. We get proper Jack Frost patterns on our greenhouse too, which look like spreading ferns. Finding the pond frozen, or even just ice in a rain filled flower pot is also very exciting when you're little. You can test how thick the ice is by trying to break it, you can slide chunks of it down the path, you can spot things trapped inside it or you can see how long it takes to melt.

Zac will be 6 in January, and so far he hasn't known a winter without snow. I'm not going to pretend I don't dread the whole palaver of getting them kitted out to play in the white stuff; it takes forever, and they never last that long before one or other gets cold and miserable, but it just wouldn't be right to stay inside when it holds so many possibilities.
No new ideas here, but these are our favourite things to do with snow:
  • Throw it- preferably at a target and not at mummy.
  • Look for animal/bird tracks.
  • Make footprints, or fake monster prints.
  • Lie in it to make snow angels.
  • Roll big ball snowmen.
  • Go sledging.
  • And one year we made an igloo!
Inside the igloo!
Making snow bricks.
One of the local dads gave me a top tip- If you pack snow into a loaf tin and turn it out like a sandcastle you get the perfect snow bricks to build an igloo. Even small children can enjoy the brick production. I was glad my engineer husband came home in time to make the roof tho! He also told me it was stronger if you build the walls in a complete circle and then cut a door hole in afterwards. Our igloo was big enough to fit both boys in comfortably, and even I could squeeze in, but it did take A LOT of snow and it was that really sticky stuff. We've tried to recreate it since and failed due to the wrong-kind-of-snow!

Let's go fly a kite
Windy days can be a problem because they whip the children up into a natural high. It's pretty exhilarating going for a very windy walk tho, even if you know they're going to be wild for ages after. I've already mentioned nappy bag kites. We've got a couple of basic kites which fly pretty well if there's lots of wind, but a nappy bag on the end of a piece of string will fill up like a balloon and fly even if it's just a bit breezy. If you've got a big open space it's entertaining and good exercise to let the bag go and chase after it, but little ones may tire of this game so you have to be ready to sprint after them yourself if you don't want to litter the countryside with plastic! Catching leaves on a windy autumn day is fun too. I was told as a child that it was good luck to catch a falling leaf and I'm sticking with that theory.

Cloud spotting is great for the imagination and for language development. What more peaceful way is there to pass the time than by lying on your back in the grass pointing out clouds that look like dragons, trains, England or describing how whispy, fluffy, thundery they look?

OK. I can't think of much that you can't do on a sunny day. See my earlier post about water for plenty of cooling-off ideas. You can also have fun making shadows: Can you make one that looks like a ...? When is your shadow longest, or shortest? Can you run away from your shadow?
However my favourite way to enjoy a sunny day is definitely with ICE CREAMS and you won't find me apologising for a bit of unhealthy eating!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Junk Modelling

A box with a hole in. Brilliant!

Honestly? "Junk Modelling" was the bane of my life as a teacher, and as a parent it is no different.
Kids take a load of rubbish and turn it into... a load of rubbish covered in sellotape (and maybe a bit of tin foil or paint.) Plus you then have to find somewhere to display their amazing creation, which inevitably makes it look like you store your re-cycling on the windowsill.

Is it because they've got brilliant imaginations that they believe a load of cereal packets sellotaped together look just like a robot, or a spaceship? I don't get it. However, it is a fun, nearly-free activity. It involves using different motor skills and promotes problem-solving, it also encourages discussion and develops imaginations. I suppose I can see the positives, which is why we have a cupboard full of a variety of packaging ready for when the mood takes them.
Egg box Caterpillar

Although I'm a firm believer in letting children get on and do things in their own way, I'm afraid junk modelling is one activity where, once they reach a certain age, I can't resist wading in with advice about how to join things together without the need for tape, how to find boxes the right shape and size to make their invention vaguely resemble the thing they're attempting etc. I don't know if they feel any more satisfied with the final outcome but at least I'm then prepared to let them hold onto it for a little longer before it is really consigned to the recycling bin.

Threading the reels
It's a  "beautiful" necklace.
Surprisingly I can't find any pics of my boys' early junk-modelling attempts! The first thing I thought worthy of recording appears to be this one of Zac making a cotton reel necklace aged nearly 3. Which also reminds me that junk modelling doesn't have to involve vast quantities of packaging. In fact, Danny's favourite thing to make only involves 2 loo-roll tubes, either taped side-by-side to be binoculars-"I'm an explorer," or end to end to be a telescope- "Ha haaaar, I'm a pirate!" As with my other blogs I'm not claiming any original ideas, however here are a few things the boys have made which worked out well.

Danny's robot! (Not sure why he's in wellies!)
When it comes to boxes, robots seem to be a favourite. They're the right shape and you can use loads of shiny tin foil, plus you can stick on bottle tops etc to make buttons. This one of Danny's had an antenna made from a pipe-cleaner.
Zac also spent ages making a scale model of our house out of a box. He even made some furniture to go inside and put a floor in so it had an upstairs and downstairs.It was an ongoing project which meant we had lots of bits of cardboard lying around the kitchen for a long time.
Zac's model of our house.

My favourite junk model that we've made together was a castle. It had  breadstick-tube towers and a drawbridge that you could pull up and down. I showed Zac that he could cut slots all round the top and then fold alternate flaps down to make the battlements and he was very pleased with the way it turned out. We also slotted on the tube towers, so there was no need for lots of tape- which is impossible to paint over so always looks a mess.
Painting the castle.
Danny did most of the painting on this one. When he asked me why the towers were still a bit red I felt quite pleased with my explanation that it was the blood of soldiers killed in a battle when they tried to capture the castle. He replied very drily, "No mummy, I think my painting was just a bit rubbish!" Apparently grown-ups aren't allowed to use their imagination!
This week's homework project!

Ok, so I apologise for the negative start to this post. Junk modelling is a fantastic and fun way to re-use things, PLUS if they've had some practice it's not quite such a trauma when their lovely teacher gives them a "Make a model of a Tudor House" homework, so give it a try!
Distracted from itching his pox!

This week Zac has had really bad chicken pox, and once he'd got over the worst of it we kept each other entertained by making a Tracy Island out of junk and papier mache, since Thunderbirds is his new passion. We used the Blue Peter demo on youtube from sometime in the distant past, and were v pleased with our bendy palm trees and swivelling pool!

Plus, I just read this absolutely brilliant article about the benefits of big cardboard box play, check it out:

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Danny kneading some bread dough.
My darling elder son once said to me, "Mummy, your tummy is like dough and Daddy's is like concrete." I refrained from telling him it was all his fault!! I don't think it was intended as an insult, merely a very well-worded observation. In fact, knowing how much the boys like dough, perhaps it was a compliment...or maybe not.

Completely engrossed in brown playdough.

It was playing with playdough that taught me a very important lesson about small children. A relative gave Zac a collection of pots of brightly-coloured playdough for Christmas one year. I loved the smell of it, he loved playing with it, but being a boring adult I couldn't resist nagging him not to get the colours mixed up together. "It will all turn into a horrible brown colour and then you'll be sad." For ages he complied and made things using only one colour at a time. Then one day, probably while I was distracted by Danny, he smushed the red and green together. I came back to find him triumphant- "I've made a lovely muddy field!"
That brown playdough got played with more than any other dough ever. Tractors drove through it, diggers dug it up, lego vehicles got stuck in it. I realised then that putting my preconceived adult restrictions on his play was a ridiculous thing to do. If it's not going to cause serious damage, kids should be allowed to experiment as much as possible- they're often a million times more creative than we can ever hope to be, and every time we limit play with rules we're curbing that creativity.

I'm afraid I don't splash out on the proper shop-bought stuff, despite the lovely smell. We usually make our own playdough (there are millions of recipes on the internet)- it's almost as good but much cheaper than the real thing, you can make it in a much bigger quantity than you get in a pot, and it usually keeps pretty well in a poly bag so you can use it over again. Children love to help make it and choose what colour food-colouring to use too.
Playing with dough is a lovely, tactile, calm activity, and there are lots of physical skills to master in order to roll it out with a rolling pin, use cutters, roll ball shapes or sausages, make figures etc.

Making Christmas biscuits.
Run, run as fast as you can!
Once they've had a bit of practice with these skills it's nice to transfer them to dough-making with a reward. The boys love making biscuits, especially gingerbread men and Christmas biscuits which apparently need a LOT of icing and sugary decorations to finish them off.

Our other favourite dough to make is pizza dough. It's so easy I don't know why anyone ever buys pizza bases. We make it with
Zac teaching the dreaded Barnaby Bear how to make pizza.
  • 150g of flour (I do about half and half plain and self-raising.) 
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 
  • a pinch of salt, and 
  • enough water to make it into a soft dough.
  • I also sometimes add a bit of that dried "parmesan" cheese you can sprinkle from a pot, to give it a bit of a cheesy flavour. 
The boys can then roll out their own individual pizza base, spread it with a mixture of tomato puree and ketchup, and add as many toppings as they fancy. They're always delicious, and if one likes mushrooms whilst the other prefers loads of olives they each get what they want without having to pick things off!

Zac preparing a "lightly-floured" surface.

We've also made bread on a few occasions. Bits of it are fun- like the kneading and shaping, and they are always proud of the finished product even though it sometimes comes out a bit like a brick, but there's quite a lot of waiting for it to prove etc so you have to have other entertaining things to do in between times. We had fun making Hedgehog rolls, where you had to snip the back of your roll-shaped dough with children's scissors to make it spike up like prickles.

All in all I can thoroughly recommend the joys of dough. It's one of the least messy, messy play ideas and you can get a delicious pay-off at the end.

Not sure where I stand on the "dough disco" Weird!!