Tuesday, 29 January 2013


Mucking about in the pit.
When I started writing my blog we'd just got rid of our sandpit, hence the post about mud, but I don't want to dismiss the marvel that is sand. The boys had lots of fun in it over the years and I've no doubt that when the weather warms up they'll want it back in the garden. In fact, I'm not sure when you grow out of enjoying the stuff. Back when I was teaching I brought a tub full of sand into my class of 9-11 year olds because we'd had an interesting discussion in science about whether sand was a solid or a liquid- "well, you can pour it and it does take the shape of what you pour it into if it's dry, so maybe it's a liquid." The children very quickly ceased being interested in the conundrum, because they just wanted to play with the sand! That's the great thing about sand, it invites totally open-ended play at any age. Kids can get really creative in their ideas about what to do with it, and they're also practising lots of motor skills and often improving communication and social skills at the same time.

A storage box or an unused baby bath makes a good sandpit.
We did love our sandpit, which was just a few planks nailed together to form a barrier, but you don't need anything nearly as big if you're pushed for space. When the boys were babies we just had a storage tub of the stuff. They could make sandcastles and drive toys around in it, and there was just about room for them both to sit in it! The main trouble was that the sand didn't stay in it very long. I know you can buy play sand. I'm not sure what the claim is, I'm guessing it's been specially cleaned or something and is safe to eat- tho in my experience they only try that once; but you pay an awful lot for a small quantity, so you might well be inclined to nag if the kids spread it all round the garden or start adding water, stones, leaves etc which they invariably will.
Digging holes in the sand bag.
Collecting sand to top up the box.
 We were lucky enough to have a massive bag of builder's sand (because my husband was building a utility room) which was infinitely cheaper. It didn't seem to cause the children any problems, tho it did stain their clothes a bit when wet. In fact the boys used to just climb into the sack and play with it- you could dig a really deep hole when it was full! Zac also liked using his little wheel barrow to transport the sand from the big sack to his sand box. Since it was cheap and plentiful, I could let them experiment with it without minding too much if it disappeared or got mucky.

Making a sandfall.
Where's my toes?
The difference between wet sand and dry sand is pretty dramatic and totally changes what you can do with it. When the sand was dry Danny liked pouring it from one container to another, running it between his fingers, and flinging it (when no-one was watching!) Zac liked being buried in it, or burying toys in it and challenging us to find them.

That feels all gooey!
Take your clothes off first!
When it was very wet they both liked taking their shoes off and squelching about in it.They loved the feel of it oozing between their toes and liked seeing their footprints and watching them collapse in. They also used to run the hose through the sand pit and watch how the rivers formed, then make little dams and lakes to change the flow.

Drawing with a stick.
Squashing the castle.
It's most versatile when it's a bit damp. Zac actually did quite a lot of experimenting with adding water to dry sand to find the perfect consistency for construction.
When it's damp you can draw in it (it's a fun place to practise writing your name!) dig it, rake it, smooth it out nice and flat and of course, build with it. We did have a couple of proper buckets, but also a large collection of tubs, such as yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, plant pots etc to make different sized and shaped "castles". Zac discovered you could make a tower by using the biggest tub to make the first sandcastle, then using a slightly smaller one to turn one out on top, then a smaller still one so that it got higher and higher. Then you can embellish your creation with a leaf flag, pebble windows etc, and finally you can enjoy destroying it- if your pesty little brother hasn't got there first!
The best sandpit in the world!

Check out this link for a million good reasons to let them play in the sand:

Thursday, 24 January 2013


"Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without."
      ---Confucious, Book of Rites
A lovely duet!?
Music is weird isn't it!? What is its purpose that makes it so fundamental to human life? Sorry, I'm not really going to attempt a bit of philosophy! I had a look on t'internet to see what other people thought about the reasons for making music, but my favourite page was just a series of good quotes, so I'm going to stick some in!
 "I always loved music; whoso has skill in this art is of a good temperament, fitted for all things."---Martin Luther, 1566.
I don't know why the tradition of making music evolved but I do know that it's totally universal and communicates with the soul in a way nothing else does. I also know that kids generally love it- both listening to it, moving to it, and making it themselves. Even tiny babies in their bouncy chairs will jiggle along to music, and give the little critters something to hit or rattle or blow or twang and they will make their own "music" with great enthusiasm.

Zac singing the "Excavator Song."
"The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sing best."
      ---Henry David Thoreau
 Singing nursery rhymes and songs is a great place to start. Just the sound of the simple melodies and the pattern of the rhymes seems appealing and soothing to children, and it's thought to be very important for their language development (See this article for more info: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/may/08/singing-children-development-language-skills) When I was teaching, I met a lot of teachers who dreaded the thought of having to sing to their class. Usually this was because they'd been told, at some point during their childhood, that they "couldn't sing." It made me mad and sad. Everyone can sing. Admittedly, some are better than others at it, and many of the people who turn up on X-factor type audition programs genuinely believing they have a voice that will impress the nation have been equally misguided in the opposite direction, but singing should be all about enjoyment, and everyone- especially kids, should be allowed to enjoy it without feeling self-conscious. Babies and small children will love the sound of your voice whatever you might think of it, so sing out whenever you fancy!They'll soon join in.

 "Music is a more potent instrument than any other for education."
It's not exactly Glastonbury!
It's amazing how music sticks things in the mind. Both my littlies managed to learn lots of songs off by heart for their pre-school Christmas nativities, and kids in my class who struggled to remember their 2 times table could sing the whole of the latest pop song word for word, so if you've got to learn it, try singing it! It's also a good way to get creative with words. Zac loves making up his own lyrics to tunes he knows- mostly creating songs about diggers and combines.
Plus, a family sing-song in the car can lessen the pain of a long journey, or playing the humming game while you're on a long walk can distract from the distance still to go.

"The pied piper" fuffing it gently!
Of course, you don't just make music with your voice. Children love playing "instruments" too. You can buy lots of simple instruments for kids but it's also pretty easy to make them. An old margarine tub with a bit of rice or pasta inside can be a shaker, an upturned saucepan and a wooden spoon make a great drum- add saucepan lids as cymbals and you've got the whole drum kit (ear protectors at the ready!) Rubber bands stretched over the hole in an empty tissue box make a twangy guitar, milk bottles (plastic for safety) filled with different amounts of water make a great sound if you blow across the top, whilst blowing down a tube sounds just like a digeridoo ... etc etc

Jamming with my big sister.

"I found that the more I practiced, the better I played,
and the better I played, the more I enjoyed it.
-Adolf "Bud" Herseth, Principal Trumpet, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
It is nice to have some proper, tuned instruments. Even if the little folk haven't mastered playing them properly yet, they can be a bit easier on the ear. My favourite is a harmonica that Danny often plays. It's difficult to blow it too hard, unlike a recorder, and it sounds as though you're playing real tunes even when you're just mucking about:

Lovely "plinky-plonky" music
The boys also like experimenting with our old and somewhat honky-tonk piano, which is a great way into talking about pitch and volume- high, quiet sounds like birds tweeting or low, crashing sounds- "The Giant's coming!"

"There are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them." Vicki Baum

And if you're not actually making music yourself putting the radio on and bopping about is a great way to have fun and be active. By listening to different styles of music you not only let them begin to differentiate, for example between classical and pop, and talk about preferences, but they also interpret it through different kinds of movement, improving their balance, co-ordination, body awareness and rhythm . Tho I confess that I clearly remember Zac, aged just 2, saying in very disapproving tones, "DON'T do dancing mummy, it's HORRIBLE!"

A little clip of Zac at 3 months showing you can't be too young to dance:

Here's a link to a great post explaining much better than I have why music can help stick things in the memory for little kids:

Tuesday, 22 January 2013


Mind your toes
It's still snowy. If you want to be out in the white stuff I put some ideas in my weather post, but if not I fear a lot of my blog is about good outdoor activities and not much help if you'd rather stay snug and warm inside. So my extremely brief thought for the day is Towers.
Towers are something that seem totally compulsory for babies and small children. I think it's the hand-eye challenge of balancing one thing on another and seeing how high you can go. And of course, long before you can build them yourself, you can bash other people's- which is always very entertaining for the basher, though perhaps less so for the builder.
How high can you go?

Lots of things will stack. I guess most children have some kind of bricks or duplo/lego style blocks, but if not it's fun to see what else you can use. Learning to put the larger things at the bottom, or at least to give your tower a sturdy base so that you can build it really high before it topples, is just about the only thing you need to get started, so it's a good activity for sorting by size. Zac learned about patterns at pre-school and then loved to build brick towers so the colours made a pattern- red, yellow, blue, red, yellow, blue etc.
Danny the destroyer!

If you can stand the disruption, making towers out of sofa cushions and then bouncing your small child on the top always raises a giggle.
Can't really think of anything else to say, just have a look around, see what unusual thing they can stack and see how high it will go!
Making a tower from green "Halloween" jelly.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Drain pipes

Pouring water into the drainpipe to make a shower at the other end.
Yes really! We discovered the joy of drain pipes by accident. My sister and brother-in-law were having some work done on their house and had lots of interesting building materials in their garden, including a long piece of drainpipe. An added bonus was that it was autumn and there were also lots of windfall apples on the ground. Posting windfalls down the drainpipe kept Zac, aged 2 and a half, entertained for a very long time. So much so that I decided we must have a drainpipe of our own!! (Actually, they are not that cheap to buy but I've since discovered people give bits of pipe and gutter away for free on free-cycle quite regularly, and it's always worth keeping an eye on the local skips!)

Our small ball challenge.
One long piece of drainpipe, a couple of round- the-bend connectors, a length of gutter and a bucket later and we'd invented a great piece of play equipment:
Zac could post a ball in the top of the drainpipe and it would roll down the pipe, along the gutter and plop into the carefully positioned bucket ready to be hauled up to begin again. A thoroughly absorbing game for a small boy who liked technical inventions. We had to incorporate Danny's potty to help the bucket find it's perfect loading position, but since Dan was never a fan of sitting on it anyway this was no problem!

Sliding a giant ice cube.

Of course, there is no limit to what you can post through a pipe or slide/roll down a gutter. As long as it fits, it's worth the experiment! We've leaned the gutter up here and there to drive cars and any other wheeled toys down it, we've used it to launch balls at targets, we've slid ice and sand and gravel down it, we've run the hose down it and let leaves go white-water rafting.
A small pipe makes a great tap-extension.

And if you've tired of making things go through your pipe you can always shout down it- it makes your voice go funny and it seems very strange to hear it coming out from somewhere other than your mouth. Plus, if you're good at blowing raspberries you can do a fairly good impression of a digeridoo player with a length of drainpipe!

For an action version of the drainpipe challenge check out:

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


You can enjoy a football long before you can kick it!
Brilliant Balls!
From mini marbles to mummy's massive maternity ball, boys love spheres. You can roll them, throw them, kick them, bounce them, spin them, get them in the net or through a hoop, hit them with a bat, racket or club and if you're really clever- catch them!
Playing with balls is all about co-ordination, hand-eye or foot-eye. Kicking a still football is challenge enough for a toddler, kicking a moving ball requires even more skill- getting the timing right is really tricky.
I'm afraid our two are unlikely to be destined for sporting success as neither of their parents are particularly sporty- although Martin does a lot of running and I now occasionally play netball with the village club. However I do think ball skills are really important- both as a way in to exercise and as a social thing. Having a kick-around with your mates is a good bonding time for boys.

Serious concentration required for "marble thru' the tunnel."
For little ones, the best thing about balls is that they invite you to make up games and challenges. This week, Zac invented a game which involved using a broom to sweep a marble around the kitchen floor so fast that it ricocheted off the kickboards at high velocity. Danny came in and put himself across a doorway "in goal" and they played for about half an hour, setting rules and then honing them, negotiating whose turn it was with the broom etc. I enjoyed this marble game better than one of the old ones, which involved tipping a whole tub of marbles onto the floor and shunting them around with their hands and which made a real din, however not as much as their "can you roll a marble through a track tunnel?" game, which was peaceful and required a bit more skill!
I'm not a ball!!

He shoots, he scores!
We have various targets for aiming balls into- a bargain football goal bought in the Woolworths closing down sale, and an ancient basket ball hoop. The boys do use them, but they're equally happy making a target of their own. For example they used to prop the end of the slide up, put a bucket on the grass and have a competition to see who could roll a ball down the slide, over the jump and into the bucket. You can also make targets like skittles. A few empty plastic drinks/ milk bottles with a bit of sand or gravel in the bottom work well, and you can try rolling or throwing different sized balls to knock them down. I haven't tried it with the boys, but as kids we used to sink a tin can into the lawn and try and putt a ball into it, like our own mini-golf. Last summer Martin invented a game where he used the boys as skittles and threw my enormous birthing ball at them so they fell over- the kids thought it was hilarious!
Anyone for croquet?

Hitting a ball is a different skill again, but still requires great hand-eye co-ordination. For little ones, trying to hit a ball to each other is nigh-on impossible. The chances that their shot will go in the right direction, and that the other will be able to anticipate and hit it back are pretty much non-existent. Bowling a ball to them so they can hit it with a "boom bat" or large headed tennis racket is easier, or just letting them whack a ball to see how far they can send it, so they begin to get their eye in, is lots of fun.
Boot it!
Perfecting his spin bowling!
If you have a range of balls you can do investigations. Collect up all the balls you can find, put them in size order, work out what they're made from, check if they're all spherical (you may have a rugby ball!) Which one bounces highest? Which one can you throw/ kick furthest? Which is easiest to score a basket with? Do they roll better on grass or on the path? WHY?
Basically, if you play a few ball games with your little one, they will quickly begin to set their own challenges and learn all sorts of new skills, both physical and social if they've got someone to play with, which will come in handy when they're picking teams at school!

I can do "kick tricks!"
Small boys, jumpers for goal-posts!

For more things to try with balls, check out my posts on drainpipes and paint.

Friday, 11 January 2013


How many variations of a combine/excavator is it possible to draw?!
My sister-in-law just gave the boys two drawing pads and a huge stack of white and coloured paper in various sizes for Christmas. Perfect present! I fear my family could be single-handedly destroying a rainforest with the amount of paper we get through. Zac is mad keen on drawing and his output is massive. Last summer we could have carpeted the entire kitchen floor with his pictures of combines and other big machines. His latest obsession is drawing with a ruler, so we get lots of geometric patterns and architectural drawings of the Eiffel Tower or Tower Bridge. Plus he has just discovered Origami, which means all our coloured paper is being turned into sailing boats, swans or Ninja stars!

That was FUN!
However, it was not always so. Zac's first love of paper was something much more basic. He loved shredding it! Pretty much as soon as he could sit up unaided he could be kept entertained by giving him an old newspaper. A frenzy of ripping, scrunching and generally throwing it about would ensue. I'm not sure why he found it quite so entertaining but I guess it exaggerated his movements and made lots of interesting sounds. He literally used to squeal with excitement. I don't want it to sound like everything my kids did had some ulterior motive behind it for their improvement; discovering that Zac loved destroying newspapers was a sheer accident and I let him do it because it was evidently such fun, but it turns out that ripping paper is a great way to develop little 'uns grip and builds the muscles and control they need for picking small things up, holding a spoon or a pencil etc, so this mess-creation had hidden benefits.

Papier mache penguins.
James and the papier mache peach!
Ripping paper still comes in useful because we've made a few things out of papier mache, which is dead easy to do and lots of fun but VERY messy. You basically make a model by using little bits of paper coated in glue to build up layers over a simple frame. Newspaper or kitchen roll works best, and there are various gluey mixtures you can use, including water and flour or wallpaper paste, but we generally use well watered-down pva glue.

It's starting to erupt!
Gluing on the strips
The most successful thing we made was a volcano. To start with I made a cone shape out of card with a hole in the top that fitted a little plastic bottle inside. The boys then ripped up a newspaper into strips, painted them with runny glue, and stuck them all over the cone. We let it dry and repeated the ripping and sticking a couple of times so that it was properly lumpy like a real volcano, then painted it. By putting a mixture of vinegar, red food colouring and baking soda in the bottle inside we could make it "erupt lava" all down the sides. Although it's over two years old now, it's still with us and still gets erupted from time to time!

Collage and paint.
After ripping comes snipping. Scissor skills are quite tricky for little children but it's handy if they've mastered them by the time they start school. I'm not very keen on the scissors that are designed for kids' safety because they often don't cut that well, which makes them frustrating to use. I let mine use proper scissors quite young but with strict rules- no waving them about, and if you have to carry them somewhere you always hold them by the closed blades and walk- to limit the possibility of falling and skewering yourself. A good activity for children which involves ripping and snipping, where either will do, is to make a collage. We did a good one a couple of years ago of an autumn tree. I drew the outline of a tree then gave the boys some old magazines, They found pictures which had any autumnal colours in- red, orange, yellow, brown etc and ripped out the page, then we all snipped the colours up into very rough leaf shapes and stuck them on. This year Zac wanted to do the same, but then decided to leaf-print the top of his tree and collage the trunk. Once they get reasonably good at holding the scissors and using them with a bit of control they can make collage pictures by cutting images they choose out of toy catalogues, kids magazines etc to make their own scene.
This Christmas, Danny was perfecting his snipping skills by making millions of those snowflakes, where you fold a paper circle into quarters and snip out shapes along each edge so that you get a doily effect when you open it up.
Danny's thrilled (?) with his newspaper hat.
As I mentioned at the top. Zac's new paper obsession is with Origami. Folding paper is another skill that's quite tricky for little ones to master. Other than folding paper in half to make cards, or creating very basic paper aeroplanes, I don't think mine had had much practice of folding accurately, but it's a handy thing to be able to do. Zac taught himself to make Ninja stars by watching a youtube demo, after some boys at school were selling them as a fundraiser and he decided he'd rather not pay!! Since then he's learned all sorts of things, including how to make a very fancy paper hat!
Not so scary now T-Rex!

So if your little person is fond of paper, but fancies a change from drawing and colouring, there are plenty of other things you can do with the stuff to keep them entertained.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Dressing up.

My little princes dressed up for the Royal Wedding.
I've hesitated to do this subject, because it's one where I feel a bit of a failure! When I was little we had a great dressing up box filled with random charity-shop clothes, hats, bags, jewellery etc as well as various hand-me-downs and homemade bits and pieces. In my ideal, thrifty world I would have created something similar for my boys, but there are so many places which sell very authentic-looking costumes for not a huge amount of money that we have a small-ish range of "boughten ones" instead. Some have been purchased for themed birthday parties, or more lately "dress-up-as..." days at school, others have been given as presents. All have been worn over and over, so I guess they're worth the cost, but I wish I was handy enough to run up our own, original costumes. I'm pretty sure a homemade cape would have given just as much enjoyment- if only I had the sewing skills of my mother!

When Zac was little we used to go to the local toddler group and he was irresistibly drawn to a lovely lurid-pink net tutu with plastic flowers attached. He regularly wore it for the majority of the session and happily twirled around the hall. When I mentioned this to Martin he was horrified that I would let him, and insisted he would be scarred for life! I took the opposite view, he was having fun and exploring gender differences in an innocent two-year-old way. Sadly, in my opinion, he all too soon started saying things like, "Uugh, I hate pink, it's for girls" and moved on to more traditional boy characters like pirates and knights.

Watch me spin a web!?
Batman to the rescue.
I guess being second and having an older brother as a role model, Danny skipped out the princess stage and went straight for the more rough and tumble role play. He would still spend his life in a super-hero costume if he was allowed.
A cape and a mask is all you need to be SUPER!
I like superheroes! They are physically active- there's a lot of running and jumping/ flying involved, plus they're generally taking the side of right over wrong and helping others in need, which are good attributes for real life. OK, there's a fair amount of violence towards the baddies, but so long as they're imaginary baddies and no-one is actually getting bashed, I've decided to put up with that! Being a superhero is a great confidence booster for a child too. You get to feel more powerful than the mere mortals around you (like your parents or bigger brother) and being the person who is called upon to save the day with your super-powers makes you feel pretty special.

Look out! There's a dragon flying over the castle wall!
The other dressing up favourite with both boys was their knight costumes. I loved these too because they led to some amazingly imaginative, and independent role play. The boys would set off together on missions round the garden, mostly slaying dragons or other monsters, (they were a little scathing when I suggested they rescue a princess.) They spoke to each other in a new way and played as a team, working out solutions to their imaginary trials. The discussions and negotiations about the best plan of action as they roamed about were always extremely serious, and there was a lot of brilliant language used to describe the monster or how they were going to dispatch it. I have absolutely no doubt that if they could have written about their adventures it would have made a fantastic story- I just hope they keep developing their imaginations and don't let LIFE suffocate it out of them as they get older.

As well as developing imaginations, improving language skills and giving yourself a confidence boost, there's an idea that by literally putting yourself in someone else's shoes, young children are learning to empathise with others and be less ego-centric, which is a vital skill for being able to survive in social situations as you grow older.
...or just a hat.

The full kit...
So whether it's a shop-bought classic, or a homemade cape and crown, I think there are a load of reasons why kids should be encouraged to dress up and become someone else, not the least of which being- it's great FUN.

Zac entertains Danny by Clowning Around!
It's not dressing up, but my favourite clip of Danny role-playing has to be this one, if I'm ever feeling down, this chuckle always makes me feel a million times better:

Just found this brilliant tutorial on how to make a fantastic superhero cape:
I'm definitely going to get the boys to design their own!