Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Teaching kids to play with fire...and why that's a good thing

I know - it sounds crazy doesn't it?  Teaching kids to play with fire?!

It really isn't.  Fire is a fundamental comfort of human existence.  There's something very special about seeing a fire, sitting in it's warmth, staring into the flames.  There is evidence of man using fire dating back 125,000 years, and many scholars believe that it dates back even further, maybe even 400,000 years.  We've used fire for warmth, cooking and protection from predators for an awfully long time and the current trend for log burners and "living flame" heaters in our homes suggests that we haven't yet fallen out of love with the flame. 

A century ago, most homes would have still been heated by log or coal fires in fireplaces.  Children would have learned where fire goes, and how to light and control a fire safely.  Jump a hundred years and suddenly children aren't allowed near a fire, and even lighting a match for the birthday cake candles is often restricted to the teen years, with whole websites concerned about children who "set fires".  It's true.  Fires are dangerous.  Fire can kill and can be very destructive.  That's why its vital to teach children about fire, to allow them to see flames, to see things burning and to feel the heat in a controlled and safe environment.

How do you teach children about fire?

First of all, don't shy away from having fires.  They are fun!  Here are a few situations where you can involve flames:

  • birthday cakes
  • make candle holders and set them around the garden in the evening
  • make snow sculptures (not just snowmen) - how about a snow dragon with a lit tea-light in his mouth, or snow houses with tea-lights inside?  Your winter garden becomes a magical new land when you involve a few candles.
  • involve children with lighting the BBQ (and get rid of the lighter fluid!)
  • if you have a fireplace at home, teach the children to lay and light the fire
  • have a campfire circle in your garden, or use a chiminea or fire pit.
  • light campfires at campsites, in the woods or on the beach (only where the landowner permits obviously).
Every single time you light any sort of fire with the children, reiterate the safety (my three year old can pretty much recite all this):
  • where do we light fires?  In fireplaces.  Indoors we use proper fire places with chimneys, outdoors we use a chiminea or a fire pit or fire circle.  We make sure there's nothing nearby that could catch fire, think about where the wind is coming from, think about the ground under the fire.
  • What about candles?  Place them on fireproof mat, make sure they are in stable place where they won't get knocked, and are away from anything that might catch fire - curtains etc.
  • When can you light a fire?  Only when there's an adult with me who knows what they are doing.  (As they get older, wiser and more experienced this restriction can gradually be lifted - I certainly trusted some of my 16 year old Explorer Scouts to camp completely unaccompanied, which always included a fire).
  • When can you not light a fire?  Any time there's no adult, or any place where it's not safe.
  • What do we not put on fires?  This list is in no way exhaustive - but includes aerosols, any petrol or other highly flammable or explosive fuel, anything that doesn't belong to me, living wood (leave it on the tree - use fallen wood), any wood that looks as though it's been treated or painted (nasty fumes), plastic (nasty fumes) etc.
  • How big should the fire be?  Only as big as you need it for warmth or cooking.
  • What if the fire gets out of control? Always have a bucket of water / connected hose nearby and access to a First Aid kit.
The more times a child experiences fire in a safe way, and has these safety aspects drilled into them, the less likely they are to do something stupid or dangerous with fire.



What do you think?  Do your kids get the chance to play with fire?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Looking after Number 1

As busy mums it's all too easy to forget about looking after yourself.  There are so many demands on your time, and they really are demands - from the newborn/baby/toddler who wails every time you put them down or leave the room, to the pre-schooler who requires your attention to watch them dance, listen to them sing and come and colour with them.  In addition, you have cleaning, laundry, nappies, bedding, cooking, feeding and more, more, more.  Just when are you supposed to fit looking after yourself in?

Here's the deal.  YOU HAVE TO.
It's so easy to forget to do simple things for yourself, especially if you're home with the kids all day... even showering, brushing your hair and getting dressed can slip down the priority list.  

But here's the thing.  If you do that then you start to feel as though you're not important.  By not prioritising YOU, you are suggesting that you don't matter.
And you do.  

Your children/partner/husband need you, but they need you to be true to yourself first.  You have to make time to see to your own needs.  

Let's face it, your baby might cry for a few minutes, but their world is not going to collapse if you go and spend ten minutes in the shower - if you need to, then put baby in the bouncy chair in the bathroom where they can see you.  Ask people for help if you need some time to yourself.

Here are Mel's self-care rules:
  • get enough sleep - if your newborn is keeping you up all night, then make sure you get a nap during the day.  Older babies and children need to learn to sleep through the night too so that they and you get enough sleep.
  • wash, dress, hair and make-up - the make-up is optional, but if putting on a bit of blush, a bit of lippy and some mascara makes you feel more human, then do it.  At the very least, take the time to shower, brush your hair and get dressed in a way that makes you feel comfortable and happy with yourself.
  • eat healthily and drink plenty of water - when you're sitting on the sofa with a baby attached, and particularly if you've not had enough sleep, it's very easy to fall into the trap of endless cups of tea and choccy biscuits, as well as convenience food in the evening.  When your children are older you may choose to cook only what they eat rather than face a battle to get them to eat their veggies.  Eating healthily keeps you in tip-top form, improves your energy levels, and helps show them a good role-model to follow too.
  • Exercise - Pop baby in the sling or buggy and go for a good brisk walk daily.  Once you've got toddlers you'll struggle with a brisk pace, but a walk is still important.  Play football or tag in the park with older children.  Better still, get out a couple of evenings a week for a swim, run or exercise class that's just for you - no children attached.  When the weather's horrible, put on an exercise DVD and get fit at home.  Babies love to watch mummy jig about, and toddlers and pre-schoolers will try to join in.  Sit-ups are much more challenging with a toddler climbing all over you, but they are fun, and at least you're getting some exercise.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Paint your own shields

We love visiting castles and other fabulous heritage sites.  Partly because they usually have fabulous grounds and gardens which often welcome dogs and usually have adventure playgrounds and quite often cafes.  Partly because they surround children with heritage.  They learn about and absorb a bit of history without even realising.  Whether you're talking about the portcullis, the moat and the murder holes as you go through a castle gateway, or you're talking about how the kitchen would have operated, where the great hall was and what might have happened there, and how the castle got destroyed.  Or you might be strolling the grounds of a stately home and happen upon a ha-ha, so you get started on how the grounds were landscaped and all about status amongst the upper classes.

Either way, the visit needs to be fun.  Sometimes it's good to dress up, or to take along your sword and shield.  In the past we've made some great shields using cardboard and papier mache, and to be fair, they lasted a year, but didn't survive my decluttering before the move.  When I saw plain wooden shields for sale (these ones were from Ludlow Castle - I'm sure I've seen them elsewhere, but can't find them on the English Heritage shop site, or even on Amazon just now!), I thought it was a genius idea, as it gives the children yet another idea to express their creativity and personality.

Bug definitely wanted a dragon on hers, preferably wrapped around its egg.  I drew it for her, and we did the painting together.  C knew exactly what he wanted on his, and got stuck in straight away.  I just drew around the outlines of his design in permanent pen once the paint had dried.  Now I'm going to give them a couple of coats of varnish each and they should last for some time - even if they get some wooden sword action.  They've got quite sturdy handles on the back too.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Handmade garden decorations

I've really enjoyed making these gorgeous garden decorations.  Every garden has its sorry looking corner - a bare fence or wall that could do with a bit of love.  These wooden painted decorations are designed to fill those gaps.
I started with some off-cuts of  thin plywood (Hubby had cut out a large circle to replace the top of our garden table).

I drew out some very rough shapes of what I wanted to make, then cut them out with a jigsaw and drilled a hole near the top (for hanging).

Each shape got two coats of primer.

Then I got creative with the acrylic paints.  I really don't consider myself to be any sort of artist, so you don't need much skill to get some really nice effects.
I finished off with two coats of varnish on each one.
They are currently hanging on my garden fence.  The garden at our rented house is basically an awful gravelled yard.  I can't really do anything with it, since everything has to be left exactly as it was when we leave in a few months, plus it's autumn!  So in the meantime, I'm going to make lots more of these, in bright colours hopefully, and really brighten things up.
At the moment I'm leaving them out for a few weeks to make sure that the varnish etc. is as weather proof as I hope it is, then I'll make them to order for Sunbow Designs (my Etsy shop).  I'm thinking I can do small animals, mini-beasts, flowers, garden signs, and also things that might be used to decorate kids' bedrooms, such as fairies, racing cars, trains and so on.  
What do you think?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Planning for the half term holiday

This is our first proper half term holiday now that C is at school.  We've had holidays from pre-school before, but somehow a proper half-term holiday is different.

As always, while I don't want too much planned and structured activity.  I do like to have a rough plan to prevent chaos, boredom and arguments.  Here's how I worked out my plan.

First we chatted about some ideas.  I wanted a list of "active activities" - ones that involve running around or using lots of energy, including some wet weather alternatives (it is October in Britain!), and a list of "other activities".  I wrote them down on small stickies in two different colours.  I checked the leisure centre website and our collection of attraction leaflets for some additional ideas.

Next I made a plan of the week, noting when Hubby was going to be around and when working, and when we were expecting my sister and her children to come and visit.

I put one active activity, and one other activity in each day.  Because we've done them on stickies, they are flexible.  We can switch to a wet-weather activity if it's raining, we can do an at-home activity if we don't feel like going out so much.  If one activity overruns from morning into the afternoon, we can switch in a shorter activity for the rest of the day.  I definitely want them to do something active every day - use up some energy, keep them fit, have lots of fun, preferably outdoors, rarely involves any arguments... it really is a win-win. 

Most importantly the children have had a say in what the activities are.  C is desperate to try his new scooter out at a skate-park, and we've not tried the local skate-parks yet.  Bug has seen where there's a soft-play in Hereford, so that's on her list of "must-do" activities.  We just spent a great morning yesterday building dens at National Trust Berrington Hall, and C had an awesome time, so that's on his list too, and he wants to build a den with his cousin this time. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Forest School - an outdoor education

You may have heard of Forest School, it's an inspired idea.
Forest School isn't about an occasional visit to the outdoors, to "learn about nature" though that's better than nothing.  Through Forest School, children have the opportunity to spend time outdoors regularly, building an awareness of the changing seasons, and developing a relationship between themselves and the natural environment.

In Forest School, while you may be following a programme of activities, you'll be responding to the children, who will be responding to the environment around them.  What could be better than stopping your activities to marvel at the spider weaving his web?

The primary curriculum in the UK allows plenty of scope for outdoor learning, learning through doing, and a focus on sustainability and the environment.  Many primary school have therefore embraced Forest School as the vehicle to deliver wide-ranging benefits to their children, as part of the school curriculum.  They may take the children regularly to an established Forest School setting, or may train their own teachers in Forest School practices, setting up their own Forest School area in their school grounds.

In Forest School the children experience the outdoor environment, undertake creative and exploratory activities and drive their own learning.

A Forest School area will usually be fenced off from the main school play areas, it will have trees, shrubs, long grass areas, hopefully some form of water feature, log seating, perhaps a fire pit.  Ideally it should be large enough to allow small groups to disperse and explore, for wildlife to shelter and for the children to move around and play.

Activities that children might engage in are playing hide-and-seek, building dens, searching for wildlife, identifying flora and fauna, creating wildlife habitats, collecting and sorting natural items, investigating weather, creating wildlife art and mud sculptures, making and using natural paints, telling stories, lighting fires, singing songs and using tools.

First sessions in Forest School establish boundaries and lay out ground rules required to keep the children safe.  Within these boundaries though, children are encouraged to try new things, and extend their own limits, assessing their own abilities and risk to keep themselves safe.

C loves Forest School.  They have two Forest School areas.  The first is an outdoor classroom on an elevated spot, with wooden benches laid out, some outdoor musical instruments, and fruit and vegetable areas.  The second is more wooded, with wooden bridges, a fire circle and many more places to hide.  Each class has one afternoon each week set aside for Forest School.  They need to take warm, comfortable clothing (suitable for getting messy), full waterproofs and wellies.  He's been doing Forest School for four weeks now, and has made a spider web from sticks, talked about safety, been out for a local walk searching for signs of autumn, and been searching for mini-beasts.  I'm itching to get involved but am restraining myself at the moment, as I've so much else to do!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Making life easier - menu plan and shopping list

Love food - hate waste?
Love shopping - hate spending?

I really hate throwing food away, and try to do it as little as possible.  I genuinely believe that if you plan your menu and make a shopping list, there should be very little need to throw anything out because it's gone past date.

Planning your menu and doing a shopping list doesn't need to be complicated.  Mine for this week is shown below, it's a piece of A4 scrap paper, folded in half, one half is the meals for the week and will be pinned up in the kitchen, the other half is the shopping list.  

For your menu you can draw out a table with a box for each meal if you like, but I prefer a simple list (at the moment!).  Up until lately I've only really planned the dinner menu, and lunches have been adhoc whatever is hanging around in the fridge.  Now that three members of the family are having packed lunches though, I thought I should think and shop more thoughtfully for them, and make sure that they know what's available for lunch, but I've just done a list for the week rather than specifying days.  For breakfast we usually have cereal or toast during the week and something different on the weekend.  I made a breakfast column so that I didn't forget to account for it in the shopping list.  Dinners I tend to stick to a similar pattern of meals each day, but not slavishly. 

My week is usually:
Monday - stir fry
Tuesday - something with potato
Wednesday - curry
Thursday - something with pasta
Friday - something with chips
Saturday - Hubby cooks, so whatever I think he might like
Sunday - roast or casserole

Always start by checking out the current contents of fridge, freezer and cupboards.  What have you got in there and what meals could you make with it?

This week I found: a joint of pork in the freezer that didn't get cooked last weekend - roast pork this weekend; some frozen chilli con carne that I made about a month ago - we'll have that tonight with nachos; some frozen casserole that I made a few weeks ago - we'll have that with mash on Monday instead of stir-fry.  I also brought back an armful of carrots from my garden in Scotland this weekend, so I'll make up a big batch of carrot and coriander soup.  There's some ready-made puff pastry in the fridge waiting for me to make some divine cheese straws too, so that's a lunch option sorted.

Next, fill in your gaps based on your loose plan for the week.  Ask the family for their input, especially if you want them to get involved with the cooking and eating.  If you need to, get out the recipe books for inspiration.  Roast pork was C's suggestion last week, as long as there's crackling.

Now make your shopping list.  I divide mine into categories of: fruit and veg, fridge, freezer, bakery, store cupboard and general household, to make it easier when I'm walking around a supermarket or smaller shops or markets.  Check your recipes and add anything which you don't already have in the store cupboard or fridge to the recipe.  I also have a list on the whiteboard in the kitchen.  Everybody knows that if we are running low on a store cupboard staple such as cereal, coffee or ketchup it should go on the list and I'll add it to my shopping list.  To be honest I do still check the cereal boxes, the tea and coffee, toothpaste, loo roll and shower gel, because Hubby very rarely remembers to add them to the list until they've actually run out - and then they are too urgent to wait until the next weekly shop!

Seriously though, if you make your shopping list based on what you are actually going to eat, and only buy what is actually on your shopping list, you'll save quite a lot of money, and will waste a lot less food.  I do still buy bargains, special offers and treats when I'm shopping, but only if they will fit into the menu or will keep or can be frozen for the future.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

My little designer / engineer

I just had to post this today, partly because it's so awesome, and partly because he asked me to.

C spent some time this morning painstakingly following the instructions to build the "angry man car" and police quad bike.  The "angry man" has carried out some type of burglary, there are bank notes, a gold ingot and a crow bar in the boot of the car, but I don't think the police quad bike has a powerful enough engine to keep up with this chunky off-roader.   Hmm, I'm digressing.  He followed the instructions all by himself.

In the afternoon, after returning from a crazy wild children Spiderman themed, cake and sweetie fuelled melee of a birthday party, he disappeared up to his bedroom, apparently to play with the angry man car, and his new awful plastic toy Spiderman was going to help him.  Delightfully, he then came downstairs with this creation:

He'd designed and made this desk workstation all by himself (unless Spidey was whispering in his ear).  It's got a phone, computer monitor and cup of coffee, as well as a fire extinguisher under the desk and a swivelling chair!  Isn't he awesome?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Making money from home

I think its safe to say that I'm a full-time mum.

C has now started school, and Bug is at pre-school all day on Wednesdays and Thursdays.  I'm still responsible for getting them to school and picking them up, I'm walking the dog twice a day, I'm doing all the cooking, laundry and housework, and I have Bug on the days that she's not at pre-school.  

Here's how a typical Monday looks:
  1. Get up at 6.30am and do my exercise DVD for 30 minutes.
  2. Get the children up at 7am, and encourage the getting dressed, getting breakfast, brushing teeth and getting out of the door process.  At the same time I get washed and dressed, get a laundry load on, have some breakfast, wash the dishes and make sure everyone has what the need for the day.
  3. Leave the house at 8.15am.  Drive to the village where school is, and walk through the village to school (we all get some exercise and the dog gets a walk).
  4. At 9am say "bye" to C, and begin the walk back again with Bug and the dog.
  5. Home again by about 9.45, a little later if we've done any errands while out.
  6. I spend an hour doing laundry and housework, while Bug either helps me or does some colouring or playing on her own.
  7. Now I spend an hour with Bug.  We play a game, do some reading or craft, then have lunch.
  8. At about noon, Bug goes for a sleep (or if she's not asleep after an hour, she gets up and plays in her bedroom).  I now have two hours to do some work (more on that later).
  9. At about 2pm I get Bug up, we have a cuddle, and then I persuade her to have a practice on her bike.  She's a little reluctant at the moment.
  10. At 3pm we head off back to the village where school is, and collect C from school.  The children have a snack in the car and we go to the woods.  We walk, and they play on the playground.
  11. At 4.30pm we head home.  Once there at about 5pm we settle down to do C's homework while Bug does some drawing.  I cook the dinner and supervise the homework.
  12. At 5.45pm it's dinner time.  Hubby is still working out his work routine, so is sometimes here for dinner, sometimes not.  After dinner it's time for pyjamas, teeth, a story and bed.  Hubby or I will do the dishes while the other supervises the children - unless he's not back yet, in which case I wash the dishes and supervise remotely!
  13. 7pm-ish the children are in bed.  I now have some time to work again, until 9pm when it's time to stop and Hubby and I have an appointment with the TV and whichever show we are particularly into at the moment.
On a Wednesday and Thursday in theory I have the whole day to get down to work.  In reality by the time I get home from school drop off/dog walk it's already at least 9.30, and I'm leaving again by 2.30pm at the latest.  I also still do laundry and housework on these days, as well as squeezing in a grocery shop, and a swim for me (a new luxury, to go swimming without the children once a week!).  So in reality, I don't get that much more time for working than on any other day.

So what can a stay-at-home mum do when she decides its time to start earning some money, and she basically has a maximum of about 4 hours a day in which to do it?  Here are some of the things that I'm trying, and I'd love to hear what you're doing too:

  • The first thing I've embarked upon is i-writer.  There's a list of articles required, and you choose one that you want to write and get on with it.  Once submitted, if the requester likes it, they'll approve it and give you a rating out of 5, and you get paid.  To begin with you only earn a couple of dollars for a 500 word article, but once you've done 30, if your average rating is above 4* you can access "Premium" articles, at about $5 for 500 words, and once your average rating is above 4.6* you can access "Elite" articles at about $8 per 500 words.  Yes, the pay is appallingly low (it takes me about an hour to research and write a 500 word article), but at least it's definite money for the work, and I also count it as good practice.  I'm definitely honing my writing skills and learning lots of good things along the way.  I've worked pretty hard on this for the last month or so, and am currently a Premium writer.
  • I've also signed up to a couple of market research websites.  They send you links to surveys.  You complete the survey and get paid for each one you complete.  Again, the money is poor, but it's better than nothing.
  • I've written to contacts I had for freelance writing prior to having children, to let them know that I am available and keen for work.
  • I've added Google ad-sense to this blog.  (At time of writing it doesn't seem to be working, but we'll see).  Again, not a high earner, but any income stream that requires little or no effort from me has to be a good thing.
  • I'm going to set up an etsy shop to sell my hand-crafted items, and get on with crafting a few more, which I'll also flag up on Facebook, by setting up a Facebook page for my craft business.
  • I'll write other articles on subjects that I'm confident with, and submit them to various appropriate magazines.
  • I might even finish one of my books!
  • Towards Christmas I'll make sure that I have enough craft stock to have at least one stall at a craft fair.
  • Once I've done that, and if things are selling okay on Etsy, then I'll set up my own website.
So that's where I'm going at the moment.  Ideally I can just gradually build up my earnings, but since the house in Scotland is still not sold, I'm getting a little anxious to show some substantial income as soon as possible.  Then I have to remind myself that actually I'm still a full-time Mum, and there are only so many hours in the day.  I could perhaps earn a bit more if I ignored the kids and didn't do any laundry or housework - but I'd be the one sitting in a house with fighting children, piles of laundry and mess everywhere, and I don't think I could manage it.  So I'll just have to keep plugging away, and do what I can, when I can, and hope the money starts coming in.