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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Forest Trails - outdoor activities



One of our favourite things to do as a family is to go for a walk in the woods.  In winter the woods offer shelter from the elements, in the heat of summer they offer shade. 























A walk in the woods offers:

  • trees to climb
  • places to play hide and seek
  • wildlife to identify
  • trees and plants to spot and identify
  • dens to build
  • a constantly changing scene through the seasons
  • food to forage
  • treasure to find (acorns, chestnuts, twigs and pine cones)
  • ancient tree hunting
  • wild art
  • balancing
  • and much much more.

While many woodlands are privately owned you can access woodland in the UK on National Trust, English Heritage, Forestry Commission, RSPB and Woodland Trust properties, as well as countless local wildlife and nature parks and National Parks.  Some of our best loved woodlands can be found at the Delamere Forest, the Wyre Forest, Sherwood Forest, the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, many of which were ancient Royal Hunting Grounds.  At these larger forests you'll usually find a Visitor Centre with good parking facilities, cafes, well way-marked trails and paths and adventure playgrounds.

Don't forget, many woodlands are also the  base for hair-raising mountain biking trails and high-ropes courses, or more sedate sculpture trails.


What are you waiting for?  Get out and explore the woods near you!

What do you like to do in the woods?


Monday, 23 March 2015

Chocolate corn flake nests and a couple of cloaks - Monday's make

Today I've made two more reversible play capes from "Growing Up Sew Liberated" by Meg McElwee.  I had a special request for this colour combination on my Etsy shop (link on right), and always make two things rather than one (economies of scale!), so I've already dispatched my commissioned order, and have a spare in stock.


I also made a dozen of these cornflake confections with the children just now:


I wanted to include some information on my decoupage experiments, but since they aren't finished yet, I'll post on those at a later date, and you can just get a sneak preview:


What have you been making this week?

Friday, 20 March 2015

What the frack are they doing?

I hear a bit about fracking, mostly on the news or in the types of magazines, blogs and websites that I visit, and most of it is negative.  When I hear a bit about something, but don't know enough to be able to form an informed opinion, it's time to do a bit of research.

So what is fracking?
Technically it's called Hydraulic Fracturing.
Image result for fracking uk
image from www.theguardian.com
Under the ground, there are layers of different stuff.  Quite a lot of it is rock (think back to school geography lessons, igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic), but mixed in with those, particularly the sedimentary types, you'll find organic material.  Forests and other plant material that has got buried within the sediment and over millions of years has been squashed and heated to form coal, oil and natural gas.   It turns out that this stuff is quite good to burn and gives off a lot of energy, so we've been digging it up and burning it for the last couple of hundred years or so.  Unfortunately, there are two problems with that: 1) we're running out of the stuff and it's now more difficult to get, and 2) it turns out that burning all this stuff is gradually raising the temperature of the earth, and it's now got to a pretty bad state.

So, back underground.  The easy oil and gas has been found and exploited, or is in volatile countries who we have to keep sweet so that we can have our fix of the bad stuff.  But hey presto!  They've found out that there's a supply of natural gas right here in our own back yard!  It's not that easy to get out of course.  With conventional oil and gas drilling you just drill a hole, and because it's under pressure, it comes spurting up for you to collect.  This stuff is hidden away in tiny pores in shale rock.  To get it, you have to inject water down into the rocks, which makes a fracture and you can force the gas out.  You also have to inject sand, to keep the fracture open.  And also a little bit of biocide, surfactant, lubricant and stabiliser, though I couldn't quite work out what they were all for.  Anyway, that's what fracking is.  You can only get gas out from the small area around the fracture, so you usually drill a few wells from a single point.
Image result for fracking uk
image from bbc.co.uk
Why the controversy - that sounds okay?

  1. Okay, so firstly there's the groups who say we shouldn't be investing in more fossil fuel extraction when climate change is such a problem and we should be trying to wean ourselves off the stuff and use renewable energy sources.  The argument to this is that while gas is still a fossil fuel, it's a much cleaner fossil fuel than coal.  Using gas instead of coal in electricity generation emits half the CO2, and almost none of the Sulphur Dioxide or ash.  Also, since we are still very dependent on fossil fuels, doesn't it make sense to exploit our very own domestic source, which doesn't need to be liquified and shipped across the world, and isn't at the whim of hmmm... volatile neighbours.
  2. Water consumption and water pollution.  Two different beasts here.  Fracking uses a lot of water, more than conventional oil or gas drilling.  Natural gas electricity generation, however, uses less water than either coal fired or nuclear power generation.  The concern about water pollution is that this chemical cocktail that's being forced into the rocks is coming back out (about 10-40%, though  much is recovered for future fracking activity).  The actual chemical make-up of the cocktail is a closely guarded secret, so nobody is quite sure what's in it.  Do we really want this puddling about and potentially entering our water supply?
  3. Air quality.  The drill process does mean that there's a bit of extra organic material floating about in the air in the vicinity of the well.  But natural gas electricity generation emits a lot less air pollution than coal fired, so there's possibly a net gain there.
  4. Earthquakes - really?  Yes, the anti-frackers say that all this high pressure water injection is creating earthquakes right here in Britain.  Apparently though, this was in the early, unregulated world of fracking.  Now, while fracking does cause tremors, these are not generally felt by Jo Public.  The argument is that conventional mining activities have a much greater potential to cause geological problems (as evidenced by sinkholes appearing in heavily mined places like Stoke-on-Trent).
  5. Visual appearance and construction - it's true.  Wellheads aren't attractive, and the initial fracturing and well construction takes about 2 months and quite a bit of HGV movement.  However, the wellheads are generally on low ground and therefore much less visually intrusive than a wind turbine, and wind turbines involve more traffic in construction too.
So, that's why people don't like fracking, and the arguments to refute those concerns.  I confess, it doesn't sound as bad as the anti-frackers had me believe.  On balance though, while this all sounds very reassuring and "not as bad as coal", that doesn't go far enough for me.  Just because you're "not as bad" as something else, it doesn't mean that you're good.  I still think that the investment should be in reducing our energy requirements, and finding better, more efficient and less intrusive renewable energy sources, not just finding a "not as bad" halfway house.
image from independent.co.uk
What do you think about Fracking?  Is there a controversial issue that you want to know more about?  Let me know by commenting below.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Ten things to do with mud - activities for children

Since mud surrounds us most of the time, it's freely available in the garden at no cost and it's a marvellously tactile material, it makes sense to use it in children's play.  I do live in the real world, and there are times (many) when I groan to see yet another clean pair of trousers or brand new pair of cream tights covered with mud and requiring washing, but I also love to see my children getting hands-on with interesting materials, particularly outdoors, natural materials.

Here's a round-up of ten interesting activities that children can be encouraged to do with mud:
  1. Cooking mud pies in a mud kitchen - this image is from www.castlenursery.net.  A mud kitchen can be as simple as a patch of soil and an unwanted saucepan, right up to a fully equipped toy kitchen set up outside with a variety of wooden, plastic and metal tools, pans, bowls and utensils - where children can mix mud, water, acorns, pebbles and pine cones to their hearts content to make mud pies, grubby soup, worm cake and any other delectables that their imagination provides.
  2. Mud sculpture - this image is from casamarias.blogspot.co.uk.  Encourage children to make models using mud, and allow them to dry out.  Clay type mud is better for this.
  3. Mud painting - image from elmbridge.gov.uk.  Take a large, sturdy piece of card and encourage the children to "paint" images and patterns using hands, sticks, car wheels, bike tyres, brushes or anything else.
  4. Planting - image from mymothermode.com.  Children don't "get in the way" of gardening (once they are walking and not eating everything anyway), and love to be involved in the gardening process.  Point them to some nicely prepared soil, show them how to plant, and let them go for it.  It's true, a few small plants may get slightly damaged in the process, but most recover, and the learning experience is well worth it.
  5. Small world farm - This awesome small world farm was pinned by Kirstine Beeley on Pinterest.  I would prefer to set the farm up in a raised bed, but this outdoor play tray is really good too.  She's even got real carrots in there for the tractor to harvest!
  6. Diggers - This image is from pre-schoolplay.blogspot.com.  So the toys get dirty - they can be washed!  Put diggers in real soil/mud, especially if there's a construction site nearby that the children can relate to.
  7. Archaeology dig - Bury an interesting artifact (a pot in several pieces, an old metal kitchen utensil or a few toy dinosaurs) in the soil in one area of the garden or a raised bed, and allow it to settle for a few weeks (if you can spare some garden).  Now introduce the children to the idea of archaeology and how it works.  Show them the area of the garden where they will search.  When they've dug the item up, get them to try to put it together if required, and to figure out what they can about the item.  This image is from allthatsgood.blogspot.co.uk.
  8. Make compost - Get kids involved with your compost making routine at home and you'll have the joys of introducing them to reducing waste, to all sorts of little garden critters, and to making the garden a better place.  It's a win-win!  These images are from www.greenmomguide.com where she talks about how to make compost with kids in under an hour.
  9. Barefoot walk - I know, I know.  There might be sharp stones, prickly plants, or even glass or dog mess.  But let's say you check the route for any obvious signs of these first.  It takes a lot to beat the feeling of tickly grass and squelchy mud between our toes.  And lets face it, most of us don't think twice about letting our little ones barefeet on the beach, where there are similar risks?  This awesome picture is from outsideways.com.
  10. Tracking - There are two types of tracking.  The first is the one practiced by wilderness gurus the world over, where you are looking for signs left by wildlife.  This may be owl pellets, fur, tunnels through the grass, nibbled nuts and... footprints in the snow or... mud!  The other is the method used by scouts to leave a trail for those following on behind, a series of simple symbols created with pebbles, stones, chalk or even drawn in the mud.  It doesn't matter which of these you choose, you'll have a ball.  To find animal tracks in the mud you'll want it to have rained the day before, to make the ground nice and soft, so that evening and night time critter visitors will have left nice footprints for you to find in the morning.  This image is of a deer print from newforestexplorersguide.co.uk, where they have lots of other great tracking information for the UK.
What do you like to do with mud?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Pencil cases - Monday Make

This week I've made nine pencil cases.  Eight are to sell through Sunbow Designs - either Etsy or Folksy (see links on the right) or directly.  The ninth isn't in this picture, I personalised the embroidery and made it as a birthday present for Bug's friend.

They are all lined, and I decided to make half of them with the patterned fabric on the outside and plain turquoise lining, and the other half with the turquoise on the outside, embellished with applique and embroidery, and the patterned fabric to line.

This fabric comes with blue, pink and cream backgrounds.  I've made reusable washable snack-packs and sandwich wraps with the bird-love blue background, and I've sold all of them.  I was looking for some butterfly fabric for these pencil cases, but couldn't find any on this visit to my favourite fabric shop, so decided to go with a fabric that has proven popular on my Etsy and Folksy shop so far.  Maybe I'll even get some repeat custom from people who've already bought a sandwich wrap?
The making process for these is pretty straightforward once you've done it a few times, and especially if you're making several at once.  Next time I make pencil cases I'll remember to take step-by-step photographs and will include a tutorial.

What have you been making this week?

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Feed your family for under £50 in February - Conclusion

If you're a regular reader of this blog you'll know that during the month of February I was attempting to reduce my weekly shopping bill for a family of four to £50 per week.

I started the challenge, and outlined a few ideas of how I might achieve it here.

I detailed progress in Week 1 here, Week 2 here and Week 3 here.

Now it's time for the conclusion.

It's safe to say that I didn't once achieve my £50 target.  Here's why:

  • my family likes meat, and meat is expensive.  If it isn't expensive, you start to wonder whether it's fair on the farmer or whether the animals were treated well.  Where possible I buy organic and free-range meat.  That makes it even more expensive, but I feel strongly about it so the only way to cut down on the meat bill is to cut down on meat eating.
  • We all have home-made lunches.  The cost of Hubby's lunches has dropped considerably since he started taking a packed lunch (although he's occasionally admitted to "topping up" at the canteen at work!).  C could be having a free school-dinner (all Foundation and KS1 in England are entitled) but for some reason prefers to have a home packed lunch.  Bug either eats at home or has a packed lunch, and I always eat at home.  The costs of packed lunch items probably adds about £10 to the weekly bill, if not more.
  • We're food snobs.  Lets face it, we like freshly made granary loaves, nice continental meat selections, artisan cheeses, real ales and local ciders, olives and balsamic vinegar.  I make home made casseroles, lasagnes, cakes and so on, and really enjoy cooking and trying new recipes.  I'm certain that we would spend a lot less on our shopping if I bought a cheap sliced white loaf, mild cheddar, value meat and chips and cheap packaged cakes... but we like it our way.
We did spend a lot less on food during February, and crucially we threw less away as well.  I went shopping more often but bought less, focusing on the next few meals and buying what we were actually going to eat.  In some ways that put the bill up, because using the village shop for things like milk and meat was more expensive than going to the supermarket, but it was also local meat and milk, so I didn't begrudge that at all.

I do think it's been a worth while exercise, because its shown me what is important to me when it comes to buying food - and it isn't the cost.  I do think I'll continue buying little and often, which allows me to pop to the local market and pick up a few things, to visit the butcher and to pick up a bargain when I spot one, without worrying that I'll end up chucking out excess. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Introducing scissors, paint, glue and tape when you don't want a messy house

Kids are messy.  Let a three or four year old loose with scissors, paint and glue, and the likelihood of raising the blood pressure on a parent who likes a clean and tidy home increases tenfold.

Children have got to learn to use sticky tape, paint, glue and scissors though... how to do this without it getting very messy?

I'm not all that bothered about a little bit of creative mess.  After all, I make things all the time, so having threads, paints, scissors and knitting lying around is just part of life in the inkspots house.  Three year old creative mess can be, even for me, a bit of a challenge.  One of my sisters likes a clean house, and I understand that for her the idea of allowing her children to wield paintbrushes and glue-spreaders was just too much.  Since they were in full-time nursery this wasn't really a problem, as she put it "they get all the messy stuff at nursery, I don't need to do it at home".  What about the children who don't go to nursery though?  They need to have a chance to experiment creatively with a wide range of different materials and to learn how and when to use them... how can you do that without making a mess?

Set up activities
From a very young age set up supervised activities.  Cutting around pictures in magazines and catalogues for example, and show the children how to use the scissors safely.  Set up a table and chair with lots of old magazines and a pair of scissors and allow your child to snip away to their hearts content.  Then when they've finished TAKE THE SCISSORS AWAY!  The same with glue - set up activities where you can show your child how to use it.  Then set up activities where they can use it by themselves.  When they've finished PUT IT AWAY.

Limit the zone
Once you know that they know how to use the scissors / glue / paint / tape you can move to the next step, which is to allow them to use it for whatever project they have in mind, but designate a particular place where they must use it.  This place should be easy to clean (no expensive carpets) and somewhere that you're likely to be nearby to supervise and to ensure that clean-up happens.  The kitchen table is a good bet.  Do not allow them to take paints or glue into the bedrooms.  My daughter, just 4, is at this stage at the moment.  She keeps trying to take water, paint, glue, scissors or tape into her bedroom, and if I let it slip I always end up regretting it (PVA glue on the carpet, an entire roll of selotape wrapped around her, tiny scraps of feather that she's been chopping up all over the carpet, bits of furniture newly "decorated") - felt pens are also a worry at the moment, as I've found her using them in her bed a couple of times!!

Gradually lift the restrictions
As your child becomes more aware of their surroundings, more careful and more responsible you'll be able to gradually lift the restrictions.  They'll show this readiness by keeping things mostly tidy when they are crafting in your designated zone, by cutting with a purpose rather than random snipping, and by tidying up when they've finished.  You can gradually allow some things to be taken elsewhere, maybe by buying them their own roll of sticky tape and their own scissors...  Allowing them to take a palette of water-colour paints (not poster paints yet!) upstairs to use with a water pot... allowing a glue stick (but not yet PVA).  They will relish this new freedom and responsibility, and if you find that they have painted their wall, left small bits of paper all over the floor, or left the lid off the glue, then take them back a step, don't replenish the glue or tape and tell them they are back to the kitchen table only rule until they can show they are ready.  Try again a few weeks later.  My five year old is at this point at the moment, and the things he creates at his desk in his bedroom are wonderful.

By taking a steady step-by-step approach, you are still enabling and developing their creativity, but also developing the responsibility which needs to go with increasing freedom and independence.  You wouldn't leave a 3 year old with a saw in their bedroom because its dangerous.  Equally, unless you're happy to deal with or ignore the mess, they shouldn't be left with items that could wreck the house, until they can demonstrate their readiness to use them without the mayhem.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Introduction to Geocaching

Geocaching is a great way to get kids out and about exploring their environment.  "Going for a walk" might (for some unknown reason) be met with groans, and accompanied by "I'm tired", "my feet are sore" and "I want to go back to the car now".  "Let's go and search for some treasure", however, is met by eager and excited children, who can't wait to be the one to find the hidden goodies.



What is Geocaching?

For the uninitiated, Geocaching is basically a global treasure hunt.  People hide a 'cache' (a small box, containing a log book and some small treasure items), and note the whereabouts of this treasure on the geocache website.  Other people go out searching for the hidden treasure, usually using GPS devices to home in on the coordinates of the cache.  When they find it they write in the log book, take a piece of treasure and leave a piece of treasure, and note their find on the website.


Getting started


  1. Register on the Geocaching website.  
  2. Make sure you have a GPS device or GPS enabled phone.
  3. Get a few small items of treasure (small badges, erasers, children's jewellery) to exchange.
  4. Search on the website under "Hide and Seek a Cache".  For your first cache, especially with kids, look for local caches that are medium or large (easier to find and will contain treasure) rather than small or micro.  Also look at the difficulty level, go for easy if possible.  Now look at the "logged visits" for the cache.  If the last visit was more than a couple of months ago, or says that the cache was difficult to find, then it may be worth looking for one that was found more recently, so that its more likely to still be there.
  5. Now go out and search for the cache.  Once you've got the first couple of caches under your belts, the kids will have got the bug and be eager to find some more!

Our first cache

I decided to search for a couple of caches at our local Country Park, Queenswood.  The first was to be at the far side of the park (wellies required), but a medium sized cache.  The second was right by the car park but a nano (very tiny) cache.

We headed to Queenswood after school today.  Once there I clicked onto the Geocaching App.  It showed me a map of the local area, and my phone's GPS put me on the map too.  I clicked on the symbol for the cache we wanted to find, read the information to the children, and clicked on "start".  It showed me what direction the cache was in, and how far away we were, so we headed off down the track.  This soon became a muddy path, but we were all prepared with wellies, so it wasn't a problem.  As we got closer to the cache we focused more on the compass on the phone, and the direction and distance to the cache.  

The app gave a little fanfare once we were close, and by that point the GPS couldn't give us a more accurate pinpoint, so we started searching.  Bug started climbing trees and grass/mud banks looking under blades of grass and holly bushes.  C started hunting in ditches, under bits of wood and in any hollows he spotted.  We weren't really sure the type of place to look, but were pretty determined, and the hunt took us about ten minutes.  

I spotted the cache first (a tupperware box painted brown, hidden behind some sticks in a hollow among some tree roots), and summoned the children to see if they could find it once they were in the right spot.  They did and were eager to open the box and see what treasure might be within.  There was a notebook in which to write name and date of find, and there was some assorted treasure.  I was a bit disappointed with the nature of this treasure and had expected it to be a bit more interesting.  I had brought along a Scout pin badge and a child's bright coloured necklace.  The contents included a couple of coins, a wooden clothes peg with somebody's name on, an acorn, some business cards, a page from a puzzle book, a hairclip and a couple of badges - not inspiring!  Bug picked a hairclip and C chose a 20p coin and we left the necklace, and are now determined to buy some nice erasers, key rings, bookmarks etc to make sure that we improve the contents of the caches that we visit. 
My pair showing off their "treasure".
New converts to Geocaching


After the trudge back up the muddy path the children were elated with their find, but didn't have enough energy to search for a nanocache with no treasure inside, so we decided to leave that one for another visit.

Now that we've found our first cache, and I've got a good feel for how the app works on my phone, I'm looking forward to future searches.  I've also told C that once we've found 50 caches, we'll set one up ourselves too.