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.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Alex Salmond - where did he get that chip on his shoulder?

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and leader of the "Yes" campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum taking place next week has been repeatedly hawking the phrase "Team Scotland".  Over the past twelve months Mr Salmond has been pumping up the anti-English rhetoric, mocking opponents and patronizing journalists who ask questions he can't answer.  Where did he acquire the very large chip on his shoulder?
Alex Salmond wants share of Royal baby
image from 

Salmond's start in life was nothing unusual.  He was one of four children, living in a council house in Linlithgow with his civil servant parents.  While he attended Linlithgow Primary School and then Linlithgow Academy he was quiet and hardworking, but also joined in with the fun.  He suffered with asthma, and was often off school, gazing out of the window at the swing park below.  Could he be jealous of the "Eton elite" and "incompetent Lord Snootys" that he derides so eagerly?

One former teacher suggests that the arrival of the BMC car factory in nearby Bathgate might have been a contributing factor.  English workers arrived talking about how they were going to "civilise the Scots" which wouldn't have gone down well with local young Scottish boys.

Alex Salmond, despite his asthma, was desperate to play football.  He followed the Hearts of Midlothian team, and took delight in memorizing facts and figures about the game.  His first trip to England, aged 17, was to watch a game between Hearts and Wolverhampton Wanderers.  Hearts won the game, but lost on aggregate.  Salmond was never selected to play football at school, though he has continued to follow both Hearts and Scotland, and often turns up to matches.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland.jpg
image from wikipedia

While personal attacks and word games are part and parcel of political wranglings in the 21st Century, Alex Salmond seems to take this to extremes.  He appears to pillory and marginalize those who disagree with his views.  His debating style is aggressive, constantly interrupting and hectoring his opponents, as seen in the recent televised referendum debate.  He can also give the impression of being overbearing, arrogant and patronizing.  Just days ago Alex Salmond handed a bag of Liquorice Allsorts to 26-year-old Daily Telegraph journalist Ben Riley Smith, and called him "son", simply because he was unable to answer the questions which the political reporter kept posing.

According to psychologists, the kind of behaviour where one person feels the need to put other people down, and criticize them or make personal attacks, is either a remnant of our predatory behaviour known as Rankism (Robert W. Fuller, PhD), or it's a sign of low self esteem.  The person making the attacks lacks confidence in their own position or ability, and compensates by putting others down to make themselves feel better.

Could Alex Salmond, by reverting to school playground polarized politics, be playing out his own lack of self-esteem?  Does he feel out of his depth in a political system largely built around English private schools and Oxbridge academia?  His own early political career involved being elected in a mock election at primary school by promising free ice-cream and half days, and then being elected as an office bearer in their University branch of the Federation of Student Nationalists, on the basis of being one of only two paid-up members of the Scottish National Party.  He's climbed to the top of the playground climbing frame, and is clinging on shouting "I'm the King of the Castle, and you're the dirty rascals" - is this really how we want the politics of our country to be decided?


Monday, 8 September 2014

Learning about the seasons

The best way for children to learn about the passing seasons is to spend time outdoors... often.
Find a place (or a few places) that you like and are easy for you to get to.  Try scheduling a regular time each week when you can go there, perhaps after school or on the weekend.  In Britain many "country parks" are managed by the local councils and free to park and enter, but you could also try forestry commission sites, or invest in membership of the RSPB, the National Trust or English Heritage, Cadw or Historic Scotland if they have a suitable location near to you.
Just roam.  Follow a marked trail or follow your nose (or the dog).  Play hide and seek among the trees.  Take a wildlife identification book or card, maybe birds one week, wild flowers the next, and trees the next.  See what you can spot and identify.  Go on a wild-food foraging expedition.  Make sure that you're all suitably dressed and go throughout the year, whatever the weather.  Watch the changing seasons and how the place changes.  Take photos, collect twigs and acorns, blackberries and feathers.
 We've recently moved to Herefordshire, and have discovered Queenswood Country Park.  It's just a mile or so from C's new school, and while not strictly on our way home, it's only a minor detour.  It's 123 acres, of which 47 acres are an arboretum with over 1200 rare and exotic trees.  There are three way-marked trails, all under three miles, so more than suitable for little explorers, who delight in following the trail marker posts.  It also includes a National Trust shop, free parking, a cafe and ice-cream shop (just for treats, not every visit!) and a brilliant adventure playground.  

C has Forest School at school every Monday afternoon starting next week, so will already be suitably dressed for whatever the weather can throw at us, so I think we'll aim for a Monday after-school trip to Queenswood each week (with a flask of hot chocolate for cold days).  Today they played for half an hour, and then we followed the Badger Trail for forty minutes.  I asked them to look out for signs that Autumn is coming, and they obliged me with oak leaves turning brown, blackberries and beech mast.  And the waggy-tailed-one wishes she could learn to climb trees so that she can better chase those squirrels!
I also love some of the seasons activities and printables that you can find on Enchanted Learning.

How do you engage with the changing seasons where you live?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

We're in!

Sorry for the slight break in transmission.  I have been awash in a sea of boxes, trying to keep on top of two children who are tired and excited and nervous and uncertain and need a lot of attention and cuddles, trying to earn a little bit of cash through freelance writing (more in a future post) and all the other paraphernalia that comes with moving.  Hubby is still in Scotland for another couple of weeks until he's worked his notice, but we are here and ready to roll with our first day of school tomorrow.

So... we're in.  And it's beginning to look a little more like a home.  Here's for the big reveal.  Sorry not to have included a picture of the outside of the house.  I forgot that bit!  Basically it's a wooden clad barn conversion, on the end of a terrace of four.  At the front is a lawn with a fence around it, and to the rear is a gravelled yard with a fence around it.  The garden is pretty dull and desperately needs some work.  I'd like to make it a more pleasant place to be, a place for the children to play creatively, and a space where I can grow things.  All without making any permanent changes, because we might only be here for six months and it needs to be returned to its current state when we move out.
Here's the sitting room.  It's looking quite cosy but I still haven't found half the cushions, we haven't hung any pictures yet (not sure if we're allowed), and there are still a couple of boxes lurking at the back.  Also we don't appear to have an aerial, so may need to get a free-sat box or something like that so that we can watch some TV.

The hallway fills me with dread.  There are still a lot of boxes here. 
oops, blurry shot.  Here's one end of the dining room (still plenty of boxes in evidence).

and here's the other end of the dining room - it's a study!  Hubby and I are going to share a desk and computer... eek, I'll have to start tidying up after myself!

The kitchen actually looks like a kitchen.  We just have one more box and a bit of sorting out to do.

without this room, the rest of the house would be a lot messier - its the shoes-and-coats-and-laundry-and-dog-and-downstairs-loo-room.  A couple of boxes left in here, but they are mostly bike stuff for when we get a shed (the bikes are currently under a tarp outside).

Bug's bedroom is about four times the size of her last one.  She's all unpacked, and already making a mess.

the other half of Bug's bedroom. 

C had priorities when we moved in.  Grandma, who was trying to put the bed together, kept being asked to shift the mattress, or whatever else was in his way, so that he could set up his "cafe".  He's now all set up and loving his new bedroom. 
The bathroom is enormous.  A small family could move in here and we'd barely notice.

The master bedroom is now all unpacked, though it's pretty cluttered.  I used to have a large built in wardrobe and a spare room for storing all my craft paraphernalia, clothes for the children to grow into, bedding, spare towels, and other assorted bits... there's no storage here, so I have them stashed all over the bedroom!

Now I just need to get the children settled into their new school and pre-school, get a routine established, get my husband settled in, start earning a bit more cash for my work and sell the house in Scotland.  Then we'll be all ready to make the most of our new life here.  There's plenty of countryside.  Today we came home laden with blackberries, elderberries and apples from our walk... yum!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Stop Yelling Challenge

Children are wonderful.
They can also be intensely frustrating and annoying.
Especially when they are tired, or worried about something, and especially when you are tired or worried about something.
These are the times when we leave sanity behind and start yelling at our children.

I've been a bit of a yeller.
I wouldn't dream of yelling at other people's children when I was teaching, but somehow you forget that when they are your children.  You yell up the stairs to tell them what you want them to do (but we get cross if they yell to us to tell us what they want to do!).  You shout when they fight with each other.  You shout when they won't do as they are told.  You yell when you're late and they think it's a good time to have a lie down on the floor and make funny noises.

Here are a few ways that I'm trying to cut down the yelling in my house.

  1. Go to them.  If it's dinner time in ten minutes, and I want them to put away what they are playing with and get ready for dinner, rather than shout up the stairs, I take the trouble to walk up.  This way I get to see what they are doing (and how much clearing up there is to do), so I can tell them how nicely they are playing, or how amazing their Lego building is... before asking them to stop.  Because I'm right there, they know that they can't get away with not doing it, so compliance comes a lot quicker, and I can give more specific instructions to help with the clearing up too.  It might be easier to shout up the stairs, but I would just end up marching up there shouting ten minutes later when I find that they've completely ignored them, so it's a lot better all round to just go up.
  2. Get Closer.  If they are playing in the garden and start fighting (over the scooter or the swing or what day it is or...) I could just shout at them from where I am.  "Come here!"  "Will you two stop fighting!".  The result: I'm cross because they are fighting.  They are upset with each other.  They are upset with me because I'm shouting at them.  Instead I try going out there.  Maybe I ask one of them to come and help me with a job.  Maybe I join in the game and redirect it slightly or get something else out of the shed so they don't both need the same thing.  Maybe I have a quiet word with the one who's being unreasonable, and help them to calm down.  Whatever I do once I'm out there is likely to calm things down, while shouting from inside would have escalated the situation.
  3. Take deep breaths.  When I gave them half an hour's notice that we'd be leaving the house at 9.30am, then I told them at 9.15 that it was time to tidy up and get their shoes on.  Then I asked them again at 9.20am to get their shoes on.  Then I helped them tidy up and told them to put their shoes on.  It's now 9.35 and one is dressing teddy (with no shoes on) and the other is lying on the floor and squeaking (with no shoes on).  This is the time when mummies explode.  What are my options?  I could put their shoes on for them... no, because I refuse to do things they can do for themselves and encourage laziness and helplessness.  I could walk down the path and get into the car, fuming... no, because there would be panic and tears, and then they'd realise that I won't actually go without them so it's just an empty threat.  I could carry them down to the car without their shoes on... not ideal, because either they would be angry at my heavy-handedness, or they would think it's hilarious and ask to be carried that way every time.  I could shout and yell and they would cry and I'd be angry and we'd all leave the house in a tearful wobbly mess (the usual outcome).  Or... I could count to ten.  Accept that I'm going to be late for wherever we were going.  Take deep breaths.  Get down to their level.  Explain again where we are going, that I understand that they were having a nice time and don't feel like going right now, but point out that I need them to put on their shoes now.  Can you tell that this is the one I find trickiest?  Because after I've counted to ten and calmly explained things to them, if they still don't seem to be getting ready, then the volcanic eruption is even worse, because I've been trying to suppress it.
  4. Give them a hug.  If they are doing something wrong, and they know it, they probably feel pretty bad already.  Sometimes the best response is a hug and a "lets see what we can do about this", this makes them feel as though you and they are working together, not that they have to hide their mistakes because mummy will go mad.
Let's just say... I'm a work in progress.