Friday, 30 May 2014

A spoonful of sugar...

In today's health conscious but massively overweight world, we are fed a daily diet of health-scare stories on the news.  What's good for us today, may be terrible for us with the next headline-grabbing piece of research.  Too much red wine is bad for you, a little every day is good for you.  Tea is good for you, bad for you, only green tea, only rainbow coloured herbal teas, no tea, just water... too much sugar is bad for you, but sugar replacement sweeteners are even worse!!!!  WAIT.  MY HEAD IS EXPLODING!  LET ME GET OFF THIS RIDICULOUS ROUNDABOUT!

But there does seem to be some agreement that too much sugar is bad for you.  At the moment it seems to be the bad guy as far as obesity is concerned.
a really interesting article about sugar consumption from The Guardian
Well, most high-sugar foods don't contain many other valuable nutrients and goodness, so you're getting a lot of calories without much benefit in terms of feeling full, fibre, or slow-release energy.  This can lead to becoming overweight, and the health problems associated with that.

Also too much sugar leads to tooth decay.

Sugar is found naturally in many foods, which is fine, it's supposed to be there, for example in fruit.  Don't cut down on fruit because it's good for you.

It's the added sugar that we need to be more aware of.  It has many cunning disguises (corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, honey, hydrolysed starch).  We should try to keep added sugars to no more than 10% of our calorie intake every day, between about 50g and 70g (which seems an awful lot to me!).

If you're checking labels on foods, then you'll be looking for "carbohydrates (of which sugars)".  More than 22g per 100g of food is high.  Less than 5g per 100g is low.

The worst culprits are ready-made sauces and ready-meals, children's cereals, sliced white bread etc. because we don't always expect them to be full of sugar.  Cakes, fizzy drinks and chocolate you kind of know what you're getting, and we know we should be trying to cut down on those.

I think though, that before we start worrying about reading the labels of everything that we buy in the supermarkets, we should start with what we are doing ourselves.  Here are a few occasions when I know I add sugar to things I prepare.  I'm aiming to reduce the amount by at least half, and get myself used to the taste without so much sugar:

  • I sometimes put a spoonful of sugar in my tomato sauce for pizza (the recipe says so), but when I forget, it still tastes fine.
  • I usually put a teaspoon of sugar on my grapefruit, more if it's a yellow grapefruit.  I should try to stick to the pink ones, and reduce the sugar a bit.
  • I put a teaspoon of sugar in every cup of coffee.  I tried cutting this down to a half, but habit won out and I went back to one.  So I cut down on the amount of coffee I drank and switched to tea, which I don't have sugar with.  I'm convinced I could lose the sugar in the coffee, but it'll take some weaning.
  • I put a couple of teaspoons of sugar in the bread mixture - I don't think I'll tinker with that recipe too much, I wouldn't want to mess with the magic.
  • I bake with the children, it's usually sweet.  I'm going to try and bake more savoury muffins etc.  And for desserts we're trying to include more fresh fruit with natural yoghurt rather than sweetened yoghurts.
  • And my real secret vice is Coca Cola.  I very rarely drink it at home, but it's my drink of choice when out and about, and I know it's BAD!  I'm trying to replace it with orange juice and soda water, or even just plain old tap water, but I really love that Coke!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

An interview with C. aged 4 1/2.

 This post is inspired by one I saw here, on The Artful Parent. I just said, "I want to interview you for my blog.  Can you come and sit here and answer some questions?"  I was expecting him to make a daft noise and run away or do a forward roll or something equally as helpful, so the first surprise in this interview was his compliance!  I'll interview Bug next week, so that's one to look forward to.  Here's how things went with C:

Hello C.
How old are you.
Tell me about pre-school.
I always play outside.  I love doing register and I haven't done the weather for ages.  (At register they take it in turns to select the correct card for the date, the day and the weather - the weather is the most popular.)
Do you have any friends?
Can you tell me about them?
I love chasing Percy and I like my new friend Jack.
What's your favourite thing to do at home?
Play with the Lego and with my old jeep.
Do you like it outside?
What do you like outside?
I love running around and riding my bike and stuff.  And gardening.
Tell me what you think about your sister (she was trying to climb on me as I was asking the questions)
I like her.
And the rest of your family? 
I love them.
And some quick ones:
Favourite colour? Purple
Favourite toy? Old Jeep (this was found in the attic at Nana and Grandad's and is more than forty years old)
Favourite clothes?  All of them
Favourite story?  "We're all going on a Bear Hunt" (by Michael Rosen)
Favourite song?  All the ones I make up myself
Favourite thing on television?  Deadly Pole to Pole

It will be nice to do this again in the future and see how his answers change.  At the end I thanked him for doing such a nice interview, and he beamed at me.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Organising a District Scout Camp for over 400 people. A how-to guide (how I did it, anyway!).

 Around October or November the previous year:

  • Get some agreement on venue.


  • The District Commissioner resigns, so as Deputy, you're now responsible for organising the camp
  • Make a proposal, with some costings and put out to the Groups
  • Based on feedback, amend proposal.
  • Book the campsite and pay deposit, book lots of activities
  • Apply for some funding to help with the cost

  • Leave ADCs to sort out the programme for their own Sections.  Except where there's no ADC
  • Ask for a deposit from everybody for camping, so that you can pay the next installment to campsite, and can amend the activities you've booked once you know how many are coming.
  • Get turned down for funding
  • Break the bad news to everybody that you will want the full amount you've asked for.


  • Buy and book any equipment needed.
  • Build a team - one person in charge of allocating camping spaces - not you!  New District Commissioner to be camp chief.  He starts chasing for volunteers for bases and for numbers and money.  Yay, you're not alone!


  • Get final numbers and money in from everybody.  Send next cheque to the campsite.
  • Send out Leader briefing with programme, health and safety information and anything else you can think of that they might ask.
  • While chasing up the final couple of Scout Groups for their money and numbers, expect the numbers to fluctuate a little over the last couple of weeks.
  • Print out all paperwork to take with you, including programmes, activity sheets for Scouts, feedback forms, scavenger hunt sheets etc.
  • Put in your order for sunshine (or at least no gales or rain/sleet/hail/snow) over the weekend.
  • Gather your own camping kit (and for your two small children).

The camp:

  • Get there early to set up the District Tent so that if you've left anything behind in District Stores, you've time to go and get it.
  • Arrive.  Let the camp happen.
  • Be there to make sure that everybody knows where to go, pick up and deal with any problems. 
  • Take photos to upload to District website and Twitter feed.
  • The sun is shining, everybody's happy
  • Run the campfire.
  • Drop into bed exhausted each night ... aahhh... not so easy, its got your three and four year olds in it.
After the camp:
  • Litter sweep.
  • Go home.
  • Enjoy a glass of wine and a bubble bath, and an early night.
  • Finalise all numbers and activity numbers with the campsite so that they can invoice the District the final amount.
  • send out feedback homes.
  • ensure that all bills are paid.
  • Get photos up on website.
  • Collate feedback forms.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Days out in Central Scotland - Jupiter Urban Wildlife (Grangemouth)

image from
When I think of Grangemouth I think of Mordor.  Enormous petrochemical plants take up most of the town, with huge hulking chimneys topped with orange flames.  On a cloudy evening the entire sky glows a smoky orange on the other side of the Forth where Grangemouth lurks.

Having said all that, there is something in Grangemouth that has been arousing my curiosity.  Are you one of those people who loves a "brown sign"? (For those readers outside the UK, brown signs denote tourist attractions).  I love a brown sign, and make it a point of principle to have followed all the brown signs in my locality.  

In this case, I've not only seen signs for Jupiter Urban Wildlife, but I've also seen numerous mentions of it in the Scottish Wildlife Trust magazine, talking about the activities (particularly for children) which are going on there.  I had to go and check it out.

This afternoon we headed there from pre-school, taking a picnic and the dog.  It's a little off the beaten track, tucked away between a housing estate, industrial estate and a railway, but once you're following the brown signs you're okay.

image from 
It's quite a little nature reserve, but really shows the amazing transformation that can be wrought on ex-industrial land.  While you're quite conscious of the urban and industrial sounds around the reserve, the birds really do their best to drown it out for you.  We chose one of numerous picnic benches dotted around the reserve, surrounded by meadow, trees and ponds and enjoyed a very peaceful picnic.  Then we explored the rest of the reserve.  I can imagine that if you sit very still and quiet at the right time of day, you'd be rewarded with all sorts of interesting wildlife.  I had a dog and two children, and we still spotted a heron and a lot of different birds.

Jupiter Urban Wildlife Centre
image from 
On this occasion we were just checking the place out and having a picnic, but I was pleased to see in the visitor centre (an incongruous porter cabin, toilets not great), that you can borrow pond dipping equipment and laminated spotters tick cards for wild flowers, trees, mini-beasts and pond life.  I would definitely consider coming again in the future for an afternoon spent spotting and pond-dipping, though would probably leave the dog behind as she thinks all ponds are for swimming in, and keeping her on the short lead was quite hard work.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Idle Parent - DOWN WITH SCHOOL

I’m writing a series of blog posts exploring the books “How to be Free” and “The Idle Parent” written by Tom Hodgkinson.  I enjoyed a lot of the ideas expressed in these books, and think that exploring them further will help me to explore the principles behind my own way of living and parenting.

Chapter 6 – Down with School

Tom seems a little unsure of what his views are in this chapter.  He is definitely against the education system giving moral instruction (the role of the parent), and our school system preparing our children
for a life working as a drudge in somebody else's office.  He talks about home schooling, which has its benefits in terms of being able to educate your children in the things that are important to you, and he talks about how home educators fill in the social gap, which is so often put forward as an argument against home-ed.  Then he talks about how he actually likes his local Primary School, which is not too big, and where it's easy for the parents to get involved in the fun of their children's education.  He also talks about the positives of private education, where the school does things the way they want to, not necessarily the way the Government decide, especially alternative private schools.  He acknowledges that not everybody can afford private school, but points out that people are happy to spend on hair cuts, holidays, gadgets, interest charges etc. but for some reason can't find money for their child's education - what does that say about their priorities?  What about setting up your own community school, employing your own teacher etc.?  He suggests that our state schools don't educate children, but bore them into submission, and that we should be encouraging our children to find their own path through life

How does this match up to the ink-spots-and-grass-stains life?

I can see why Tom is concerned about our current state education system.  It is really a mess.  Some "academies" are free to control how they run things.  There are schools with particular specialties.  Teachers are kept on their toes with a complete overhaul to the curriculum every few years, and they are expected to squeeze more and more subject material into the same school day, including many things, which are and should always be, in my opinion, the role of the parent.  Children are subjected to test and assessment after test and assessment, and the teachers are forced to "teach to the test" because the results determine whether or not the school has met its targets, and where in the "league table" they sit.  I have been a Primary School teacher, and took the decision to step away from teaching for some of those very reasons, though I haven't completely ruled out the idea of going back to it in the future, and trying to ensure that for my class at least, the education system is about fun and inspiration, not tests and boredom.

However, rather than walking away from state education, I think it is the parents responsibility to try to change it.  We can do this by thinking about who we vote for, and what they think education should look like; and by being part of school governance in our local school.  

I also think that parents leave too much to the schools to do.  If the teachers are having to teach your child to listen, to think, to put their coat on etc. then they don't have as much time to teach them about the world around them, which is what our education system is about.  Instead of trying to insist that its the school's responsibility to teach your child moral education, road safety, stranger danger, about safety on the internet, about relationships, to get more exercise and have a healthy diet, or even to read, shouldn't we, as parents, take on this responsibility ourselves?  I see school as a supplementary education, giving added value to the education my children get at home.  I don't mean to say that we should hot-house our children - far from it!  I think that children should have as much time playing as possible.  That should include playing with the parents!  Going for walks and picnics gives opportunity to discuss and chat about all sorts of things, from local history, natural history, road safety, wildlife crime, stranger danger, current affairs and so on.  Sitting down with children to do homework shouldn't be a chore, but a pleasure as you can support them in their learning and play number games.  Reading together is always a pleasure giving the opportunity to unlock a love of literature, and more opportunities to talk about the world around them.  If your child is obese, don't expect the school to do something about it - it's your job!  


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Choosing a babysitter

Unless you are lucky enough to live near accommodating parents or in-laws, or you're a hermit, you'll probably find yourself searching for a babysitter at some point. 

Ideally, you can save yourself a lot of cash by having some sort of reciprocal arrangement with a friend.  One of them babysits for your children for an evening (or a morning/afternoon/Saturday), and you return the favour another day.  This works fine as long as they do actually ask you to return the favour.  A couple of my friends have babysat for my children, unpaid, on the expectation that I'd babysit for them on another occasion, and then they've never asked me to.  So I haven't felt able to ask them again.  If you require a babysitter a lot more or less often than your friend does, then this arrangement might not work for you.

The alternative is a wider circle of friends and acquaintances, all babysitting one another's children.  In this situation it's easy to lose track of who owes who an evening, so to make things easier you can make it a more formal "babysitting circle".  You'd need some form of "token" or a "book" to keep track of how many hours babysitting each person is in debit or credit, and some ground rules, such as how many hours debit you're allowed to run up, are the children expected to be in bed, should a snack be laid on, does the hourly token rate double after 11pm or midnight?  You need at least six families in a babysitting circle to make it work.

Or, you can employ a babysitter.  As a new parent I put in a web search for "how much to pay a babysitter" and got some wildly varied results, from £2 per hour (mean) to £8 per hour (premium London rates I think!).
I went down the middle and decided any teenager would be happy with £5 per hour, which is more than the minimum wage, and definitely worth their while to sit on the sofa, eat your snacks and watch your DVDs while your little ones snooze upstairs.  Of course, if your night out begins before the children are in their beds, then the babysitter starts to really earn their cash as they struggle with manipulative children trying to wangle a later bedtime!

Not knowing the local teens, I put an advert in a local shop window, and got two responses.  I asked for a character reference, but that was about it.  I started to use both babysitters.  One was from the neighbouring village, so while she got a lift at the beginning of the evening, we needed to drop her back after we got home.  She was fine, but she didn't like to sit C (who was about a year old) unless he was guaranteed to be fast asleep (I don't blame her, he was a nightmare to settle!).  The other was a neighbour in our own road.  He was super cool and confident, and seemed to particularly enjoy coming over when C was awake.  As we left he'd get C to wave byebye, then he'd get out the cars, put on an episode of Thomas, and then settle C down to bed.  
Once Bug was born we had no need of a sitter for a few months, and by then the two sitters had gone to University, but our neighbour's younger brother was now primed to babysit, and our next-door neighbour was also old enough (we like our sitters to be at least 16), and keen.  These two babysitters are both calm and capable, they usually bring along their study books, and are also working their way through our DVD collection.  They are both happy to come before bed-time if necessary, and have demonstrated that they can cope with gross nappies, bed-wetting, illness, bad dreams etc.. They are more than happy with £5 per hour.  We're also particularly happy to have them from our street, as it means that their own parents are close at hand if there's any real disaster, and they can easily walk home once we're back.

Having trusted babysitters has been a real bonus to us.  We don't go out very often as a couple, but having babysitters available has meant that we have made the effort to do so occasionally, which is good for us.  We know that the children are in safe hands.  If I know somebody new in the village with young children, I always recommend my babysitters.  Once we move, finding new ones will be quite high on the priority list, and I just hope that we're lucky enough to find such good ones again.

Friday, 9 May 2014

More creative makes - a key ring display, and dressing-up capes.

I've been busy making things again.  Nobody minds too much that the garden needs a tidy up, or that the stairs need hoovering do they?  Or that the Clackmannanshire Scout District Camp that I'm organising is only a week away and ... hmmm... I'm still short of volunteers for some of the bases?

Instead of worrying about those things, I've made a couple of things for the sprogs.

It's dressing-up week at pre-school this week.  On Tuesday it was Pirates and Princesses (and I was so pleased to see a liberated boy opting to be a princess, I thought C might have done, but in the end he decided to go Pirate).  Wednesday was Onesie day.  We don't have onesies and I wasn't prepared to buy one, so they went in their favourite pyjamas!  Yesterday was "favourite dressing up outfits", so C put on his monster dressing-gown.  And today was Superhero day.  What should we do?  We don't have superhero outfits.  Our dressing-up box consists almost entirely of accessories and bits of fabric that are completely multi-functional.  In the supermarket I looked at the superhero outfits and wasn't that impressed.  BUT... I already had on my list of things-to-do that I would make the children a play cape each, and I had the pattern.  All I had to do was make the cape by Friday, and C would be ready.  I was unwell at the beginning of the week, so never made it out to the fabric shop, but Bug and I went yesterday morning.  C told me he wanted zebra or bumblebee stripes if I could find them, but red and blue if not.  Of course, I had to make two capes.  So... here they are!
This super-simple pattern is from "Growing Up Sew Liberated" by Meg McElwee.
I'm so pleased with them, and they are so simple to make, that variations may well be featuring as birthday gifts for nephews and nieces over the coming months (ssshhh... don't tell).

My other make this last couple of weeks is a display unit for C's keyrings.  He has been building his collection, buying new ones with his holiday pennies, and collecting free ones when he spots them, and he loves to get them out and admire them.  I just got a piece of scrap wood from the garage, drilled a hole in each corner, sanded it, hammered a whole load of tacks in a row, painted it with primer and then gloss paint.  Hey presto!  I've tied it on to the edge of his top bunk, and he loves it!
The problem is, it's already full.  I made it just the right size.  Which means that as his keyring collection continues to grow, I'm going to need to make another one to accommodate it.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Filling the business box

Bug is now at pre-school!  She's there three mornings per week, for two and a half hours, which gives me... seven and a half hours child free per week!  Well, not quite, what with the pick up and drop off, and being on parent rota every other week.  I'm counting on four undisturbed hours per week (and don't doctor's appointments, and caravan service, and other errands want to fill those hours?!).

I am trying hard to maintain four hours for work, which will I hope eventually pay off - with cash.

The idea is that I spend two undisturbed hours on a Monday doing writing.  And I must finish and send off pieces of work that have been gathering dust in my hard-drive.  Nobody's going to publish them if I never get around to sending them off. 

On Tuesday I spend two undisturbed hours making things for my craft stall and website, which I'll launch once I have enough stock in the box.  I've been working on several items over the months, which have really been prototypes so I can see where I need to improve quality, and how long things take to make, and I can hone techniques.  I'm now at the stage where the things I'm making are getting towards being high enough quality that I won't be embarrassed to try and sell them.  Into the box last week went:
just two of these key-rings for now, there are improvements that still need to be made.

six of these lovely warm fleecy hats, with oak leaves on top (for the autumn/Christmas market)
Sadly nothing went in this week, as I've had yet another bout of being unwell (I might post more on that another day, but I might not, it's really too much information!).

Exciting times coming up though, as we are planning a move from Scotland back to England, which will mean upheaval for all.  We've been here for seven years, which is the second longest I've lived anywhere.  It's possible that the move will happen before the end of the Summer, in which case I'll probably hold off my craft launch until we get there, so I can suss out the craft fairs to get started with.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Fundraising for pre-school and toddler groups - 10 ideas.

I'm no fundraising expert.  Far from it in fact - and the groups I have been involved with are always looking for more ideas, so if you have any I'd love to hear from you.  Here are ten ideas for fundraising for groups of small children - sponsored silence is out of the question, non-uniform and dress-up days are... every day?  Some need bigger numbers to make them work, which has been the problem for the groups I've been part of.  In our rural corner, all these groups are tiny, only just scraping together enough kiddies to make them viable.  This makes fundraising crucial, but also much more difficult.

  1. Easy - Your organisation or group signs up, and you encourage parents, friends, granny and grandad etc. to sign up on-line and select your group to "support".  They get a little icon on the toolbar, and whenever they visit a website which is linked to easyfundraising, they get an alert asking them if they want to activate a donation.  Whatever they buy in that transaction, a percentage is paid to your group.  Tesco direct, Amazon, John Lewis, Argos, National Express and many many more are all linked in, so any time you shop at any of these websites, your group gets cash!
  2. Catalogues - there are a few catalogue companies that are set up for fundraising.  Two examples are Webb Ivory ( and Yellow Moon (  Webb Ivory is very Christmas oriented, with tons of Christmas cards, decorations and wrapping paper, though they do have other seasonal catalogues, while Yellow Moon is much more about children's crafts.  For Webb Ivory, you order the catalogues and distribute them to the parents / families /supporters of your group.  They order through you.  25% of the order total comes to your organisation.  For Yellow Moon, you order the catalogues and get a unique code.  When your parents/supporters order from the catalogue or website they enter the code.  20% of the order total comes to your organisation.
  3. Sales - For a bigger group you could hold your own toy sales, table-top sale, nearly new sale, bake sale, coffee morning etc.  For smaller groups, you might take a table at one of these sales, or simply put a table out to sell to your own parents.  For baby groups, you might take a stall at an NCT sale, which are very well attended, and in Scotland we have Jack and Jill sales, which are for any children items.  Our pre-school parent committee collected unwanted children's items from amongst the parents and amassed a ton of stuff, so now we are booking a table at the next few Jack and Jill sales in the area to try to make a bit of money.
  4. Sponsored walk - It doesn't have to be far for little ones.  This may be the first time you've troubled your neighbours, uncles, aunties etc. to sponsor little Billy for something, but be assured, it won't be the last!
  5. Quiz - Depending on the size of your group, you might hold your own quiz night in the village hall or whatever, though that does then require all the parents in the group to get a babysitter in!  A better option, which we tried out this Easter, is to simply print out a quiz and distribute it amongst friends, family, neighbours and door-to-door in the local community.  People answer the quiz and return it with £1 taped to it, to be entered into a prize draw (ours was for a nice Easter Egg, donated by one of the parents).  Every quiz returned is money for the group, with very little effort and outlay apart from printing and distributing the quiz.
  6. Jam Jar - One of the parents made a batch of jam, which was loaded into plastic jars.  Everybody had to buy a jar of jam for £1, and then return the jar a couple of months later filled with coins.  The jars were sitting on kitchen counters and mantlepieces just collecting loose change, and soon filled up ready to be returned.
  7. Rag-bag - Again this is something that happens in Scotland, but there may be something similar where you live.  You basically collect up unwanted clothing, shoes, linen and towels from your supporters and arrange a collection by the company.  They pay £400 per tonne.
  8. Personalised Items - this tends to be a popular option at Christmas time.  You can either do it yourself, or it's easy to use one of the many companies out there.  Get the children to create a design of some sort, maybe a self portrait, or a Christmas picture, some art work, photographs of the children or whatever.  Parents can then order different items with the design on - calendars, coasters, mouse-mats, tea-towels, t-shirts, mugs, key-rings etc.  At Christmas time they will order away, knowing that Grandma and Great Auntie Doreen will be thrilled to have a mug, keyring and tea-towel with Little Suzie's art-work on it, and ticking off their tricky-to-buy Christmas presents at the same time. A large percentage of what they pay goes to your group.
  9. Duck Race - this is the reason I'm writing this post today!  This morning we went to our neighbouring village of Dollar, for the annual "Dollar Under-5s Duck Race".  This group manages the local baby group, toddler group and playgroup, so they have quite a lot of supporters.  Their annual duck-race is a real keystone in the local calendar.  Ducks are sold by parents and committee members, but are also available to buy in the deli, the butchers and the paper shop, and people from the village and surrounding areas do buy the ducks, as almost everybody has been through or knows somebody who has been through the under-5s group.  On the day they also hold a craft sale, BBQ, ice-cream stall, children's games etc in a local hall.  Hundreds turn out to watch the ducks swimming down the burn, and the children all wade in to "rescue" the ducks when they get stuck on rocks or reeds.  Afterwards everybody heads to the hall for cake and BBQ and to hear the winners announced.  A FABULOUS fundraiser!
  10. Ceilidh - this is another one that has really worked for us.  It's been held for the last two years between Christmas and New Year raising money for our pre-school and the local primary school.  It's a CHILDREN's ceilidh, which means that it's early afternoon rather than late in the evening.  At this time of year everybody is eager for a get-together and this is an opportunity to get Granny and Uncle Phil and all the kids out from the Christmas TV and doing something different.  Our local ceilidh band has donated their time for free, but you're unlikely to be so lucky!  Get a band, get a good patient caller who can teach the dances, sell drinks and snacks and include a raffle and you've got yourself a winner.