Friday, 17 April 2015

Everyday beauty and small adventures

One of the greatest gifts we can give to children is the time and the encouragement to experience the wonder that comes from the everyday beauty and the small adventures you have every time you step outside your door.

The success of climbing a hill and being master or mistress of all they survey, as their minds lay out stories of dragons and goblins and fairies.

Gazing at the shimmering magic of dew drops on spider webs, rolling their tongues around the slippery, whispery new word 'gossamer'.

Lying full stretch on little tummies to look at the stained glass window of sunshine through dandelion leaves and flowers, green and gold.

Carefully exploring the softness and prickles of teasels, the deliciously naughty risk of a pricked finger.  Staring up from the webby leaves of this year to the sentinels of last year standing tall against the bluest sky.

Playing shops, with flowers as toys and leaves as money. 

Prising apart the flowers to learn about stigmas, anthers, pollen and ovules.  Tripping out the word 'compositaceae' as though they'd known it all their lives and not just heard it for the first time as we talked about how the inflorescences of dandelions and daisies are many tiny florets closely packed, and comparing them with the blue speedwells growing nearby to see the difference between a single flower and a composite one. 

Laughing as they dusted themselves and each other all over with yellow pollen - the daisies are the best.  Grumbling as we head home, because there is always one more adventure still to be had.

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Great Allotment Challenge

With the weather warming and the days getting longer we are ramping up the time spent at our allotment.  We got it in the Autumn last year and weren't expecting much produce off the neglected plot with a good covering of perennial weeds like dock and a large area covered in morning glory.

We cleared one bed straight away and boxed it in with old planks found on the plot, and planted it up with broad beans, onion sets, leaf beet, leeks, turnips, radishes and purple sprouting broccoli.  To our great surprise everything survived and we have enjoyed plenty to take home already, with the PSB being a particular favourite after recovering miraculously from serious pigeon damage to provide us with several tasty meals.

 As you can see the broad beans are in full flower, although I may need to help them along in the pollination department as we seem to be largely devoid of bees (I have sowed calendula and nasturtiums to try to encourage them in later on in the year).  I planted shallot bulbs in between the beans and the PSB which are starting to sprout happily in the shelter of the larger plants (which will be cut off when done and the roots left in the soil).
 There's really good points about the plot - south facing slope, good access to water.  This should help us overcome the challenges - heavy clay soil and quite exposed so the wind dries the clay to rock pretty quickly.

We're mostly concentrating on getting the soil right this year - wood or turf edging around the beds to help stop the soil washing off down the slope, removing the problem weeds, adding organic material and nutrients to the soil.  Consequently we're probably over planting with 'boring' crops like potatoes (the shade from the leaves will help to suppress weeds and clear new beds)  and onions (at 50p a bag for sets from Lidls it makes the likely failures less upsetting).  Later on we'll get in other reliable crops that we've sowed at home, including French beans and courgettes.

The boys are desperate to get up to the allotment, where they can run around all afternoon in the sunshine, make sculptures from the clay, dig, water and wheel barrow fulls of weeds up to our compost bins (which we found under the bindweed and have repaired).  It's good exercise for all of us and there's growing evidence of the myriad health and well being benefits of gardening.  It supports the kids in developing a really healthy relationship with food and an awareness of just how much time, water and other resources goes into producing food.  We've never wasted much and this explains why to them.  Including foraged from site nettle tops, clevers and plantain leaves that joined our leaf beets in a yummy balsamic vinegar and tomato sauce this week also means that they get the benefit of a good boost of vitamins and minerals from the very freshest of fresh food.

The biggest challenge?  So far it's planting onions while being ridden as a horsey (I noticed at least a couple go in upside down).

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Sauerkraut for cultured kids

 I've had IBS since my early teens and over years of trial and error have got to a point where I'm largely symptom free.  One of the things I think helps is maintaining a healthy gut flora, where I give as much help as I can to my body to maintain 'good bacteria' and suppress the ones that add to unpleasant symptoms.  As well as outcompeting 'bad bacteria', a healthy gut flora helps us to extract nutrients from our food and even synthesises some including B12 (which you may not think about at all unless you are a vegan because eating animal products such as meat, fish and eggs provides plenty).  Even bacteria we are used to hearing about as a 'baddy' when it's in the wrong place, in the right place is a 'good bacteria' - E. Coli is now known to produce Vitamin K in the bowel.  A poor gut flora is now being linked to all sorts of health problems, including rising levels of obesity and autism (theories are wide ranging and include things such as that pesticides destroy our gut flora, high levels of sugar encourage yeast which lead to fermentation instead of digestion, kids aren't exposed to dirt to build up their gut flora etc...) .

 I am not a health professional and cannot comment on whether there is any truth in these claims, but it does seem a sensible idea to me that raising children who are 'cultured' (i.e. exposed to good dietary practices and microbialy cultured foods) is likely to have long term benefits to their health without having any potential downsides.  This is not some weird faddy diet excluding whole food groups, it is simply adding in things that benefit a healthy gut flora and reducing the things that damage it such as processed sugar.

 Many helpful things are likely to be already in children's diet including raw and cooked veggies, fruit and yoghurt. Others may be traditional to some diets and not others, such as Sauerkraut and fermented drinks such as Kombucha.  Some helpful things are 'prebiotic' such as yoghurt and contain the useful bacteria, others are 'probiotic' and contain things like fibres which the bacteria need, e.g. inulin from chicory or bananas.  Personally I don't favour the fermented probiotic drinks that are common at the moment in places like supermarkets because they contain high levels of either sugar or sweeteners, but there are plenty of alternatives.

Fermented foods were likely to be a commonplace part of the diet up until recently because of the need to store food over winter before the invention of electric refrigerators.  I have tried making yoghurt in the past (it sort of worked but I think I need more practice) but decided yesterday that we would have a go at Sauerkraut as a serious foray into making our own cultured food.  Sauerkraut is a lacto-fermented product - when submerged in salty water Lactobacillus bacteria naturally present on the vegetable converts sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid, which then prevents the sauerkraut rotting.  As well as the useful probiotics, sauerkraut is also a good source of vitamin C (for some reason more than cooked or raw cabbage) and fibre, and a source of vitamin K and iron.  I wouldn't give mounds of it to the kids though as it is quite salty - a tablespoon is about the limit no matter how much they beg for more.

I tried Sauerkraut for the first time years ago and hated it, but I kept trying it until lo and behold I now love it.  To their credit the kids took less time to be converted to it, and regularly ask for it as a side to their dinners.  Ironically, the reason I wanted us all to eat it in the first place was probably lost in translation because I was buying it in jars from the supermarket, so it was likely to have been pasteurised - heat treated to kill bacteria.  The solution is to have a go at making our own.

Sauerkraut is in theory easy to make, being just cabbage and sea salt.  I used the instructions on this website as it seemed the simplest and didn't involve complicated equipment or mounds of cabbages.

1) With clean hands and equipment we shredded one white cabbage (I washed the outer leaves and saved them for later in the process). 

2) Then added a tablespoon of sea salt and spent about ten minutes scrunching the cabbage up until it went limp and yellowed a little - the aim is to break up the plant cells to release the sap.  You will be able to squeeze liquid out from a handful.

3) Pack down as tight as possible into a big jar (or several smaller ones) - I used a spoon to repeatedly ram it down.  You want to get out all of the air bubbles and make sure all the cabbage is submerged.

4) The recipe suggested weighting the top with another smaller jar full of marbles to prevent any cabbage floating.  I deviated and used washed cabbage leaves cut to fit to top it off, I'm expecting to need to remove and replace these every couple of days as they go slimey so the jar thing is probably better.

 5) Top with a clean piece of fabric, not a sealed lid - the aim is to keep out insects and dust while allowing air flow.

The recipe suggests pressing down again every day until all the bubbles are definitely out and topping up with liquid if there isn't enough to cover.  The minimum given is 3 days fermentation, with 10 days or even after that (some recipes suggested a month as a minimum and several months for connoisseurs).  When it tastes 'right' screw on a lid and keep in the fridge.  If it smells wrong it probably is, discard it.

I have no idea if this will work or not, but it was a good fun sensory activity in the meantime and for very low cost.  Toby certainly enjoyed helping clean up the leftover cabbage shreds.  Wish us luck in our fermentation experiment and do look up the original recipe here for the advice from an experienced source!

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Get gaming - Monopoly for hippies and kids

Monopoly is one of the most common games owned, but is also regarded by serious board game fans as one of the worst to play because you can end up stuck in a hopeless slow decline, be out before the game is over, and be stuck playing for hours with very little gain.  As a family game it can be tediously slow and aggressively cut throat.

We play Monopoly in a very different way that would drive lots of purists nuts, but for us makes the game fast, family friendly, less ruthless and more fun.

Here's our take on it:

1: Play in teams so that kids don't get bored waiting too long for their turn.

2:  Forget the amount of money you are supposed to start with.  Be generous dishing out the dosh - more money at the start means a much faster game where the aim is to get complete sets of properties by either buying them or trading them.

3.  Keep the money perks rolling - we dish out £200 for landing on go, as well as the normal £200 for passing it.

4. Taxes get tucked under the corner of 'Free Parking' to be collected by anyone who lands on that space.

5. Game is played for no more than 1hr, then the winner determined by a quick tally such as number of £100 and £500 notes, number of sets of properties and number houses depending on how far along the game got.

I know a lot of folks will roll their eyes at all of this, but it means that we are able to play a fairly complex game with a three and a five year old, with all the benefits that are inherent in the game, including time doing an activity together as a family, the numeracy skills including counting along the right number of places, adding up the numbers on the dice, counting out correct money to buy properties and pay rent, and the literacy skills of reading the names of the properties.  For very young players even just matching groups of colours of properties is a good skill - Toby was in charge of rolling the dice, organising our properties and handing over cash in return for properties.  For Ollie in addition to this he added up the dice, moved the pieces and helped to count out the money.  Importantly you also get to model gracious game playing and being a good winner/loser.

So, how could you adapt the games you have in your cupboard?  I'd love to hear your ideas.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Wild Garlic Time

South of England foraging friends - it's that time of year again! The Wild Garlic is in leaf this week (mid March 2015), making our whole neighbourhood smell like a hot dog van replete with fried onions. 

We've been out picking just a few leaves - it's easy to get carried away and think you have to bring home a bag full, but unless you plan on freezing as a herb butter it's really only a few fresh leaves that you need.  One of the most special aspects of foraging is it's seasonal nature, and this couple of weeks where we can wander to the strip of woodland near our house to harvest a couple of leaves each is made more sweet by it's brevity.

Pick clean, healthy looking leaves that you are 100% sure you have correctly identified, away from roads and sources of contamination (I'm not counting the vacuum cleaner or supermarket trolleys in the local 'stream' as contamination). I don't pick more than one leaf from each plant and only where it is growing really abundantly.  Watch out for kids picking poisonous leaves poking through at this time of year, including lords and ladies.  I have a policy that the kids show me what they want to pick and get my Ok for each time we move to a new patch.  They also are taught from very early on to never ever put anything in their mouths without showing me first - including things like blackberries as there are often very poisonous berries such as bittersweet growing amongst them.

Wild garlic, or ramsons as it is sometimes known, is good in stir fries, with scrambled eggs and omelettes, in noodle soup and a whole host of other delicious places you would normally use spring onions.

Ancient Egypt Project

the eagle eyed will spot a
mummified Captain Barnacles
 Project based learning is a bit of a Holy Grail in education.  The idea is that rather than teaching isolated subjects (which are hard to learn because they have no context to the child) you replace traditional subjects with an immersion in a project that is approached from all angles.  Because everything is discovered and taught in context, the ideas are easier to assimilate, and the nature of topic based learning seems to match the way we learn naturally as children - to become obsessed wholly with a particular topic for a period of time.  Dinosaurs, Thomas the Tank Engine, Disney Princesses, Pirates, Vehicles and Poo are all subjects which spring to mind when thinking about the recent obsessions of my own and my friend's kids.
 Up until now we have been not really following a project - just dipping in and out of things which catch the boys attention.  Toby recently showed a lot of interest in space and astronauts for example, so we did extra reading around that at bed time, had astronaut colouring, played building rockets out of furniture and looked at a solar system display at a local science centre.  At five and a half Ollie has however suddenly decided he wants to know all about mummies (after very intense questioning about the fake one at our local zoo this week).  I have been expecting this moment, although unsure when it would come, so fortunately was prepared.

I have a great book 'The Children's Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World' by Hermes House picked up for £5 from a service station last year ready for just such a moment, plus an unexpected bounty this week of a pop out Hysterical Histories book 'Egyptians and Mummies' from a sale (£1.50 at Tesco), which with additional material from The British Museum's website on Ancient Egypt has given us two days worth of material so far and seems fit to last for at least a few more.

 Ollie is using this material to create a project book all about Ancient Egypt, which Toby is starting to lose interest in (apart from mummifying toys which he very much liked) so in order to make him feel included we brought in one of his favourite activities to the project - cooking.  The Encyclopaedia has lots of great practical ideas and one of them was a recipe for a honey and caraway seed cake.

The boys rubbed 75g butter into 200g flour, 1 teaspoon salt and half a teaspoon baking powder. They then stirred in 40g runny honey and 3 tablespoons of milk.  This dough was rolled out into long sausages, coiled up, glazed with more honey and sprinkled with caraway seeds.  The cakes were baked at 180C (the recipe said 20 minutes but ours looked fatter so I left them in for 30 minutes).
(Vegan friends - try substituting 75ml oil for butter and agave syrup for honey).

It will be really fun to find out how ingredients were weighed in Ancient Egypt and make a set of scales for the next time we cook, which will fit in nicely with other maths and science areas of the project.  Another part of the project to encourage numeracy skills will be to make an ancient gaming board called a Mehen Board, which hopefully both boys will be able to play (although given Toby's 'I win' attitude to snakes and ladders I'm not entirely convinced this will proceed smoothly). For older kids concepts such as calculating the volume of a pyramid and looking at the geometry and techniques used by the architects are the sort of ways you can use maths in a project format.

 To describe this project as an obsession is too understated a word.  Ollie spent hours sitting down to it yesterday (an occurrence never seen before in this very active child) and it was the first thing he asked to do as he tried to bounce me awake at 6am this morning.  We were thwarted in the end yesterday by using up all three glue sticks, and he pestered all day today to get more glue, satiated only by a morning using the British Museum's website to find out about daily life and cut and paste pictures to print (and of course the baking).  Most of the writing is falling to me so far as his 'Royal Scribe', but tomorrow he will be given the task of writing out the recipe we used today and working out how to make twice as much dough.

We have touched on Gods and Goddesses, funerary practices and artefacts, food, customs, entertainment, clothes, geography, farming and a host of other ideas to be explored further.  Hopefully some time this weekend we will make a water clock with an old plant pot and perhaps attempt to recreate the toy horse on wheels we saw.  Eventually we will hopefully get up to London to see the artefacts first hand.  As much as I worry they are somehow disrespectful to the dead I will never forget my own first experiences with seeing genuine artefacts and mummies in a museum in Liverpool when I must have been quite small.

So often Matt comes home from work to be told 'we did no school work today' because Ollie hasn't twigged that all the number games and reading and visits to museums are 'school work'.  A book to fill in or a worksheet to do are 'work' to Ollie, but making his book - that's just playing isn't it?

P.S. he's planning on making his 'best book ever on ancient Egypt' available to friends to borrow on a three week loan provided they don't draw in it, so it's time to book your slot!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Slimetastic New Job

My lovely regular  readers may remember that back in February I reviewed a free book download from award winning science party company Sublime Science.

Well, I have randomly scored a job working for them.  An advert was posted on the local Children's Centre Face Book wall for science communication presenters, and although I wasn't looking for work it just looked too perfect not to apply.  Got an interview.  Passed the interview.  Now I'm raring to get going with training and getting my hands on the presenter kit full of brilliant gear with which to perform feats of scientific magic and hands-on experiences to fire the imagination of kids.  I am ridiculously happy about being able to go to work in my lab coat again (I felt strangely under-dressed at the jobs I've had since being a Science Teacher).

Sublime Science operates parties and events over a wide swath of the country (England), so if you want to book a party that's going to be that bit different from the usual discos and bouncy castles, be the talk of the playground for weeks, and even sneak in some learning that will get kids excited about science, then take a look at their website for details.  If I wasn't going to be working for them I would book one for myself!

Wish me luck, and if you're at a science party in the East Sussex area look out for 'Maz Scientist' ;)