Sunday, 23 August 2015

Seeking aquatic inspiration

Can you spot the solar panel hiding behind the gnome?
On our allotment we have inherited a small pond.  It never has more than a couple of inches of water in it due to a very holey liner, and it's not a great shape as it is cut into the slope of the plot, so I have been searching for inspiration for how to make it into a really useful space for wildlife and for educational activities.

This weekend we were really happy to be invited to visit the new home and even newer pond of family friends with years of pond building and maintenance experience.  As well as being lovely to see them, it was a real eye-opener in terms of how much more enjoyment the kids got out of a raised pond where they could sit and peer in amongst the lily pads.  It would certainly fix the problem of the pond at the allotment being on a slope since we would just have a top edge almost level with the ground and build up the level down the slope.  It would also make it easier to either fence the area or embed safety mesh just below the surface which would allow frogs and pond insects access but hopefully make it safer for small two legged visitors.

I was really pleased to be able to turn up to our friend's home with a useful gift for them in the form of a brilliant solar panel operated fountain pump kit from PKSolar.  The fountain was out of the box and operating within minutes of us arriving, in fact it was so quick to work it nearly resulted in a face full of water.  As well as being a pretty feature, the fountain will help to aerate the pond and keep the water moving, reducing stagnation and making the environment in the pond healthier for the fish and other pond inhabitants.  The kids liked the gentle sound of the feature and the drops of water catching the light were really lovely.  As well as being far quicker, easier and safer to install than a mains powered fountain, the fact that it operates from a solar panel means that it will automatically turn off at night.  Having lived in the past with neighbours who had a noisy water fountain that ran all night I can attest to fountains turning off at night being a good thing.

The solar panel was very discrete, smaller than the garden gnome it was tucked behind.  I think that when we get one for our pond improvement it would be therefore be fairly secure at the allotment as it is likely to go unnoticed (unfortunately regular thefts of tools and produce are a problem on our site).  The PKSolar website also gave me other ideas however as the pump is supplied with tubing which means we could use it to make a smaller water feature for our patio which would help to bring wildlife to our tiny garden at home.  I have my eye on the solar pond aerator on the PKSolar website too, but not necessarily for pond use.  I have been reading about the benefits to soil fertility of using 'compost tea' and the production of this requires several fish tank aerators.  I'm thinking that surely a single pond aerator would provide the necessary oxygen to promote a healthy balance of compost micro-organisms which would in turn build up healthy soil communities and benefit our crops.

Whatever improvement we do manage to make at our plot, we will always be grateful to our friends for giving us inspiration from seeing a really beautiful and well managed pond.  I hope they have many happy years in their new home enjoying the fish and the lilies and the relaxing sound of moving water.

Note:  We received the fountain from PKSolar in return for an honest review.  Opinions images and fascinated kids are all my own, the beautiful pond is our friend's. 

The boys were closely supervised at all times when near the water and if you're planning a water feature in a family garden used by children under 6 years old it's worth giving serious thought to safety.  Advise on ponds from RoSPa available here.  If you have small children, using a solar pump kit to produce a shallow water feature such as the one shown on the PKSolar website would provide drinking water for birds and other garden visitors without the associated risks of a full sized pond.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

What would you do for your kids?

 I love my kids wholeheartedly and I can't imagine anything I wouldn't do to ensure a happy life for them.  But I also love cream teas, fish and chips, lattes, buttery toast and a heap of other naughty treats that means there is a whole lot too much of me.  At 15 I weighed 15 stones and I starved and exercised myself down to just over 12 and a half stones (according to BMI this is the point at which healthy weight for my height tips into overweight) but I still was never slim like the girls around me who ate far more and exercised far less.  In my 20s I started eating 'normally' again and the weight crept up, despite the miles I walked as an outdoor education instructor.  At 25 I was working in a more sedentary role as a classroom teacher and my weight rocketed to almost 19 stone.  I fought hard to get it down to 15 and a half by the time I got married in 2009, and after my pregnancies got it back down there again.  In the last year though it has been creeping up again so that I was really cross with myself when I stood on the scales two weeks ago and saw 16 stone 8lbs on the screen.  I had also been having a lot of tummy trouble as I'm gluten intolerant but being naughty and eating normal wheaty food as it's just so much cheaper, easier and tastier (granary bread toast is my Achilles heel).  Eating wheat in turn seems to affect my other allergies and I was back on antihistamine tablets as well as my nasal steroids.  Everything ached all the time and I'd had several weeks of ME/CFS flare up where I just felt ill and exhausted.

At this weight my immune system is suppressed, my joints under undue pressure, my risk of developing diabetes is increased, along with certain cancers and heart disease.  I had to make a decision.  What is more important to me - eating nice things and trying to fit in when I visit friends and family (it's awkward enough being a vegetarian, I try to avoid mention of my other allergies and intolerances), or accepting that if I want a healthy middle and old age where I'm around to help and support my kids I have to make a radical change to my diet.

So I've said goodbye to many of the things I loved, because I love my boys more.  So there's no more tea and toast or porridge first thing in the morning, no more mid morning coffee, no more sandwiches at lunchtime, veggie burgers with mashed potatoes and gravy for dinner followed by a nice dollop of yoghurt, and definitely no more cream teas when we're out and about.

In eight days I've lost 10lbs, most of that in the first couple of days as my increased water consumption caused my body to release over-retained water - a big factor implicated in weight gain is simply being dehydrated, so even if I had done nothing other than increase the volume of water I was drinking I would have expected to see some weight loss initially.  My tummy troubles have disappeared now I'm not eating the wheat and gluten which I know I can't tolerate (as a hospital test told me - I haven't just read an article and decided my symptoms fit).  I've gone down a notch on my belt as my bloated tummy has calmed down.  Cutting out sugar has also had the effect that I'm not experiencing anger when I'm hungry - the word 'hangry' was perfect to describe this.  I was very tired for the first few days but at least I didn't experience the flu-like effect of going cold turkey on caffeine and sugar that I had a couple of years ago when I cut them out for two weeks for a diet. 

I'm not going to write what I am eating though because I don't think it would be responsible for me to promote the way I'm eating to anyone reading this who doesn't have specific intolerances and problems with food.  This is also going to have to be a lifelong eating habit for me - if I go back to 'normal' eating then the pounds will pile on in double quick time as my body goes 'hey, better store up these calories in case there's another shortage'.  It's taking every ounce of willpower, especially as I'm determined to keep cooking normal for the kids and Matt.  Yesterday we made a mint and dark chocolate home made ice cream terrine and it took everything I had not to eat any of the ingredients.  I was formally a lid licker, dreg drinker, crust eater and general human dustbin.

I'm cautious not to negatively impact my health while trying to do a good thing, so I'm maintaining my usual exercise levels to try to avoid my body eating my muscle instead of my fat.  I'm also keeping an eye on things like my blood pressure and heart rate, which has made a product I was sent to review a timely gift.  The Ozeri CardioTech is very easy to use and has a colour coded display - green is healthy, amber and red for problems.  It also monitors for irregular heartbeat which is a useful thing to keep an eye on as it can be linked to anaemia and I don't want my diet to cause any shortages in essential vitamins and minerals.

So there it is, I love my kids enough to give up many of my favourite things because I want to do my best to be there for them for a long time to come.  Millions of other parents have trodden this path before me in adopting healthy diets, getting into exercise, getting help for mental health issues, or giving up smoking or alcohol.  So what would you do for your kids?

Disclaimer:  Don't starve yourself - my initial weight loss seems massive but will stabilise to a couple of pounds a week as the initial loss is mostly of fluid retention.  If you have health issues it's worth talking to your doctor before changing your diet, but almost everyone would benefit from increasing vegetable consumption and decreasing sugar use.  I was sent the Ozeri blood pressure monitor to review on another platform, but included it here too because I felt it was a great product and I have been using it as part of monitoring my health as I have made quite a drastic change to my diet.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Dorset Heavy Horse Centre

 Yesterday we visited an amazing place for the second time in two months - The Heavy Horse Centre in Dorset.   It was an instant hit with all of us and I can see us returning time after time.

The centre is host to a huge range of horses and attractions such as bouncy castles, traditional fairground rides and a great play park, but it is the sheer showmanship of the owners and staff which makes it something really special.
 The first activity of the day is the talk on heavy horses and an introduction to the stars of the stable, including Fred (pictured with Ollie).  Kids are given the opportunity to lead a pony drawn cart of food buckets over to the horses during the talk, then the talk splits to give parents with young children an opportunity to go on to a children's tour while the rest of the main talk continues.

On the children's tour kids are introduced to the other residents of the centre and given an introduction to the roles that horses once played in history, as doing the milk round.  Children are given flat caps to wear as they help to take breakfast to the animals.

After the talks there was a demonstration of tacking up a cart horse and then the horse-drawn cart rides begin, with one lucky child being given the chance to drive the cart.  Ollie was beyond excited to have this chance as the horse was none other than the star of the 'War time farm with Ruth Goodman' series he had been watching.

Another amazing opportunity followed on from this as the boys both had a go at driving a proper tractor, sitting alongside a member of staff and steering it around the course.

One of the cutest sights was of the boys enjoying a ride in the miniature pony carriage.  They also hugely enjoyed the other attractions including the toy ride-on tractor course and the pedal cart track.
On our second visit we treated the boys to the only thing you need to pay extra for (apart from bags of animal feed if you want them) - a ride on one of the smaller, and frankly slower, ponies at the centre which both boys enjoyed greatly.

We were all fascinated with the history on display at the centre, including beautifully painted gypsy wagons and a circus showman's trailer complete with oak panelling.

  Of all the great things there my favourite was just the chance to hand feed and stroke the beautiful grand horses.  I will always have soft spots for three in particular.  Blossom, who had a difficult birth and is as a result a sandwich short of a picnic and who fell asleep while I was stroking her.  Sultan, a huge gorgeous lad who had a lucky escape after being bred for the French meat industry.  And finally Fred, who gave me my marching order when I came to stroke him without any food in my hand and swiftly instructed me to go and get some by means of nudging me in the direction of Matt who had a bag of food.

I've only written about a fraction of what is available to see and do at the centre, but it will certainly be a place that we return to time and again.

Facilities and accessibility:  the site is very accessible (we saw folk in wheelchairs and other with pushchairs accessing the site without difficulty), there are toilets, including an accessible one.  The baby change facility is awesome (I'll leave that one as a surprise for if you visit).  There is also a cafĂ© serving hot and cold food and drinks, and a gift shop.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

New term excitement and exciting new stationery

 As Autumn approaches I always get the familiar back to school excitement, which I have come to realise largely revolves around this time of year being a great excuse to invest in new stationery. 
Many of my friends are nervously preparing for their baby's first day at school, or are starting to refresh equipment for older kids, and we find that our home educating friends also tend to head towards this time of year with firm 'not back to school' traditions such as stocking up on pens too.
At the end of term I wrote out report cards for the boys, noting some of their achievements and experiences of the past year, accompanied by a gift of a set of mathematical drawing tools. With the new term coming I wanted to mark the occasion with a special new pencil case as part of our own new term tradition. I wasn't impressed with the offerings at the local supermarkets - cheap-feeling plastic with characters from films that the boys have never seen because they're too young. had the perfect solution in it's great range of personalised stationery.

 For the same price as the non-personalised pencil cases in the supermarket I found that the back to school range had designs and colours that the boys would love, plus the added excitement that they were embellished with their own names.  Personalised or non-personalised contents were also available, including colouring pencils.  I'm sure many people remember the pencil envy at school for classmates who had the personalised pencil sets and didn't therefor end up in a row with another child over exactly whose pink pencil that was.

 The  company ethos is to produce high quality personalised gifts for any
occasion, with fast delivery and friendly customer support and they certainly lived up to this, with the product arriving well before I expected it.  The boys were amazed to see their names on the cases
and wasted no time in filling them up with pencils and crayons.

Ollie decided I needed a diagram to remind me what the photic zones in the ocean are which he made me label (he's a big Octonauts fan), while Toby drew a sea urchin and seaweed to make a background to add Octonauts stickers on to.
 The boys spent the whole morning engrossed in using their new pencil cases, even volunteering to do extra pages in their books so they could use them for longer (although we celebrate the terms, we don't completely stop for the holidays as I find little and often to be the best way to engage kids in maths and literacy activities). 

They decided to join forces on the projects they have chosen as they are both enjoying the material we're covering - Toby picked dinosaurs and Ollie Vikings.  This makes it a lot easier for me as I'm not trying to be in two places, millions of years apart, in my head at once - dinosaurs and then Vikings in a morning is far less taxing than trying to help with both at once.

 The new pencil cases were such a success that even when Toby moved on to playing with a construction toy he still wanted his case with him - made easier by it's useful carry strap.  It feels well made so it should survive his love for a good time to come, even if he does take it everywhere with him.

Other new term traditions are likely to include a set of 'back to school' photos and the choice of new topics to cover.  Since the little scamps keep growing like weeds new shoes are looking to be part of the tradition too.  Other families we've talked to have lovely ideas such as back to school picnics or family outings.  I'd love to hear what your favourite back to school memories or family traditions are.  Personally I'm hoping some of you say that a start of term stationery set for mummy is a complete necessity so I can indulge too.

Note: We were sent the pencil cases as a gift to review, but opinions and budding artists are all my own.









Thursday, 6 August 2015

Fun in the kitchen - easy casserole

Kids love to cook, and confidence in the kitchen is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.  I'm by no means an expert chef, but this simple oven bake is perfect to make with kids - quick, easy, cheap and results in clean plates all round.

The ingredients depend on what left-overs you have to use up, but it's based around a mashed potato topping, with some kind of mix of vegetables underneath, plus in this case a tin of vegetable soup. 
 We had left over cooked veggie sausages so the first stage (after washing their hands) was to chop these into chunks and add them to a casserole dish.  If we didn't have these, I would have added something like butterbeans.  The trickiest thing about cooking with kids is stopping them eating all the ingredients - I don't always succeed but I find giving them a portion of each ingredient that they are told they can eat helps to prevent the whole lot being scoffed in one go.

We also had a quarter of a bag of kale, so this went in.  Our broad bean harvests from the allotment have been good and we have plenty of bags of beans from this in the freezer, so that was the next thing added. Any quick cooking veg such as peas or sweetcorn would work too.  

The sausages and veg were given a good stir up and a tin of vegetable soup added (again, substitute with anything to hand including left over gravy, a tin of chopped tomatoes or cheese sauce for example).

The mash (allotment potatoes and cabbage plus carrots) was a bit cold and stiff, so I added hot water and gave it a good stir around in order to make it easier for the boys to spread.
 Ollie grated up cheddar cheese for Toby to sprinkle over the mash.  If we don't have two sets of equipment for something, allocating separate responsibilities to the boys reduces arguments.

I put the casserole in the oven on a medium heat (about 180 degrees centigrade) for around an hour. 

The cooked casserole was then served with raw veg (we try to incorporate some fresh raw food into every meal).  On that day I used baby spinach leaves, plus finely sliced carrot, cucumber and Chioggia pink beetroot from the allotment. 

I served it with a simple olive oil and balsamic  vinaigrette (made by Ollie) - just a couple of tablespoons each of vinegar and oil.

The idea of this meal is not to produce high cuisine, but just something that the kids can pretty much do entirely by themselves. This means it is great for their self esteem, as well as all the chopping and mixing being good for fine motor skill development.  You can also increase self esteem by giving them as much choice as possible over selection of ingredients and making an event of enjoying 'their' meal together.

Note: Cooking with left-overs is one good way to reduce food waste in the home, but as this meal is made from left-overs should you have any left I wouldn't reheat it again.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Easy science experiments with table salt

Here's a really simple set of experiments using plain table salt and water (and a little food colouring if you want to).  You can swap the salt for sugar if you want an even safer version for toddlers if you think they might try to drink the experiment, and glass for plastic cups.

I set up paper place mats with small glasses (old Nutella glasses in this case) half filled with water - one glass cold water, the other warm water.  I added a pot (an old Gu pud ramekin) full of table salt and a spoon, and wrote labels on the paper to help with  identification and word recognition.

The task for the boys was to add a level spoonful of salt to each glass and stir it (lolly sticks) until the salt dissolved.  They would know it had dissolved when the water went fully transparent again.  They observed which one went transparent again first - it should be the warm water - and we used the science terminology to describe it 'the salt dissolved in the warm water faster, we could see that the warm water went transparent again faster'.  They didn't ask why, so I didn't volunteer the information (it's a mixture of the water molecules moving faster in hot water and therefore coming into contact with the salt faster, and the heat of the water reducing the strength of the hydrogen bonds enabling the salts to form new solute-solvent bonds - I think we're not quite ready for this level yet).

The boys could then repeat this process, making a mark if they wanted to record how many spoons of salt were added, until the water wouldn't go transparent again.  At this point the water couldn't dissolve any more salt and it was saturated with salt. 

The boys had a lot of fun transferring salt to the water and stirring it.  When the solution was saturated I encouraged them to tip the rest of their salt into one of their glasses and give it a good stir up to make sure it really was saturated with salt.

   You could stop at this point and leave it as a stand-alone dissolving experiment if you wanted to keep it short and sweet, or continue for the extension in part 2.  Part 1 is deceptively simple but develops fine motor skills in transferring and stirring, plus language and observation skills.  Part 2 builds on language and observation skills further.
 For part 2 we wanted to look at whether salt crystals would be larger if they were produced by fast or slow evaporation of the water in the solution, so I added a little food colouring to aid visibility.  Ollie predicted that evaporating the water off quickly would result in small crystals, based on what he knows about the formation of rocks from cooling lavas which was nice evidence of transferring existing ideas to new situations (rapidly cooling lavas produce glassy rocks with crystals so small to be indistinguishable, such as obsidian, while slower cooling lavas and magmas produce larger crystals which can be seen more easily, such as in granites which form when magma cools fairly slowly in underground chambers known as batholiths). 

We put some of the salt solution onto glass slides, but also some into the bottom of more glass ramekins - we happen to have slides but, if you don't, any small dish will do fine.  One set of slides was left to evaporate slowly on a windowsill on the shady side of the house, the other on a windowsill in full sunshine.  I used the salts which formed in the ramekins as a touch exploration media, so the boys could feel the difference in the texture of the salt crystals and be less likely to immediately remove the crystals on the slides by poking them.  The boys could clearly see there was a difference between the slides, and talked about chunkier crystals on their own on the slow dried slide compared with the moosh on the fast dried slide.

As before, you could leave it at that, but since we happen to have a microscope we continued (it was bought years ago at Lidl for £40, but the same model available on Amazon for £88 at time of writing - I wouldn't personally bother with microscopes from toy shops as they tend to disappoint but even a hand lens or a magnifier app on your phone will give you some extra investigative power if you haven't got access to a microscope).  The microscope I have comes with a camera attachment, but we couldn't get the software to work any more since I had to upgrade my laptop.  This camera doesn't have great resolution anyway, but was handy last year when the boys were smaller as it meant they weren't fighting to look down the same eyepiece and constantly changing the focus.  Now however they both really enjoyed using the eyepiece and even got to grips with changing the slides and focussing the microscope for themselves (I only let them do this on the lowest magnification as they couldn't wind down too far and damage the lens on this one). 

 I wasn't sure how well they would respond to using the microscope with just the eyepiece, so the night before I took some images using my phone in order that the boys would have something to see even if they didn't get on with the eyepiece.  This was a highly untechnical operation - I cupped my hand as a tube around the eyepiece and balanced my phone on top of my hand.  I got the best results by turning down the light intensity under the stage, turning the phone setting to 'close up', turning off the flash and just making small adjustments to how high above the eyepiece and what angle it was at until I got good shots.  The benefit is that the resolution was good and worth the frustration of a dozen crummy shots for every good one.

The top photo is of the salt crystals that were on the slide that was evaporated rapidly.  The bottom one is from the slowly evaporated solution.  The magnification is the same for each so you can really see the difference in the size and formation.  The shape is a sort of pyramid - if you want to see this form large enough to handle and see without magnification then Maldon Sea Salt (available in the UK from supermarkets) has crystals in the same shape but a couple of millimetres or more across. 

The magic of microscopes is the kids reaction - they kept looking at the slide on the stage, then back in the eyepiece as they couldn't believe what they were seeing was the same little dot of salt.  I can well understand the craze for the unseen miniature world around us that sprang up following the invention of the microscope.  It really is an addictive past time when you get going with one.

So there it is, three simple things to do with plain old table salt.