Friday, 19 September 2014

Learning through play dough

The National Curriculum has changed in England, causing a mixed response from parents.  For those who have children who take naturally to numbers, the change in the requirement for the number children should be able to count to by the end of reception year from 20 to 100 seems like a better goal.  When you have a pre-schooler who can already count to 20, that being the goal by the end of their first year at school can seem limiting.

However for a huge number of kids who are struggling with the basics, a goal of 100 is a lot of stress at an age when the focus of education should perhaps be on gaining confidence, interpersonal skills and self care.  So what can you do to support gaining literacy and numeracy skills in a way that won't cause stress and in a way better suited to small children's development needs and abilities?

One fantastic medium for play that I have written about before is play dough.  It is easy, cheap and fun to make and can be used for an endless array of play learning.  A fantastic medium in itself for developing fine motor skills, add in colourings and scents and you have a dough that stimulates several areas of the brain as it processes the texture, colour and smell of the dough.  For kids of Toby's age (2) the experience of trying out plastic scissors, rolling pins and cutters all helps to develop the muscles in his hands and the dough offers a great material for creative play.
 For older children like Ollie (4) this play can also be guided into playing number, letter and word games.  Start children off by helping them to model the first letter of their name, then perhaps their whole name, or another word they want to make.  Ollie is currently fascinated with working out what letters are in words, and reading what words say.  In the picture he has made the word 'cat'.  You could do the same with number characters - again starting with something relevant to them such as their age.

By creating 3D shapes of number and letter characters you are doing three things.  The first is that by sitting with your child and playing with them you are making them feel good about themselves. Nothing is more precious to your child than your time - even if it's the half an hour after work and before bedtime, this time spent focusing on them will be their favourite part of the day.  The second thing is that you are making learning into a game and introducing letters and numbers without coercion and stress "hey look, I made an 'm' for 'mummy', can you help me to make an 'o' for 'Ollie'".  Lastly, presenting numbers and letters in different formats helps to cement the recognition of their shapes - written on paper, printed in a book, seen on an educational show like Numtums, printed with a stamper, written in glitter on card, made out of sticks - the more your little one is exposed to the shapes the better chance they have of becoming familiar with them.  For the thousands of children with dylexia and visual stress this hands on play approach is especially helpful.

Anything that you can make into a game helps to prevent the mental block that kids often develop when learning is made too serious and either too boring or too hard.  In our dough printing game Ollie stamped out numbers for me to read to him - when Ollie stamped out numbers over a billion he gave me a cheeky smile and said "that's how old you are mummy".  In the picture he is finding out how adding zeros changed the value of the number from 5, to 50, to 500 to 5000.

Dough can also be used to introduce the basics of addition, subtraction and division - make little balls to count and add etc...  Division can be taught by playing at cafes with play dough pizza "I'd like to buy half a pizza please", "there are three of us so we need to divide this pizza by three to make thirds"...  I introduce this language well before I expect them to be able to understand the concepts just as part of everyday speech and as a result they develop the understanding without really noticing they are doing maths.  Never say "No that's wrong" as they will become afraid to try - say "almost there, we just need to ..." instead.

Finally a note on the pace of learning.  It can feel like a competition when people tell you what their kids are doing, but the goal of this play learning is principally just to have fun with you little ones.  Ollie was fairly early with some of these skills, but other friends have kids who were counting earlier, or later, and it really doesn't matter so long as you are supporting them to progress at their own pace.  The aim of play learning is to provide opportunities for learning as opposed to having a list of what they 'should' be doing by a particular age.  If your little one wants to stop looking at letters and make a play dough rocket, then go with the rocket.  Little and often is the key to learning any new skill.

If you have kids already at school who are struggling, don't be afraid to go back to playing with the basics and make sure they have firm foundations to build the trickier stuff on.  If the basics are missed, everything else becomes impossible.  I listened to a colleague at the 6th Form College (where I taught A-Levels) trying unsuccessfully to explain to a 16 year old resitting her maths GCSE that 10 divided by 5 was 2.  Even when the teacher brought out 2p coins to help make it more visual the youngster still couldn't grasp it.  Not every child is going to grow up to be friends with advanced mathematics, but we should be sending each and every one of them out into the world with the ability to work out if they've got the correct change in a shop, and starting early with playing with numbers is a great way to get this basic life skill embedded.

Play dough recipe:
2 cups plain flour (shops own value flour is fine)
2 cups water
1 cup salt
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon cream of tartar (helps to prevent the dough going slimy if you're planning on keeping it for a few days)
colours and food flavourings as you want - turmeric, cinammon, jelly crystals, peppermint essence, lavender oil are all fun choices - I've also seen sand and glitter added but I don't like the texture.

Cook on a medium heat until it looks like dough instead of gloop.  Leave to cool before playing with it.  I store ours wrapped in clingfilm

Safety - keep littlies away from the stove when you're cooking the dough.  Avoid them eating it too as the salt is bad news for small children.

Friday, 12 September 2014

A year of volunteering

A lovely friend I met through a Children's Center playgroup reminded me this morning that it is a year today that we started on the Children's Center Volunteering Program.  It is not the first time I have been a volunteer - I started as a teenager working weekends and holidays in a Shaw Trust charity shop helping to raise money to help disabled people access employment and have given my time to a variety of different things over the years, but this is the first time I have experienced such a long lasting change to my every day life.

The volunteering training was a very enlightening experience, confirming some training I had previously received in other roles, such as child safeguarding, and opening a window on other areas I knew less about.  The people I met through the course have become good and hopefully lifelong friends who I learn so much from in their creativity, compassion and resilience.

The first aid training I received was put into practice a couple of days ago when Ollie choked on his dinner - a couple of firm strikes to the back, the food was dislodged and he carried on eating his dinner like nothing had happened.  A seemingly minor occurrence, but every year we have stories in the papers of children choking and dying at school during lunch time, a clear indication to me that everyone should receive basic first aid training.

So what does volunteering involve?  It can be anything you want it to be and we very much chose the roles we do and the projects we get involved in.  My activities this year included working with other volunteers and our co-ordinator to create a new role of 'Parent Supporter' which meant we could volunteer in play groups with our own children present - we didn't want our volunteering to detract too much from our own precious time with our children, and creches are too costly to run for every activity anyway.  This role resulted in four hours a week of volunteering, helping parents and providing a spare pair of hands for staff at two play groups, listening to people's concerns, successes and problems and signposting them on to other support if it was needed, helping to show new visitors to the groups where all the facilities were and generally helping out.  I also attend monthly Volunteers meetings where I take the minutes and type them up afterwards.  I have been able to put my Facepainting training to use at one-off events in the community and enjoyed attending other events such as the Toddle Waddle just as a parent helping to raise money for new toys for our centers.  This summer I helped to research events for children running over the summer holidays for the Children's Center's 'fun alert' - an e-mail listing and website with the most comprehensive guide to free and low-cost activities for under-5 year olds.

We have attended consultation meetings to try to save our Children's Centers from 'de-designation' (effectively closure) and I have become involved in a group which meets monthly with a range of bodies interested in local services including local Councillors and service providers - my role is to provide a voice for service users.

The opportunities for further training have been amazing, from supporting families with a family member in prison (which I'll be quite honest left me in tears - more children in the UK are affected by a family member in prison than are affected by divorce!) to Makaton training.  The Makaton training was initially useful to us as a family when Toby had communication difficulties, but also the day after I completed the second level of training I used it to communicate with my first customers at the Face painting stall I ran for a local school's summer fair.  It has also led to my involvement in running a 'Shine and Sign' group for children with language delay at a new venue - we had our planning meeting for the term this week and will be delivering our first session in a fortnight.

This week I helped to test the local council's new website and guides for families to try to bring information about what help and playgroups are available to a wider audience for less cost than the old website and printed guides.  I walked with the boys through the park with their scooters to get to the session, they had fun in creche for an hour, and then afterwards we spent a fun morning playing in the park.  Home for lunch and then back to the park to ride bikes and meet a volunteer friend to put together a proposal for a new group we feel there is a need for following talking to parents in our groups.

Birth and the first days and weeks with a new baby are something which for a lot of people, myself included, are nothing short of horrific due to the negligence and lack of compassion of hospital staff and we were shocked by how many people are carrying the trauma of these early days with them years after the event.  We are proposing to put together a monthly session with a creche and a health visitor present where mums can get it all off their chests.  We found that the general experience is that we expect to be able to have a natural birth, followed by breastfeeding and cloth nappies, and when this doesn't work out mums feel like absolute failures.  Compounded by attitudes of hospital staff and lack of basic care, such as provision of pain relief post Caesarian section, mums come out of hospital to a world that doesn't want to hear what happened because we hold the ideal of motherhood being natural and instinctive - if it's not like that there must be something wrong with you and we don't want to hear your moaning.  I was fortunate to have a husband with the compassion to listen and help get me through but too many people are lacking someone to just listen to them.  For the thousands of families who need help getting pregnant in the first place this stress happens well before they even get to the birth.  Others have trouble bonding with the screaming little bundle of rage placed in their exhausted arms when they expected the 5 minute TV delivery and the airbrushed image of contented mother and child nestled in soft white linen together.  So we want a place where we can tell mums that we do want to listen to whatever they want to tell us, get it out in the open and then look at ways of letting it go and moving on and that they're not stupid or a failure, they're real women who are doing great and to share the help that is available when things are not so great.

Other volunteers contribute hundreds of hours between them to supporting an astounding array of groups and events, including baby swimming, music groups, craft and messy play groups, young parents, new parents with twins, book bugs, a Saturday Dad's group and even online support through Facebook groups.  Whatever you think there might be a need for, you can find an opportunity to volunteer doing it - and if it doesn't already exist and you can make a good case for it being needed, you will be provided support, advice and possibly even a venue to make it happen.  You don't have to be a particular type of person, volunteers come from all walks of life, ages, genders and physical abilities.  Some volunteers work full or part time, or aren't in paid employment, some are parents, some are grandparents.  The only thing they seem to have in common is a compassionate non-judgmental mentality and a fantastic sense of humour.  I'm also hoping that we are raising our boys with the idea that helping others is a normal part of life and with a fantastic community of like-minded people around us with their own compassionate kids for the boys to play with - some of their best friends are the children of other volunteers.  The only drawback is the nagging suspicion that we're getting more back than we're giving.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Our new classroom - the unexpected allotment

A serendipitous meeting with a lady at a playgroup led to us getting an unexpected allotment just over a week ago.  Ollie had been wanting a bigger garden for  along time, and our patio fruit and veg were taking over the small space we have at home, so when I met a lady who said there were plots being made available at her allotments I decided to take the plunge.  I was expecting a long wait - typically it can take years, but the day after she took a request letter in to her allotment association for me I got a phone call asking if I wanted to go an view a plot.

The plot looked in bad condition with every inch covered in weeds, including some dock and  a lot of large bindweed, but the soil looked reasonable when I poked in a scraping made by a badger and the allotment people seemed welcoming and helpful.  There is even a clubhouse shed where you can buy reduced rate seeds and composts, plus kids and sheds are welcome, so we signed up and got stuck in.  The plot had been split in half and a '5 rod' plot was still three times the size of our back yard so it seemed more manageable for us while we're learning.

Much to our delight it turns out that a lot of work had been done by the previous tenant, who unfortunately had to give it up.  Under the weeds we found compost bins and areas under plastic which were weed-free and ready to dig over.  I cleared the bindweed and bagged it up to take to the green waste recycling place at our local tip.  I know this is a weed experienced allotmenteers tend to burn but I though it unlikely to dry out enough for that before it rooted again.  Since it grows from any scrap of broken root I expect to be trying to keep on top of the bindweed for a long long time.  The boys enjoyed pulling it up (wearing gloves) and helping to push weeds around in their little plastic wheelbarrow.

I then moved on to digging, while the boys built sides around the first bed using wood found on the plot and some slats from our old bed.  They were so excited to be using the hammer and saw (under close supervision), so we have unexpectedly added woodworking skills to our home education curriculum.  Working with their hands to pull, push, grasp and manipulate are all fantastic for building up the muscles in their hands they need for writing and other fine skills.  Building is also a great feel-good experience because they have undivided attention while they do it and can look back at the end of the brilliant structure they have contributed to.

While I was digging a slow worm (a legless lizard) shot out from under my fork, so we all stopped to admire the beautiful creature before finding a nice quiet space by the compost bins for it.  I was 23 when I saw my first slow worm, despite having great parents who took us out and about in the fresh air all the time, so I'm amazed about the things the boys have already seen.

We have put in a cloche with winter cabbages, sprouting broccoli and leeks, plus transplanted some over-crowded strawberries from our pots at home.  The allotment will certainly cement the boys understanding of where food comes from, how plants grow, and why we don't waste food.  I'm hoping to get another cloche and sow some salad leaves and pak choi this afternoon.  We got a great haul of discounted packets of seeds (50p a pack) from our local garden center so it seems worth the gamble of sowing a few things this late in the season.  We've also sourced an almost free shed because we can use our Tesco clubcard vouchers to pay for one on their website (£80 of vouchers for a £160 shed).

This outside space is already proving to be an exciting learning space and the possibilities for it are endless as we find ways to integrate encouraging wildlife with growing our own food.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Catch of the day - science and cooking

Apologies to my veggie followers, this is a post you may want to skip.  I am 'mainly vegetarian' - I think the term is flexitarian.  I pick the veggie option where ever possible, and mainly cook veggie myself, but I do include some ethically sourced seafood for variety and because the kids adore it.  My own reasons for being a veggie are mainly based in animal welfare concerns and an attempt to reduce our impact on the environment, but I do understand that many hard line veggies don't want to see any animal products used.  We're quite 'middle way' in most of our lifestyle choices, and this is my 'middle way' approach to dissection.

I have dissected  a few creatures at Uni, and can see that as a learning tool these dissections were useful, but I don't feel quite comfortable with using animals solely for this purpose at home.  My solution is to do edible dissection.  We go down to the fishmongers on the sea front and select a locally caught fish from our excellent local sustainable fishery - the fish is all caught using small beach landing boats.  I ask for it to be scaled since this is a bit that results in scales flying everywhere when I do it at home, but no other preparation to be done by the fishmonger. 

When we get home I let the boys have a thorough look at the fish, answering questions as they have them and asking prompting questions about form, function and lifestyle.  For example with this Grey Mullet we observed dorsal spines and discussed their purpose, investigated the mouth and discussed the lack of big sharp teeth, looked at the streamlined shape of the fish and the purpose of the gills.  We talked about the habitat of the fish and how it was caught.  The grey mullet is a bottom feeder, and once you know that the lack of large sharp teeth and the dorsal spines make sense.

After a good look at the outside, I opened the fish and we had a look at the organs.  I then showed the boys how to fillet and debone this fish and Matt pan fried the fillets, which we had with mashed potatoes and local wild samphire.  We hadn't tried mullet before and the taste was interesting, more like salmon than a white fish like cod.

This is about as ethical as I can make a dissection and if the boys want to eat meat I think it's important they know what it is and how to prepare and cook it.  As a society we have got so used to chunks of something that could be anything, wrapped in a coating and served in a bucket like pig swill, eaten without thought or respect.  I'm not advocating total global veganism, but maybe we can slow down and raise kids who know enough about their food to want to be active consumers who eat things out of choice rather than just convenience.  I also think that you can't beat hands on learning and that the combining of subjects such as science and cooking makes for a rounded experience that makes it easier for our brain to understand and retain the information that it is gathering.

Safety bit:  clean hands, work surfaces and utensils to avoid getting food poisoning.  Also, some bits are sharp, e.g. scales, spines, teeth in some species so take care.  Knives for filleting need to be really sharp, so I don't let the kids near when I'm doing this bit - they watch from a little distance.  As kids get older they could help trimming fins with scissors and eventually be taught to use a knife for filleting, but as mine are 4 and 2 this is a long way off. 

If kids are really squeamish, don't force the issue - a light tough of the fish first time is enough and then sit a little way off to watch the rest.  With repetition kids will generally lose any discomfort, but if they don't it's not a big deal - we're all made differently and maybe you have a little vegan on your hands.  I discourage mucking around with the fish - a part of what I'm trying to instil is respect for the animal.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Nature Explorers at the Seven Sisters Country Park

On Tuesday night I texted a lovely friend I hadn't seen in a few weeks who I owed a phone call to apologise for my rubbishness in the phoning department.  She messaged back with the comment that she had been just about to phone me on the off chance I was free to meet up the next day.  Since we live at least three hours drive away from each other we agreed a mid point would be good, and since she was dog sitting for a friend I suggested that the Seven Sisters Country Park would be an ideal venue for our catch up.

So on Wednesday the boys and I packed up our lunches and headed off to the far reaches of the county to a park threaded through by the meandering Cuckmere river, which is featured in just about every geography textbook I have ever seen (and since I taught geography A Levels for four years that's quite a few).

There are many things I love about this park.  Getting there takes a bit of a long time from where we live, but it is on a bus route should you need it, and if not the parking in the forest car park is £3.50 for the whole day, which is refreshingly cheap since we went right in the middle of the Summer holidays when everywhere else jacks up its parking charges.

There are good facilities near the forest car park, including a tea room, toilets, bike hire and a discovery centre.  The boys loved the discovery centre, stencilling sea creatures and investigating the hands on display materials of locally found objects.

They both had a great experience holding a variety of materials including fossil bearing chalk rocks, whelk egg cases, mermaids purses and a selection of skulls.  We looked at the differences and similarities between species of deer skulls and antlers, a sheep skull and even a badger skull.  Ollie was fascinated articulating the jaw hinge of the badger skull and seeing how the antlers attached to the deer skulls.  Toby understood immediately what the antlers were, holding them up to his head (although his deer noise and cow noise are suspiciously similar).

We indulged in a couple of new Field Studies Council fold out identification guides to add to our collection.  These provided a great deal of interest as Toby would point to something and say 'what that' and Ollie supplied the name of the object, plant or animal.  Ollie liked the poo identification page on the back of his animal tracks guide.
 An ice cream van supplied us with unsurprisingly overpriced ice lollies which kept us all busy while we waited for my friend to arrive.  We also spent the time watching blue butterflies flit around the wild flowers and crouching to peer into the drainage channel near the river, spotting a leech.  When I explained what leeches were and how they sucked out animal's blood, Ollie exclaimed loudly 'well I don't want one of those bloody things on me' just as a shocked-looking elderly couple walked past us.  Oops.

 After my friend arrived we enjoyed a stroll down to the sea (slightly hampered by Toby trying to insist I carry him and Ollie wheedling to hold one of the dog leads, while said doggies pulled in different directions).  We did manage to get our catch up chat in between 'Ollie get down from there', 'Mila stop pulling', 'CARRY ME!!!' and extracting Toby from the thick back mud in a puddle which sucked his shoe right off his foot.  At the end of the walk we sat on the shingle bank overlooking the park on one side and the sea on the other, with the spectacular chalk cliffs to the side of us.  I think the shingle might have been hard for less ample behinds than mine because I ended up with both dogs and Toby cuddled up on my legs.

If you want a great day out with plenty of opportunities to experience and learn about landscapes and natural history, the Seven Sisters is a great choice.  It's never lonely due to the high footfall of visitors, which is handy if you are taking small children out on your own.  On this visit I was able to supply a sticky plaster to another family, but if it had been us in difficulties there were plenty of people to help us out too.  It is also fairly flat and is accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs up until you get to the shingle beach at the end of the walk. 

Even the huge rainstorm brewing in the black clouds waited until we were safely back in the car before it unleashed a deluge, so all in all a pretty perfect day out.