Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Science on Sea

 Last week we went to a fantastic free interactive Science Workshop for kids organised by the Hastings Pier Charity.

Hastings Pier was burned down by arsonists a few years ago and the rebuilding effort is being paid for through fundraising by this charity, but as well as working on the pier project, they are also delivering brilliant community sessions including arts and crafts and now science.

The show was run by American born, Sussex based 'science dude' Brad Gross and was the first of a series of monthly science events.

The photos I have taken don't do justice to the activities, but it was tricky getting shots without OPCs (Other People's Children) in the picture.  For better images from the event taken by the organisers follow the link from here and look at the post from the 13th December 2014.

The first part of the show was a lively interactive mixture of science concepts, mainly based around understanding our solar system and an introduction to constellations, but also with a nod to the science of the pier including weathering of the structure.  Each segment had activities for children to volunteer to take part in and lots of audience interaction.  Ollie and Toby had the chance to be planets orbiting the Sun (Ollie is Venus in the picture, Toby was Uranus).

After the first part of the show, the kids then took part in make and take away activities.  The boys had fun producing their very own star chart of the constellation of Orion with stickers and buttons and there was also a beach layering activity using breakfast cereals to try.

Brad paced the show very well for his young audience and hit that sweet spot of getting information across in a fun and memorable way to the children while at the same time making the adults laugh.  The venue was perfect too, accessible, comfortable and with panoramic views of the sea and the work in progress of the pier.

Places are limited at these free but book-ahead shows, so we'll definitely be putting our names down for future shows and hoping to get a place.  Hopefully the success of these shows will highlight the thirst for science education in the local area and we'll be seeing a lot more of these kinds of opportunities springing up in the future.

Science is fun and exciting, and the hard work of staff and volunteers preparing and delivering these kinds of events helps to spread that message to the next generation, so why not have a look to see what is already being delivered in your local area and make sure you go along to everything that you spot, because nothing says 'thank you, we want more like this' than bums on seats.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Music, art and emotional intelligence

 Using music to inspire painting is certainly not a new idea, but is something I have been wanting to incorporate into our routine for some time.  However  musical knowledge is definitely not my strong point.  I can just about fumble my way around simple guitar tunes but have only the barest awareness of classical composers and my CD collection is pretty limited in any genre.  It's a weak point I feel conscious of and I would like the boys to grow up an environment rich in music and art.

There's all sorts of educational reasons why exposure to these things are important for children's development - from shaky studies into increased IQ (don't get me started on the poor science of the study, the media extrapolation to apply it to babies, or the flaws of IQ testing in general), to links between maths ability and musical practice.  Beyond all these 'IQ boosting' claims however I think there is a far deeper reason why music and art are important.

Music and art (and maths and dance...) are important ways in which we seek to understand the world around us and communicate our feelings, ideas and knowledge.  For children, who are just starting to develop their ability to understand how they feel and express it, this exposure to and participation in art and music is particularly important.

The teacher-speak used to describe a child's ability to understand and express their emotions and display empathy for the feelings of others is 'emotional intelligence'.  For a child (or an adults) happiness and success in life emotional intelligence is just as important, of not more so, than traditionally measured academic intelligence.

The activity we did today is extremely easy to replicate.  You will need music, something to play it on, and something to create a piece of art with - collage, paint, crayons it doesn't matter and you could vary the media you use each time you do the activity.

Finding a good piece of music was a stumbling block for me. I knew I wanted something more atmospheric and different in feel to the usual cheery acoustic stuff I listen to, probably something more classical in style, but my previously mentioned lack of awareness of composers left me a bit stumped where to start.

Enter the perfectly timed offer of a CD to review.  The CD, by British composer Lydia Kakabadse was everything I could have wanted for this project and more.  With a diverse cultural heritage herself, this composer has created an album with a range of different influences including Middle Eastern and Russian, which is perfect as it produces a distinctive and mysterious-sounding set of pieces which are just right for inspiring young imaginations.  The album, titled 'The Phantom Listeners' provided a number of different pieces to inspire us and each came with a useful guide in the CD booklet which explained what the piece was about and enabled me to get to grips with descriptions I could use to tell the boys a little about each piece.

We started with a piece called 'The Mermaid' based on a story written by the composer and narrated by the rich voice of Kit Hesketh-Harvey (who you may have heard of for his musical satire 'Kit and the Widow' among other things).  As we listened to the story and the music the boys drew their interpretation of what they heard, and I asked them to tell me about what they were drawing and about how the characters felt.

Ollie drew a very mournful-looking mermaid trapped in the net of a rather scary looking grinning pirate.  In Ollie's words 'the pirate is happy because he can sell the mermaid and get more treasure, the mermaid is sad because she misses her friends and will die away from the water'.  (The hand outline above the boat is a jellyfish, just because Ollie fancied drawing one).

 Toby's picture looks like random swirls, but when asked to tell me about it he told me 'here an island, here a mermaid, here a pirate, here an octopus, here a sea monster' when I asked him if the mermaid was happy or sad he said 'mermaid is sad'.  Ollie adapted his picture as the story unfolded, changing the mermaid's expression and eventually scribbling out the whole picture.  It's important not to interfere too much with what your child produces during an activity like this, if they get stuck for ideas you can try leading questions like 'how does the pirate feel'  or 'does this music make you think about castles or aeroplanes' but if your child wants to make the sky pink, or scribble the face off a character, it's their picture, let them.  I like to take picture as the boys create things so that if they decide to paint it out or scrunch it up, I still have the steps before they did that as a record.

 Some of the next songs had no words and were initially trickier for Ollie to respond to, so I started him off by drawing a happy face and a sad face and asking him to point to the face that was the same as the music.  He picked the happy face and then started to draw and tell me a story about how the naughty pirates were now all locked up in a dungeon at a castle.  He said there were twenty pirates and they were angry because they were trapped and they kept trying to fight their way out of the dungeon.
Interestingly, Toby at this point wanted to climb up onto my knee and drew a castle of his own, this time with a monster locked away in it - he drew lines to represent a cage.  Toby has been worried at night about monsters for the last few weeks after reading the book of the film 'Monsters University', so this seemed to be a therapeutic way he could share his fears and deal with them by locking away the monster. He went on to ask me to draw more monsters for him to 'put in cage' and a picture of him holding the key outside the castle 'so they no get out'.

Art, like play, is a really good way for children to express, think about and deal with their emotions and worries.  Having a strong set of music tracks like the ones on this CD was a really good way to encourage thoughts about sadness or being scared so that the boys could process their feelings in the light of day and in a safe environment and hopefully will be less troubled by them at bedtime.

The boys are already used to listening to storytellers so the mixture of spoken fables and atmospheric music on this CD was a great way to bridge the gap into a new area for us.  Hopefully it will lead on to finding out about other contemporary composers.  I'm a CD fan as it's less faffing about than digital music, but if you're less of a dinosaur than me you can also download this as an MP3.  Click on the image of the CD to find out more and listen to samples.

Note: I got the CD for free to try out, but opinions, ideas and pirate drawing boys are all mine.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Watch the weather

Changes from one season to the next make a great opportunity to introduce simple weather observations to young children.  I chose just four weather types, but you could expand on this as you increase complexity.

 My aim for this activity is to get the kids used to thinking about what is happening in the world around them, so we pause for a moment before we head out of the door to look at what the weather is like.  They can then start making decisions for themselves about what clothing and shoes are needed (if I think they have made a wrong decision I stuff the extra layers/ boots into a bag and take them with us).

Having the chart builds littlest's vocabulary and adds to eldest's acquisition of sight words.  I wasn't expecting the squabbling between the kids that resulted however as Ollie wanted to put the pointer on the actual weather while Toby kept putting it on the hoped for weather (always snow).  The pointer is attached with bluetack, but one of those split pins that lets you twirl things round would be better if you have one.  The chart is just paint on card, but it would benefit from being covered with sticky-back plastic to preserve it (mine is A3 so won't fit through my laminator).

Toby wanted another chart for his play house, so I quickly knocked up another one using a paper plate.  I also made a clock on a plate, with hands bluetacked on, for the playhouse.

We're already getting questions from Ollie about why we have the weather we have, so in the new year we will start looking at the natural processes behind the weather, starting with rain and snow since he already is familiar with concepts such as evaporation, condensation and freezing.

This was a little quick thing I knocked up, but an even better learning opportunity would be to help your little ones to craft their own.  There's certainly no lack of changeable weather in the UK at the moment to inspire them, with warm sunshine one day and freezing cold sleet the next!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre

 Have you ever wanted to ride on a steam train, stream tractor, double decker bus and a fire engine complete with sirens?  Have you ever wanted to do all those things in one day?  Well, my sister in law introduced us to the place you can do all those things when she organised our annual Christmas get together.

Sixteen of us descended on Amberley Museum near Arundel (West Sussex) on Sunday and had a fantastic day riding the engines, playing with the hands-on exhibits, trying out the crafts, enjoying a meal in the cafe and even a visit to Father Christmas.  We were especially impressed that the kids who were 2 years or older were allowed to participate in a one-to-one wood turning session to produce their own Christmas decoration.  My two made a snowman and an elf, which now have pride of place on our tree.  They also really enjoyed being helped to produce a personalised 'Santa please stop here' sign at the printers and trying out all the different plug styles that were in use in Britain before standardisation.  

 The center is largely staffed by hugely knowledgeable volunteers who's dedication to kids having a fantastic experience is impressive.  This is such a brief overview of what is on offer it doesn't really do the place justice, but I'd be here all day if  I was to try to cover everything we did that day, and even then would still miss out the things we didn't have time for that we will be returning in the future to see.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Carpentry for Christmas

A few weeks ago we took a book out of the library called 'Harvey the Carpenter' by Lars Klinting (2005).  In this lovely book the process for making a tool box is explained, along with the tools used and a plan you can use, while the story of the eponymous beaver constructing the toolbox unfolds.  The kids were really impressed.  They had been asking for tools for a while and this book fired their interest in making things from wood.  "Can we make one?" was the inevitable question. "Erm, probably" was my response.  One day while I was home sick and working on a deadline it seemed the perfect opportunity for a bit of Daddy bonding time, so the boys drew up plans for the box using CAD software, with Ollie inputting the dimensions, then they headed off to try to source the materials needed.

Finding hand tools was tough (in the case of hand drills, they aren't stocked by either Wickes or B&Q) and the wood needed wasn't found, so a truly awful piece of MDF substituted for it, but the kids were pleased with their haul of carpentry essentials.  They had fun drawing out the design onto the wood and spent a couple of hours out in the shed creating the box which was to be Ollie's.  They duly painted it his favourite colour and I varnished it for them.

Next it was the turn of Toby's toolbox, which Toby and Ollie helped me make yesterday.  In typically different approaches to things, rather than using the lovely plan they had created and measuring it out, I opted for the quicker option of drawing round things and hoping for the best.  Surprisingly the result isn't much different from the boys first box, and they certainly had a lot of fun making it, and then painting it Toby's favourite colour (he's recently graduated from pink to purple, which caused him a lot of debate when choosing the watch he wanted for Christmas - a pink one with a rainbow on it, or a purple one with a butterfly.  He eventually went for the butterfly).  I also opted for a different approach to the boys first toolbox and did everything in the kitchen, where it was warm, bright and close to the coffee pot and the radio.

What I was really impressed with was how helpful the kids were, especially when in both cases one of them knew the finished product was not for them.  Ollie persisted and completed painting the box after Toby had lost interest (and started gluing glitter to a piece of paper).  Ollie also took the dustpan and brush and cleaned up the sawdust without being asked, and both took turns in handing me nails and using the hammer and saw without squabbling.  They even filed the rough edges off the shapes without filing the kitchen furniture or each other.  Those of you with daughters may not understand how surprising these things are to a parent of small boys.

A seasoned carpenter would laugh at our wonky efforts, but it's more than just a finished product that the boys are proud of (and me too - it's a long time since I built something that wasn't flat packed).  The kids enjoyed the long period of sustained attention to something for them and with them, the shared goal of producing something together and the opportunity to take time to make a gift for each other.  Of all the bits and pieces they have asked for this Christmas (watches, extra train track, torches) I think it will be these gifts to each other that will mean the most to them.

Safety bit: use your best judgement about when your kids are ready for using sharp tools, do it with extreme and constant supervision and read safety info on paints and varnishes.  Keep tools well out of reach/locked up when not in use if there is any chance your kids will go looking for them to do a little  unsupervised DIY of their own. We painted with kids ready-made poster paint (mixed with PVA glue for the first coat), and I followed the instructions on the varnish and applied it in a well ventilated space, using gloves and well away from the kids.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Silent Sunday

 Ok I know Silent Sunday is supposed to be one pic, but I liked these fungi pics too

Friday, 28 November 2014

Fit for Christmas

I don't do New Year's Resolutions to lose weight.  This is not because I don't need to lose weight, but because it's a really rubbish time of year for motivation and willpower - in the UK January is the coldest month of the year and my birthday also falls a couple of weeks after Christmas so any strict healthy eating plan would fall over as soon as the birthday cake starts calling to me.

We try to strike a balance between eating healthily and being able to enjoy treats as a treat, with the hope that this sets an example for a good relationship with food for the kids.  However, for the last couple of years in the run up to Christmas I have cut back my treats and increased my exercise in order to lose around 7lbs so I can go into the season of temptation without feeling bad every time I'm offered a mince pie or a cream drenched lump of Christmas pudding.  I can feel my clean eating friends wincing, but experience has shown me the limit of my will power and I'd rather end Christmas the same weight I started November than 7lbs heavier.  I'm over 3 stone lighter than I was in 2005 (42lbs) which I'm really pleased with for the benefits to my health and my wardrobe, especially given the 5 stone (70lb) I gained and lost during and after my pregnancies means a total loss during this 10 year period of 8 stone (112lb).  I don't want one season of festivity to derail this slow trend towards a healthy weight.

This year I have a new assistant in my fight against the flab. I received the stunning Ozeri Touch II digital bathroom scale last week and have been thoroughly impressed with it.  My old bathroom scales were as embarrassing as my waistline and as rusty as my joints, so to receive a good looking new set of scales was a real treat.  My old scales also only measured weight, which was useful for tracking changes and working out BMI, but so last century in terms of what we expect of modern bathroom scales.

The Ozeri bathroom scales are just as beautifully designed and well made as their other products. Ozeri made their name as a company supplying luxury hotel apartments, relying on the quality of the products to sell themselves to the visitors on these exclusive club holidays.  Now they have brought the same quality and design to the general market. According to their website they are the first manufacturer to champion the use of Microban antibacterial coating on bathroom scales, so they will remain hygienic and fresh smelling even if the feet standing on them are not.

The new scales are accurate to the scale of ounces (or grams if you prefer) which I tested by weighing myself, then stepping on again holding a 7 ounce bowl which I had previously weighed on my kitchen scales.  They also measure the percentage of body fat, water and muscle, plus give an estimate of bone weight.  A handy guide booklet is provided to look up what a healthy level of each is considered to be.  This was the bit I really liked - although my BMI puts me in the obese band, the measurement of my body fat (37.5% on my first weigh-in) dropped me into the next band of 'overweight' rather than obese. I could see from the scales that I was dehydrated, that I need to increase my muscle mass a little, but that my bone weight is almost double the minimum considered healthy for my weight band.  I am genuinely heavy boned (although undeniably also heavy fatted).

Curiously, it showed that Matt, who is from a visual inspection just perfect, is actually further below his minimum healthy muscle level than I am,  My days of running around after busy little lads who often want a carry home afterwards must be better for the muscle mass than working in an office, although since he is 2 stones lighter than me and has less than half as much body fat by percentage, I don't think he's too worried.

The scales are also useful for weighing the boys every so often for their growth charts.  Although this is something I don't worry about it's nice when the numbers confirm the evidence of my eyes that the boys are growing up strong and healthy and following their expected growth curves.  For much older children the other measurement functions can also be used.

The extra information from these elegant high tempered glass scales is now forming the basis of my plan of action to shift those pre-Christmas pounds.  I can see that I need to increase my hydration, so have started drinking an extra 2 pints of water a day, split into 4 servings.  I need to increase my muscle mass a little, so will ramp up the weight bearing exercise to include an extra run on the sea front with the kids as soon as I shift the cold I picked up from them. This will also help to maintain my healthy bone density.  Perhaps I should follow Toby's lead by finding the heaviest stones on the beach to throw in the sea to tone my arms and increase lean muscle there. I will also continue to resist the post-study late-night toast cravings.

So far in the week since receiving the scales and implementing just the extra water and toast reduction elements of my plan I have lost 2lb 4oz, and a little over half a percent of my body fat, plus have increased my percentage water by 2%.  Interestingly, after just a few days of reduced activity due to my cold I could also see my muscle decreasing - down by 1% in a very rapid space of time, emphasizing the importance of daily exercise.  The scales have a feature I have never seen before too - when you set your initial details such as height, age and gender you can also select the option 'male athlete' or 'female athlete' - a great addition as I'm sure folk who are more muscular than the average person get annoyed by having a high BMI when they know that they are heavier but not overweight.

For my own health as well as to provide the kids with a good role model who is able to keep up with them as they grow taller and faster I am glad of this extra boost to the healthy plan.  I have measured myself every day this week as part of my trial of the product, but from here on in I will be stepping on less regularly and enjoying the weekly treat of seeing muscle go up and fat go down.  For all those amazing folk out there who enjoy stronger will power than me and do head into January with good resolutions, this set of scales would be a good present to yourself for Christmas.

Note: I received the scales for free in order to review them, but opinions given, embarrassingly high body fat stated and gorgeous cheeky boys are all my own.  I just had a look on Amazon and the scales are currently (28/11/14) on sale at 57% off and have free delivery.