Thursday, 31 July 2014

How to get 20 minutes peace

We've all been there - we love cooking with kids but sometimes we're in a rush and just want to get dinner done quickly without 'help' from small people.  This is precisely the time of day when they will therefor start hanging off you, grizzling and making demands however full and busy a day you have had with them, they want your attention RIGHT NOW.  So how do you head this off at the pass and get your job done without losing it and becoming a shouty monster?

This is such a simple solution you may already be doing it, or if not will wonder why you didn't think of it.  It also helps to prevent the snowstorm of toys all over the house that are never played with.  It will take a couple of hours to set up initially if you haven't already done it, but after that it is super fast to implement.

You will need an empty bookcase somewhere that the kids don't spend a lot of time, plus enough boxes to sort out the toys into groups - I find the cheap fold out fabric ones from IKEA fit two boxes to a shelf, which is handy.  I group by type of toy, a box of wooden tracks and trains for example, another of Lego, one of plastic animals and so on.  The trick is that the toys are out of sight and out of mind - this is not a self service area.  Our toy bookcase is in one of the kids rooms because they are a bit too little to play upstairs by themselves so we spend most of our time downstairs together, in the back yard, or out and about.

When you need the kids to be busy doing their own thing, take down a box of toys from the shelf and give it to them to play with.  No more than one box out at a time so that it stays fresh and interesting.  Today I put away the Chuggington train set they had been playing with for a few days and gradually losing interest in.  At that time when I needed peace to cook I pulled down the box of Megablocks and put it in the living room for them to play with.  Dinner was cooked, served and on the table with no grizzling or moaning, and dinner eaten peacefully with the promise that Daddy would play Megablocks with them after dinner.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

How to grow an artist

I was just making lunch for the boys and when it was ready they were busy outside on the patio, so I thought I'd leave them play a bit longer before I called them in as they were obviously having fun.  Ollie came in 10 minutes later - "come and look at my green stone Mummy", so off I went expecting a heap of stones or general play chaos.

I was not expecting a chalk circle, containing a chalk grid, with a slate chipping in each square and the central stone coloured green.  This is not a copy of something I had done with them before - this was entirely self directed creativity.

Children all have this creativity within them. They may have varying levels of conformity to what we would regard as being 'good at painting', but encouragement of an outlet for their creativity is an important part of caring for children.

There is a theory within childcare settings at the moment that providing children with pictures to colour in, or stickers, stamps and templates, gives them the message that their own work is inferior and we should therefore only give them free-drawing materials.  This seems a bit too far for me since kids tend to adapt any resource to their own ideas - I've never seen a pink crocodile but that's what colour Toby decided to colour the one in his colouring book.  Where it becomes a problem is if that is all they have, and if we sit there nagging them to use certain colours, keep inside the lines and so on.

The boys enjoying the cool floor in the Quentin Blake exhibition
 Adult artists also tend to learn about the work of other artists and how to use a variety of different media before they go on to develop their own style, and this is true of children too.  So the way to grow an artist (in my definition this is someone who embraces creativity and produces something that satisfies their creative thoughts and feelings) is to provide materials, show ways they can be used yourself, and also go and see what other people have produced.
Toby drawing his self portrait

Galleries are a great place to do this, and are increasingly welcoming of children and families.  So long as you can keep sticky fingers off the art (unless it is a touch gallery) and they aren't charging around, most Galleries are very happy to see you.  The key to these two caveats are vigilance and timing.  Feed the kids before you start trying to look at anything, keep their attention by holding them up to a picture in each gallery, saying what you like about it and challenging them to find their favourite and tell you about it, use any resources the gallery provides such as worksheets but don't feel you have to stick to them and do every activity, and keep the time frame small.  It is better to look at a couple of things and try out the ideas at home then it is to try to look at everything and then get cross with overloaded children.  When I talk about science topics I always say 'if you know the correct terminology, use it' but if you are like me and have more enjoyment of art than actual knowledge then don't feel pressured to look clever in front of other gallery users and staff.  Just use the words you think will help to develop your child's vocabulary and reasoning for example comments such as "does that picture make you feel happy or sad?  It makes me feel sad, maybe because of the colours the artist used" works for us.

Ollie's self portrait
On Sunday it was Pirate Day here in Hastings and we used the opportunity to have lunch in the Jerwood Gallery Cafe (the kids love the macaroni cheese on the kids menu) and then see the new Quentin Blake display.

The Gallery provided pencils, clipboards and a new summer activity booklet with things to look for and spaces to draw things for yourself.

The boys particularly enjoyed making their own self portraits and lay on the cool floor for a long time, recovering from the heat and crowds outside as well as having fun drawing.

If you are interested in your children learning about specific artists, you could even pick up books from the library and have a go at making something together in the style of that artist, just as Quentin Blake's exhibit explored the artists he has enjoyed looking at himself at the Jerwood.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How to make an eggcellent pirate treasure box toy

 With Pirate Day coming up soon in Hastings our minds have been on Pirate themed activities this week.  I noticed that Tesco's have started selling craft kits to turn items saved from the recycling box into toys so I decided to do what I do when I see ready meals - pinch the idea but make it from scratch myself.  The kits do look cool and would make nice gifts - perhaps something to do at a grandparent's house if they have long ago cleared away all the paint and glue from when they raised you - but since we're regular junk modellers we have stacks of crafty bits put by already.

Today we decided to make egg box treasure chests.  All we used were two cardboard egg boxes - ours were already brown so we didn't need to paint them (If all you have are plastic ones, then you can either mix poster paint half and half with PVA (white) glue to make it stick to the plastic, or use brown tissue paper with a half and half water and PVA glue mix to make paper mache to cover the box).

Next we glued strips of thin yellow card to the lid of the box to look like metal bands.  The boys coloured in the fastening of the box
 with a black felt tip pen to make it look like a lock and drew lines on the lid to show the wooden planks the chest would be made from.

The final stage was to make some treasure - you can be really imaginative here with making bead necklaces, foil rings, plastic gem stones etc...  We went with the simpler option of scrunching aluminium foil into coin shapes.

Toby has also coloured his on the inside with wax crayons, then used the treasure chest to store the crayons, the aluminium 'coins' and a Thomas the Tank Engine train.

If you're looking for a super quick 10 minute filler activity that takes almost no time to set up or pack away and doesn't cause a lot of mess, this is ideal.  It's not the most impressively realistic treasure box you will ever see, but the kids don't seem to care about that and have been 'burying' their treasure in the sofa cushions and under the raspberry bushes in the garden all afternoon.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Face painting for fun and community

Last year I saw an advert for a free professional face painting course run by my local Children's Centers.  I jumped at the chance because I could see it being a really useful skill to bring to friend's parties and community events.  I had a brilliant time doing the course and it turned out to be more useful than I could have imagined because I got recruited at the end of the course to become a Children's Center volunteer.

A year on from the course and I have painted on quite literally hundreds of children and adults, including my own long-suffering husband who gets volunteered to be my practice face on a regular basis.  He is also absolutely essential in my ability to offer my face painting to help at parties and events because he is the one chasing our boys around and trying to keep them out of trouble while they're full of party food and adrenaline.

I don't post a lot about the face painting, even though it can take over at least of part of most weekends.  This isn't through any lack of enthusiasm - just lack of photos since I don't take pictures of the kids I paint on - mainly for safeguarding reasons as I don't think it's the done thing these days - but also because at a normal event I spend the whole session glued to a chair painting constantly without a chance to take a slurp of water, never mind a photo.

This picture is a rare one then - Ollie was my first customer at a local school fete where I was painting to raise funds for them (over £30 in two hours).  I love it when he does want to be painted because it breaks the ice and once one person has had it done, all the other kids flock in.  It's funny though that my own kids are often the only ones without any paint on them at the end of the party - partly because it's no novelty to them, but also because Ollie loves a certain Superman costume and generally doesn't want his face painted while he's wearing it.  Toby will only let me paint him if it's reciprocal and he's allowed to paint on me - fine at home maybe not when I'm in public.

It might also strike people as strange that I don't face paint at our own parties, but painting takes me completely away from being able to do anything else and there's definitely not time to host the party and paint the guests.  For this reason when friends ask me to teach them so they can do their own parties I always say "yes, ... but.. just shout and I'll come and paint" - I love to spread the things I've learned, but since my kit as it stands currently represents about £100 of paint, sponges, brushes and glitters  (and a basic starter kit costs about £25), that's a lot for friends to lay out for a particular event when they will find out they can't use it because it's so time consuming.  I'm not a registered face painter with liability insurance, so I just paint for free for friends or as a volunteer at events.  So how do I pay for my kit?  I sometimes get small donations from friends or event planners, which is totally voluntary and not a 'fee', and this is ploughed straight back into replacing used paints, expanding my colour pallet, buying a few select more expensive paints for line work, new sponges and brushes, and don't forget lots and lots of glitter gel.  Maybe at some point I will go professional but I like the 'pay it forward' way I have of working as a volunteer - some folks give a little, most don't, but those that do pay for those that don't and in the meantime I get to help raise money for schools, help with groups events, provide entertainment for the public at big events, and best of all see my friends kids (and my own) with great big smiles on their faces.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Play dough volcano

Ollie was 'reading' one of his science books in the car the other day and wanted to do 'an experiment with volcanoes'.  It sounded like a great idea to me, so when we got home from swimming I decided that making a bicarbonate volcano would be a fun activity.

The first step was to make some play dough.  I like the recipe I'm giving below because it measures in cups and tablespoons rather than grams, which makes it easier for the kids to help to measure out the quantities:
2 cups plain flour
2 cups water
1 cup salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cream of tartar (optional but helps the play dough to keep longer without going slimey - unlikely you'll want to save the dough after this activity though so you may as well leave it out)
1-2 teaspoons colouring - we used blue because ours is a bit rubbish at being blue but makes a good rocky grey colour.

Help your kids to measure, add and stir the ingredients, then put into a saucepan and cook on a medium heat stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and looks like dough. it will obviously be hot at this point, so when we make play dough I add in another activity while we wait for it to cool.

 For our 'cooling' activity on this day Matt and Ollie made a volcano picture.  Matt drew the cone, magma chamber and vents, then Ollie coloured it.  Matt drew guide lines for Ollie's words and they worked out what to write letter by letter "What is this red stuff you've drawn inside the volcano? That's right it's magma.  What do you think the word 'magma' starts with..." with some help over shaping the letters by writing each out on a separate piece of paper (while Ollie tuts "I know how to write a 'm'!"). 

I was surprised when Ollie said that the stuff coming out of the volcano was lava and chunks of rock blown off the top - I didn't realise he had remembered that the molten rock is magma when it's inside the volcano and lava when it's outside - I've had A-level students that didn't remember the difference.

In the end they labelled the vent, cone, lava and the magma chamber, by which time Toby had made a birthday card for his friend and our play dough was cool enough for the next stage.

I save plastic pots and tubs for our experiments and activities, and today a pot which had previously contained a small fairy cake in an Asda children's lunch pack was the perfect one - small, plastic and with a push fit lid into which I could easily cut a small round hole in the centre.  I added a couple of teaspoons of red food colouring to the pot, then four teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda and put the lid on.  This formed our magma chamber and the boys modelled the volcano around it.

Next I filled a large medicine syringe with vinegar and the boys took turns squirting it into the magma chamber and laughing at the explosive results.  The first couple of goes where a bit too tame, just gently bubbling down the volcanoes sides, so Matt added some sticky tape to make the aperture in the lid of the chamber smaller.  The resulting fountains of bicarb and vinegar caused great delight.  This video isn't the biggest eruption we had, but for some reason the other footage isn't working.

So what are the science bits from this?  The bicarb and vinegar experiment is an old favourite - adding the acid vinegar to the alkaline* bicarbonate of soda causes the release of carbon dioxide bubbles.  If you add pressure by having a lid on the container with a hole in it, the results can fountain up quite impressively - for a really impressive version look online for videos of the 'mentos and cola' experiment.

What has this got to do with volcanoes?  Quite a bit surprisingly, since there are different types of volcanoes but the one that every kid draws, the cone shape, is an explosive volcano**.  Famous examples of this type include Mount St Helens and Mount Pinatubo.  These volcanoes are explosive because of the presence of gasses dissolved under pressure in hot, highly viscous (thick) magma.  When sufficient pressure builds up to blow a hole in the top (or sometimes side if the vent to the summit is plugged) of the volcano, the pressure is released and the gases suddenly come out of a dissolved state into a gaseous state which froths up the newly emerging lava to form volcanic ash, which, along with other pyroclastic material, rockets up into the atmosphere until it runs out of energy and then collapses on itself, at which point it rushes down the sides of the volcano as a pyroclastic flow, a very fast deadly wave of burning hot poisonous gases and ash.  Very few people actually die from lava flowing from a volcano - it's the pyroclastic flow which is the real danger.  The bubbles you create by adding vinegar to bicarb are about the safest way you can demonstrate how important gases are in an explosive eruption.

As always, don't be afraid to use the proper terminology if you know it when explaining and describing what's happening as kids are amazingly receptive and will surprise you with what they retain over time.  If you don't feel confident explaining what's happening, do the activity anyway and then have fun together looking up explanations in books or the internet.  Finding videos of real volcanoes is a good follow up activity, and if you have some don't forget to try floating your pumice stone foot rubber in a bowl of water - rock shouldn't float right?  Pumice is special and it's all down to those gasses that were in the magma.

Safety bit: Things to be careful of - usual care to be taken with hot stove/hot play dough while you're making the dough; during the chemistry bit be careful of getting bicarb/ vinegar in eyes - wear eye protection if you are concerned, wash eyes immediately with luke warm water if you do get any in there as both will sting.  It can be fun to see how high you can make the volcano jet out, but you don't want to be showering bystanders with the discharge so do exercise sense and start small.

*ok chemistry purists, technically it's a base because it's dry, but acid and alkali are everyday terminology.

** the other main type is an effusive volcano - one that oozes over a long period of time, such as those on Hawaii.  Once upon a time there were also vast lava flows called 'flood basalts' but we can all be glad we haven't any of these now - look up 'Deccan traps' if you want to know why.  Other less impressive but still interesting types of volcanoes are less well known, including mud volcanoes.