Thursday, 16 June 2016

Reading Eggs and Maths Seeds

I started studying with the Open University when Toby was two weeks old, so the boys are used to seeing me working away on the computer when they've crept down the stairs unable to sleep, but until recently I have shied away from much computer-based learning for them. Under the age of two I don't think screens are healthy for kids, and over two years old an hour or two a day is plenty if they're not to be distracted from the really important job they have of physically playing.  Now the boys are a bit bigger though, we have exchanged their hour of screen time watching TV for a really great online learning product.

 I had been hearing Reading Eggs mentioned regularly on Home Education forums for several months, and having decided to bring in some computer time I was really pleased to see that there was a two week free trial available.  The process to sign up was really easy - no annoying long data gathering questionnaire, no requirement to hand over bank details, just a straight forward sign in.  The company has also been really easy to contact and have responded quickly and positively to my queries, for example I was really happy to find out that there is a discount for Home Educators.

The boys each received access to all three products available - Reading Eggs, Maths Seeds and Reading Eggspress.  There were placement tests available to ensure the boys started off from a point appropriate to their abilities, but we could skip this and just start at lesson 1 for new learners, which we did for Toby.

Reading Eggs is aimed at ages 3-7, Maths Seeds for 3-8, and Reading Eggspress for an older range of 7-13.  For each program the children progress through a series of lessons which are all presented as games, with plenty of fun characters to meet along the way.  It has been really valuable for review purposes to see Ollie and Toby working side by side as I cans see how the programs progress.  For example Toby's games have more assistance in the form of most of the words being read out to him, while for Ollie there are more words which he has to decipher for himself.  After completing the lesson games, the boys earn points which they can use to buy things for a virtual tree house or spend to play learning games in an arcade.  They also have avatars for each program which they can personalise and use their points to buy clothes for.  The range of activities available is excellent, including a library of books available for the level they are reading at, and the option to have it read out or not.  A feature which we really liked was a story creation area where children using the program can write their own story and submit it to a competition where other users can read it and vote on it, or simply print it out for their own enjoyment.

Until recently I mainly used work books for our sit down work time, plus various project books that the boys added to as we went along.  This is good for learning how to write and physically holding a pen, but as I have to read out each task it made for a lot of 'Muuuum I've finished, now what' from one while I was midway through reading out the next task for the other so I usually ended up sending one to do jigsaws while I helped the other, then swapping over.  The benefit of the computer program is that it gives verbal instructions for how to complete each activity, and it is easy to click 'next' to move on to the next activity, so I can divide my time more easily between the boys.  This in turn means that my time sat at the kitchen table has halved and we can use my freed up time for other activities such as more cooking and painting.

Since I'm the kids' main teacher I have a really good insight into exactly what they excel at and where they need more support, but it was still very comforting to see the progress report from Reading Eggs which includes and estimate of the boys' reading ages.  Toby is 4.5, with an estimated reading age of 4.75, while Ollie is 6.5 with an estimated reading age of 6.  I was pleased with this range as Ollie has always preferred numbers to reading and only really started reading for himself at Christmas, so it was a nice confirmation of his growing confidence, while little Toby is desperate to catch his big brother up and read more books for himself.  The reading ages are explained to be a 'starting point' and are not necessarily related to chronological age since young children master skills at very much their own pace in defiance of any average performance we can try to assign them, but it is useful to have a reading age to help chose appropriate reading material such as library books.

The formula of games for learning is a winning one as the boys both really want to get on to the computer to do their Reading Eggs and Maths Seeds.  For the sake of reviewing we also tried Ollie out on Reading Eggspress, which is aimed at older children, and having completed Lesson 1 he gave it a big thumbs up and asked for more.  In just over a week that we have been reviewing the programs we are already seeing big leaps in confidence and ability for both the boys (plus a couple of 'tech tantrums' from Toby when his hour was up and he wanted to play more).

 We have been ploughing through the programs at a lesson of each a day (Ollie is on Lesson 90 of 120 in Reading Eggs) because we are in the situation of having most mornings at home to do our 'school work', but I can see a year's subscription lasting well if I can encourage Ollie to spend more time exploring the other features such as the Story Lands, Spelling, Story Factory and Library.  Alternatively if he continues to progress at his current pace he will be more than ready to switch to Reading Eggspress before we finish the extended trial which we were given in order to produce the blog review.  For Toby, who started at Lesson 1 in both Reading eggs and Maths Seeds, we should get a really long use out of a subscription.  When you subscribe for a year you chose which programs you require and are only charged for the ones you want, not all three if you don't require them, and after paying for a subscription for one child, any other children added receive a 50% family discount.

Toby tends to get tired of using the mouse fairly quickly and prefers to point at the screen and get me to do the clicking (while grumbling about it not being a touch screen like his friends iPads - seriously, I'm getting grief from a 4 year old that our tech is too old fashioned!), and the activities for his ability certainly seem set up to be perfect for touch screen devices.  Because I'm doing the clicking, he has been finishing his lessons a bit ahead of Ollie, who has more time consuming tasks involving reading and typing as well as the quicker click and drag games.  Toby has been using this time while Ollie is still on the computer to do a couple of pages from work books or to watch Ollie's progress and shout answers out, then they both go and play while I pack up the screens and set up the next activities.

Later on we come back to the table to do some more workbooks or other writing activities and I have really noticed a difference in Ollie's confidence.  Today his task was to write sentences describing pictures, and he flew through it with a 'this is fun mum' rather than the frustrated squeaking he made just a couple of weeks ago when asked to do a similar task.  For home educators the benefit of a ready made program of activities is obvious, but seeing the rapid increase in the boys' confidence and their willingness to engage with the activities I think there are likely to be solid benefits to most families whether their children are home ed or schooled.  The free trial certainly removes the uncertainty of whether it's worth subscribing and what to subscribe to - for example for some of our friends whose children are 5 or 6 and reading well above their age range they would rapidly see that the Reading Eggspress program is better suited for them.  At the other end of the spectrum, for those who are struggling with their reading and maths, the reading age is only available for the adult to see from the Parent Dashboard, so there's no need for kids to feel embarrassed by using material labelled as being for younger children, and taking the initial short tests as part of a trial period can place them at the right level without shouting about whether they are at a particular age band or not.

I haven't even covered a fraction of the things I have liked about Reading Eggs and Maths Seeds, so if you would like to look into it further then head over to their site for your own free trial, or comment below and I'll try to answer any questions you have.

Toby has an odd sticker on his head in the photos because he had a cold and was a bit feverish - the sticker is a cooling strip.  A good aspect of home ed is that if the kids are poorly, so long as they want to join in, they can carry on with our normal learning activities - in their pajamas even, although the option really is theirs when they're sick.

We start at around 8am, and by the time they're getting to the end of their screen hour my locusts of children are hungry again, so the brown stuff in the cup in the bottom picture is avocado, banana and chocolate pudding.

I got an extra long review time because having been impressed with our initial trial I contacted the company and asked if they would like me to provide a blog review, for which they added 5 weeks to the original 2 week trial period so I could really get to know the programs, plus an extra 3 weeks free as a thank you.  All opinions, words and photos are my own.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Wildflower explorers

 Last week we made the most of the sunshine and got out and about to see the Spring flowers in all their glory.

We took a magnifying glass, a spotter guide and a couple of sandwich bags for samples.

We passes swathes of yellow celandine and then passed into the main woods, with their mingled smell of bluebells and wild garlic.

 The boys carefully looked at the flowers and learned to use the spotter book to look them up.  They then took samples of the commonest varieties that are not protected, smelled everything and enjoyed the riotous singing of the birds and the warmth of the sunshine.  Flowers that appeared in the spotting book were duly awarded a 'seen it' sticker, the time of year ticked, and other observations noted down.

They also compared bare trees with those just starting to come into leaf, and described the differences in leaf shapes and colours.  We all enjoyed watching the tiny caterpillars dangling from silk suspended high above in the newly greening oak trees (this is a defence mechanism to escape predators above I believe).  We even saw a few early butterflies - a male Brimstone, a Speckled Wood and a Peacock butterfly.

For preserving flowers it isn't necessary to buy a flower press.  When we got home we simply laid out a sheet of newspaper each, put a sheet of white paper on this and laid out our flowers so that they didn't touch.  Another sheet of white paper was laid on top, and then another sheet of newspaper.  Finally all was entombed beneath a random selection of books grabbed by the boys based on merit of weightiness.  This was left for two days and then deconstructed to reveal the neatly pressed flowers.

The boys were really excited about their successfully pressed flowers.  Any that had a page in the spotter book were taped in with scotch tape (it doesn't brown and peel with age like regular tape).  Extras were taped into exercise books with the name of the flower and other details noted down. There was a disappointment when the webpage given on each page of the book in order to report sightings kept crashing so it was unusable, but all of the non techy elements of the project went really well,

This is definitely an activity we'll come back to time and time again as both boys have requested it since, and there is a whole world of plants out there to keep them interested.

Book list:  We used 'Wildflower detectives' handbook' from Miles Kelly and The Wildlife Trusts, ISBN 9781848102491 (a pound shop bargain)
plus my old friend the Wildflower Key by Francis Rose, which is excellent for more experienced botanisers

Safety bit: usual precautions and common sense when out and about, for example not picking anything if you don't know exactly what it is - firstly because it could be harmful (the anemone pictured above has a poison warning for example, which I assessed to be safe for our purposes as the kids are old enough to take the warning not to eat it), and secondly because it could be rare and protected (such as the temptingly numerous bluebells which are both protected and poisonous, so not the best candidates for picking).  It's good practice to get kids into the habit of checking with you if it's ok to pick something, and if so how much - the dandelions and daisies can be picked in abundance, but you may only want one specimen of something like a buttercup, the sap of which can cause skin irritation in some folks.  Picking cautiously in places where dogs visit is also advised, dog mess and broken glass are constant things to be vigilant for on our local walks.  I usually take hand wipes and sanitizer with me on any walks, along with a basic first aid kit, sun hats etc...

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Hare & Hawthorn - hidden treasure in Hastings

I've been absent from blogging for a few weeks, focusing on my geology studies in the evenings as I'm currently on my last module and really want to make it count.

I've got so many lovely things I want to write about buzzing round in my head, but here's a little gem we discovered today in Hastings old town.

We spotted a sign for Hare & Hawthorn, a bindery and bookshop, leading us down an alley we hadn't explored before, and there we found a treasure trove of gorgeousness.

 The shop stocks a lovely selection of books, including classic children's stories, plus calligraphy pens, hand bound journals and gorgeous papers.  There is also a bespoke binding service available.  While we were visiting we were fascinated to see the cover from an old book being turned into a keepsake box.

It is great to see the traditional skill of binding and repairing books alive and well in our town, and the kids were happy with their new books.  They came out with a ladybird classic of The Elves and the Shoemaker for Toby, and George's Marvelous Medicine for Ollie (because Ollie's best friend is reading Roald Dahl and has got Ollie interested in him too).

So if you're in Hastings Old Town and want to support a lovely local business, it's well worth a visit to this hidden shop.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Saving seeds

 We finally had a break in the rainy weather on Friday to go to the allotment and re-line the leaky pond.  This was great fun, and done with minimal disturbance to the one sleepy frog we found at the bottom of the pond.

Afterwards we turned to a final harvest of leeks and spring onions, and clearing the plot of things that needed to go.  One of these sections to clear was mainly radishes that we had let run to seed because the pods are heavier cropping and in my estimation tastier than the more usual crop of the radish root.

The juicy green pods were by now papery shells, which the boys were completely fascinated by as I broke some open and showed them the seeds.  Ollie kept repeating over and over "we can sow seeds, make new seeds, and sow those again" in an obsessive way that made me realise that he had just had a light bulb moment of putting together things he knew.  He knew we bought seed and sowed it to produce a crop.  He knew that plants make flowers, which get pollinated and make seeds.  But he hadn't gone that extra step to link it all together.

Could we keep our seeds? Of course we could.  I guess the optimal conditions for collecting seed to store are probably to harvest dried pods at the end of the Autumn, but with our mild wet winter the pods had still been green until recently, so the opportunity hadn't presented itself before.

The boys picked a sandwich bag full of radish pods, which we took home and then spent the evening opening and sorting.  I showed Ollie what a good seed looked like, and how some of the seeds were tiny and underdeveloped, or squashy, or moldy and that we needed to discard these.  We talked about how the scientists we had seen at the Millenium seed bank at Wakehurst Place checked and sorted all the seeds for storage.  We talked about the best conditions to store seeds - cool and dry - and why warm, damp conditions would cause the seeds to sprout or rot.

Ollie wanted to know how the seed companies we buy seed from clean and sort out their seeds, he quite rightly pointed out they couldn't do it the way we were as it would take too long.  So we sent a Facebook message to Thompson and Morgan, who replied that seeds were sent to their lab to check which ones would grow, and that they had robots for putting the seeds into packets.  We looked on YouTube for a video of this process, but came up blank so have messaged the documentary series How It's Made to ask if they have ever covered it.  Fingers crossed they may have an answer for us at some point, although T&M seeds have definitely got the record for speediest response.

Finally we chose an envelope and Ollie labelled it with it's contents (he's working out spellings for himself now, but going through quite a lot of letter reversals, hence the backwards a and s).  He very proudly added it to our seed box as I noted it on our inventory with sowing dates (last year I forgot about several packets of seed, so this year I got organised and made an inventory).

As to whether or not our saved seeds will grow - I suspect it's not going to be a problem either way as we dropped so many pods on the soil that we'll be in for a bumper self-sown harvest in a couple of months anyway, but it would be nice if Ollie really can achieve his new dream of a perpetual crop of sowing, growing, saving and sowing.

Drawing inspiration from Grandparents

 The kids are lucky to have both sets of Grandparents and two Great Grandmothers too, which is a lot of lovely people looking out for things that they will enjoy.  At Christmas, for example, my folks got the boys the Beano and the Dandy annuals, which fired their enthusiasm for comics.  Then last week their nearby Great Grandmother gave Ollie a cartoon drawing book she had found, which took the comic book appreciation to another level as Ollie realised he could use this when he makes his own books.

Ollie sat at Nan's table with a pencil and box of pastels happily copying images from the book, completely taking us by surprise in how patiently he worked away and how good a copy they were.  We had no idea he would be able to do this - there's always opportunities for making and doing at home, but I hadn't thought to ask him to try to copy something in this way since the 'how to draw dinosaurs' book I got him last year which he showed no interest in.

Very soon he was adding his own dialogue to the cartoons, as in this one where he took the initial image of what he decided was the Giant thinking about Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk) and added in extras such as Jack hiding in a cupboard with a gold hen (a change from the goose that laid the golden egg).

Having other adults around in a child's life (family or friends) is really valuable for so many reasons, including inspiration for trying new things.  Some of those new things might even be quite old things that you enjoyed yourself as a child, such as the cheeky adventures of Dennis the Mennis.  We've certainly struck gold with these ideas for the kids, so a big thank you to the boys Grand- and Great Grandparents.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Mini Weekend Boxes

 Regular readers who have been with me for a while may remember that over the last couple of years I have had the pleasure of reviewing Weekend Boxes.  The idea behind the company is one close to my heart - helping families spend quality time together in the increasingly limited time they have together.  The concept is that families receive a fortnightly mailed box containing four themed activities, including all the resources required (except the odd basic supply such as scissors).

This week we were very happy to review the Mini Weekend Box, inspired by families who weren't finding time to complete all four activities. Same great mailing but this time with two activities instead of four, and for a reduced cost compared to the original box.  I have always been impressed by how the company listens to it's customers and reviewers - for example I mentioned after my last box that the glue stick provided didn't work well, and I see that in the current box the glue has been replaced by a much better one.

 The boys were jumping with excitement when they realised that they had a new Weekend Box to try.  Impressively they still remember the activities they did for the last one we reviewed with a Chinese New Year theme last year.  The theme of this box is Rainforests, and both the activities supplied were well thought out with this theme in mind.

The first activity was a green-fingered challenge to grow our own rain forest.  We received everything we needed except scissors and a plastic drinks bottle, but these were easily found in our craft supplies box (although our bottle may have been a bit big compared to the one on the instruction card).

Toby was in charge of opening the envelope containing the supplies and passing them to Ollie as needed.  Ollie did the trickier bits such as cutting the bottle in half.
 I was really pleased to see soil provided in the form of compressed dehydrated soil pellets (as I didn't fancy braving the rain outside with a trowel to dig some out of a flower pot).  We could have done with a suggested quantity of water to add to the soil pellets as we were a bit overenthusiastic with it and ended up with a swamp.  This was easily fixed however.
 Watching the pellets of soil re-hydrate was a source of great interest to the boys as they magically swelled to fill the container.
 A little help from Matt to make a hole in the bottle top using a corkscrew, and to thread through the string provided to make a self-watering wick, and the boys were ready to spoon the rehydrated soil out of the bottom of the bottle and into the top.  We lost the seeds for a few minutes - the two little tomato seeds in a small plastic bag were overlooked at first inside the paper envelope the supplies came in.  Once located the boys carefully planted one each and placed their Rainforest-in-the-making on the kitchen window sill to grow.

I loved the idea of using recycled materials to create something new and I have to say we immediately decided that if this works we are going to try to grow seedlings for our allotment in this way - no worries about seedlings running out of water or becoming too damp.  I also liked that apart from a tiny plastic bag, all the materials for this activity were recycled or recyclable, which is part of the company ethos for Weekend Box.
 The next Rainforest themed activity was to make a parrot mask.  In theory the materials are provided to make one mask, but we found that by tracing around the card outline provided onto another piece of card in the kit, we had ample supplies to make masks with both our boys.

 The only thing I added was an extra piece of elastic from my sewing box to double up our mask making fun.  We've found in the past that it is the case that an activity designed for one use can easily be extended for either more than one use or for more than one child.
 These activities were perfect for a wet Saturday morning when we had an hour spare (I had to wait in because I had an OU tutorial mid-morning).  The boys really enjoyed sitting down to activities as a whole family - often it will be one parent doing activities with the kids while the other gets on with something else.  The boys were both feeling a bit tired and under the weather after a busy week too, so this was an ideal way to play together while still having a rest.
We all liked the way that this activity was laid out with suggestions to follow and an example of a completed mask, but really could follow any flight of fancy the boys wanted.

Cream, pink and yellow card were provided, as well as some white foam, crayons, a length of elastic and a glue stick, but we also found the paper envelopes that the activities came in were a good additional resource when Ollie wanted some blue feathers for his parrot.

The activities provided were both engaging and fun, and would suit a range of pre-school and primary ages with differentiated levels of adult assistance. They have been designed to be educational, and from past reviews of their products I have found that they stimulated further discussion and activities for a long period after the activities were completed.

The box came with a selection of stickers, a fun facts card with jokes and information about the Rainforest theme, plus tokens to give to friends to try out a box for free.  If you would like to try a box you can use the promo code MARIANNE59 when you sign up to receive your first box free. 

The new Mini Weekend Box is £4.95 including free delivery, and all boxes are delivered fortnightly with no contract and no obligation to continue - you can cancel at any time.  For this reason I can see it being something that could be ordered during holiday periods when parents often need a little help thinking of new activities to share, even if they feel weekends are too squeezed during the rest of the year to find an extra hour together.

I think the mini box was very suited to our uses because we already spend a lot of time making and doing, but being provided with a ready made kit which is often themed to match key celebrations such as Mothers Day is a good way to take the brain work out of planning activities on the weekend when we're in need of a rest.  I think it would also be very useful for families who lack space for make and do box clutter (we're currently over running a double cupboard and a set of draws with paint, paper, boxes, bits of string...) - pretty much everything you need is provided in the box.  This would also make it useful for children visiting extended family such as Grandparents  and parents with shared access who are looking for a new tradition to start of doing projects on 'their' weekend together.

Note: I received a free Mini Weekend Box to try out with the kids in return for an honest review, and have reviewed two other boxes in the past, all of which have arrived on the expected day, all have fitted through the letterbox, and all been in good condition and with good contents.  The opinions and images are all my own.  If you have tried Weekend Boxes in the past, or have any questions or comments do let me know below, or on The Maz Shack's Facebook Page.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Simple pleasures

We can spend huge amounts of time and money in pursuit of the perfect day out, but it's trumped every time by the simple things because kids see right through to the joy to be had from walking in the woods with Grandparents who love them and being part of a family who encourage them to go and enjoy the biggest puddles, because there's nothing better than a good big puddle in the afternoon sunshine after sitting still on a long rainy car journey.