Sunday, 25 June 2017

Five Little Things : On the Road

Often as you're driving places or when you stop overnight somewhere you stumble over little treasures and think wow, how lucky I am to have found something so beautiful here. This was the case for us a few weeks ago traveling home from friends in Bourgogne. 

We picked a village on our way, not too far from the motorway, just a place to stop overnight and break-up our journey. It was called Sainte Suzanne and while the "glampsite" turned out to be a little disappointing, the village was anything but. The cobblestoned roads, the soft evening sun, the haunting castle ruins, the clustering roses and the magnificent stained glass windows in the church. Here's what I managed to capture on film.

Photo roses Sainte Suzaane, France

Stained glass window Sainte Suzanne

Stained Glass Window Sainte Suzanne

Stained Glass Window Sainte Suzanne

Virgin Mary Sainte Suzanne

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Constructing buildings, constructing themselves - How kids build skills through building activities

To conclude my series of posts about building, I'd like to share some of the observations I've made about the positive effects of construction play on my children. As I've mentioned, building, like making stuff, has been and continues to be a popular activity in our home. Child psychology and development specialists have a lot to say about why building helps children develop a wide variety of skills. They often focus on playing with building blocks but many of the things they talk about can also be applied to building with other materials. 

lego plane
Self-designed Lego Plane

With my own children I've observed how building develops their problem solving skills, their capacity to learn through trial and error, their creativity, imagination and self-expression as well as their motor skills (fine and gross depending what they're building with) and their spatial awareness. 

Photo why building is important for kids
Building with Montessori materials

In the first case, problem solving skills, it might be at the planning stage - how do I make what I want with the materials I have? Or in the spur of the moment - how do I stop my tower from leaning over? How do I make my wall more solid? There are several ways they might find their way to their solutions all of which are interesting learning processes. Trial and error is probably the most common method. Although it might sometimes be frustrating in my experience it means the child really owns their solutions and doesn't forget them. 
Why building toya are great for kids
Building at the beach

Alternately, in our household, a sibling or parent might demonstrate something to them either directly because they are asked or inadvertently by modelling through their own construction techniques. Both these are interesting visual ways of learning. This kind of learning happens a lot here when our building sessions are cooperative and we try to construct things together be they block towns or Star Wars replicas. 

Why building is great for kids
An outdoor table and chairs

Lastly, my older kids also turn to books or the internet for inspiration - Noah recently had a lot of fun with a book of lego models we got out of the library and he also uses his favourite graphic novels to find models for airplanes, boats and space rockets that he builds out of lego. This is also a technique they've used for building cabins and other outdoor constructions.

Why building is great for kids
Kapla Towers

In terms of creativity and self-expression as I mentioned about the sandcastles last week, I can clearly see how the children are using this activity to process information they've received elsewhere and then express their own design ideas. Furthermore, we often build to play with. For example, Noah and Lotta might build some lego planes so they can play a mail delivery game or a cardboard island with stones for rocks and leaves for trees to play at Playmobil pirates. In this way the construction activity is a gateway to realising their creative vision, concretising their imaginary worlds. 

Why building is great for kids
Montessori COunting Rods and Steiner Rainbow Toy

Motor skills are put to work in many different ways as is spatial awareness, when placing blocks, when trying to have things balance, when working with tiny pieces of lego. In bigger outdoor projects, motor skills are further developed through tool use.

Why building is great for kids
Building with Montessori Materials 2

Of course a lot of this is happening without any of us really thinking about it or naming it at the time. Like the best of learning (speech, walking, etc) the children are doing it for themselves in a natural and fun way. Our job as parents is just to provide the materials and as much enthusiasm as we can. 

Why building is great for kids
Building a dry stone wall

*There is so much more I could say about why you should get building with your kids and why I'll continue to make it a priority here. This article on is a great place to go for more information and has a good set of tips for construction play with your kids.

Why building is great for kids
Building an obstacle course

Why building is great for kids
Building a Shelter

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Five Little Things : Building at the Beach

Photo Sandccastle Fort

So I'm carrying on this little series of posts about building and children. Today I'd like to share some photos of Maya, Noah and Lotta's recent construction fun at the beach. As you know once the weather gets good round here we spend a lot of time at the beach. Building sandcastles and various other stuff is one of the kids favourite beach activities.

Photo Sandcastle with Moat

Frank and I sometimes get involved, helping find the right rocks or shells, occasionally digging a trench but as the kids have grown they've asked less and less for our input except for the obligatory photo session to record their work for posterity! The older kids constructions have gotten more and more complex and creative. It's easy for me to see how they're applying what they've read in books and seen in films about castle construction and defense. Sometimes they'll explain that to me too - look mum I dug a really deep moat so no one can get across! And also the influence of the standing stones that are found throughout Brittany - the walls and the circular plan of Maya's construction for example.

I love seeing them at work, concentrated and happy, engaged with their task and working through translating the vision in their head into something physical. And of course, I love their pride in their work. 

The beach has always been a place of renewal and comfort for me. It is such a joy to see my children finding it to be so too. How, through this building and creativity, they are learning and growing naturally and without artifice.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Five Little Things : Building

Children seem to love building. With wooden blocks, kaplas and legos or with sticks and stones and whatever else they can get there hands on outside. There's a lot to be said on this subject. I'm going to post more about it really soon with some of my thoughts on what my three home educated kids are getting out of their building activities and why I believe they might be an essential part of childhood education. But for now, due to a very hectic week here are some photos of a fort the kids built with their cousins while on holiday using Hazel and weaving techniques.

The proud builders

A guard tower

Child built stick and string well
The Well

Stick Fort
The other guard tower

Photo kids fort building
Vu d'ensemble

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Five Litte Things : Iris

The view through the Iris

There were  many wonderful things about our holiday home in the Ardeches; the magnificent view over the mountains, the wonderful art work in all the rooms, the swimming pool, the friendly neighbours and animals. But one of the things I enjoyed the most were the Iris. They were magnificent in hues of purple, magenta, grape and orchid through to amethyst, mauve and violet. And always that unexpected hint of yellow or cream. 

I spent a wonderful hour or so photographing them and found them to be fascinating flowers. And so poetic too, they take their name from the Greek goddess of rainbows Iris which is lovely and they have such a generous, sensual expressiveness to their form. Not to mention that their yellow 'beards' stand up like a Mohican along the backbone of their petals also called 'falls'. Absolutely stunning. I hope you'll like the photos. 

Photo Bearded Iris

Photo Graceful Iris

Photo, faded lilac Iris

Photo close up Iris

Photo Close Up Iris

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Power of Giving our Children a Foundation of Joyful Living

First of all an apology. I left for holidays in the Ardeche region of France with the intention of posting as normal here. Unfortunately the internet connection in our rural, hillside house wasn't up to the job at all. I couldn't upload a single photo or even really get blogger to load properly. It was frustrating though in fact the lack of a good internet connection did make for a very relaxing holiday and a really good rhythm to my days - early to bed and early to rise, yoga every day and lots of poetry reading. The light over the mountains facing our rental house was amazing and I also spent a lot of time out there with my camera getting some great flower shots and some amazing portraits (more of the flowers this weekend). 

Lotta rolling in delight

Time away from home is always different. It moves more slowly and is full of new experiences which renew and restore us as individuals and as a family. We were lucky to spend this trip with our extended French family - grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins. For the children these kind of trips are magical. These are the halcyon days of childhood they will look back on throughout their lives with fondness and that sense of well being those of us lucky enough to have had a happy childhood carry everywhere with us. They made forts out of sticks, bows and arrows, paper hats and went in the swimming pool three times a day. There were horses and donkeys to befriend as well as getting reacquainted with the family. They were surrounded by happy, loving adults, ate well, played well and fell asleep exhausted as the sun set each day. Noah even fulfilled a lifelong dream to ride in a tractor thanks to the friendly neighbouring farmer.

Baling the hay - Noah gets a longed for tractor ride
Maya loving up the donkey

There is something about the carefreeness of childhood that most people consider sacred. We want our children to be free of worry, to live in the moment and enjoy these years because we know the burden of adulthood. We know what lies the other side of innocence in its most widest sense, the weight of carrying our problems on our own shoulders and also of the knowledge of all the bigger problems surrounding us. Of course children have their own concerns and problems, the business of growing up is a preoccupying and at times frighteningly difficult one. And few children live in a bubble outside of what's going on in the world around them. I did however take the choice during our trip not to share the news about Manchester and London with them. For me it cast a shadow over our holiday, over its lightness giving it a sense of other worldliness almost. I wanted my children to enjoy it unfettered. It doesn't mean I haven't talked to them about this now we're all back home, nor that in general I don't talk to them about current affairs. 

Noah using his bow
Louna and her arrows

Sometimes I think that in this world of suffering and pain, of terrorist attacks and insecurity it is even more important to ensure our children have a childhood, are allowed this magical time of play and lightheartedness. Why? Because it is these moments, these memories that will sustain them through any darkness and suffering they face. You know that memory, the one you can close your eyes and think of when times are very hard, when sad things happen, when the world seems such a terrible place? For me it's running through an arc of water, my friend Paul's hand in mine laughing and laughing and squealing with delight as my sister sprayed us with the hosepipe. Or the feeling of being snuggled into the belly of my Grandad's border collie Nellie her scratchy tongue licking my cheek. It's the memory of walking for hours round the garden of the house we now live in with my best friend Catherine talking and laughing about all the things we were going to do when we were very soon grown up.

These are the kinds of memories I'm interested in creating for my children as much as is humanly possible. Not just because I love them and I want them to have a happy childhood but because I also really believe, that a foundation of joy is the key to our most humane humanity. That it is from that full fountain we can give our best selves to the world, all our love and compassion, all our joy.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

My Top Twelve Tips for Cooking with Children

Lotta getting ready to cook
I've written before about experimenting in the kitchen with kids through baking, it's something we do a lot. Today I'd like to say a bit more about other kinds of cooking with our children. Firstly I should mention that I think helping your children learn to cook is a real gift parents can give them. I think it's a life skill that's up there with reading and writing and self-care. We hear a lot in the media about the importance of healthy eating and that is made much easier if you know a bit about ingredients and how to cook them. 

I remember when I first went to university, I'd never lived away from home before and I arrived with a good set of cooking utensils and plenty of recipes I'd been making regularly for quite a few years at home. In fact I'd often cooked for my family, up to three or four times a week. A lot of my fellow students however were not in the same boat. They were ill equipped both materially and in terms of the knowledge they had of food preparation. That translated to them mostly eating some form of ready made food from ready meals to jarred sauces etc. By Christmas of my first term I was regularly trading friends a home cooked meal for a couple of beers. 

Lotta (4) chopping

I would like to know that when my children leave home they know how to cook well. In fact I want them to know about every stage of the food process from growing seedlings to when to harvest and how to store and preserve excess. In that vein they've always been encouraged to help with cooking our meals. 

Now I have to be honest with you this isn't always fun. I would hate for anyone to read this and imagine this perfect situation where we cook together joyfully every time. In fact often the kids ask to help at the most inconvenient moments, usually when I'm in a big rush to get the food ready in time for us to go out. And don't let me get started on the mess they make! When they bake they are encouraged to clear up after themselves but often when they help with the cooking the clean up happens later and apart from clearing the table they're often not that involved. To give you a few examples, think carrot peel everywhere but in the composting bin, tomato juice dripping off the edge of the counter and down the drawers or soup or tomato sauce splattered all over the ceramic hobs. 

A very young Maya kneading dough

However, despite the inconveniences there are many advantages of involving them in our family's food preparation. Maya's pride when she made pasta for herself and her brother one day when I was sick in bed and her dad was really busy with other stuff. Lotta's sense of accomplishment when she helps mummy by chopping the vegetables. Noah deciding he'll give those courgettes a try after all because he helped cook them. And we do have a lot of fun, with the radio on, dancing and singing while we cook.

There's a lot of information available about cooking with children. Jamie Oliver's website for example has loads of features including advice and recipes. Here are a few of my ideas about cooking with kids.

Photo birthday food
A birthday spread the kids helped prepare

Top ten tips for cooking with kids   

I'd just like to mention that I have no formal culinary training. This a list of things I do with my kids. In our household all knife use by our younger children is always adult supervised as is any cooking around hot food be it on the hobs or in the oven. 
  • Provide a washable work space - table cloths are a no-no as are precious wooden counters or tabletops. Make sure wherever they're working will be easy to clean afterwards because they will make a mess. I've found a very large plastic mat to very useful. 
  • Make sure you have plenty of time. Kids can be very slow, rushing them will spoil the experience and might compromise safety.
  • When the above isn't possible delegate tasks that aren't as urgent. For example when one of my kids wants to do some chopping but I'm actually in a real rush with the savory food, I explain the situation and ask them if they'd like to chop up some fruit for desert instead. If that's not possible I set them up on a parallel board with a small amount of what I need. The important thing is not to turn them away, nothing kills there interest quicker. 
  • Give your non-readers a recipe with pictures instead of words they'll love the independence.
  • Explain what you're doing. Giving a running commentary on your own actions might feel a bit strange at first but it means any child helping you in the kitchen will be absorbing understanding of how cooking works.
  • Involve children in meal planning. Talk about what they like to eat and how you need to mix things up to get a balanced diet. Talk to your kids about what a balanced diet is, what we get from our food and how that helps our bodies. Tell them what's in the food they're preparing and eating at the time. 
  • Ask their opinion. If there are options in your meal talk to them about them, see if they want toasted nuts on their stir fry or to steam or sauté the vegetables. 
  • Teach safe knife use. Children are going to use knives if they're cooking and clearly we don't want any chopped fingers. My advice is firstly make sure the chopping board won't slip (you can put a damp tea towel under it for example). Secondly, demonstrate safe knife use - kids learn best by imitating so show them how it's done. More info from another mum here, I really like the playdo suggestion and it's certainly a way my kids have gained practice. And lastly, don't be tempted to use a dull knife, if they get cut it will be much worse and actually makes the whole job riskier because the blade won't cut smoothly and the child will have to use more pressure and may not maintain good grip and finger safety.*
  • An older child will really enjoy being in charge of a full meal. They'll feel a sense of accomplishment putting the food on the table. Help them with the planning and be available in case they need any help. 
  • As well as knife safety teach heat safety. From the beginning small children need to be aware that ovens and hobs are hot and can burn you. Especially nowadays with modern technology where there's no flame to see kids can get confused about how dangerous hobs are. They also won't necessarily know about heat conduction, that a pan will be hot if you touch it or that dishes that come out of the oven can burn your fingers. Older children as they get more independent will need to learn things like how to boil a kettle** and pour from it safely and how to be safe around boiling water. At each stage just remember that it's lack of experience which is children's biggest challenge and that as long as you provide the information they need and model safe behavior they should follow suit. 
  • If for whatever reasons you don't feel comfortable with your child using knives or hot things, or they're just too small (that really depends on your child) there are still loads of things they can do. It's great to start young so get them spinning salad, kneading bread or pizza dough, mixing pancake mix, arranging cut up food on plates, spreading things - anything that they can say I did that about really.
  • For home educators or parents wanting to stick in a bit of math practice measuring is great. Start out with cups and spoons, your kids will be able to familiarise themselves with notions like halves, quarters, thirds. Kids who are just beginning to read numbers will have a great time telling you when to stop as you measure out ingredients or doing it by themselves. If they don't know the number yet you can also show them it written down thus helping their recognition skills. And older kids can use addition when weighing ingredients and division or multiplication when recipes need sizing down or up.
*Although with the appropriate knife safety there should be very few accidents, things do happen and making sure everyone knows where the disinfectant, sterile wipes and plasters are as well as what to do if you cut yourself is a good idea. Similarly teaching your kids what to do if they burn themselves is good common sense. 

**Did you know making a cup of tea is one of the earlier brownies (like girl guides) badges! 

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Five Little Things : Boats

I love boats. I don't sail but somehow they still represent for me a certain escapism, a possibility of adventure, a je ne sais quoi...
And because I love boats I photograph them. And it's a collection just like our shell collection, or Noah's strange assortment of rusty metal bits or my china cats, I collect boats with my camera. 

Oban, Scotland 2016
Greece 2004

Jardins de Luxembourg, Maya's birthday 2009
Homemade walnut shell boats
Birttany 2008
All that thinking about boats got me writing a list poem about the words we have for boats. It's a very rough sketch, no idea where I'll go with it but it has lovely sounds. Here it is:

The language of boats

Sail boats and tall boats
canal boats and barges
bowsers, cokkleshells
coracles, crafts
cruisers and cutters
dwows, dredgers, drifters
dugouts and flagships
ferries and freighters
gondolas, hydrofoils
houseboats, icebreakers
kayaks and kanoes
life rafts and liners
paddle boats, pedalos
punts, rafts, sculls
shikaras, showboats
skiffs, smacks, tugs
tenders and tankers
trawlers and tubs
vessels and whalers
watercraft, yachts.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

More blooms

Sickness has hit our smallest again so we're taking it very easy this week. Lots of cuddles in the hammock, little nature walks, easy crafts (a paper cup string telephone, hammer beads etc) and games (Carcassonne, City of zombies).  And of course lots of trying to catch up on the sleep some of us have been missing out on!

The nature walks are giving us a great opportunity to enjoy the springtime and appreciate the flora and fauna around us. The children are really enjoying listening to the birdsong especially our resident blackbirds. Lotta said to me yesterday, "remember mummy if we lie here and close our eyes we'll be able to hear the birds better". And also all the flowers which Maya particularly has been drawing in her herbier/nature journal.

Here are some pictures from our walks...

Fly on a flower

Snowball flower

Male Blackbirds