Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Sugar and spice

This week I have been enjoying my last days of museum teaching until January. The Geffrye Museum is looking gorgeously festive and is heaving with visitors. They all want to see the best of Christmas past; its rooms adorned with the winter decorations of bygone Londoners. Despite the crowds, everyone seems to love it - my school groups included.

I haven't been able to take my two children this year, but that hasn't stopped us from trying out a few festive making and baking traditions from the olden days.

We made Victorian Christmas tree decorations - bonbon filled cornucopia - as pictured above. These were very simple to recreate: the children cut gold doilies in half and then we folded them into cone shapes. After securing with a piece of sticky tape we attached shiny ribbon so they would hang like little baskets from the branches of our tree. And then came the most popular part - filling the cones with fruit jellies and pastilles. Beautiful.

We stepped back another 300 years to the winter celebrations of Elizabethan England and tried our hand at making sweetmeats. Authentic recipes would have used vast amounts of sugar - a real luxury then - in almond paste, milk jelly and crystallised fruit. These delicacies were flavoured with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Many sweetmeats were beautifully crafted into novelty shapes, and Marchpane was also popular. This looked rather like a flat marzipan cake, and was usually decorated with gold leaf.

Using marzipan for the base of our sweetmeats, we dusted our boards and rolling pins with snowy icing sugar and then had huge amounts of fun making our own novelty shaped celebratory treats.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Sam's Snowflake

I was back at the Geffrye Museum on Saturday leading the Christmas Nursery Rhyme Time sessions. The Museum is a perfect setting for festive fun as it currently tells the story of how London families have prepared for everything from Twelfth Night and New Year, to the winter solstice and Christmas over the last four centuries. The BBC has put up a slide show that gives a flavour of the Museum at this time of year: Celebrating the best of Christmas past.

In my sessions I adapted a children's story by Gillian Shields and retold it using props, actions, songs and craft. The children, aged between two and six, joined in enthusiastically and I was impressed with how their grown ups participated too.

In the story we helped Sam and his mother get ready for Christmas while they waited for his father to return from the forest with a surprise; he'd promised to get home before the snow.

Sam and his mother did their Christmas baking; making cakes, pies and biscuits flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg (we passed round spice samples for everyone to smell). They brought out their boxes of decorations and guessed what was within the packaging before revealing the contents (we used feely bags with vintage decorations from the handling collection for this).

All the while Sam kept wondering how long it would be before his father came home - and where was the snow? Sam's mother distracted him by showing him how to make a rainbow snowflake decoration using glittery pipe cleaners and pony beads (everyone used their twisting and threading skills here). The rainbow snowflake gave Sam an idea...

Maybe the snow had lost its way! He decided to make a glittery snowflake that would shine out of his bedroom window to guide his dad and the snow home in time for Christmas. He used a sheet of white paper, scissors to cut, fingers to fold and rip, and glue to cover it with sparkly glitter. Then he attached a little wooden stick to the back so he could prop it against his window pane. The children watched avidly as I showed them how Sam did all this.

The story ended with Sam's father returning from the forest with a Christmas tree, as it began to snow once more. Sam's snowflake landed magically at the top of the tree, where it shone and glittered like a star.

Everyone made a rainbow snowflake (candy canes, wreaths and even a spacecraft were created too), and then whole families sat on the floor together surrounded by paper, glitter and glue, making their own snowflakes on sticks; all unique - just like the real thing. It was magical.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Out in the cold

WOW, it was cold today. I eschewed my usual cycle ride to the British Museum and instead took the warm-by-comparison 73 bus. I enjoyed an uneventful journey, I even got a seat, and arrived in plenty time to set up for my sessions with children from a North London school. Then I waited. And waited. And waited...

An icy wind blew through the Great Court and down into the schools area where my temperature and spirits fell slowly but surely. A few schools called to say they would be late but eventually they all arrived. At 11.45 students from far-flung Brighton turned up, having started out at 6.00am. But not my school.

This was my last teaching session at the Museum this term and I felt deflated when they didn't show up; I wonder what happened. Their school secretary suspected they'd turned back, giving up on a difficult journey perhaps, but she didn't seem too worried about them. I know the location of the school, it's just about a mile from where I live. It just goes to show how much luck plays a part in travelling round London; my journey had been so easy. I hope they didn't get too cold or too dispirited during their abortive attempt to reach us and that they will reorganise their visit next term. I missed them today.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Ice magic

Today I stayed at home with my five year old; he's been coughing and spluttering all over the place. He's accepted cuddles, warm drinks and listened to several audio books but I know how awful he's feeling because even the new snow hasn't tempted him outside. Instead we made these crystal icicles which I hung on a snowy branch in our garden. They've been spinning and glittering in the icy wind, catching the light and the attention of my poorly boy. 
You'll need:

transparent plastic food packaging
clear glue
granulated sugar
silver glitter
a hole punch
white cotton thread

1. Cut the plastic packaging into icicles and crystals
2. Punch a hole in the top of each shape
3. Use clear wet glue to make icy patterns just where you like
4. Sprinkle granulated sugar and silver glitter over the glue
5. Thread a doubled length of white cotton through its hole and pass the ends through the loop
6. Knot the ends of the thread and hang on a branch of a tree or bush

Of course, they are impossible to photograph, but I do recommend you make some. They have certainly added sparkle, movement and magic to our winter garden today.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

O Christmas tree

And so the countdown to Christmas begins...

We have an Advent candle, a calendar, and a beautiful mini wooden Christmas tree to decorate with little baubles, one for each day of Advent. I know this sounds like a lot, but the excitement of sorting out who is going to open the even numbered windows of the calendar, and who is to decorate the tree on odd numbered days has been fabulous; it doesn't seem over-the-top at all just now.

Daisy was inspired by the wooden Advent tree and decided to make her own. Using it as a template she drew round its outline on thin card and then used watercolour to paint it green. I helped with the cutting out after this.

Much glue and glitter later, the tree was resplendent, baubles and a star adorning its branches. We slotted the two sections together to give the 3d effect and added a small piece of toilet roll cardboard as a sturdy base.

We loved using our new glitter shakers again - you can just see them in the photos. Buddy and Daisy can sparkle-up all manner of items independently with these. Glitter is great any time of year but it's just about essential during the winter festivities. I expect to get much more use out those little shakers over the next month.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Festive fare

This weekend Daisy suggested we make something sweet and Christmassy, so we decided to make the most festive of fare - mince pies. We flicked through our cookbooks and scaled down the quantities of ingredients because unlike so many recipes suggested we didn't want to bake three dozen. It was our first attempt after all.

In the end we opted for Delia's shortcrust pastry recipe.

4oz plain flour
1oz butter
1oz lard
2 tablespoons ice cold water
a pinch of salt

After the pastry rested in the fridge for half an hour we made the pastry cases and filled each with a tablespoon of mincemeat; shop bought, but good quality.

Inspired by Nigella, Daisy wanted to make star-topped pies. This was great because I could leave her to it as she happily cut out and transferred all the pastry shapes.

25 minutes in the oven at 200c and our nine little mincemeat morsels were ready. Once cooled, we dusted them with a little snow - icing sugar shaken through a mini sieve. Daisy loved doing that almost as much as tasting her own baking and between us all the pies disappeared incredibly quickly. Now I see why all those recipes are for batches of three dozen; we'll certainly be scaling up next time.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The flu and the flying saucers

Last week I had such dreadful flu that I was out for the count for two days. As I emerged from my duvet cocoon, no longer delirious with fever but feeling rather ropey nonetheless, it was apparent that Bud and Daisy needed some fresh air, exercise and entertainment. I needed to pull something out of the hat. And fast. Here's how it happened in four fast-thinking steps:

1. I spotted two black polystyrene pizza bases ready for the recycling box (note to self: someone's been cooking ready-made pizza in my bedridden absence).

2. PING! - idea: they'd make great lightweight frisbees for Buddy and Daisy to throw around the garden (note to self: I will stay inside).

3. I remembered some shiny 'space-themed' collage bits and bobs from a craft activity a while back. Thankfully I found those quite easily and popped them onto our craft table along with a couple of glue sticks and some glitter.

4. 'Don't suppose anyone wants one of these special night time frisbees to decorate and play with do they?' My question was deliberately casual to entice my eldest, a most reluctant participator if he catches the merest whiff of craft.


This was the starting point to a wonderfully creative evening that could have been fraught with illness, misery and a whole lot of empty TV watching.

First there was some brilliant independent frisbee-making. I was barely acknowledged; I just drank water and hugged a hot water bottle. Then, keen to get outside to test out their flying saucers, Buddy and Daisy put on their shoes and coats. And yes - they did this all by themselves; that certainly doesn't happen in the mornings before school.

Excitedly and noisily, they threw their frisbees around and pretty soon some dramatic play developed with baddies and rockets, space exploration and planet hopping. I threw out their glowing glitter balls (recent presents from my aunty) and a whole new chapter began as I sat inside in the warm with a Lemsip.

You've got to love creativity. See how it can get you out of a tight spot and into a magical evening of high speed space travel round the garden galaxy? A classic adventure at home, just when we really needed one.

Eyes and iPhones

This morning I took my eldest to the doctor instead of school. Conjunctivitus was confirmed, antibiotic eye drops purchased and administered. We then headed to a nearby cafe for a restorative cup of tea and pain au chocolat. I'm loving my new phone App: with my hipstamatic camera in action you can barely see Bud's gammy eye.

I've been playing around with the App at home too. My children are used to me snapping away as they play, and now I can do so with different lenses and filters, transporting them straight back to the 1970s.

I really started experimenting with this because I'm finding it increasingly hard to photopraph Buddy and Daisy's adventures now it's getting dark so early. Ah, the shortcomings of an iPhone. Maybe I need a proper camera? Maybe this fairy grants wishes?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Winter warmer

It's officially cold here; the cars were covered in frost and we all had icy breath as we walked back from school today. Hats, scarves, earmuffs and mittens are most definitely required.

What better way to warm us up when we get home than with a mug of hot chocolate. Here's how we make it chez Deering - Buddy and Daisy in charge of proceedings of course.

1. Measure out desired milk quantities in mugs of choice.

2. Transfer milk into microwaveable jug and heat up for about 1 min 30s.

3. Meanwhile mix 1 tsp of cocoa with a little milk in each mug to form a thick chocolatey paste.

4. Add 1 tsp of sugar to each mug.

5. Pour in warmed milk and stir, stir, stir until the chocolate paste has melted into the creamy liquid, and there you have it - comfort in a cup.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Make or break

Your eyes are not deceiving you - yes, this was a kettle in a previous life, albeit a broken one destined for the Recycling Centre. Over the weekend my children saved and transformed it into this fantastic model spaceship.

While I was grumpily trying to find something at the bottom of our very messy boiler cupboard I spotted the electrical appliance and handed it over to Buddy. I suggested he might fancy taking it apart to see how it had been made. Well, I can't remember the last time his eyes lit up so brightly. Buddy is usually my more reluctant participator when it comes to making things. But here was an opportunity to break a thing and I'd clearly hit on something good. Very good.

With total absorption and enthusiasm Buddy got to grips with the screwdriver, disassembling the kettle and talking animatedly about its component parts and their function. Of course I had to help with the screws, some were a little tight and inaccessible but we managed somehow. I was truly impressed by his interest and momentum; he wanted to remove every last screw, shining his torch and inspecting his work in such a professional manner.

Of course it wasn't long before Miss Daisy wanted to get in on the activity. She was particularly keen to help Buddy make the kettle into something new.

So with the help of a newly acquired glue-gun we spent a very happy half hour putting back every last screw and washer, handle and tube in an altogether different way.

Buddy: It's a model spaceship from Star Wars, it's a goody one. It's got a baddy pod here; that red thing. They get shooted off when they've learned their lesson. Into their base. But they're just kidding.

Daisy: That's the way out, that's the way in. And those screw-things are landers.

It is with thanks to the lovely Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning people that I owe this post - this whole activity actually. They recently wrote about letting their preschoolers loose on some old clocks. They re-made them into the most amazing time-machine sculptures. Without their reassurance that you can use glue-guns with small children I don't think I would have been brave enough to embark on this venture at all. I'm so glad we did, and we'll definitely do it again - we're already on the look-out for other broken appliances.

Friday, 5 November 2010


It's impossible to ignore Bonfire Night here in London. My evening has had a soundtrack of crackles, bangs, zooms and booms. Everyone seems to 'Remember, remember 5th November...' and we've acknowledged it too. Though my children are now tucked up in bed and I think sleeping through all the noise, earlier today we improvised our own little firework party at home.

After dark, we switched off the lights and watched some spectacular clips on You Tube. It was wonderful because Buddy and Daisy got very excited, not terrified as I know they would have been at an actual event. In particular they loved the BBC London coverage of this New Year's celebrations; they recognised familiar London landmarks and the River Thames, all transformed by explosions of colour and bright light.

Buddy: Oh look! They look like they are bursting!

Daisy: Oooo... pink! Oooo... yellow! Oooo... red!

Buddy: That one's like a planet in dots.

Daisy: It's definitely in the city. Actually there are fireworks shooting off the London Eye.

I brought out black paper, chalk pastels and glitter, and while we watched we made our own firework pictures.

Daisy's firework display takes place in New York, apparently.

Buddy's has a huge golden planet-firework right outside our house.

The rain eased off a little, so we donned our waterproofs and stepped out to the back garden to listen to the exciting noises from near and far. Buddy and Daisy whizzed around like mini-fireworks, shrieking and whooping at every pop and whistle, bang and fizz.

Buddy eventually stopped racing around and did some of his best ever reading when I showed him the biggest surprise of the party. He carefully read out all the words on the packet and discovered with a squeal of delight what was coming next.

So, thanks to some great reading from Buddy, our firework party finished with a flourish of well deserved sparkle.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Night and day

We love Phyllis Root's Lucia and the Light. It's a great choice for a bedtime story as the nights draw in. It's got it all; snowy Norwegian mountains, dark versus light, warmth versus cold, good versus evil. And trolls. Brilliant.

At the Geffrye Museum today, I told my own version of this folk tale during two very busy Nursery Rhyme Time sessions. To help bring it to life I used candles, lamps, a warm white cat (a furry hot water bottle), a winter hat, mittens, boots, a tinderbox and a glittering ball as the sun. The children - all five years old or under - played their part too, with enthusiastic participation; hugging the cat, joining in with the story's actions and songs, getting properly scared by the trolls, and cheering on Lucia in her quest to find the long-lost sun.

Then we explored light, transparency and translucency further - and got well and truly gluey - making these sweet carry-home tea-light lamps from empty water bottle bases. We offered pieces of colourful cellophane, punchinella, Halloween sequins, LED tea-lights and plenty of PVA, and then let the children do the rest.

The water bottles were prepared before the sessions; their bases were trimmed and hole-punched, ribbons tied and then put inside out of the way so as not to get too gluey.

As ever, Buddy and Daisy helped me test out the activity beforehand. Here, Daisy is exploring the semi-transparency of cellophane. Buddy is not convinced.

Daisy quite liked getting gluey and got stuck in straight away but Buddy played around with a car for a long time before actually sticking anything on his bottle. However, both were motivated to finish their lamps when I showed them the twinkling LED tea-lights that would sit inside them.

In the museum sessions we gave each child a drawing of a mountain scene to colour, to reflect both their favourite part of Lucia's story and Mary Grandpre's beautiful illustrations. Buddy and Daisy tried this too; though Buddy needed lots of help getting started. I gave them chalk pastels and showed them how they could blur and mix them on the paper to create different effects. When Buddy realised it could be messy and smudgy - he had a go, enjoying the sensation of spreading colour with this fingers.

Daisy's gorgeous pink and golden dawn contrasts superbly with Buddy's darkly purple and blue night time - and it didn't surprise me at all that they chose to illustrate opposing parts of the story. Nor that Buddy needed lots of encouragement to put pastel to paper. They are themselves as different as night and day.

And of course I wouldn't have them any other way.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Feed the birds

A few days ago my children made these marvellous bird-feeders at our local Apple Day fete. The feeders are now hanging in our garden ready for action - there have been no takers yet, but it's very sweet how Buddy and Daisy have started creeping up to the window in the mornings, hoping to spot a breakfasting bird or two.

Here's how to make one:

1. Take a windfall apple and roughly core it with a sturdy screwdriver or apple corer.

2. Use a bamboo skewer or cocktail stick to make small holes all over the apple, randomly or in a pattern.

3. Push sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds halfway into the prepared holes.

4. Fasten a smallish stick - the perch for a bird - to a metre of thin string or garden twine; wrap it round a few times and secure with a knot.

5. Thread the other end of the string through the apple; it may need a little encouragement with the bamboo skewer.

6. Hang the bird-feeder as high as possible on a branch of a tree.

We attached ours to the handlebars of our bikes to get them home from Apple Day, and they looked fabulous.

I tried to find out who came up with the design of these brilliant bird-feeders, but no one seemed to know. However, I thought the idea was definitely worth sharing; after all there's an abundance of apples at the moment. And they were certainly fun to make. Now all we need are some hungry birds....

Sunday, 17 October 2010

How much is that doggy in the window?

We're having a quiet weekend at home; I've got a cold, and am feeling quite ropey to be honest. Thank goodness Buddy and Daisy are being so lovely and understanding (most of the time) - they're warming my heart, and even bringing a smile to my face with their fabulous and funny playing.

A superb, epic game of Pet Shop is in full flight as I write. I'm really not needed at all, just fortunate to be within earshot of the story:

Buddy: If you buy the ring-tailed lemur, you get a rat for free!

Daisy: One of the rabbits, Mopsy, is not for sale; she does the cleaning round the shop - with a mop, of course - that is why she is so dirty.

Buddy's rabbit is allergic to lettuce, and needs medical attention.

They've made a bug house for the butterflies and creepy-crawlies.

Daisy: Everyone loves our pet shop 'cause it is so so famous.

Buddy: This guy's* nocturnal. (*the ring-tailed lemur)

Buddy: This is where the rats sleep. They are very good at balancing.

And now it's Christmas Eve in the Pet Shop. Letters to Father Christmas have been written and everyone's asleep.

This has been great medicine. But I'm just off to the kitchen; time for some actual medication. A cup of spiced mulled wine would do the trick but I know, I know - it's not actually Christmas time yet. Too bad; lemsip it is then.