Thursday, 29 April 2010

Back to Blustons

Do you know Blustons?

I can't believe: a) it still exists, b) I had any need to go there, and c) they are able to fill it exclusively with those 100% polyester classics/disasters of yesteryear. I ask you - who makes that stuff nowadays?

I took my grandmother, aged 91, to Blustons for the first time a little over a month ago. It's in the 'not very salubrious' Kentish Town (as my grandmother put it as we found a parking spot) and it's an absolute gem; especially to a nonagenarian.

There has been a fair bit written about Blustons over the years, ranging from the surprise it has remained open for over eight decades, to the denial that it's for anyone under the age of 70. But most people feel, as I do, that it's a fabulous piece of social history. For my grandmother, it is a haven; a familiar scenario epitomising the experience of bygone days when buying a frock meant 1:1 attention, when all shapes and sizes of woman were catered for in one style of dress, when just a slight change in skirt or sleeve length, or pattern and fabric was enough to induce excitement and spending.

My grandmother has long been telling me she can't find a decent frock to cover her neck, arms and legs (even her most recent purchase, a Kath Kidston tea-dress costing a pretty-penny, needs a little cardigan over it to cover her upper arms). So when I discovered the existence of Blustons whilst visiting friends in Kentish Town, I knew it was my duty to take her there.

And now we have been back. Under the pretence of a previously purchased jumper being too big for her, we returned to Blustons yesterday. Not only did she return the too-big-jumper with no problem at all, but she bought two summer blouses at £7.75 each and another dress at £15.00. Old-time frocks for old-time prices. She was delighted. And did the dresses suit her and fit her? Absolutely, yes. Of course she looks a bit old-fashioned in them but is that such a bad thing? I don't think so.

So, for those people who don't understand for whom Blustons Fashions exists: it's for people like my grandmother who are living to a ripe old age and who, if fortunate enough to be able to get there, have a whale of a time finding a frock that fits, looks good on them and doesn't cost boutique prices even though they experience a boutique customer service in a wonderful, time-frozen museum of a shop. I love it.

If I could only persuade them to get a website ....

Long live old ladies. And long live Blustons.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Horticultural adventure

This afternoon in the garden, stage two of our horticultural adventure at home took place. And it took over two hours. Now, I'm really not used to sticking to just the one activity for this long, let alone the children, but it was necessary to see it through until its completion. Our lovely seedlings from Rocket Garden survived the weekend box-free but they were also pot-free, and thus emergency measures were required to keep them alive and kicking until their eagerly anticipated transplantation to the vegetable patch at Buddy's school. As we do not have any flowerbeds in our little yard we begged and borrowed pots and boxes from wherever we could. The hundred or so plants are now taking up much of the decking, sitting on our garden furniture out of reach of the salivating slugs and snails.

Our outside space looks like a garden centre - with dozens of tomatoes, chard, peas, beans, spinach, rocket, strawberries, courgettes and three varieties of lettuce all set out neatly as if ready to be purchased by keen gardeners. Buddy and Daisy did help to plant and water some of them but if I'm honest they seemed to be most excited by a tiny pot of compost currently showing no signs of life at all. It contains some chive seeds we sowed last week. With absolutely no evidence of anything growing in there yet, their unerring faith is very sweet. I do hope we see some little green shoots soon; my non-green fingers are beginning to show.

Glorious gardens

The restoration work in the front garden of the Geffrye Museum continues and from today visitors will need to enter the museum at the south corner door. However, access to the period gardens is still possible - downstairs from the main reception area. I will be there tomorrow and I urge you to visit too, while these beautiful tulips are still in full bloom. Good luck with finding the gardens.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Hide and Seek

Audacious. That's one way to describe our journey out of London on Friday afternoon. But it totally paid off on this occasion. We had bus luck, we had train luck and I had well behaved children who charmed the amicable commuters. This is Buddy at about 7.30pm on the beach at Hove having checked into our hotel, having had a picnic tea. Glorious.

A sunny Saturday morning dawned and the children played Hide and Seek in the hotel lounge. This is a very popular game at the moment. Buddy and Daisy hide themselves, they hide their toys; they've even hidden my wedding ring and an Oyster card in the past. And yes, I did help seek those items with a slight cold sweat upon me. Langford's Hotel is a big old rambling place - rather ramshackle, to be honest - and as such is a great place to play Hide and Seek. It was while they were playing a particularly absorbing round that we received a message calling daddy away to London for a few hours. Once I'd got over some grumpiness at the whole unexpected-lone-parenting-on-a-holiday thing, I put my mind to ensuring we had a lovely time.

Captivating kite flying on Hove beach was followed by a scoot along the seafront to the marvellous beach-side playground. As Buddy and Daisy zoomed off, I enjoyed a rare treat; an uninterrupted coffee, watching the sparkling sea. I'll admit it, I was a smidgen smug that for once I didn't need to be in amongst the throng of toddlers and tantrums, tumbles and tears - what with my two being so grown up an' all.

And of course within five minutes all that changed. Mummy to the rescue, I found myself elbow deep in the sandpit, sifting through its damp and dank depths. Buddy's game of Hide and Seek with a toy figure had gone wrong. Very wrong. Buddy was inconsolable. 'Please find Yojojo! I will never find him!'

I always think of The New Shoes, one of The Ten Tales of Shellover by Ruth Ainsworth, whenever I'm digging for something lost in the sand (which is surprisingly often). This story from my childhood, is a cautionary tale involving two sisters, new shoes and a sandy beach. I eventually found Yojojo in the sand just where Buddy had been sitting. A joyful reunion, sandy tears wiped from Buddy's face, and an immediate resuming of play followed. Clearly, he hasn't heard the ending of The New Shoes - the sisters never find them! I'm sure if he knew this story, Buddy wouldn't be quite so keen on burying his toys. As it is, Yojojo lives to hide another day.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Box of delights

It was with such excitement that we opened this box today. Daisy, just awake from her nap, was especially keen to investigate its mysterious content. First, a lot of straw, but then such treasure was to be found; from lettuce, chard and spinach, to strawberries, courgettes and tomatoes. Not the fruits or vegetables ready to eat, but the baby plants ready to plant and grow. Gulp.

Now, I had been expecting this box of delights (it was a lovely present from my sister from Rocket Gardens) but what I wasn't prepared for was the sheer quantity of plants it contained; we are simply not equipped for its bounty. We managed to coax each little light-deprived plant from its covering and, still on their base of cardboard and straw, we watered them well. This turned out to be enough gardening for my two today and their attention drifted away from the blinking and stretching baby greens to the huge box in which they had arrived.

While I pondered the problem of how to accommodate an allotment's worth of plants in our tiny garden, Buddy and Daisy had a fine old time playing with the now empty box. They played hide-and-seek, brilliantly faking-up the mystery of where the other was hiding - oh, they're in the box, are they? Again? Then they used the box as Buddy's work, Daisy's house, their wedding venue and a car. Eventually a take-it-in-turns-to-jump-out-of-the-box game evolved (which needed a bit of mummy-refereeing to ensure fairness). This game made them laugh so much Daisy got the hiccups.

To extend this activity, I taught them the Jack-in-the-box rhyme:

One person curls up small in the box...

Still as can be
Lift up the lid
What do you see?
It's a .... Jack-in-the-box!

Jack pops out of the box, arms waving saying 'Boo!'

Then other things hid in the box; a car-in-the box, a piggy-in-the-box, a kitten-in-the-box to name but few. We practised the sound and action of the thing-in-the-box before each turn. Great fun.

And while all that was going on, I think I worked out what to do with the plants. There's a brand new raised flowerbed, currently plant-free, in a very sunny patch of Buddy and Daisy's school playground. Our newly acquired plants would thrive there. And Buddy and Daisy would still get to see them grow. I'll investigate further tomorrow.

Now that's thinking outside the box.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Dinosaurs for the doubtful

My two children have never caught the dinosaur bug. I know this is quite unusual - they just refuse to get excited about them. Maybe I haven't been that encouraging; other than the unimaginative attack-and-fight-the-other-dinosaur-type game, I struggle to find many superior play scenarios to offer them due to the nature of... well, dinosaurs. Buddy and Daisy do tell me they know some things about dinosaurs though, and that they understand the prehistoric world was a very different place to now - with erupting volcanoes and a changing climate, that kind of thing. Oh.

However, today evolved into a bit of a dinosaur day. It started with Daisy unearthing our set of magnetic dinosaurs. She asked me to guess which was her favourite by her description of it, and then I got to have a turn. This became a very satisfying game that got us all looking closely at the similarities and differences between the twenty or so dinosaurs in the set. When it was time to make food, we sorted the dinosaurs into those that were vegetarian and those that were meat eaters. We offered the grizzly group tidbits as we assembled our pizzas; the ham, sweetcorn, olives and cheese getting snaffled by my two little omnivores. While the pizzas were in the oven we enjoyed the brilliant Julia Donaldson story, Tyrannosaurus Drip.

At dusk, in the garden, we became palaeontologists. Using a dinosaur skeleton excavation kit (found languishing at the bottom of our games cupboard - a forgotten birthday present) we got a taste of the excitement in discovering and digging up dinosaur bones. What a find!

Bedtime reading was Jane Yolen and Mark Teague's charming How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight which draws an amusing parallel between children at bedtime and dinosaurs. Cheeky.

So although I wouldn't have believed we had anything much to do with dinosaurs in our house, I was surprised and pleased to have managed to muster plenty resources for a day of dinosaur adventures. It's amazing what you can dig up when you try.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Just add water

We started our day to the roar of engines instead of our usual Classic FM this morning. The television coverage of the grand prix (in Shanghai) began at 8am and we'd promised Buddy he could watch. What an exciting race it turned out to be. The intermittent yet heavy rain resulted in last minute decisions about tyre-changes. This put an exciting spin (quite literally for some) on all fifty-six laps. And a very satisfying outcome too. Go, Jenson!

I don't know if was all that water on the track, or our discussion about how the drivers would get home without using air travel, but just at the end of the podium formalities Daisy suggested making a boat. A sailing boat. From a box she could sit in. So we did.

With its tea-towel sail and gaffer-taped mast, I doubt this vessel will last very long, but today it served us well, taking the children off to the high seas of the garden. Buddy was adamant its name should be, 'The Biggest Cruise Ship in the World' so we printed this on its side next to some very purple flowers cut out and stuck on by Daisy.

Other water-themed fun included watering our newly re-potted spring flowers (haphazard), washing the garden furniture (soapy) and a little outing to our local Green which has a running stream (wet shoes). We also had lunch at the waterside cafe at our nearby reservoir (very good coffee).

By late afternoon the sun was pouring into our living room, the doors were wide open to the garden, and I was in the mood for some music. We had a great time wafting and waving a huge sea-coloured silk scarf to some old favourites such as Beyond the Sea, True Love (the High Society version) and ocean-classics from The Little Mermaid soundtrack.

After tea and a bath, my pyjama'd pair cuddled up with me on the sofa to catch the end of the grand prix highlights on BBC 3. Now you might think this kind of TV isn't suitable bedtime viewing and I would have to agree. So it was much to my surprise to find my little Daisy, covered with the silk scarf from earlier, fast asleep on my lap. I can't remember the last time she did that. I carried her up to bed where she snuggled down happily. I just hope she's dreaming of wafting waves and cool blue water rather than the roar of F1 engines and shouting commentators. I'm sure she'll tell me in the morning.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Marvellous marbles

The first I knew of the children being up this morning was when I heard an almighty clatter coming from the living room closely followed by a wail of frustration and disappointment. I immediately staggered through to investigate and found Buddy and Daisy prostrate and sad amongst scattered pieces of brightly coloured plastic. Now, I'm no Miss Marple at the best of times, and this was pre-caffeine, but I managed to establish that an ambitious marble-run had toppled over in its last stages of construction. There had been no foul-play on this occasion, so there was nothing to sort out on that front, thank goodness. My offer to help with reassembly was accepted (providing no changes were made to the design of course) and before long the tower was back to its former glory and ready for action. The photograph shows Buddy's total concentration in launching the maiden marble. Their marble-runs are becoming increasingly ambitious. I marvel at the ingenuity and audacity of their designs and it's not surprising they sometimes come a bit unstuck. But once they achieve a successful set-up they love watching the marble complete its course again and again; they are simply mesmerised.

We have recently started making our own marble-runs from scratch. By gluing some smallish long narrow boxes (halved lengthwise to make kind of guttering) to the front of a large cereal box we once created a very satisfying zig-zag path for the marbles to travel down. A yoghurt pot was the marble catcher at the bottom. Some marble-runs can involve complete raids of the recycling box and stretch from the top of the stairs down to the front door (definitely a rainy day activity, this one.)

Our collection of marbles is on permanent display in our living room and bathroom, just because we think they are such beautiful baubles. They often get used though, sometimes in play-doh sculptures, sometimes dipped in thin poster paint, rolled around on paper in a shoe box to make lovely colourful tracks. If you tape a strip of card around two of them you can make miniature cars to roll around. And I haven't even mentioned the traditional game of marbles yet, which actually I don't think my two have ever played. There are so many other brilliant ways of using them; once children are old enough to remember they are not to be eaten, marbles are pretty marvellous things.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

How does your garden grow?

Well, it's been an exciting couple of days. Lavender Blue and Flower Power, my Nursery Rhyme Time sessions at the Geffrye Museum, are done and dusted. A sense of achievement is upon me; a glass of wine is on the horizon.

Yesterday's tea party with Peter Rabbit was so lovely it was almost twee. There were letters from Mary (of Mary, Mary Quite Contrary fame) and Mrs Rabbit (Peter's mother). Unable to attend, Mary had sent a basket of flowers (neoprene shapes) for us to plant in our flowerbed and asked for them to be planted in rows, of course. When we came to water them we discovered Peter Rabbit in the watering can. The children enthusiastically played In and Out the Dusty Bluebells with him (as had been requested by Mrs Rabbit) - a classic game from the old days that I think is ready for a revival. Then we sang Lavender's Blue and Roses are Red whilst sampling the smell of dried lavender and rose petals. And we made pretty Victorian-style lacy sock drawer sachets. The lavender had a most calming effect on the children and grown-ups alike and we all enjoyed a very relaxed story, the Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, to close the session. Just lovely.

By contrast, today's aptly named Flower Power was a lot more punchy. I included a demonstration of re-potting plants where all the children got to see, close-up, the roots of the little flowering plants photographed above. I wasn't quite prepared for the absolute sensation this caused. When I tried it out with my two, yes, they were interested, but in the session today they went wild! There was so much excitement and screaming I had to talk about 'shy butterflies being scared away'. Thank goodness it all got a little calmer with some songs about plants and how they grow, and a lovely, funny story - Flora's Flowers by Debi Gliori. Phew. But the craft activity also proved too much for a couple of the children who got a bit tearful over their tissue paper petals. Snacks soon restored positive energy and calm and they all went home happy with their little baskets of flowers. But how I wished for that lavender again. There's definitely something in it.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Once more with feeling

Like a lot of families at the moment we have a serious glut of chocolate in our house; Easter eggs and lots of chocolatey variations thereof are refusing to remain discreetly in cupboards where they might be out of sight and out of mind. Instead they tumble off shelves, poke out of boxes and roll into view to tempt us at every turn.

In an attempt to use up some of this excess chocolate and rekindle some of last week's Easter magic, we made birds' nests this afternoon. Remember those? All you need is Shredded Wheat, melted chocolate (two large Easter eggs made this batch), two small packets of Mini Eggs and two or more smallish chocolate fans to employ as nest-builders. I'm afraid some of the chocolate must have found its way onto the lens of my camera here so the photograph is slightly hazy. But you can't re-capture these making-moments, so this smudgy image it has to be. At the very least, it shows the speed at which those little hands were moving to fill the nests with eggs. I was certainly the most popular parent in the land for about twenty minutes.

Of course we still have to actually eat the chocolate birds' nests. Maybe I've just transferred the problem by changing its guise. However, I think I might take them into work tomorrow. Who will be able to resist a such a treat with a cup of tea? And isn't the selling point of Shredded Wheat something like '100% wheat and nothing else. No salt, no sugar.' There you have it: a healthy snack if ever you saw one.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A castle and a caucus race

Although it's not possible to see in this photograph Daisy is proudly displaying her Pebble Castle created on Dunwich beach. A very happy half hour was spent building the castle walls and then choosing the pebbles to represent the king and queen, the prince and princess. Daisy wanted to draw faces and crowns on the stones and as I had water-based felt tip pens with me, I was able to provide the perfect ink for her smooth pebble canvases. It was so satisfying an activity that soon the royal household expanded to include a royal baby, a servant, a gardener and several royal pets. Buddy was lured into the game with mention of the palace's need for a fleet of cars. In fact, courtesy of Buddy, we ended up having a royal Formula One team complete with pit crew. And a television.

Other pebble-play included a fabulously incomprehensible throwing game that Buddy and Daisy developed. It reminded me of the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland; we certainly didn't know quite when it began, nor when it would finish. Its rules included standing on a big pile of pebbles by the shoreline, throwing stones into the sea. Buddy explained, 'how far away they get in the sea, that's how many points you get. You don't get any points if it doesn't reach the sea. But you don't lose points. Bonus points are if it lands in a wave. But it's not a winning game. You just all get points.' They shouted out arbitrary numbers and celebrated each throw with a cheer, whether it landed in the sea or not. When it suddenly ended I was was relieved they didn't ask for a prize giving ceremony. Unlike Alice, there were neither peppermints nor thimbles in my pockets and I feared crumpled tissues, car keys and a button would not have made satisfactory prizes.

Suffolk skies

So we had perfect conditions for flying a kite; Southwold's beautiful beach, blue skies and plenty of wind. But having previously tried this activity with young children, I was sceptical they'd have much success or enjoyment. Kites, in my experience, take forever to get out of their packaging and are so huge and cumbersome they hinder anyone under the age of twelve's handling and control of them. All in all a bit of a damp squib. However, my aunt had sourced these fantastic mini kites (Zipaway Kites) that not only zip away into tiny pods when not in use but also need absolutely no construction. They are incredibly easy to use and Buddy's was soaring within seconds - and he loved it. Perfect.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Tried and tested

And suddenly it's the Spring holidays when many a parent's fancy hastily turns to thoughts of..... entertaining the children.

Now, I am not one to pack in the days out, so I just chose one organised activity away from home this four-day weekend. I fancied today's Wondertots session at the V and A's Museum of Childhood (I was enticed by their dress for mess slogan). But alas, it was fully booked - some parents are so organised, aren't they - and upon reflection it was probably just as well. Daisy benefited from an extra day close to home to recuperate. However, it does mean I'm now quizzing Time Out and other publications with renewed vigour for an alternative Easter weekend activity.

There seem to be an increasing number of lovely things for little ones to do in and around London. We are spoilt for choice. Museums, galleries, parks and historic houses are all catching on, at last providing for their youngest and most demanding visitors. A recently published handbook by Jo Graham, First Steps, is a great place to start if you are interested in finding out what's been going on behind the scenes in the development of this kind of provision.

As well as organising out-and-about activities for my own little ones, I'm preparing for my contribution towards Spring holiday entertainment in a professional capacity. And one of the great things about this aspect of my work is that it actually benefits from me being a mum with two young children. On 13th and 14th April I will be leading Nursery Rhyme Time (NRT) sessions for children under 5 at the Geffrye Museum and before then everything will be thoroughly tried and tested at home by my discerning pair.

Of course two children respond very differently to a group of sixteen - as there will undoubtedly be at the museum. But I try out the activities just the same, and I especially rely on Buddy and Daisy to test-drive the craft element.

I design the NRTs to provide something for little ones that encourages their Creative Development, which if we can get specific here, fits in with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statement about creativity being how children respond in a variety of ways to what they see, hear, touch or feel, expressing and communicating their own ideas, thoughts and feelings. When I create activities for NRTs, I always refer back to this area of learning in particular. Being able to use the museum's collection (and objects associated with it) is a wonderful hook from which to hang it.

In the EYFS, the exploration of media and materials within Creative Development is about children's independent and guided exploration of and engagement with a widening range of media and materials. Finding out about and working with colour, texture, shape, space and form in two and three dimensions. Naturally, it is the craft elements of my NRTs that always support this.

Developing the craft activity is always the trickiest part of the devising process. There needs to be opportunity for children to practise the skills they might already have, to experience those they are developing, plus an element of freedom to enjoy, explore and engage with the media and materials themselves. All this, plus they must have a finished item, of sorts, to take away with them. They simply love that.

Because of this, Buddy and Daisy always get to road-test the craft activity in its last stages of development. This helps me to decide what materials will need to be prepared in advance. It helps me to see in what order to offer materials (if staggering their introduction is necessary). It helps me to identify when grown ups need to help but to spot when it becomes too reliant on adult intervention. In actuality the sessions still turn out very organic and full of surprises, the road-testing just helps me prepare for the unexpected, I suppose.

All the Geffrye Museum's NRTs this holiday, including my Lavender Blue and Flower Power, link with the museum's new temporary exhibition A Garden Within Doors:Plants and Flowers in the Home which opened at the end of March. So in our home this week, there will be planters of beautiful blooms and scented sock drawer sachets to be tried and tested - when we're not out-and-about of course.