Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Camp-fire cooking

My children's school was closed today because of strike action and I had to go to work, so Daddy travelled home through the night from Edinburgh to London - that's nine hours. How he managed to look after Buddy and Daisy without a wink of sleep I'll never know, but clearly they had a great time. They were pleased to find the local adventure playground open and so they hung out there for ages; on the flying fox, the trolley ramp, the swing-tyres and other fantastic reclaimed-and-made play equipment.

There was a surprise in the middle of the playground too - a crackling, warming and gorgeous smelling camp-fire. Foil-wrapped, wood-fire baked potatoes were being handed out just as they arrived and later on - as you can see in the photo above - freshly toasted bread; how wonderful for them to experience cooking and eating outside. Daisy decided to add some strawberry jam to hers and ate it high up in the playground's tree house with a new friend - and that's pretty special too.

I am so proud of my family today; they definitely made lemonade out of lemons. And I'm proud of our community too - thank you SWAPA for keeping such a super resource open on strike day, and for giving my children the opportunity to experience the magic of camp-fire cooking.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Moonbeams in a jar

We've just had some lovely news from school; Buddy and Daisy have each been made class Star of the Week. I am so proud of them, and they have been on sparkling, star-like form ever since - rightly pleased with themselves. The news put us in mind of one of our favourite songs Swinging on a Star. We talked about the lyrics and how we especially love the line 'carry moonbeams home in a jar'. The children, rather practically, said they would like to work out exactly how to collect the moon's silvery glow and keep it. And I tried to explain, too metaphorically probably, how I want them to have all the glowing moonbeams they can comfortably carry, always...

In order to satisfy their want for the moon and my desire to reward them for being Stars of the Week I came up with the idea of a little prize; their very own jar of moonbeams. Here's how to make one:

1. Take a clean, empty glass jar (label removed) and apply a generous coat of PVA glue (thinned with a splash of water)

2. Cover the jar with small pieces of silver and white tissue paper just as you like

3. Apply one further coat of PVA glue to give a glossy hard-wearing finish

3. Add a few silver stars or sequins for a bit of daylight sparkle

4. Coat the jar's lid with PVA glue then cover it with kitchen foil

5. When the whole thing is dry, pop in a bicycle (white) light and screw on the lid

Now, how to get them swinging on a star?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

How to make short-cut cushions

Our first ever sewing project today was short and sweet, and a total success. We made the rather snazzy cushions pictured above, and we made them in under an hour. Here's how:

Our gorgeous fabric from Beyond Fabrics came conveniently pre-cut. Officially it was 50cm x 100cm but actually it was more like 56cm x 112cm - perfect dimensions for cushions. The short ends of our fabric were selvedges - if yours aren't you should hem or over-stitch them first to stop the fabric fraying.

1. First, lay the fabric flat on the floor or a table, pattern uppermost, and fold the bottom of the short (selvedge or hemmed) end up on itself by about 45cm and the opposite edge down by about 15cm. It should look like a square envelope (approximately 51cm x 51cm) as the photograph above shows.

2. Pin the open edges together - about 2 - 3cm in so the pins don't interfere with the sewing machine.

3. Run a seam - about 1cm in - along both pinned edges. My children watched, fascinated, as I set up the machine, and I let them lower and raise the foot and needle as required, and they worked the foot pedal (or accelerator as Buddy would have it).

4. Then take out the pins and turn the cover right-side out. Finding the corners was a fun challenge.

5. Finally, pop a cushion pad inside. These covers are like pillowcases, so they are totally removable.

Job done!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Pomanders, perfume and pong

A great way to get children and grown-ups to imagine themselves at home in a Tudor hall or Victorian drawing room at the Geffrye Museum is to get them to sample the aroma of herbs and spices, beeswax and tallow candles, or the distinctive smell of a coal or wood fire. This usually starts a lively conversation about the amazing power of olfaction to evoke ideas and memories of different times and places.

To develop my children's olfactory skills at home, we played the game Guess the Smell. We took turns to collect things from around the house and hid them in foil-topped, fork-pricked pots. We sampled the mystery smells then drew or wrote down what we thought was in each pot before removing the foil. Today we had houmous, Marmite, soap, chocolate, strawberries, rosemary and coffee; there was some serious sniffing and thinking, and plenty of giggling and guessing.

When we were in Kynaston Gardens a few weeks ago we spotted an unusual fruit tree. The smell of its velvety citrus fruit took me straight back to a childhood memory of making pomanders from oranges. I thought this might make a lovely activity for Buddy and Daisy; to experience the wonderful perfume of citrus and cloves combined. So we took a few of the windfalls home with us and made the pomanders pictured above. Here's how we did it:

1. First we pierced the fruit skin with a fork and began to press cloves into the holes. Though both children's interest in this activity waned after about five minutes Daisy popped back to the making table a couple of times, adding a few cloves every visit.

2. When the fruit was entirely covered in cloves Daisy returned to help me thread a sparkly pipe cleaner through its core. I used a bamboo skewer to make a threading hole first.

3. Then we secured the pipe-cleaner with a pony bead to the underside of the fruit.

4. Next, we threaded five pony beads to the length of pipe-cleaner sticking out the top of the fruit.

5. Then we twisted and tucked the end of the pipe-cleaner into the pony beads making a hanging loop for the pomander.

6. Finally, we sprinkled over some fine glitter for extra sparkle and hung the pomanders from the radiator to dry cure.

Two weeks on, they are ready. They smell gorgeous, look very festive and evoke lovely memories of my childhood. And now the perfume of the pomanders will be part of Buddy and Daisy's smell-memory too.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Sights, heights and lights

Our last family walk, which I wrote about here, was on a warm and golden autumn afternoon. We used the fabulous book London Adventure Walks for Families again this Saturday, and it couldn't have been more different; cold and drizzly and very, very grey. Despite the uninspiring weather, we had a marvellous time. We followed the walk from the chapter Out of the Ashes as my son's current school history topic is the Great Fire of London, and our adventure began at St Paul's Cathedral pictured above.

Looking up, we were wowed by the cathedral's vastness and its distinctive dome. We listened as Daddy read out how the fire of 1666 raged through this very spot and how, despite being made of stone, the cathedral that stood here was destroyed. Designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren, this was one of the most extraordinary new buildings to emerge out of the ashes, and it took 35 years to build.

But it was the scene at ground level that stole the show: the tents of the Occupy London encampment surrounding the cathedral, and the protesters in their hundreds - either handing out flyers or sitting on the steps listening to a constant stream of amplified speeches. What a sight! Buddy and Daisy were of course intrigued; we explained, as best we could, who the people were and why they were there.

After getting their faces painted in this almost festival-like atmosphere, we ventured into the cathedral itself and, with the aid of the children's audio guides, found out more about the effects of the Great Fire. Then we decided to get some height on the situation. Could we do it? Could we climb the 257 steps to the Whispering Gallery? Could we go even higher to the Stone Gallery - another 119 steps? And could we, should we attempt to make it all the way to the Golden Gallery; the very top of St Paul's famous dome? That would mean climbing 528 steps altogether, and put us nearly 100m above the ground. Gulp.

Well, after much huffing and puffing, and stopping to take in the views at each level - we made it. On the last stretch (a wrought iron, spiral staircase) I had to button down my burgeoning vertiginous butterflies. We also had to keep Buddy and Daisy happy, motivated and climbing. And the way we did this? By singing. London's Burning to be precise. We changed the word engines to buckets when Buddy pointed out "there were no [fire] engines in 1666." [We have since found evidence of 17th century 'fire engines' here]. Its call and response structure was just what we needed to keep our spirits up as we stepped onwards and upwards. It worked a treat.

London's burning
London's burning
Fetch the bucket
Fetch the bucket
Fire! Fire!
Fire! Fire!
Pour on water
Pour on water

At the top we were rewarded for our efforts with this great view - an impressive skyline despite the rather murky conditions.

Back at ground level the book led us towards the very street where The Great Fire began - Pudding Lane. This was the motivation Buddy and Daisy needed; to reach the source of the blaze that practically razed London to the ground nearly 350 years ago.

The walk guided us through a very interesting part of town where the numerous churches built after the fire (many designed by Wren) sit proudly with, if somewhat dwarfed by, the shiny new buildings of the city. Our book reminded us that one of the churches we passed, St Mary-Le-Bow, features in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. We reached Pudding Lane just as it was getting dark, and there, stunningly lit as if to say well done was Wren's Monument to the Great Fire: a 61m Doric column.

We could have easily finished our walk there but we noticed that the column was still open to visitors for another 15 minutes. Could Buddy and Daisy climb another 311 steps? Could I hide my vertigo twice in one day?

As the photograph above is of the inside of the column, you can probably guess the answer: we did! Thank goodness for being reminded of the rhyme Oranges and Lemons earlier because this was the much needed motivational song for this last climb of the day.

Oranges and Lemons
Say the bells of St Clement's

You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martin's

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey

When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch

When we that be?
Say the bells of Stepney

I do not know
Says the great bell of Bow

And at the top we were once again rewarded with fantastic views of London. This time the view was against a darker sky and hundreds of twinkling lights decorated the cityscape - it was absolutely spectacular.

So there ended our walk, one that was rather more about the sights, heights and lights of London today than tales of flames and rebuilding in the 17th century. However, the certificate we all received for climbing Wren's Monument reminded us of the original reason for our outing. Both children have since taken their certificates to school to show their classmates - and are very proud of their climbing credentials.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Choose an instrument you can play

Last night Daisy explained, with great enthusiasm, a game her class had played in their music lesson that afternoon. Then she asked if we could all play it right away, please and went off to get our bag of toy instruments.

Daisy soon returned and carefully set out some drums, an egg shaker, the jingle bells, a swanee whistle, maracas and a tambourine on the floor. Then we were directed to sit in a circle and she taught us the game's song as we passed round an object (she used our toy Moomin Papa, as he was close to hand).

Here's the song - sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down

Choose an instrument you can play
You can play
You can play

Choose an instrument you can play
What's your favourite?

Whoever was holding Moomin Papa at the end of the song had to pick up an instrument and play along to the next part, stopping as instructed. Daisy added a fabulously ostentatious hand gesture to help, just like an orchestra's conductor; she'd clearly lifted this straight from her teacher - hilarious.

You can play and play and stop
Play and stop
Play and stop
You can play and play and stop...

She couldn't remember that last line, but was happy when we suggested

...That was lovely.

I am of course intrigued as to what the actual line might be but I've since been making myself chuckle by thinking of cheeky alternatives like ... stop it ple-ase. Or... I have a headache. Well, those percussion instruments can be rather cacophonous in small hands, can they not.

But the best, and rather more melodious, was yet to come. After we'd all had a couple of turns, they asked whether they could have a guitar lesson. As Daddy was not about to head off to work he happily obliged; as you can see they were transfixed.

They listened so carefully as he demonstrated how to make chord shapes and then they practised their strumming techniques assiduously.

Now, that really was lovely.