Monday, 31 October 2011

How to brew Nature Stew

On a family walk we decided to play
A Halloween game in the park yesterday.
All up for the challenge, Spooky Scavenge* the name
And cousins, all four, joined in with the game.

They found red-veined leaves to be fresh dragon hearts
And dried up red flowers were - of course - body parts.
We found pixie wings and the tooth of a cat
And brown plane tree leaves were the wings of a bat.

A seed head became a spider's remains
And wizened old chestnuts were rabbits' dried brains.
Goblins' eyeballs were conkers, a twig a bird's claw
We'd not noticed such nasty nature before.

Back in the cavern, we put in a pot
Some strange orange cubes and some water - quite hot.
Then, just like the witch in Room on the Broom*
They threw in ingredients and sniffed the perfume.

In went the squirrel tail and wings of the bat
In went the brains and the tooth of the cat.
Body parts and spiders were tossed in the pot
They cooked it and smelt it and stirred it a lot.

They sprinkled in glitter
And stirred it some more,
Then ladled it out to pots 1, 2, 3, 4.

And now it is set
Four potions are ready.
The nature is glistening, captured in... jelly!

*Thanks to Woodland Trust, Nature Detectives for the scavenger hunt idea, and to Julia Donaldson for the Room on The Broom rhythm which inspired my poem.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Strictly sparkly bangles

It's no secret that my family are big Strictly Come Dancing fans. Every Saturday evening you'll find us dancing, singing, laughing and talking all over it - discussing the celebrities' sparkly outfits and nifty moves, and the judges' acerbic comments and decisive scores.

As we were away at the weekend, we've only just caught up with this week's shows. Daisy got dressed up in a suitably over-the-top outfit, as usual, and was thrilled to be able to put on the just-dry-enough sparkly bangles she'd made earlier.

Here's how she made them:

1. We cut an empty toilet roll in half to make two bangles

2. She covered the tubes with strips of shiny tape at the edges

3. She used metallic felt tips to colour the remaining areas

4. I mixed some glitter with a little PVA glue and, using a small paint brush, Daisy added sparkle just where she liked

During the show, as both children danced around the living room, it became apparent that my six-year-old felt decidedly dull compared to the competing dancers and his sparkly-armed sister. So I was delighted when he said he wanted his own bangles, and very much surprised when he said that he'd like to make some straight away - it's very unusual for Buddy to initiate a crafty activity. He knew exactly how he wanted to make them and spent the next 15 minutes of the programme, in between dances, covering his tubes with stripes of shiny tape. And in the words of one of the judges Craig Revel Horwood, they looked fab-u-lous, dahling.

As the tubes were slightly too small for Buddy's hands to easily slip through I cut the bangles into cuffs. Happily, this means I can take a turn wearing them - and get to be strictly sparkly too.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Ready, set... go!

After school, while the children were playing together upstairs, I devoted five minutes to setting up the table (pictured above), hoping to entice my children into the kitchen. Their interest was indeed piqued when I showed them the equipment all ready to go, but when I told them they might use the proper knives I suddenly had two very enthusiastic chefs, hands washed, ready to help with dinner preparations. For Buddy and Daisy it was simply a chance for a chopping and slicing free-for-all. For me it sneakily supported my ongoing (and I know, common) parental quest; endeavouring to expand Buddy and Daisy's rather limited diet.

First they wanted to tackle the cherry tomatoes. When the slippery red spheres kept shooting off the table, and the juices squirted everywhere, there were giggles from them and worried glances finger-wards from me. So I showed them how to place the stalk indentation on the board as a firm base and to pierce the skin with the knife-tip first. They persevered and managed to slice every last one of the tomatoes between them. And no fingers, thank goodness.

Then they cut up the broccoli, and didn't need nearly as much supervision. Daisy preferred using her hands to hands to rip off the florets but Buddy used his now trusty knife to cut off individual stems.

Then they took turns to pulverise some garlic and fresh rosemary snipped from our garden. Both absolutely loved using the pestle and mortar and took time to smell the heavenly aroma that resulted from their determined grinding and squishing.

Daisy added the garlic and herbs to some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and we marinated the chopped tomatoes in this mixture while the baked potatoes had their last 20 minutes in the oven.

Buddy and Daisy were feeling pretty hungry by now and when dinner was served they really tucked in - enjoying it all the more for having helped to prepare it. Of course they didn't actually eat any of the garlic and rosemary tomatoes *sigh* but they were certainly interested in whether I was enjoying them. Maybe next time.

They were absolutely delicious, by the way.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Concept: colour

I wish I could remember exactly how I asked Daisy to describe the colours of the pencils on the restaurant table last night. I must have phrased it in such a way that she felt she could have some fun with her answers, and she must have been in a creative mood, because here's what she came up with:

pink milk
broccoli leaf
broccoli stem

Aren't they brilliant!

These clever descriptions reminded me of a fabulous new book I've been meaning to buy called Ruby, Violet, Lime - Looking for Colour by one of my favourite writers Jane Brocket. I think it will encourage my children to think beyond the basics; to identify the moods that colour can evoke, and to spot subtle differences in shade and tone. As you can see, Daisy already seems to love the concept, and I'm sure she'll adore this book. One for the Christmas list then.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Glorious garlands

Are you old enough to remember the TV advert where some youthful-looking fingers applied hand-cream to an autumnal leaf? If so, you'll recall how the miracle of the lotion was then demonstrated by a hand scrunching the moisturised leaf into its palm. The cream had kept the leaf so supple and soft that it immediately sprang back to its original state when let go - the presumption being that it would do the same for ageing hands; brilliant.

The crazy idea of moisturising leaves came back to me last week when I wanted the children to try some simple sewing. We had collected a huge pile of beautiful leaves on our Hampstead Heath walk here. I wanted to make autumn garlands with them, but I knew the leaves would turn brittle and crispy before we'd get round to our sewing session.

So that evening I lovingly applied some (out-of-date and cheap) moisturising cream to the leaves. The next day I set them out along with our blunt plastic needles and some embroidery thread for my children to choose leaves and make garlands.

They really enjoyed threading the colourful leaves onto the silky yarn and although they were still quite delicate, the cream had added plenty of moisture. It was a satisfying and easy activity for my two little needlework novices.

I had envisaged the garlands being hung vertically at a window, the sun shining through them, but the children had a different idea.

As you can see, they wanted their garlands to be hung along the edges of their beds. There, of course, they only survived a couple of days; they were repeatedly knocked and tugged and eventually pulled down altogether as the children clambered in and out of bed. But they looked so great while they lasted, and we got to experience the ephemeral beauty of nature for just a bit longer than usual - with a little helping of hand-cream.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

What are you able to build with your blocks?

[Hilda Boswell's 1963 illustration for Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson]

Recently I read my children a few poems from a tattered old book of mine; Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. It's always wonderfully nostalgic for me to spend time looking through its worn pages. Hilda Boswell's sentimental, pastoral illustrations immediately transport me back to when I was small; I can remember losing myself in the old-fashioned, softly-coloured idyllic scenes that mirror the text so beautifully.

One of the poems I read to them was Block City, written in 1885. I was curious to see whether this quaint nursery verse, with its rather old-fashioned language, would resonate or inspire them at all. Here's an extract:

Block City

What are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I'll establish a city for me;
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors on board!
And see on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things!

Well, no sooner had I finished reading it than Buddy announced he wanted to build a city of his own. 'We could use Lego bricks of course,' he reassured me when I remembered that we'd recently stored our blocks away in the loft. We used a blue blanket as the base - for the sea and river that would run through his city - and covered our sofa in a green throw to create a grassy hill behind it.

Buddy usually makes vehicles and spacecraft with his Lego bricks, so I was curious to see how he would fare with architecture. Initially he needed help, and at one one point I thought he might lose interest - it certainly took him much longer to construct walls than wings, but I could see him gradually finding short-cuts; adding lots of doors and windows, and only making the front and side faces of the larger buildings.

I managed to drift away from the play and then Daisy - though still a bit young for independent Lego construction - began joining in, happily contributing a few bricks to some of the buildings. Between them they made a palace, a bridge, a jail, a school, an aquarium and a little house called Sweet Cottage. Buddy named the city Hollywell Village and then the Lego figures moved in.

I was so pleased to be able to share with Buddy and Daisy the magic I felt as a child looking at A Child's Garden of Verses. And I'm hoping some of the other poems in this beautiful book might inspire their play in years to come.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Hip Hampstead Heath

On Sunday we had an action-packed visit to Hampstead Heath. My eldest was chief map reader and my youngest was in charge of checking that we were, at all times, headed towards an ice cream vendor. The 3 mile circular walk was from a favourite book of ours - Adventure Walks for Families in and around London - and we completed it in about 3 hours of glorious afternoon sunshine.

First, our walk took us to the top of Parliament Hill (the second highest land point in London) where we spotted famous buildings on the skyline and tried not to step on the young, cool crowd gathered at its summit. There were several kites being flown in the only breeze to be found across the city; thus it brilliantly lived up to its nickname of Kite Hill. But what really caught my children's attention was a nearby twinkling bejewelled tree. On closer inspection we discovered that its spinning decorations were in fact empty drinks cans lovingly suspended from the branches by thin thread; fabulous.

Then we started our descent, down a grassy path towards the ponds. With around twenty-five ponds on the Heath, built about 300 years ago to supply London with water*, they now each have a different use. On our walk we passed the men's bathing pond...

...and the model boating pond (sadly, there were no boats afloat).

Although our route led us away from the women's bathing pond, where I would have happily plunged - it was incredibly hot by now, it did provide us with some welcome shade in the ancient oak woods of the Iveagh Bequest. At this point the boys and their map got slightly ahead of us girls, but we didn't mind; Daisy was in a fairy-inspired reverie by now. Every tree and nook was part of fairyland apparently, and she sang to herself as we strolled through the shady dell...

I see the moon and the moon sees me
Over the head of the old oak tree.
Why do the stars all shine on me?
Shine on the one I love.

Out of the woods and into the heat of the sun we caught up with the boys. Daisy checked (again) that we were definitely en route to ice cream - she was seriously flagging now. Kenwood House peeped over the horizon in the nick of time and helped us motivate Daisy ice cream-wards - up the grassy, well-manicured bank towards its cafe.

After a long rest, water, ice creams of course, and a quick game of frisbee, we headed back. Our route took us past a fabulous Henry Moore sculpture. And this was where Daisy decided that she'd had enough walking. She was finished. I can't remember how we got her moving again but I do remember there were tears, a tantrum, a cooling down period, a deal struck, then hugs and finally reluctant compliance. Oh dear. Happily her spirits lifted suddenly when we walked through the amazing birch wood made golden by the setting sun (pictured at the top). Buddy and Daddy led us up our final ascent of the day - Kite Hill again - in time for a last look at the fast-sinking sun along with all the achingly hip dudes with their guitars, cigarettes and alcohol.

As we finished our walk, striding downhill towards the station, we could see the city's skyline burnished gold, reflecting the sunset. It was a particularly cool way, according to Buddy, to finish our exciting outing. So cool in fact, I'm glad I tried out the 'hipstamatic' camera App on my phone for the photos - I think it captures hip Hampstead Heath rather well.

* from Adventure Walks with Families in and around London by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis.