Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Rainy day cakes

Sunday was a washout weather-wise, so we retreated to our cosy kitchen and made something yummy and sunny-looking. We based our baking, rather loosely, on a recipe for gluten-free and dairy-free cupcakes that I'd previously found on the internet. We began by hauling out all the necessary ingredients, and then my children's challenge was to sort them into two groups - wet and dry -  while I set the oven to heat up to 180c.


125g gluten-free flour
60g ground almonds
1 tsp baking  powder
half tsp bicarbonate of soda
30g unrefined sugar
half tsp cinnamon
pinch of salt
zest of 1 clementine

3 eggs
100ml olive oil
juice of 2 clementines

1 medium carrot, finely grated (add just before baking)

I let my children measure out the ingredients into two bowls by themselves; one for the wet, and another for the dry. Of course, this all got very messy - but that's half the fun, right?

They combined the wet ingredients with the dry, and then stirred in the grated carrot. Having counted out twelve paper cases, they spooned some of the mixture into each (about 1 tablespoon per cake). We found we had enough to make fourteen cupcakes in the end.

After baking them in the oven for about 12 minutes, we let the cakes cool on a rack for an hour before smothering them in icing and adding a final and delicious flourish - fresh raspberries and blueberries. Suddenly, our Sunday was looking a lot more cheery. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Autumn audit

For me, September is the perfect time to get to grips with clutter - the back-to-school vibe gets me every year; new pencils, new shoes, renewed good intentions - that kind of thing. I've been incredibly industrious this week, re-organising, sorting and updating all of my children's things. Above is their newly organised dress-up station, and it's just one outcome of what's become known as the autumn audit. It's been a huge task, but I feel I owe it to my children - to get rid of the broken, to reignite interest in the forgotten and to pass on the outgrown. 

I began by walking round the house, armed with a notebook. I wrote down headings to describe every different type of toy, game and play-thing as I came across them. From this list I was able to see the wood from the trees, and I began to assess how well my children's current interests and needs relate to the quantity, quality and accessibility of their play-things. From there, the hard work really began; re-establishing collections and unearthing long forgotten treasures, removing, or making less accessible, the play-things my children have outgrown, and trying to decrease the sheer volume of stuff we've accumulated.

Now, their bedroom looks a little more grown-up, and it contains all the toys and play-things I consider suitable (and safe) for independent and self-sufficient play. And I hope I've made it a cool place to hang out too; to read, and listen to CDs and audio books, as well as playing with toys.

By the way, that beanbag in the photograph above is full of soft toys. My children still play with them *shhhh* but now the animals and teddies double as a great seat. I saw the idea on a Pinterest board - I can't find it now, otherwise I'd give credit to the genius who thought of it.

Downstairs, there are further shelves laden with children's books and a huge games cupboard with board games, card games and equipment for more active games like skipping ropes, beanbags and juggling balls. There's a help yourself shelf with everyday supplies for writing, drawing, colouring, painting, sticking and cutting. Another set of shelves, pictured above, is a showcase for some of their favourite toys, natural play-things like pebbles, shells and drift wood, investigative equipment and kid-friendly things - on display to amuse, use and inspire.

I tidied my toys too, especially the Aladdin's cave that is the cupboard under the stairs. This is where I stash our rainy-day art/craft kits, most drawing/colouring/activity books, specialist and supervision-required art resources, tinkering tools and supplies, fabrics, wool and our sewing box. Non-toys, kid-friendly kitchen equipment and packaging from the recycling box weren't really part of the audit this time. They are well established play-things in our house, of course, but I keep them as part of the general house stuff - that way they remain different to toys, and therefore irresistible.

The children are delighted with their room's new lay-out, and have enjoyed exploring the house, rediscovering their things. They've even been more positive about helping to clear up at the end of the day; a very refreshing and new-term-like attitude - long may it last.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Roald Dahl Day lucky dip

I do love to whip up a bit of themed play every now and again, and today has given me just the excuse I need - it's Roald Dahl Day. At six and seven years old, my two children are firmly in the RD zone -  his stories are bedtime favourites, and my eldest now frequently reads them to himself.

My two RD fans are certainly very keen to participate in the celebrations. Here's what I've got planned for them:

  • Dress up as a favourite RD character
  • Start making a silver foil ball like Roald Dahl (he made one over several years adding to it every time he ate a chocolate bar) using foil from a lunchtime cereal bar
  • Play RD Top Trumps - we have a shop-bought pack of these, but have made our own set in the past. Characters include Matilda, Mr and Mrs Twit, Miss Honey, Miss Trunchball and Boggis, and the categories - out of 100 - include brains, appearance, greed, kindness and cunning
  • Make a maze-of-underground-tunnels game telling the story of Fantastic Mr Fox. Both my children love making up board games - see their Christmas ideas here - so I know they'll be keen to try this
  • Use tricks to make things move like Matilda. For example we'll practise catching invisible things from the sky in a paper bag, levitating, creating a force-field, making someone's arms rise up without them trying, making a pencil roll without touching it - that kind of thing
  • Go on a golden ticket hunt around the house (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) - I've cut up some gold foil wrapping paper in anticipation of this one
  • Make a kite, like Danny (Danny, the Champion of the World). We'll cheat and make one from thin plastic bags and some thread, rather than a shirt
  • Solve some number puzzles like Matilda. We'll complete a simple Sudoku or two - I found kid-friendly ones here. And with large numbers chalked in a grid on our paved outside space, I'll call out some 2 and 3 digit numbers for them to 'jump out', and challenge them with some addition and subtraction sums - they'll need to 'jump out' the answers
  • Make a revolting concoction (in the kitchen) - like George (George's Marvellous Medicine)
  • Bake toad-in-the-hole, like Danny and his dad (Danny, the Champion of the World). I'm not sure whether my children will go for gravy to accompany this dish as in the book, but I'll certainly offer it - along with some baked beans, just to be on the safe side
  • Build a gravity-defying upside down house like the birds in The Twits - with Lego
  • Invent some crazy but yummy-sounding treats like Mr Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) - and think up some cool names for them - with play dough

I've made a lucky dip for the activities by simply writing brief explanations of each on strips of paper and putting them into a cloth bag for my children to dip into later. I wonder how many we'll get to do before bedtime? None of the activities need a great deal of preparation - so I won't be disappointed if we don't get to try them all. I am hoping the toad-in-the-hole will do as dinner though, so I'd better orchestrate it so that one comes out sooner rather than later, as it needs about an hour to bake in the oven.

Happy Roald Dahl Day everyone!

Monday, 10 September 2012

She sells seashells...

We were so lucky to be in Brighton at the weekend - it's a superb place to be when the sun shines. As we were staying in Hove, we spent a lot of time on the beach there. The sea gleamed and sparkled, enticing nearly everyone into its icy shallows, and the shore's pebbly surface was a treasure-seeker's paradise. There were translucent glassy gems, large rounded pale stones, smaller jagged rocks shot with quartz, and an interesting variety of sea-smoothed shells - all within easy reach of our beach-towel base. 

We used these fabulous resources for our play; building structures, making collections, setting up a seashell shop, and decorating pebbles with (washable) felt-tip colour. We even enjoyed a few games of beach noughts and crosses. As you can see below, we marked out a grid with some string then selected some pebbles - as the noughts, and shells - as the crosses, from our surroundings. It couldn't have been simpler.

And, for some, there were highly energetic aqua-frisbee games too - brrrrrrr.  I would have joined them of course, but someone had to stay out of the water to photograph the action, didn't they?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Big and little

We decided to make the most of the last days of the summer break by escaping to the country. Our little Oxfordshire camping trip was a marvellous finale to what's been a glorious six weeks of school-free adventure. We spent just two nights there; sleeping as near as possible to under the stars, and in as near as I wanted to be to a tent (actually, a small and friendly wooden pod named Robin).

Without the usual distractions of everyday life, we couldn't help but notice how brilliantly big our children have become. However it was so wonderful when a sign of their remaining littleness popped up - reminding us that they are not all-grown-up quite yet. We simply loved the big and the little of them in this precious bubble of family time. 

For example, our big kids stayed up as late as us, chatting, playing cards and reading, but once asleep they were hilariously incapable of staying inside their sleeping bags properly and they couldn't keep the right way round on their air-beds at all. We sent them off on their own to buy fresh milk and bread, which makes them seem very grown-up, until you know that the shop was actually a tiny cabin on the camp-site with an extremely helpful and understanding shopkeeper. She'd written out a little sum showing their spending, helped them to count their coins and to check their change.

On the last morning of our holiday the pair of them strolled, hand-in-hand, a little way ahead of us on a woodland walk. As we tuned in to their conversation we realised they were discussing university options, and the subjects they might study. This was, quite frankly, far too grown-up for our liking, and we were rather relieved when the conversation gradually moved away from all that and into a full-on wizard and fairy game - much more like it.

And so, my two big-and-little children went off to school today - to a new class, and to an older year group. But they are the littlest they will ever be in there today - and that's to be noted. And definitely loved.