Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A gift for a girl who has everything

When my daughter was invited to a birthday party, the invitation came with a little note from her friend's mum which read, 

'No need to bring a present - it's just been Christmas and the birthday girl really doesn't need anything more.'

If you have children whose birthdays are in December or January I'm sure you've been tempted to write, or have written, similar pleas to stop the onslaught of yet more gifts into an already sated post-Holiday household. But how does one ever square that with the child concerned? Is it really possible that a child could genuinely be OK with not receiving any presents at their party? We racked our brains for a solution to this predicament. Could we really go to a party without taking a present for the birthday girl? 

On the morning of the party, my daughter and I talked it out, and she came up with the answer. I was proud of Daisy for taking into consideration both her friend's feelings, and the mum's request. She came up with the idea of making something to take as a gift, and that it should be something small - something that her friend could really use. She announced that a home-made little lavender bag would be just the thing to take to her friend's party.

So, using things from our sewing and craft stash, and the last of our dried lavender, we made the simple no-sew lavender bag pictured above. And it only took about ten minutes.

We mixed our lavender with a bit of rice to give the pillow a heavier, more tactile, feel and placed this in the centre of a square of polka dot material. We gathered up all the corners of the fabric and then made a sealed pouch, big enough to sit in the palm of a child's hand, with an elastic band. Then Daisy chose some lovely ribbon to cover the band - including one that says Nightie-Night - to show that the lavender bag could be used as a sleeping aid. She's getting pretty good at knots and bows now. Lastly, Daisy chose a couple of buttons which I attached at the top ribbon's knot with a few stitches; a final touch of prettiness.

I love that Daisy thought of the gift herself, and that we sourced all the materials from our house. She got to design and make something unique for her friend that ticked all the boxes - apart from not bringing a present at all, of course. But that was really never going to happen, was it.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Nothing is certain

Illustration by Tove  Jansson

Our bedtime story this week is Moominland Midwinter. Tove Jansson describes a Scandinavian winter so vividly that as soon as we begin our chapter we are immediately transported to that cold, sleeping, snowy world. Because here, most creatures - including the moomins - are hibernating, and everything is light-starved, immobilised by ice, and rounded by snow. The story begins when Moomintroll wakes up and goes exploring; he experiences snow for the first time and meets the wakeful creatures of winter. 

Butterfield Green in the snow

With rather Scandinavian weather conditions in the UK this week, we've certainly been having our share of snowy adventure too; from an evening of exhilarating and scream-fuelled sledging on Primrose Hill where the slopes were lit only by the beautiful park lights, to a late-night walk through a strangely hushed and deserted Butterfield Green - now an enchanted winter fairyland. 

Too-ticky's snow lantern

When we read how Moomintroll spotted a most welcome beacon in the dark, a snow lantern, made by Too-ticky - a small sugar-loaf of a house, built of round snowballs, softly glowing with a lit candle inside - we decided to build our own. It was pretty easy; we just made about ten snowballs, arranged them in a circle on the ground and then added a few more on top, in a sort-of miniature igloo. Then we popped a bike light inside before placing the last snowball on top. It does look rather magical outside our house.

Our snow-lantern

Then Daddy and Daisy made a snow-Moomintroll and a snow-Snork Maiden to go with the lantern; aren't they adorable? It's lovely to know they're both nearby while we're reading our winter moomin book. 

Our snow-sculptures - inspired by the moomins in midwinter

To Moomintroll, like all young children, snow is a great mystery. When he asked Too-ticky to tell him about it because he didn't understand it, she explained that she didn't either. She said, 

'You think it's cold but if you build yourself a snow-house it's warm. You think it's white but sometimes it looks pink and another time it's blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.'

Indeed for many children in the UK, nothing is certain this week - not even being able to go to school, it seems. But while there's snow on the ground, and children there to see it, there will always be wonderful things to try, and new experiences to share.

Illustration by Tove Jansson

Friday, 18 January 2013

Such a perfect day

Windows frosty enough to write our names in? Yes. Puddles covered in enough ice to satisfyingly crack with our feet? Yes. But enough snow to make our footsteps creak, and to build a snowman? No. Not here. I tried not to get my children's hopes up too much but, truth be told, I was really wishing for snow as well. While we waited, and hoped - and checked the weather forecasts far too often - we distracted ourselves with some winter-themed play. We made ice-art by pouring water over shells into shallow containers - leaving them out in the garden to freeze, and we played Cars on Ice on our frozen water table. 

We stuck cling-on snowflakes to our windows to entice the snow to North London. 

We made a wintry playlist on itunes, read snow-themed stories and, with a mixture of silver glitter and white poster paint, my children made some fabulous snowy pictures. 

But it still didn't snow. Until today.

When children are very small, snow is often a brand new phenomenon - like so many things, of course. But, as my two have had at least two snowy days in their lives, to them, the idea of snow has a dream-like quality based on memories and experience. They remember, vaguely, their surroundings being transformed by snow into a magical, sparkling white wonderland - where there were endless snowball fights, toboggan rides of Olympic-competition quality, and where exquisite snowmen were crafted by their own skilled hands without the slightest bit of snow seeping through their gloves.

Of course the reality of a snowy day is often far from this idyllic dream of day-long creativity, sport and wholesome Alpine fun.  With young children especially, we have to make sure they're head-to-toe snow-proofed before even venturing out at all for a start, and even then fun in the snow can sometimes be surprisingly and disappointingly short-lived. Having said that, I was reminded today of how important it is to actually make the effort and get your little ones out there in it. Ignore the cynics who moan about it because they need to get to work (I did too, you know). Get out there in it as soon as you can. And PLAY.

You don't need much, apart from appropriate clothing, to play in the snow. Initiating making a snowman, or snow-castles, or snow angels, or mastering the art of snowball-making is often plenty for little ones to be happily and excitedly engaged for quite a while. Add buckets and spades, and twigs and leaves - and then you'll really get their creative juices flowing and imaginations flying.

And if you discover that your shell ice-art has been totally ruined and buried in the snow (oh well), turn archaeologist and dig out its buried treasure instead. 

Snow is such a novelty here that UK children won't remember how cold they got, and how soon they wanted to get back inside. But they will remember every snow-day of their childhood - their snowmen, all those sledge (or tray) rides; their playtime in the snow. They'll remember each time as a special, perfect day - when the world was white, and they made the best ever thing out of snow and they played the best ever things you can play in the snow. They're good like that.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

It's the moment of truth

This year my children are aware, more than ever, of the importance of thanking family and friends for their Christmas presents. But, at six and seven years old, they are still what I call wild writers, by which I mean they will not be told what, when or how to write. They love to write when their play requires it - then of course one sees brilliant prose, lists, poetry, spells, recipes, instructions and labelling - but try taming them by prescribing what they write, and they kick-up like little wild ponies; written homework from school is currently far from fun, and frankly rarely done.

As Buddy and Daisy couldn't be persuaded to write their thank you messages on this occasion I felt they should at least help to make the cards. They agreed to this, especially when I told them that I was going to be teaching them relief printmaking - a very grown-up art activity - which would enable us to make lots of cards quite quickly. 

I have taught relief printmaking to groups of young children many times, but at work I use specialist tools in an art studio environment. My challenge was to provide the same kind of experience, and hopefully results, at home - with only household equipment and basic art supplies.

Here's what we used:

  • printing tiles - rectangles of neoprene foam (in lieu of tiles made of fine polystyrene)
  • a pencil each - to imprint the design on to the tile
  • thick paint - we used water-based metallic acrylics (in lieu of printing ink)
  • sponges - to dab the paint onto the printing tile
  • blank greetings cards
  • a toy rolling pin (in lieu of a roller or brayer)

Here's what we did:

1. First we drew our simple designs for the cards onto neoprene rectangles. My tip is to avoid text, as you have to write all the letters backwards. But Daisy was adamant - we had to write THANK YOU or THANKS, apparently.

2. We traced over our designs with a heavier press of our pencils - to indent the foam and create a relief-printing matrix.

3. We dabbed the paint all over the tiles with our sponges (both children needed help here).

4. Then came the exciting part - we turned the tiles over, paint-side down, onto the blank cards and rolled the rolling pin back and forth over the facing side of the tiles. This encourages the ink to be transferred from the tiles to the card.

5. A gentle peel back of the very user-friendly neoprene tiles revealed our designs - in relief.

6. We loaded up the tiles with paint again and again - repeating the process to produce further cards. It was very satisfying. Buddy kept saying, 'It's the moment of truth!' every time he peeled off his tile.

After about five cards the tiles started to get a bit clogged up with paint and the results weren't as sharp as they had been. They would have probably been fine with a quick rinse and dry, but we'd made plenty of cards by then, and most had turned out pretty well. 

I'm sure it'll be me writing the actual messages in the cards tomorrow, but both children tell me they definitely want to sign their names; they really do want to say thank you, they're just not ready to put their gratitude in writing just yet. Maybe next year.