Sunday, 23 November 2014

A day of distraction

Sometimes, the last thing anyone wants to do is actively entertain a pre-schooler. They're loud, demanding and the word, 'why' punctuates every sentence in the places that grown-up people would take the time to breathe.

I'm told that television is the way to go in these situations, but to be honest it sounds like too much hard work to go to the trouble of buying a set, installing an aerial and paying licence fees, just because I'm a little bit incredibly pregnant. In my day, we had cardboard boxes and that suited us down to the ground, thank you.

Which got me to thinking - I might hate junk modelling now, but I didn't always. In fact, growing up, it was a high point in my little world. And it just so happens that I got a giant cardboard box in the post yesterday. Hooray for happy accidents.

This little house was really easy to construct - I cut the long flaps from the top of the box and taped them together to form the apex of the roof, then taped that to the box's understand. Voilla. Basic house shape. Then I cut out a bunch of square-shaped windows and doors, leaving the card attached along one edge so that Daughter could better post things, and so there'd be something interesting to open and close.

Then I gave her some pens and left her to it. Having always been discouraged from writing on her toys/clothes/walls it took a little while to talk her into attacking this with the pens, but when she finally did, she did so with gusto.

It was really interesting to see what she drew - I presumed she'd concentrate on the exterior but she flipped the thing over and began scrawling furniture all over the inside of it. Her d├ęcor came complete with cats, self portraits and eggs. For some reason, she drew a lot of eggs. When she'd had enough, she fetched her little wooden dolls from the fort we've been playing with them in and started acting out some very telling scenes*.

Yes, it did require a little more work than flipping on a switch, but not much, and hopefully Daughter will be interested in playing with the house again tomorrow. I left the side flaps of the box on so that I can send her out into the garden to collect leaves. She can then stick these down on the remaining flaps for the house exterior, so that should give me another day of sitting on my bum without having to think too much... Wish me luck!


*i.e. "Daddy, Mummy says that you have to cook dinner now or it'll be too late and we'll all be hungry."
"Mummy, if you don't stop tickling me, I will be furious."

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Fun ways to teach 'Sight Words'

I've said it before and I'll say it again - I'm not a teacher. I have absolutely zero educator's training and this whole world of trying to impart knowledge on small people is one I know next-to-nothing of. At the moment, I feel like I'm stumbling in the dark a bit, trying to follow Daughter's lead.

And she's heading full-pelt towards reading. I mean, I thought I had at least another year until I had to sit and listen to stilted attempts at, "See him run. Run, Ben, run," but we're there now and as ever, I'm left fumbling through Pinterest and Google at night, trying to find some way of turning this all into a game.*

Since we started playing Teach Your Monster to Read, Daughter has come on leaps and bounds. She completed section one of the game very easily and moved onto section two. We're now about half way through it and she's beginning to struggle - particularly with the 'Tricky' words. I had no idea that these were 'a thing' and spent last night googling them.

Mainstream education refers to them as 'Sight Words' - words which don't make phonetic sense and which the reader must learn to recognise on sight alone. The examples we've come across in the game so far are:

  • To
  • The
  • No
  • Go
  • I
  • We
  • She
  • He
  • Me 
  • Be 

Whilst the phonetically regular words she encounters are absolutely no problem, these words are causing furrowed brows and tantrums. Pinterest to the rescue then... 

Except we have a very, very limited budget. I mean, it stretches to paper, pens and occasionally kitchen ingredients. And sticks, of course. We have a lot of sticks. 

In any case, this is what I came up with - I drew the words out on A5 paper and asked daughter to run, hop, crawl or scoot-on-her-bum between them. This really helped her start to recognise the words and totally unbidden, she began giving me examples of sentences which used the word she was standing on. Epic.

To try and make doubly sure she'd got it, and it wasn't just her remembering where the words were on the floor, we shuffled up the cards and poured some salt into a quiche dish (I will use this salt later on in salt dough - no wastage here!) then had her trace the shapes with her fingers. I liked how tactile this was for her and she seemed to really enjoy doing it (see the pic at the top of the page). Of course, copying the words only lasted about ten minutes, but drawing faces in the salt kept those tiny hands amused for a good while longer.


*To be fair, the rate at which she's hoovering information suggests that she would happily listen and parrot anything I have to say, but I don't want her in a 'school-room' yet. I want her running around outdoors, wrecking her clothes in muddy puddles and drawing on the walls. Life's got enough sitting at desks in it already.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Fridge magnet letters

This is a really easy activity for occupying small people when you're in the kitchen. Because let's face it, sometimes you just want to cook in peace - without little folk sticking their fingers in the butter and asking why that's a pepper.

All I did was grab a sheet of magnetic paper and a marker pen and write out the alphabet in lower case. Our letter magnets are capitals so you can adjust depending on what you have - I think most fridge alphabets these days are lower case so scribbling capitals is probably the way to go for most people. Also if you've got no magnetic paper, there's nothing to stop you taping paper-paper to the fridge door. I just figured this'd be easier to take in the car with us on long drives but again, tape some regular paper to a baking sheet and you can play anywhere.

And that was basically it. The girl knows her lower case letters/phonetic sounds from Teach Your Monster To Read and we've been reading Edward Lear's Alphabet Rhymes for Children since Daughter was born (my Dad brought me a beautiful copy back from the US, illustrated by Carol Pike, so it's always been a firm childhood favourite in our house).

When we read from alphabet books which show both capitals and lower case letters, we tend to say, "A says ah" - pointing first to the former and then the later - "B says buh, C says cuh," and so on. To begin with, I did it because Daughter was learning animal sounds and wanted to know what everything said (can openers, gate posts... you name it), and it was an easy way to answer, but it seems to have stood us in good stead for this activity. With the exception of getting E and F mixed up, and V and Y, she got them all right on the first try. To keep her busy a little longer, I got her to read the letters aloud using their proper names, and their phonetic sounds. Then she sang the alphabet which really made her day - she's never been able to remember all the letters before and seeing them listed meant that she could do it without any help from me.

Overall, this was a huge success - she kept going back to do it again and again. I not only managed to chuck everything in the slow cooker for tonight while she was occupied, but also write this blog post! Hooray for magnetic letters!

Do you have any other ideas for using these handy little things? :)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Numeracy games

So, after raving about Toucan Boxes last time I posted, ours turned up late this month. But as an apology, there was an age-appropriate card game included - Farmyard Trumps.

Being nothing more than unassuming cards in a tidy little tin, this game is brilliant for long journeys, waiting in restaurants, and Christmas stockings. In addition to the suggested game, you can also play snap - amazing for practising quick number recognition - and number flash cards (if you're so inclined - I never actually figured out how to use flash cards though so someone else might have to field that one...)

We played the game as described on the box, but it became clear after a few turns that though Daughter can count really well, and recognise what the various digits mean, she has little concept of which number is larger than the other. And that's where that old box of marbles finally comes into its own. Of course, if your family doesn't have a giant tin of marbles, anything you can use as counters will do - buttons, shells, pebbles, coins... anything you can get your mits on. 

Because marbles are tricky blighters, we used the tin from the game to count ours into, but obviously you won't need these if you're using coins or buttons or things which won't roll. 

Having a visual reference really helped Daughter to understand the concept of less/more and she picked up the whole thing very quickly. Before we counted the marbles into their tins, I got her to guess which would have more in and after a short while, she was guessing correctly every time. I then went on to try and explain that a number made of two digits would always be more than a number made of one digit. That also really helped her to get a good grasp of things quickly.

It struck me though, as we were playing, that she was a little unsure of the numbers above 10. A quick recap of her number books showed that very few went as far as the teens, which struck me as slightly odd. Numbers from 20+ follow a really easy pattern, but prior to that, there's little about their linguistic names to help with reading. Eleven and twelve are especially odd, whilst the rest are pronounced from right to left - six-teen, not ten-six as with every other number in English. Why not just teach them all in with the first ten - linguistically odd - numbers?

I have to admit, without books as a starting point I was massively slightly out of my comfort zone. But that old classroom favourite came to the rescue - Bingo! 

A quick googling pointed me to  (which is totally worth checking out if you have a printer and a bored toddler!) and these blank Bingo sheets. A quick decapitation of Christmas gift tags made some super shiny bingo markers and I dug out my trusty D20 from many moons ago (I was a level 17 elf, I'll have you know). 

This is fairly self explanatory - fill out the bingo sheet (you could make these with letters if you wanted to work on literacy, and have your child pull fridge-magnets out of a bag... actually, you might be seeing that one next week...), roll the D20, get the child to read the number aloud and then have them match it on the bingo card. 

Daughter took to it really well, and especially liked rolling the funny shaped dice down a kitchen roll tube (long story). The shiny paper also appealed to her magpie instincts, and she had no issues matching up what she saw on the D20 to the writing on the sheet. It didn't take long at all for her to begin recognising the teen numbers and during the second play through, I was able to leave her to it for five minutes while I went to make a cuppa.

If you're a sticker person, and don't mind printing multiple sheets (we don't have a printer so I have to bum papers like this off Mum, hence the reusable aspect of our game) then you could get 1-20 stickers and add in a third 'matching' element. Or give stickers as prizes for lines of bingo.

We'll see how we do after a few more days with 1-20 and then start seeing if we can work in the abacus which has been sat upstairs looking pretty for a long, long time.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Activity box reviews

Daughter and I have few financial indulgences. Mostly, we stomp about the countryside in our wellies, collect huge bags of sticks with the intention of doing things with them, then return home to bake and read books. Or at least, she sits in her room and 'reads' to her toys. I pig-out on said baking, slurp my body weight in tea and wonder why it is that this pregnancy, I'm the size of a small SUV... Ah, the mysteries of life.

Now that we're in Scotland though, with winter fast approaching  - and a tiny, screaming monster due to descend at the beginning of December - I thought it wise to find some alternatives to our great, stick-gathering works. And because my brain is a total mess of fuzz (through a combination of pregnancy and too much homemade Rocky Road) I'm running out of ideas for crafts.

Cue The Weekend Box, and the Toucan Box.

These two little packages basically do the same thing. The postman brings them to your house, you do the crafts contained within, wonder when your toddler got to be smarter than you and leave them to it... returning in time to watch them paint your dining table sludge brown with the leftover acrylics from their project. No? Just me?

In any case, having tried both boxes, I thought I'd take you through each one,. I have to say, each company has its merits and it's down to the sort of thing you like doing as to whether or not the Weekend or Toucan Box will appeal most.

Up first - as modelled above - is the Weekend Box.

Featuring the woodland characters Wooster, Sammy, Hattie and Oswald, each critter corresponds with a different type of craft. There's cookery, recycling, generic craft and discovery so you get four activities in a box.

The crafts themselves are well thought out, and the various elements included in the packs are of reasonable quality (though the glue absolutely doesn't stick).

After completing each activity there's a sticker to put on the instruction sheet, and when all four are finished, the child can stick a fifth, larger sticker to a chart. When they have enough stickers, they're invited to send a photo of their achievements to the Weekend Box facebook page in exchange for a prize (in our case, a personalised apron).

Overall, I was very impressed, but there were a few things which just didn't work for us as a family. As a keen cook who already includes Daughter in every-day meal preparation, the recipes felt slightly patronising and seemed to try a little too hard to be 'healthy'. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for good, home-cooked foods that small people will actually eat, but these seemed to prioritise a desire to be health-promoting over the taste. As I say though, I'm a cook and I reckon a fussy eater as a result. If you're looking for a way to get your little one into the kitchen, it might be exactly what you need.

Also, there was no overriding theme to the box, and I find that Daughter enjoys things far more if she can see some kind of connection there (hence my trying to theme activities). We're also not really a sticker family - I don't do reward charts or that sort of thing, so the concept of stickers as a prize was very alien to my little girl. Again, if sticker-rewards are something which works with your routine then this would definitely be the box to consider.

Cue The Toucan Box.

We ordered one trial of the Toucan Box and I was instantly impressed. Though there was only one craft in the box, there was a card with suggestions of tie-in activities. These weren't complicated - just a tick sheet of things to look for on woodland walks, or things to talk about while looking at leaves etc. but it was all very well considered and had the continuity I'd felt was lacking in the Weekend Box.

When we upgraded our subscription to the middle-sized package (containing two crafts) I was glad to see that the idea of a theme continued. The customisation options even go so far as to let you select which of the prepared topics you think your child would find most interesting. There is a book included in each of the larger packs, and the box itself has all kinds of fun activities printed on it - a map to draw on, for example, and funny little Toucans to decorate, as well as spaces to 'draw your bright ideas'.

The thing which finally made me chose the Toucan Box over the weekend box was the lack of junk-modelling. Despite being a total slob, I am paradoxically house-proud and hate clutter. And though Daughter is very proud of her junk models, I can't help but feel that they are... well... junk. Goodness, I sound cruel, don't I? In any case, the items included in the Toucan boxes have been useful things - stuff that she can play with or actually use (a tote bag which she painted herself, is the one which springs to mind first). All in all, the re-usability of the makes, the book and the packaging make this feel that it's much better value for money, despite costing more and containing fewer crafts than it's smaller and more compact counterpart... I told you, I'm paradoxical.

In any case, each box has its merits and it's worth checking out the free trials offered by both to see which you might prefer. In the interests of total disclosure, neither Weekend Box nor Toucan Box have asked me to review their products, but if you sign up to the Toucan Box using this link, I do get a reward for referral.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Teach Your Monster to Read

Oh my goodness, I think I love this game! Teach Your Monster to Read is free for PCs and has been made to encourage early literacy. Perfect for our household then! I couldn't have had it recommended at a better time, either - today Daughter sat with a book open, told me what each of the letters on the page said and then fell into total meltdown because she couldn't get them to 'make words'. She's not generally a mardy sort of child, so it was heartbreaking seeing her so cut up about something - especially since I don't have the first clue about where to begin teaching her to read.

I'm not usually an advocate of computers for kids, or screen time in general really, but Daughter is three now and I think I have to let go of my preconceptions regarding what childhood should be - day after day she astonishes me with her thirst for learning and I'm left lagging, trying to find activities which nurture that lust for knowledge. I was rather under the impression that the early years of childhood should be spent sat in the garden, eating bugs and mud pies, sticking leaves up one's nostrils. Apparently, things have changed since my day... Daughter's peers not only have access to tablets and iPads, but in many cases, have them sat ready and waiting in their own toy-box. I don't think we'll be going quite that far, but a half-hour per day, supervised on my laptop isn't going to be the childhood-eroding horror that I had - in my pre-children days - envisioned.

In any case, Teach Your Monster to Read does exactly that. It uses phonetics and simple, flash games to help children learn the various sounds they need to read. It's colourful, customisable and I love the fact that they need to use a mouse, rather than just poke things with their fingers (thus paving the way for the hand-eye coordination that the girl will need when she gets old enough to play console games with me).

The sounds are split amongst different 'islands' and children need to complete all the games before moving onto the next one. Each island takes about half an hour to play through (so far) so taking breaks is natural and easily possible. I've dug out various letter toys (wooden letter blocks, a Melissa and Doug letter puzzle, a Hello Kitty wipe clean writing book etc.) so that we can continue practising the sounds after we've finished playing. And I think I read somewhere - in our Bookbug pack, perhaps (the equivalent of Bookstart for north of the Border) - that children learn to read better when they're able to practise making letters as they learn to recognise them.

I'm not expecting this game to single-handedly teach my child to read and write, but it's a wonderful starting point for someone like me who has absolutely zero teaching experience. I can use each island section as a jumping-off point for the day and use those letters for as long or as short a time as Daughter wants to. Then my regularly scheduled programme of, "Stick your rain suit on and go outside," can be resumed...

Do you have any ideas for teaching reading? Are there any great online games you would recommend for pre-schoolers?

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Preparing for baby, as cheaply as possible!

As I'm in the process of kitting out Child-The-Second at present, I thought now might be a good time to share some ideas I've come across about doing so on the cheap. It's a text heavy post so I hope you stick with me. I'll try to put in as many pictures and links as I can to brighten things up, though!

The following list is just my own opinion on what's necessary, and other places will tell you different things so pick and choose according to your own lifestyle. Remember - the shops will still be open after baby is born, so if you find that you're really lacking in something, you can grab it at a later date!
Daughter and I, all wrapped up at 12 months.
  • Sling - Daughter wouldn't be put down at any point (seriously - I slept sitting up with her over my shoulder for at least six months) and I couldn't have kept my life running if I hadn't been able to get on with things hands-free. My Papoozle was a godsend, but there are hundreds of different types of slings out there and the best way of finding one to suit you is to look up sling libraries in your area. The list I've just linked to is not comprehensive, so if there are none posted within easy distance, it's still worth a search on facebook for separately run groups, or private meetings. The operators can advise you on the different kinds of slings available. From stretchy wraps to woven wraps, mei-tais to Tulas, the main thing to be aware of is that baby should be close enough to kiss, facing Mum (whether worn on the front or back) and the legs and bum should form an 'M' position.
  • Car seat - This one really is non-negotiable if you drive (and some hospitals won't let you leave until they've seen the baby in a car seat, whether you're driving home or not!) but see below for ways to make the most of this investment.
  • Pram - Possibly the most cost-effective way to get a pram is to buy a car seat which clips into a pram base. Obviously, it's not advisable to buy car seats second hand as you don't know if they've been involved in an accident, but if you search summer/January sales, you should be able to find one at a discount. Then it's just a case of buying used pram accessories for your chosen model - ebay or Gumtree are good places to start, and you might even get lucky at a car boot sale.

    The pram also doubles as somewhere to put the baby if you're lucky enough to have one that will be laid flat without screaming the ears off every living soul in a thousand mile radius... unlike Daughter, whose aversion to being put down led to us giving our pram away and using the sling exclusively. This is another way to cut down on costs if you think you can manage it, by the way. If you have a good sling designed for the purpose, you can continue carrying your child well into toddler-hood. We successfully lugged Daughter around until she was two-and-a-half years old, at which point she refused to be carried any more. In terms of weight and height, even now at well past three years, I could easily get her back in the sling if she was tired enough to let me.

    In any case, though we'd initially planned not to bother with a pram this time, we were able to source one for free from Gumtree and intend to use in place of a moses basket for when baby is asleep downstairs. The moses basket, by the way, is the single biggest waste of money I came across when we bought things for Daughter.
  • Cot -  If you're not planning on co-sleeping (which is really useful if you're breastfeeding, but it's not for everyone) then you'll need a cot. You might have read that co-sleeping isn't safe but if you think it's something you'd like to do then look up ways of safely co-sleeping. Anyways, re. the cot, you can pick the frames up for free, or very cheaply on Gumtree/freecycle and then just buy a new mattress. Again, with my velcro baby I wished I hadn't bothered for the first six months, but now I'm glad I spent the money. I bought a second hand Stokke Sleepi which grew from a crib to a cot, to a toddler bed to a children's bed. Were we not putting baby 2 into it, Daughter could have been in there until she was 10 and following that, it can be turned into two chairs so we really will be getting our money's worth.

  • Bedding - I found baby sleeping bags a godsend when Daughter finally went into a cot as she's such a wriggler, but if you're not keen on those then in addition to the sheets you'd need anyway, a couple of cellular/crocheted blankets are great. I liked to have two of each (one on, one in the wash).
  • Muslin cloths - These save a fortune in baby wipes and kitchen roll! If you're using washable nappies, you can even use them as extra padding for night time use. Before you buy any, it's a great idea to ask on freecycle/Gumtree/facebook selling pages for used ones. Chances are that they'll be grotty, but often people are willing to give them away for the postage and they can always be thrown in the washing machine with a box of dye to brighten them up again.
  • Nappies/wipes/bum cream - Reusables aren't for everyone, but you can save a small fortune by using them and many councils offer a lump sum towards the purchase price as it saves them money on landfill. I picked some up second hand for £60. When I thought I wasn't having any more babies I sold them on for £50 so £10 for almost three years of nappies was awesome. There are used cloth nappy boards on facebook, but I find they're priced for fluffy bum addicts. Gumtree seems to be the cheapest place to go. If you're still not convinced, check out Phoebe's post about how easy it is to use cloth.

    Otherwise, Aldi nappies are cheap and very good. If you can stock up during their baby events then they're even better value for money. Reusable wipes are something I didn't know about last time round but I'm giving them a try now - a friend with an overlocker has run some old towels through it to make them for me and I plan to use them in cool camamile tea with a drop of tea-tree oil in. For nappy rash cream, I can't recommend Vaseline highly enough, or if you're breastfeeding, Lansinoh lanolin cream does an awesome job too (see below) and you're likely to have it in.
  • Nappy bag - If you're using reusables, then you need a few 'wet bags' to carry soiled nappies home in. Other than that, any bag big enough to stash nappies, wipes, a change of clothes for baby, a change of top for you if you're breastfeeding and space for a bottle if you're not, will do. Don't be suckered into expensive ones with compartments etc. - there's really no need. If you're brave, you could have a go at making one too - I did one which unzipped along the corners to become a changing mat and we really loved it.
  • Clothes - these are a 'blink and you'll miss them' sort of thing as they're grown out of so quickly. Check out charity shops and ask on freecycle/gumtree in case anyone is giving some away. If the ones you're offered are the 'wrong' colour then you can just dye them. For us, there was no point in spending a fortune on cute little jeans and things as they're such a pain to get on and off that they never got worn in the early months. We just had all in one suits until about six months old when things started to calm down a little and Daughter stopped screaming when she was laid flat.
  • Feeding - If you're planning on breastfeeding then Lansinoh cream is amazing for chapped nipples and I always got on better with reusable breast pads to stop leakage onto clothes, but the disposable ones from Lansinoh are great too, if a little pricey. Treat yourself to some lovely nursing tops and bras and don't beat yourself up if it doesn't work out. Breastfeeding is a skill, and again, it's not for everyone. If you decide to go down the bottle route, see if you can borrow a few different types of bottles from friends and when choosing a formula, buy a few pre-made cartons from different brands to see which baby takes to best. I made the mistake of buying a massive tub of one when I made the switch and Daughter wouldn't take it. I ended up using it in the bread machine for about a year later :P Once you know which make of bottles/formula you're likely to use, invest in around 6 bottles and teats, as well as a steam steriliser - I used a microwave one for speed and because I could keep it in the microwave when I wasn't using it. It was cheaper than a counter-top one and took up less space. Aldi/Lidl often have bottles in their baby events, or you could look for second hand, sterilise and then just buy new teats, but it depends on what you're comfortable with. 
And that's all I can think of for the baby stage.

What were your essential buys?