Time for an Easy Easter

 

We are so Over the wholesome, sunny Easter thing!

It’s clear that this is not going to be like other Easters. No cheery yellow daffodils, no fresh sunny days, no little blossom buds, no pleasant walks in the country to admire the gambolling lambs. Poo pants.

But what we do have is chocolate, and time off. Hurrah!

It seems to me that this is a good time to write about relaxing. Yes, that’s what I said … relaxing.

By this, I mean let’s not get carried away by the pressure to be yummy mummies, to provide our children with wonderfully fulfilling play opportunities round the clock, and to create beautiful rose-tinted memories of special days.

This Easter, let’s use the bad weather as an excuse to plonk the whole family on a sofa with a stack of films, eat far too much chocolate (especially before breakfast), cancel those plans for rewarding visits to museums and petting zoos, and perhaps even put those delightful Easter craft and baking plans to one side in favour of a glossy magazine and takeaway pizza.

Go on, do it! Take a break from A+, golden star, smug-smile parenting and just let your kids slob for a few days. I think you’ll find yourself feeling a whole lot better about the daily grind, and there’s no need for guilt about letting parenting standards slide – I promise the little nippers will emerge more relaxed, bonded and ready for next term than you’ve seen them for a long time.

(PS: But I can’t resist just one little play idea … try rolling your chocolate egg foil wrapper into little balls and flick them at Dad’s nose, one by one.)

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Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Grab a book, any book, and see where it takes you! (Photo: Paul Debois www.pauldebois.com)

 

It’s National Storytelling Week in the UK, which is the perfect excuse to share this beautiful quote, written by AA Milne (father of our chum Winnie the Pooh) in the preface to Jean de Brunhoff’s The Story of Babar.

“If you who are grown-up have never been fascinated by a picture-book before, then this is the one which will fascinate you. If you who are a child do not take these enchanting people to your heart; if you do not spend delightful hours making sure that no detail of their adventures has escaped you; then you deserve to wear gloves and be kept off wet grass for the rest of your life.”

You can imagine my delight at first finding this passage, which so charmingly encapsulates all that I feel in my heart, that so many of us feel in our hearts, about the wonderfulness that comes with having an enthusiasm for life … and the terrible bleakness by contrast of being deprived of the real, honest sensations of being alive.

Dear me, that sounds terribly pretentious, whereas clever Mr Milne managed to make the same point and give it a funny, approachable twist! But you see what I mean: the point is to enjoy ourselves and let mind and body open up to whatever is offered, be it the imaginary adventures of an improbable elephant royal family, or the luscious feel of wet grass.

Here are 5 Storytelling Week ideas of which AA Milne would have approved (or so I like to think):

  • If your child can read already, or even if they just like to look at pictures, build them a little tepee with a blanket strewn over two chairs. Fill it with books, a torch, and a small stash of biscuits. Hey presto, today’s reading adventure has begun! (Btw, reading in a tepee is surprisingly comforting even if you’re old enough for a mortgage, so don’t necessarily tidy it away in the evening.)
  • Books are not only for bedtime! It’s ok to have one stashed under the buggy for a quick flick in the bus queue, or under an arm in the park, or even (heresy, I know) to just leave it lying around on an inconvenient spot on the floor to catch the eye of a passing nipper.
  • As Pooh and Babar both well know, outdoor adventures do not have to be highly-organised affairs. Send a child out with a prop of some sort (fishing net, broom, saucepan … it really doesn’t have to be fancy), add fresh air and stand well back  (cup of tea time, methinks) and just see what they do with their imaginations! Suddenly they’ve become their own storyteller and have embarked on a tale of pirates, imprisoned princesses, and escaped beasts!
  • There’s a story all around us! People spotting is naughty but nice, even if you’re waist-high, so next time you’re out and about do point out the more interesting characters walking past … could they be Captain Hook in disguise?
  • And just to get back to Mr Milne (or AA, as I like to call him) and his wonderful point about wet grass– next time it rains, do let your child dash out in bare feet … it can be rather fun.


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Wicksteed Park, the early days

The first slides at Wicksteed Park - made out of wood (ouch!), and with separate ones for girls and boys

This week the BBC have rerun their programme on Wicksteed Park, the pioneering park and playground established in the early decades of the 20th century by my dishy hero, Charles Wicksteed. Do watch the filmette, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b01pwrrs/?t=19m59s, not least of all because I make a little appearance as the grand finale!

This inspired me to dig out A Plea for Children’s Recreation after School Hours and after School Age, the rather moving booklet that Charles published in the 1920s as his ‘call to arms’ to try to improve children’s play opportunities in the days when quality playgrounds were relatively few and far between. Every time I read this brilliant little publication I am moved by the compassion in it, and overwhelmed by its relevance today – Charles talks persuasively about the need for fresh air to aid children’s health, about misguided local authority spending plans and neglect of child welfare, of how to tackle hooliganism, and of missed opportunities for play areas in urban environments.

I suspect that many of my future blog posts will draw upon Charles Wicksteed’s wonderful words, but to start off with, I thought you might be rather interested in his simple account of how the world-famous playground at Wicksteed Park first began, around the time of the First World War.

“The beginning of the playground came not by design but by accident. We had a Sunday School Treat in the Park and put up primitive swings with larch poles, tied together at the top with chains. Fortunately they were not cleared away with the other things the day after the treat, and I ultimately found them so popular that instead of pulling them down I added more to them. But these were not enough for the children, I found them piling up forms one above another on a slope under a tree to form a slide, and breaking them. As a consequence I thought I would make a slide; first for the boys. This was so much appreciated that I made a better one for the girls; the boys got jealous of this, so I made a still better one for them. At that time I had a quaint idea that the boys and girls ought to be separated. [Note from Linden: this gender separation was completely normal at the time – dear Charles shouldn’t have been so hard on himself!] This has been entirely and successfully abandoned, as also any idea of keeping or limiting the playthings to people of a certain age. Babies of two years and old ladies of 80 are not only allowed in the playground but to use the playthings. I may say, by the way, that the gentler sex is far away more game in middle and old age than the men, and the girls “play the game” far better than the boys do. …

Before I had gone far I decided to devote one of the pitches to a playground. That pitch is now covered with playthings and without exaggeration gives hundreds of times more pleasure and healthy exercise to mothers as well as children than any other part of the park. It is not in a corner or railed off, it is put in just the best position. The park has attained a success I never for a moment contemplated in the original formation. … As the playground developed so did the children and mothers come in increasing numbers, followed by the general public. With the development of charabancs Sunday School treats came more and more, let alone parties of other descriptions.”

Ahhh, how I would have loved to have met you, Charles!

You can read a little more about Wicksteed Park at http://www.outdoorchildren.co.uk/portfolio/wicksteed-park-project/

And I wholeheartedly urge you to visit 21st century Wicksteed Park – details at www.wicksteedpark.co.uk


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Crumbs, it’s Crimbo!

Yay, it's Christmas!

As the mini-mob remind me constantly … it’s Christmas! So I thought I’d jot down a few simple but lovely feel-good activities you might want to try with your children over the holidays. (Although personally, I shall be relying on the telly and a large tin of confectionary to keep the kids happy, whilst I deal with a bottle of port.)

1)   There’s nothing, nay nothing, that is more magical than two minutes on Christmas Eve spent outside in the cold night air staring up at the sky and pointing out the barely visible light of a rather important sleigh approaching. (Sometimes, children struggle to see the twinkle, but this is only because their eyes are still young and so not quite strong enough. You, on the other hand, will definitely be able to see it!)

2)   “We’re dreaming of a White Christmas …” but it probably won’t be. Never fear though! You can still get that cold hand feeling by making an ice sculpture! Stash a balloon filled with water in your freezer until it’s a giant, round, ice cube. Then  peel back the rubber till you’re left with a block of ice that can be carved into a beautiful shape (I’m thinking swan, but a slug would be just as wonderful).
NB … carve with a dinner knife …. but 5 fingers are best so this is still an activity recommended only for the over-7s.

3)   Holly wreaths are impressive if bought, and atrociously fiddly if homemade, but there is a middle way (just so long as you like the ‘my gorgeous and much-adored children made this so I’m going to show it off’ look. Cut a large ring shape out of cardboard and hang it on a string. Then glue on a selection of seasonal foliage, a bit of glitter, and the odd little ball of tinfoil. Hey presto, a Christmas wreath fit to adorn any front door!

Anyway, that’s enough from me, as the port’s calling! Happy Christmas!

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Gardening is for life, not just for summer

Gardening with kids: you know the scene… sunny days, seeds, sunflowers. But over the past few weeks I have enjoyed the most marvellous mini-gardener sessions, thanks to the kids of Hollickwood School, even as the weather has moved from crisply autumnal to frankly freezing.

Almost enough grains for a Weetabix!

First, 6 year olds harvested wheat with the tale of the Little Red Hen ringing in their ears. This was thanks to the Real Bread Campaign, whose Bake Your Lawn project had encouraged us, back in the spring, to plant wheat grains in a long bed next to the basketball pitch. A Noah’s Ark summer followed and we feared the worst but, against expectations, our crop did grow and ripen on schedule. Now we’re just building up to milling and baking (the campaign’s encouraging suggestion that a friendly local mill lend their services is a little optimistic for our über-urban school, but we’re hoping that a food processor will do the trick).

A couple of weeks later, on a cold wet day, a little posse of 3 year olds gathered to plant native hedge plants, supplied free by the Woodland Trust. There was some excellent digging and much worm-prodding … and I’m quietly confident that a few good plants will survive, despite having been eagerly squashed six to each hole!

Finally, it was the turn of the 8 year olds to get their onion sets in. I’d say at least 80% went in the right way up and, as one girl proudly declared herself to be an International Onion Expert, I’m sure they will be a delicious treat when we harvest them next summer.

Next week: broad bean planting with 4 year olds, so long as the ground isn’t completely frozen. They’ve been reading Jack and the Beanstalk so I just need to remember to explain that only runner beans come with giants at the top!

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Wood you like to play amongst the trees?

There’s no point in pretending otherwise … the summer was dreadful. But it’s time to get over it and move on because we are now in Amazing Autumn!

We just love seasonal carpets of orange and gold leaves…

This is the perfect season for a Woodland Walk to enjoy some autumn colour and a bit of leaf kicking.

Youngest son Victor and I treated ourselves to a beautiful morning in our local woods the other day and had a truly special time together against a stunning backdrop of gold, orange and burnished brown (those of you with a particularly sentimental streak might like to skip over to the Hahahopscotch Facebook page and wallow in a pic of Victor and his hearing aid enjoying the sound of leaves rustling).

We’re super-fortunate to have some gorgeous leafy hotspots in our corner of London, but in other parts of the country you might like to visit these woods and woodland gardens:

… but they really missed out on autumn colour in Ye Olde Black and White days

 

And what can you do when you’re there? Hahahopscotch likes to:

1)    Gather autumn leaves to thread onto string for a seasonal decoration

2)    “En garde”! Find a couple of sticks and have a fencing dual to the death (not really, obviously, we love you all – be safe!)

3)    Poke around under a log or two –  oooh spiders!

4)    See who can find the muddiest bit of path and get across it without disaster

5)    Build a den – ram 2 long sticks into the ground to kiss at the top in a triangle shape, and then do the same with 2 others a few feet away. Link the triangles with one long stick resting on the tips of each. Lean lots of other sticks against your structure … Bob’s Your Uncle!

And remember … there are DEFINITELY goblins hiding in the tree trunks.

(Btw, for the BEST woodland fun website ever, visit http://www.naturedetectives.org.uk/

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The burning issue of bonfires

I was thrilled this week to be asked by the Ham & High newspaper to write a piece of hints and ideas for Fireworks Night and Halloween fun. But, woe is me, I ran out of words before being able to tackle the burning issues of bonfires!
So here, by way of small comfort to myself if no one else, is some brief guidance on a simple approach to backyard bonfiring.

Bonfire, marshmallows, no singed eyebrows

It seems to me that far too many folk these days are afraid of bonfires, thinking them complicated, destructive and super-dangerous. But hey, relax, here’s how to keep your cool even whilst the flames are flickering.

1) Find a location. Most parks or public open space don’t allow fires, so you will need to either use your garden or arrange a communal event (such a heartwarming experience), for example by holding your bonfire as a special event at a school or block of flats.

2) Wherever you choose, there must be no overhanging trees or plants within reach of the flames.

3) Hardware stores sell amazing bonfire bins (metal rubbish bins with holes in all the right places for controlled fires) … get one! Now! Run!

4) A little forward planning – hunt down a pile of wood of different sizes and types, from biggish logs to teeny twigs. (Use untreated wood so as to avoid chemical fumes – furniture will not do.) Not all of us have large country estates with unlimited supplies of timber, so alternative hunting grounds are local authority parks departments, skips, and friendly tree surgeons.

5) This is a good time to get a bucket of water ready.

6) Gather together a few balls of scrumpled paper at the bottom of the bin and place a little pyramid of twigs on top. Without burning your fingers (THIS IS NOT A JOB FOR CHILDREN), squeeze a lit match through any gap in the twigs so that the paper catches light.

7) After waiting anxiously whilst the tiny fire gathers force, add some larger twigs, before progressing to proper pieces of wood. Continue in this way, taking fare not to overwhelm the flames with too much large wood

Marshmallows: After 20 minutes or so the fire should be at full force and ready for marshmallows! You will need a longish stick with a pointy end. Stick the marshmallow onto the point and hold it for a couple of minutes in the fire, just above the flames, until it is slightly browned but hopefully not burnt to a crisp. Savour the yum, but don’t forget it’ll be hot (ouchy tongues!).

PS. Never ever leave a fire burning, especially in an urban area … this is why you got a bucket of water ready!


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Favourite outdoor toys

 

And you thought Diablos were a fad?

 

This beautiful picture of sepia children playing with a Diablo arrived through the letterbox this week and got me thinking about outdoor toys. I would give anything to be knee-high again, so that I could enjoy the many fabulously clever and exciting gizmos around at the moment – scooters with 700 gears, bug hunting kits suitable for professional Amazonian explorations, and water trays with more mechanical parts than a family car.

But these Diablo cherubs seem to be having so much fun, and this simple toy has stood the test of time.

Here are our favourite outdoor toys – they’ve all been around for many many years and I’ll wager will be around for many more too!

Actual skipping games are only the beginning of skipping rope fun! (Photo: Paul Debois, www.pauldebois.com)

  • The skipping rope can be used for so many games: for skipping, of course, but also for tugs of war, pulley inventions, trolley towing and, most importantly, for the tying-up of annoying siblings.
  • Balls are just brilliant for children of any age – babies pat them, toddlers chase them, nippers throw them, and teens compete with them. Plus, is there any better tool with which to bridge the gap between grumpy uncles and adoring nephews?
  • “Q: Where would we be without wheels? A: Life would certainly be more pedestrian!” (Shocking joke … apologies.) There is so much play potential in wheeled vehicles and they don’t need to be fancy. Deluxe bikes and scooters are luverly, but there are hours of fun in customising half-broken skateboards (and much less theft-anxiety!), just as children used to put together their own go-carts.
  • For all their moaning and groaning, children love to be useful. Give them a job and they’ll rise to the challenge. A tool is the portal to responsibility, meaningful activity, and mini-me role play. Obviously we all adore those gorgeous mini gardening kits crafted from steel and wood, but an old bucket or half broken sandpit spade can do just as well. What jobs are we thinking of? Leaf disposal, pot filling, plant watering, gravel tidying, deck scrubbing… the To Do list is endless!
  • Last but not least, the best toy of all that money simply can’t buy … the humble stick! There’s fun to be had in finding one and in adapting it, and then unlimited delight in its invaluable uses for anthill disturbing, muddy line scraping, den building, back-of-neck tickling, flag-making and cat poking (not condoned by Hahahopscotch, obviously).

A sad note on which to finish though … whatever happened to hoop rolling, so beloved of the Victorians? A post on ‘lost toys’ will surely have to follow.


 

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Feet: dare to bare

Going barefoot is not about being a grubby street waif anymore...

... these days its all about embracing the simple pleasures of childhood

Cool grass, soft sand, prickly paving and even squelchy mud…

As parents, we like to keep our children safe and warm but sometimes get so caught up in administering wellies and flip flops that the powerful pleasure of freedom for little feet can accidentally slip by.

Getting bairns barefoot can be as simple as managing not to fuss if they dash outside in a rush without clogging up first, but you could also try these play ideas:

Mess
Let children coat the soles of their feet with washable paint and then squelch a very personalised foot painting onto some big sheets of paper laid out on lawn, patio or pavement. (This is even better if you trust the ‘washable’ claims of the paint and let the footprints go straight onto the ground … the rain can always deal with it later.)

Sensation
Sandpits are fab and I love that you can buy those convenient little waist-high ones. But sandpits that sit on the floor allow for children to actually get in and let their tiny tootsies wriggle in the sand – magical!

Surprise!
Find a nice clear floor surface – sitting room or sundeck, park or pavement – and spread out a line of ‘mysterious’ textures. I’m thinking sugar granules, broken breakfast cereal, teeny balls of sellotape … you get the picture. Your child needs to scrunch their eyes closed tight and then walk over these things, describing each and trying to guess what they might be. Clearly, some kind of prize will be in order if they get it right!

So, let’s go and enjoy the pitter patter of tiny feet (much nicer than the clomp of sensible shoes!).

 

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The Pleasure of Picnics: all hail the soggy sandwich!

2012 marks the 250th anniversary of our al fresco eating essential – the sarnie!
 So what better way to celebrate than with a picnic?
There’s nothing like the addition of weather, grass and the odd creepy crawly to make even the most dull meal into an exciting treat. Get outdoors and get the party started (teddy bears optional).

Where?

Chose a location for your picnic and plan how to get there. City centre benches with an iconic view are good for a Big Day Out, parks provide plenty of opportunities for playing and lazing (don’t forget a football), but your own front doorstep is perfect for a bit of spontaneous nibbling (and very convenient should you forget anything).

Provisions

Don’t get confused – you are not preparing a sophisticated garden party for adult guests so there is no need to spend huge sums on glamorous pre-prepared delicatessen titbits. Strawberries and hardboiled eggs are lovely for picnics, but this week it’s all about the sarnie. We like to keep it simple with jam or humous because they are quick to throw together and taste just as good squashed as when freshly made, but fancy-pant pre-planners amongst you can find gazillions of ideas at www.lovesarnies.com.

Get a pack donkey?

The children will be convinced that they can carry it all themselves, but do not fall for their innocent optimism! Keep everything to a manageable minimum that you can lug in a rucksack – never ever rely the sustained labour of anyone who still needs help cleaning their teeth.

It is unacceptable to employ foldaway chairs or other furniture – inconvenience and minor discomfort are important components in the outdoor eating experience, for the under-16s at least. If you are an organised kind of a person then you may wish to pack a rug or somesuch for sitting on, but this is certainly not essential. (Our middle-sized Outdoor Girl rather likes the scenic delicacy of arranging people and food on a carefully laid rug, but the biggish Outdoor Boy and I long ago agreed that rugs simply attract bits of grass and leaf that are a pleasant surface on bare ground but become instantly irritating once on the rug.)

Play

Bubbles, skipping ropes and magnifiying glasses are ideal for playing with at picnics, and are small enough that you can probably get the children to carry them for you. And don’t forget that the food itself can double-up as entertainment: hardboiled eggs are perfect for pre-shelling rolling races, and juice straws were almost certainly designed with ant-blowing experiments in mind.

You will get dirt on the sandwiches, someone will sit on a strawberry, a fly will fall in the juice, your fingers will be irritatingly sticky and bottoms will get wet – and that’s why the kids will love it! And what better parting tip than … Baby Wipes!


 

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