Review of Build Your Own Robots

I found this book (Build your own robots by Rob Ives) in the library and thought it would appeal to Youngest.

Our first attempt was the Crawlbot. I admit that we made it hard on ourselves. We didn’t have a pager motor, so we just used a small motor that we had lying around. Our motor needed two AAA batteries, which were harder to fit together than a single button battery would have been, so it got rather fiddly. Also, being a normal motor rather than a pager motor, I had to add an off-centre weight, I used a blob of blu tac.

Our robot ran fairly well, but it definitely would have been an easier project if I’d bothered to source the right motor.

Youngest particularly enjoyed using pliers to bend the paperclips, and we had a good talk about levers. There’s not a lot of explanation in this book, but I don’t think that bothered Youngest.

Our next project was a paperclip robot. We found this really fiddly. I struggled to bend paperclips into precise shapes and Youngest couldn’t manage at all.

Youngest decided that our final attempt looked like a freaky robot.

Our final project from this book (there are quite a few that we didn’t attempt) was a model hand.

We did manage this one with reasonable ease. Youngest was able to do quite a few bits himself.

All in all, we enjoyed this book. But, I think it’s aimed at older children. All the projects we tried had quite fiddly parts.

I don’t think of us as novices when it comes to craft or engineering projects. But, I did find these rather tricky. Definitely a good choice for a pre-teen who is interested in engineering.



I’ve blogged about consequences before, but I can’t seem to escape the theme. It plays on my mind a lot.

In the past, I’ve explained how I try to parent my boys. I think that I talk a lot about my ideal parenting style. But, the reality is that I have my own stuff to deal with. So, this time I’m going to talk a bit about one of the ways that I try to mitigate my own stress and hang-ups.

I adore my boys, and I admire the amazing things that they’ve achieved. But, there are days when I get upset about things they do. And there are times – more than there should be – when I find myself seething and thinking along the lines of ‘they shouldn’t get away with that’.

When I get frustrated and angry, I am very prone to slipping into a parenting style that I recognise from my own childhood. I am quick to reach for a consequence. It feels like the right parenty thing to do, even if (in my calmer moments) I am certain that it’s not going to help anyone.

Eldest refers to it as a ‘banning tantrum’, which is a pretty fair description, really. I get angry and decide to ban things in a misguided attempt to convince the boys to make different choices. It’s definitely not one of my better traits, but, in the heat of the moment, I go straight for familiar patterns.

I think that I find banning tantrums difficult to stop because they’re very close to sensible boundary setting. So close that I often believe I am doing the latter, when I have actually slipped into the former.

Children do need to know where the lines are. And, often, removing temptation is the best way of moving forward. If we’re having trouble with electronic toys, taking a break from them can help a lot. If a particular toy is causing fights or being used as a weapon, banning that toy for a short time gives us a cooling off period and allows us to enjoy the toy again later. Banning things can be exactly the right call.

Equally, though it’s obvious that I should only discuss things when I am in full control of myself (strike when the iron is cold), it’s easy for me to believe that I am calm when I am actually quite wound up. It’s all too easy to believe that something is an emergency that must be dealt with instantly, when really it could stand to wait.

So, my husband and I have developed a system to help us cope with those moments when banning things gets too tempting. We have ‘ring-fenced’ precious things. When I am stressed and get tempted to start banning all fun and joy, I always leave the ring-fenced stuff alone.

When the boys were little, we ring-fenced bedtime stories and TV time. (I really needed to keep TV time, as it was the easiest way to give me a chance to make tea! Whenever I forgot my sanity and banned TV time, cooking turned into a drawn out disaster.)

Currently, the boys’ clubs are ring-fenced, Middly’s bedtime story is ring-fenced, Eldest’s special oldest child staying up late is ring-fenced.

Reading through, I realise that a lot of the carefully preserved good things have been about trying to end the day well. Maybe that’s because it’s easiest to have a good moment just before we all go to sleep and get a break!

We ring-fence one-offs too. Christmas and birthdays, special trips with friends – regardless of behaviour, there are always good things in life which are definitely going to happen.

I think that ring-fencing important things helps me to remember my better self, when I get ranty. It’s also one of the ways we show that we respect the boys’ boundaries. Any close relationship is going to have rough moments, and keeping certain things off-limits helps us not to go so far that it’s hard to get back.

In a lot of ways, ring-fencing pairs up with my thoughts on boundaries. It’s important to acknowledge that we all have boundaries, particular limits that are very important to us.

When we first met our big boys, they needed to be reassured that hitting was off-limits, no matter how cross I am, no matter what they do, I don’t hit the children. These days, I think they’re pretty secure in that belief and I am establishing my own boundaries around unwanted touching in return.

We have moved on from needing to prove that we won’t hurt them physically, but they still need our assurance that we won’t abuse our power in other ways. Our big boys are very aware of the power imbalance between parents and children. So we ring-fence the things that really matter to them.

It’s possible that, in time, I will get better at keeping calm and making sensible parenting decisions, even when I feel overwhelmed. In the meantime, I have my fences in place, and I endeavour to keep the stress relatively contained.

Review of ‘How to be an Engineer’ by Carol Vordeman

Youngest found ‘How to be an Engineer’ in the library.

The first activity he tried was a rollercoaster for ping pong balls, made out of straws, blu tac, and a lot of sellotape.

This was quite fiddly, but very forgiving. Youngest got a lot of tape all over the place, and the rollercoaster still worked.

His next experiment was a pong ball catapult. That was very easy. He could set it up himself and enjoyed playing with it completely independently. Naturally, he had a go at launching a variety of toys around the room.

A few days later (after I’d bought more straws), he had a go at building a suspension bridge.

He needed a bit of help, again, partly because we didn’t have enough kitchen paper tubes and used toilet roll tubes stuck together, they were weaker and prone to bending when Youngest tried to poke holes in them.

Knot-tying proved too tricky for Youngest too. Though it’s quite possible that another child would have less trouble there. Youngest doesn’t wear lace-up shoes yet and has little practice tying knots.

When he laid the lolly sticks down to complete the bridge, he kept knocking them down by accident. He thought about the problem and decided to try sellotaping the lolly sticks in batches and laying those down. This was easier for him, and I was quite pleased that he’d solved the problem himself.

Overall, I suspect that this book would be more popular with a slightly older child. The explanations are aimed at older children, I think.

The activities are well thought through and do appear to have all been tested well. An older child – especially one slightly less fond of sellotaping everything – could make more substantial creations than we managed.

Review of ‘Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder’

Youngest picked this book up at the library.

Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder: Adventures in Science Around the Kitchen Table

The first experiment he fancied trying was the crisp tube catapult, but we didn’t have any crisp tubes. So, I added those to the grocery order and Youngest took another look.

He chose the egg parachute experiment. He needed a bit of help cutting the plastic bag and attaching strings to the cup. But, the instructions were clear, and I think most children would be able to complete it independently. Middly was outside, helping my husband to re-tar a shed roof, so we passed the parachute to him and he threw it off the roof. Youngest was delighted to see his parachute work and his egg survive! After a couple of throws, Youngest decided to try throwing the parachute from the top of the caravan steps instead. It’s only four steps, so the parachute didn’t have time to open and the egg was smashed. Youngest was initially surprised, but quite quickly thought about why that had happened.

Next, Youngest wanted to have a go at making a ‘Crazy Quick Cupcake’. Again, the instructions were very clear and – though he needed some guidance on measuring 1/4 teaspoon – Youngest could complete the experiment himself. We actually make microwave cakes quite a bit, so I would say that this isn’t the best recipe (we’d use twice as much sugar and oil and no water). But, Youngest was perfectly satisfied.

Youngest enjoyed making balloon powered cars. We struggled a bit with the wheels falling off his cardboard version, so I suggested he made a Lego one as well.

Our next experiment was the Crisp Tube Catapult. Youngest struggled a bit with this one. He needed help cutting the crisp tube and poking holes in the sides of a plastic bottle.

Our first launch was a failure. The pencil tore through the side of the bottle.

Admittedly, this was more my fault than Shaha’s. The instructions do call for a ‘fizzy drink bottle’, and actually point out that these bottles are stronger. But, I didn’t have any, so used a water bottle anyway.

I fixed the catapult by cutting the slits further down the side of the crisp tube and taping around the bottle to strengthen it (I didn’t even have a spare bottle on hand to switch – the preparation fault is entirely mine). This meant that the elastic bands weren’t pulled as far, which actually made it easier for Youngest to use. He was happy with the second attempt and played with it for quite a while.

These are pretty basic experiments – many of which we’ve done before – but the cheerful layout and child-friendly instructions encouraged Youngest to give them a go. I think he enjoyed choosing experiments from this book more than he enjoys just doing the same experiment at my suggestion.

If your child struggles with anticipation, you might want to make a few purchases in advance of them reading the book, but none of the required bits and pieces are very expensive, and the book does make some suggestions for alternatives (e.g. for the egg parachute it asks for a yoghurt pot or a plastic cup, rather than insisting you must use a yoghurt pot), which should reassure children who worry about using the ‘right’ things.

I would recommend this book to children aged five to ten, I think. There are some explanations, but an older child might find them rather simplistic. A younger child might find the heavily illustrated pages a bit tricky to follow.

Depending on the age and wrist strength of the child, they may need quite a bit of help with some experiments. Cutting cardboard, poking holes in plastic and even stretching thick elastic bands, are tricky for small children.



As home educators we have a lot of freedom around holidays.

We don’t have to take our holidays in school holiday time. This can mean cheaper holidays, which are obviously very nice. It can also mean quieter holidays.

We’ve done Butlins out of season, which the boys loved. We’ve flown to Italy and France during school term times. The airport is quieter then, and fewer other travelers have children with them.

We also take day trips during term time. Legoland and Chessington World of Adventures are much calmer midweek. The queues are shorter, and there’s a lot less noise and bustle. All of which is great for Eldest in particular, who finds crowds and the closeness of long queues very hard to handle.

We don’t take the same breaks as schools really. During the long summer holiday, when most children are taking lots of day trips and enjoying a bit of freedom from school routines, we keep our schoolwork routines going (routine is important to us) and actually spend more time at home, sheltering from the busier than usual parks, libraries and museums.

At Easter we have a month long break, and we take the whole of December off. So, the boys do get a rest from school work occasionally, but we found that half-terms broke up our year too much. If our holidays happen too frequently, the boys struggle to relax into our usual routine. A couple of long holidays each year, with long periods of ordinary time between them suit us better.

Sometimes, when we’re still doing maths and the children two doors down are playing in the garden,or when we’re getting home from a trip to a theme park and drive past children leaving school for the day, it can feel as though our family is out of step with everyone else.

Sometimes it feels as though we have a different rhythm of life.

But, then I think about the extra stress that holiday times (especially those big celebrations like birthdays and Christmas) can be for my boys. Holidays need special handling so that we can all enjoy them. We need to be a little out of step with other people at times, so that we can keep our own footing.


Day 17 of #adoptersblogtober

The boys choose these wellies for me, shortly after they came home. We all needed new boots, so we went to Matalan. They chose their own boots, then saw these and declared them perfect for me. I was very touched. It’s the first thing they chose for me.

I’ve worn these boots a lot over the last nine years. We’ve walked through rain, snow, hail and sunshine together.

The boys have gone through a vast number of pairs of shoes in the course of those years. I can’t actually remember what their first wellies looked like. They’ve had do many different pairs. They’ve had wellies in favourite colours and wellies with favourite TV characters printed on them. I suppose if I’d kept a record, it would show their developing tastes.

There have been shoes that have been scuffed to pieces, soles that have been slashed and pierced, and picked apart. As well as old tastes, a gallery of old shoes would remind us of various incidents and adventures.

For a while there, Eldest had the same size feet as me and was able to borrow my boots when something unfortunate happened to his. That wouldn’t work now, though, he’d never get his feet into my shoes.

As they’ve grown, the boys have grown into my shoes, and they’ve grown back out the other side.

It’s a strange thing to watch them outgrowing me. So far, it’s mainly a size thing. They still live here, they still need me to provide, teach, cook, and drive them about. But, already I can see the signs that one day, they will outgrow me completely. One day, they will be adults, managing their own households, their own learning, diets and activities.

I think that’s my job, though. As the boys grow, as they go through dozens of pairs of shoes in many different styles, I stay constant, wearing the same boots, saying the same things, being the still center for them to whirl and spin about.

I guess that’s what shoes remind me of. The children change so much, so fast, and I seem to change much slower and much less.


Day 8 of #adoptersblogtober18

We have a rabbit, which belongs to Eldest, and some rats, which belong to Middly.

Both boys got their pets for their tenth birthdays (we have a list of things that happen at various ages, getting a pet is the privilege that comes with turning ten, though there are some provisos about being responsible).

Blizzard, the rabbit, is still rather wary of children. Eldest likes to sit in the rabbit run, reading a book. If he sits for a while, Blizzard will hop onto his lap for a stroke. He is the softest rabbit I’ve ever touched. Eldest loves him, and the quiet wariness suits a pet belonging to Eldest.

Middly’s rats are completely different. The day we got them, I told the boys to sit quietly and let the rats explore in their own time. I said they shouldn’t stroke them, at first, they should give the rats time to get used to their new home. The rats instantly ran up to the boys and climbed all over them! They have never been afraid in the least.

Middly’s rats scamper out to greet us every time we go near them. They love new things and new people. They’re perfect pets for our sociable – and sometimes rather excitable – Middly.

The pets have reflected our boys’ feelings, given them a new way of talking about emotions. Eldest can see how too many visitors make Blizzard withdraw to his hutch, and he can tell us that sometimes he likes to withdraw to his room when we have visitors. Middly’s watched his rats get so excited over a banana that they fall off the table; he can see what over-excitement looks like from the outside and relate it to how he feels at times.

Talking about the pets’ emotions on moving house helped us to explore the boys’ feelings as well.

The pets can be an easy topic of conversation, when things are strained at home. It’s easy to get a laugh by reminding Middly of the time one of his rats climbed in my cold mug of tea. Even if Eldest can’t accept a nurturing gesture from me, he can take a stalk of broccoli for his rabbit, and know that I am thinking of him. At times, the pets can be distractions from our stresses, or play substitute for the care I want to lavish on the boys. They are a shared love for us, demanding less in the way of relationships than people do. Loving the pets is uncomplicated.

Unfortunately, though rabbits live eight to twelve years, pet rats only live two to three years. So, earlier this year, Middly was the first of our children to lose a pet.

One of his rats – the white one, named Nippur – got a chest infection. We took her to the vets, but they weren’t able to save her. In the end, it was decided that Nippur should be put down. We buried Nippur under an apple tree in the garden. I said a few words about what a good rat she had been.

The boys have all dealt with this little loss in their own way. Youngest has found it easiest to talk about what happened and how he feels. Middly’s accepted some hugs. Eldest was rather sombre.

Saying goodbye to Nippur has meant that she has passed from part of our family to part of our family story. She is a shared memory now, a part of that web of shared experiences that makes us who we are. Having pets has drawn us closer.