What my children taught me about Plants and Cats.

Our local library has been closed for a couple of weeks, and we didn’t have quite as many books available on the boys’ chosen topics as I would have liked.
This forced me to get a bit creative with their research, which – of course – turned out to be rather exciting!
Eldest was studying Cats. So I suggested that he draw on the experience of friends and family. He made a questionnaire about cat care and gave it out to various cat owners that we know. Then I showed him how to present his results as pie charts and bar graphs.

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He also did some research online visiting Whiskers and Cats Protection League sites about cat care. Following their advice, he made a cat bed:

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All in all, Eldest enjoyed this research and put on a fantastic talk with lots of visual aids.
I tried to inspire Middly with some hands on research as well. I got the microscope out and gave him slides of leaves and stems. He drew what he could see, and was very proud of being a ‘proper scientist’.
He also did online research, using Google images to help him draw a picture of the parts of a plant:

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Middly also did an experiment from one if his science kits. He planted cress in three different conditions to see how it would fare on Saturn (in the freezer), Venus (on a windowsill, unwatered) and Earth (on the same windowsill, but with water). He predicted the results well. And it was a great way of illustrating what plants need to grow.

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The boys responded well to my suggestions of hands on research activities. Hopefully we’ll think of more activities for their next projects. Though I am relieved that the library has reopened!

Things we do: Colour Coding

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I’m linking up with the Weekly Adoption Shout Out again. So, here’s another Thing We Do.
We have colour coded our children. Obviously, it started with Eldest and Middly. When they came home they were almost exactly the same size. They also fought over EVERYTHING. Really, everything, we had ‘Door Rules’ (actually, Door Rules and Shop Rules and Carpark Rules might be my next Things We Do post . . . ) to cope with the desperate desire to be first and prevent squashed fingers and heads.
So to make it easier for me to tell their clothes apart, and to settle the ‘who gets which cup’ row, I colour coded the children.
Eldest is Red, Middly is Blue. When Baby came along, he had to be Yellow, the only primary colour left.
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Of course, it hasn’t settled every row! But, it has pretty much stopped any doubt over who owns things, or who gets which cup.
Sometimes we go a bit further and add in Parent Colours too. I am Purple and Husband is Green.
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(Eldest made this hedgehog version of us, and painted them so people could easily tell which was which.)
To be honest, I can’t remember how the boys reacted when this began. I think it was ok because I began by colour coding new stuff, and they love new stuff! They were quite happy to get a drawful of new pants, and not all that bothered that they were all red or blue. Now, it’s fairly well known and my family try to buy the ‘right’ colours for the boys too.
It has settled a lot of arguments over the years. When we play board games, we don’t row about who gets which token. If the boys are given two (or three, now that we have Baby too) toys, we have a very easy way of selecting which should be whose. There is no trouble sorting clothes or toothbrushes or flannels. I do not miss the days of staring at socks and trying to remember which child wore them last.
Of course, we have some slightly complicated discussions around multicoloured items and it can throw everyone if someone gives a child something in the ‘wrong’ colour. But, generally, I think we are all happy with the system.
For me, the beauty of the colour coding is that it stops me being blamed! If Nana visits and has two toy cars, I don’t have to decide who gets which one, obviously the red one is Eldest’s and the blue one is Middly’s.
Just don’t ask my children to tell you their favourite colour. They are incredibly confused by the question. We don’t pick our colours, they simply are!

Technology and Children

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This link made it onto my twitter feed and it got me thinking about how my children use technology.
Now, first off I should admit that we are very much a Pick Your Battles kind of family. My husband and I choose what we’re working on with our children and we try not to nag and moan about everything else. Technology is not one of our chosen battles, so I knew before I read the article that I probably wasn’t going to change the way my boys use technology.
Nonetheless, the article made me think. Firstly about how my boys use technology and secondly about whether it is doing them harm or good.
We’re probably a fairly average UK household. We have one PC in the living room, a work laptop that travels with my husband, a home laptop that belongs to me and a notebook computer (we have plenty of the paper kind too!) that belongs to my husband. My husband and I have smart phones. The boys have a gameboy each, and a ds each. We have an X-box and  Wii console, both are attached to our single TV which we also keep in the living room. (Ok, having listed it, that actually sounds like quite a lot!)
The boys play on the PC most days for half an hour or so. They are allowed to play preselected games and sometimes will request that we help them find a new game. They watch TV most days (though I do ensure they have at least one TV-free day a week). They sometimes watch the Cbeebies channel, because the toddler likes it. But usually they watch movies or programmes that I’ve chosen for them and pre-recorded. We take the game boys or ds games on long car journeys and if I want them to be quiet for a bit (e.g. waiting at the dentist)! They play on the X box and the Wii at the weekend or in the afternoon, when we’ve achieved a lot that day (probably only once a month, we may not be getting our money’s worth!). I let the boys play on my phone if we have unexpectedly long waits (e.g. A&E trips or delayed trains).
I love the way I can use technology to keep the boys quiet. Not a great quality in a mum, but it wouldn’t help to pretend otherwise.
I also like using educational tools. I have used the Duolingo app to teach the boys French and we have used quite a range of educational websites.
I think that my children need to be confident users of technology. An ability to use a PC, a touch screen and – in some walks of life – a computer game controller is expected from pretty much everyone these days. Even buying and selling groceries involves touch screens these days. I am pleased that my children can pause the TV, Google an unknown fact and zoom in on a photo on my phone.
I don’t believe that my boys spend less time playing outside because of technology. Despite the number of electronic toys available, their current favourite toy is an old fence panel that needs to be taken to the tip. I don’t think playing on computers will make them less healthy. I suspect that having a car limits the amount of time they spend outside and makes them less tolerant of ‘bad’ weather, but that’s another matter.
I don’t believe that technology makes my children less sociable. I hear them chatting away to other children about Pokemon games and Moshi Monsters. I think that technology can be a great shared experience for them.
I honestly don’t know whether all this technology will turn out to be too much and whether my boys’ generation will bring in a new more sustainable attitude. But, right now, I think my job is to prepare them for the world I think they will have to live in.
Having reviewed our use of technology, I realise that I have been acting as a human filter and heavily censoring the media that my boys are able to access. I think that we need to start making a plan for phasing out all that control and beginning to teach the boys how to make sensible selections of their own. I’ll let you know how that goes!

What my children taught me about ants and other invertebrates.

The boys gave their presentations on Ants and Invertebrates last night.
These stem from the Second Great Lesson, which is basically the story of life.
Middly talked about ants, mainly, I think, because he wanted to use the Ant Farm he got for Christmas.

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Actually, the Ant Farm was a bit tricky. We ended up ordering ants online, it is still too cold to catch any up here. Who knew ants hibernate?
Here is his talk:
“Army ants hunt centipedes. Army ants have huge mandibles to cut their food.
“Weaver ants make nests out of leaves glued by a special sticky thing. Weaver ants sew leaved together with a sticky substance.
“When an ant finds food it leaves a special scent. Ants collect food bit by bit.
“Leafcutter ants chew up leaves to make fungi grow on it.
“If an ant was as big as me, it could lift a ten ton truck.
“Army ants can melt flesh with a special chemical. Army ants can turn woods into battlefields by hunting other insects.
“Ants work in groups up to two million.
“A young queen ant has wings, but a queen ant does not have wings when it mates.”
Middly also made his own visual aid, as well. He made a jointed ant using card and split pins.

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He was rather pleased with it.

Eldest chose to talk about invertebrates. This turned out to be a very broad category. He didn’t talk about ants, because Middly was doing that, but they have both taken a great deal of interest in the Ant Farm.
Eldest did do a but of bug hunting in the garden, but none of that made it into his final talk.
Here’s what he said:
“Bugs are invertebrates. Humans are mammals and we are vertebrates. 97% of the world’s animals are invertebrates.
“Red admiral butterflies mostly eat nectar but in spring and summer they eat nettles. Red admiral butterflies live for ten months.
“All insects have six legs, but the Glanville Fritillary and its relatives use only four, the front pair are reduced and useless for walking.
“Female preying mantises normally eat the male after mating.
“The emperor dragonfly has four pairs of wings to help it move around.
“Ladybirds have bright colours to scare birds away. Ladybirds eat aphids. Ladybirds can have stripes. Ladybirds hibernate. A female lays between three and three hundred eggs depending on what type they are.
“There are over a million insects. Insects have six legs, two pairs of wings and they eat meat and plants.
“Arachnids have about one hundred thousand species. Arachnids have eight legs, no wings and eat meat, and one eats plants.
“Myriapods have about thirteen thousand species. Myriapods have seven hundred and fifty legs and no wings and centipedes eat meat and millipedes eat plants.
“Woodlice have about three thousand species. Woodlice have fourteen legs, no wings, and eat dead leaves and rotting matter.
“Segmented worms have no legs, no wings and they eat plants and rotten matter.
“Land slugs and snails have about twenty four thousand species. Land slugs and snails have no legs, no wings and eat plants and some eat meat.”

He had a demonstration too. He made a Trapdoor Spider out of pipe cleaners and tied it to a string. Then he made a fly puppet by tying a split pin to another string.

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He showed us how Trapdoor Spiders hide under sand then spring out to devour their prey. Eek!
The boys love the visual parts of their talks. They are also both able to answer a few supplementary questions now. So, they are picking up more information than they put into their talks. This method is still working well for us. I’m really enjoying it!
I thought I might share how they do their research. I have divided the process into several steps:
1) Choosing: we explore books and equipment together and talk about what interests them until the boys have settled on a topic or question they wish to explore.
2) Planning: the boys write down things they already know, questions they want to answer, ways they could find out more about their chosen topics.
3) Books: The boys use some of our own books and write down facts in their own words. We also take a trip to the library and help them select some books to use. They always make a note of what book they are using and what page they are referring to, so we can easily go back and check if something seems strange.
4) Computer: I have put some shortcuts on the desktop so the boys can play relevant games and explore educational websites. They make notes of interesting things they find out.
5) Hands on: the boys use any kits they have chosen, e.g. microscope and slides, ant farm, bug catchers. They make notes of things they find out and sometimes keep things to use as visual aids.
6) Trip: we arrange a themed trip, or several trips, to keep enthusiasm up, e.g. we’ve been to the Natural History Museum and the Sedgwick Museum and a wildlife park for this Great Lesson.
7) Planning the talk: I’ve shown the boys how to go through their notes & group their facts by theme. They underline facts that go together with the same coloured pencil. Then they write their talk, grouping similar facts together and deciding the best order to use.
8) Giving the talk! Afterwards we have a brief chat about what went well and what they might like to try next time.

Things we do – The Hat

I wanted to try and link up to the Weekly Adoption Shout Out. So I tried to think of a Thing We Do. The only thing that came to mind was The Hat.

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Actually, it’s not one hat, it’s many hats, sometimes it isn’t even a hat, sometimes it’s a jar.
The basic idea remains, however, we often write things on bits if paper and put them in a hat.
We do this when we’re playing Charades so that nobody stands there saying ‘but, I can’t think of any films’. We do this when we need to split into teams, because otherwise everyone gets stressed. We do this when we we are struggling to agree who sits next yo whom.
But, our best trick is car journeys and rainy days. Everyone writes down one, two, three or four (the number depends on how long we need Hat Time to last)  things that they want to do. All the things go in the hat. Then we take it in turns (sometimes we use another hat to decide  who gets the first turn) to pull something out of the hat and do it.
We find that suggesting games in the car frequently causes rows, yet pulling those suggestions out of a hat is welcomed with delight. We don’t know why it works for us, nor if it would work for other families. But, it does work. So we do it.

Is ‘Zagazoo’ the best parenting book of all?

I am an avid reader and, since the boys came home, this has extended to parenting books.
But, remarkably few of this growing pile have been all that memorable or helpful. Yet there is one book that never fails to inspire me with new energy for the task: ‘Zagazoo’ by Quentin Blake.
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It’s a children’s book, so perhaps part of its magic lies in the way I read it: there’s always at least one child snuggled up to share the book with me. Reading to the children is an unalloyed pleasure (I am tensing up as I write this, wondering if I am cursing us to never enjoy reading again). It is a moment of shared interest and pleasure and even my least snuggly boy gets good and close to see all the pictures. Perhaps reading this book makes me feel good about parenting because I always read it to the children.
Yet, there is a wonderful message in the book itself. So, here are my top reasons why ‘Zagazoo’ may be the best parenting book of all:
1) The book tells the story of new parents who find their lovely baby has a lot of surprising and tricky behaviours. Which is good preparation for any parents to be, and reassuring for anyone with children!
2) Every time the parents despair of handling their child, the narrator says ‘but then . . .’ and the child’s behaviours change all over again. Again, very realistic and kind of reassuring. So far, we have found that our children’s behaviours always change eventually. Sometimes things appear to get worse, sometimes better, but everything changes eventually.
3) There’s a wonderful passage where the parents never know what their child will be like each day. Each day the child’s behaviour changes. Oh, how familiar that is.
4) Suddenly the parents wake up one day and find their child has grown into ‘a young man with perfect manners’. Just what we’re all hoping for!
5) The last line of the book is ‘Isn’t life amazing?’ My favourite last line of any children’s book ever!

Life is amazing. No phases last forever. Some days you just don’t know what child you will see when you get up. But, one day, your child will be grown up (the perfect manners aren’t a promise).

Admittedly, there is no advice in this book, but it is encouraging. Whereas books of advice might be worth reading a handful of times, books of encouragement are worth reading over and over again.