Friday, 23 November 2012

A Question of Faith

The house I grew up in is next door to a Methodist church. My brother and I used to go to Sunday school there, and as I grew up I attended the church youth club. I don’t remember my parents attending church although I suppose they must have done at some point; I just remember walking home from church to my mum who would be in the kitchen cooking the Sunday roast.

My brother and I both attended a Roman Catholic primary school. We were sent there because the results were so good, which is a point I can’t argue with – by the time I went to secondary school, I was doing third year work. However, being a faith school meant that religion was obviously high on the agenda, and we were Methodists, not Roman Catholics.

I have no problem with the teaching of religion, particularly in a faith school. And it’s common sense to expect that at a Catholic school, Catholicism is going to be the religion taught; it’s hardly likely to be Hinduism is it?! But I do have a problem with prejudice and discrimination, and I was definitely a victim of both.

I was the only girl in my class not to be confirmed. I was teased and bullied for missing out on something so important. I was told I was going to hell because I wasn’t Catholic. Thinking this was ‘just kids’? The kids were fine, it was the teachers! I write with my left hand. I was constantly chastised for doing so and made to write with my right hand, then punished because my writing was too untidy. Finally my father got involved and stormed into the school to demand I was allowed to write with whatever hand I wanted. It solved one issue, but I still remember being told that I was a child of the devil because of my ‘evil’ way of writing.

We had a religious assembly every morning, prayers before and after lunch, and spent Thursday mornings at church service. We were also expected to attend services on Saturdays and Sundays with our families, but as my parents didn’t practise Catholicism, my brother and I didn’t attend – something else to ostracise us for. There were two other children in the school who weren’t Catholic and they suffered too.

Religion was forced down our throats at every opportunity. Other religions were criticised as blasphemous, cults or the work of the devil. Everything we did was analysed and criticised, from how we ate to our hairstyles. Every criticism was given a religious twist; it wasn’t bad mannered or not nice, it was ‘against God’s will’.

I didn’t dislike school particularly. The other kids didn’t care what religion I was, and I was bright, well mannered and keen to learn, so some of the teachers were more accepting than others. But several were cruel, vindictive and seemed to take pleasure in humiliating or punishing me.

When I went to secondary school (non-faith), I was instantly put in the top set for every subject as my work was of such a high standard. I was extremely polite with impeccable manners and well presented. I also had a passionate hatred of religion.

I spent the next few years avoiding any suggestion of religion. Eventually, in my 20’s, I found my way back to the Methodist faith I had grown up with, although with several changes. I read extensively, questioned everything, and reconciled my beliefs with Methodist faith to some degree, but I still have several beliefs that don’t tie in with traditional teachings. My parents have also come full circle; my mother converted to Catholicism to enable her to remarry (long story), my father is a member of Calvery Chapel and is currently studying theology. My primary school too has changed; a few years ago I went back there to do some experience as part of my degree and was very pleased to discover that although it was still a faith school with mostly nuns as teachers, the headmistress was now a secular, intelligent person who promoted tolerance and more modern, accepting views.

Would it have made a difference to me if I had been a Catholic? Probably in some ways. For a start, I wouldn’t have been a victim of the religious based bullying that went on. I would however still have been subjected to the constant bias and skewed teaching. Religion coloured everything we were taught and we were told to accept blindly, not to question.

I have no issue with faith schools in general. If you want your children brought up with your values, to celebrate your religious holidays and to learn about your beliefs, then a faith school is an excellent start. If I decide a faith school is in the best interests of my child, then I will not hesitate to send her to one. However, I question the benefits of teaching children to blindly follow whatever someone tells them. I don’t support ridiculing other religions and bullying others who do not share your beliefs.

I hope that my experience with faith schools is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, when I returned to my primary school, I was pleased to experience an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement along with a superb standard of teaching and religious teachings based on positive reinforcement rather than bullying and negativity. I would just suggest that if you are considering a faith school, you check out their teaching methods and their views, rather than presuming it will be best for your child just because the school shares your faith.

I could of course blame my family for sending me to a faith school whose beliefs did not mirror their own, but I know they were doing what they thought was best. They wanted me to get a good education which the school in question certainly provided. They just didn’t realise that my education came with a side order of discrimination.

My faith has been a great comfort and source of strength to me as I have got older. I know my faith is stronger as I have questioned it and decided for myself what I believe, not just accepted what I have been told. I hated being told what to believe, what to think, and told that if I questioned anything I was being corrupted by the devil.

I hope my daughter finds faith as she grows up. I am teaching her about my beliefs and I will continue to do so. Her father is an atheist so we agreed before she was born that I would talk to her about religion but in an open way: “Mummy believes this; some people don’t.” If her father was of the same beliefs as me, I would take the same line; I want her to learn about my faith but I want her to question and to discover for herself what she believes. I hope her beliefs are similar to mine, but if they aren’t I’ll live with it. I don’t particularly care if she’s Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. I’d prefer her not to be an atheist, but it’s her life and her choice. Me telling her repeatedly that she’s wrong and she must believe the same as I do will only push her further away.

Religion to me is a personal thing. If a faith discourages murder and promotes forgiveness and acceptance; if it encourages us to be better people and gives us comfort and hope, then it can only be a good thing. And I hope Jess can experience that. But she’ll have to find her own way there; I can guide her and help her, but I can’t and won’t force it upon her. And I won’t allow any school or person to try to force it upon her either.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Money can buy happiness

… even if you don’t have a lot of it. The key is spending what you do have on the right things.

I don’t have much money and what I do have tends to be spent on necessities rather than treats, but I find that I appreciate treats so much more because they are the exception rather than the rule.

1) The little things
I have been teased about taking pleasure at little things (an ex called it my most annoying trait), but there is so much unhappiness and stress in the world that I think it’s essential to take joy where you can. I have certain regular treats that cost very little but that I look forward to all week. If I’m having a bad day, they give me something to keep me going. Wednesdays are treat night; a takeaway if I’m feeling flush, a bar of chocolate to share if it’s just before payday. On Thursdays, my favourite magazine hits the stands. It’s less than a pound but it cheers me up and I can make it last for days. Monday mornings I treat myself to a can of diet coke once I get to work (I need the caffeine on Monday mornings!). Such a small thing, but it makes my Monday that bit brighter.

If you have a particular day that you dislike, or a task you hate doing, try scheduling yourself a little treat afterwards.

2) Don’t keep up with the Joneses
So much of what we buy isn’t what we need or even what we want. We long for the new IPad, the widescreen HD TV, the newer car, the flashier holidays; often not because we actually want them but because other people have them. Sometimes it’s because we feel we should have them, we deserve them – x has one and we work harder than them / our family needs a treat more than them / we deserve one more than them. Sometimes it’s just for the look of things; we worry people will think we are poor because we drive a knackered car. Even if they do, does it matter?

I have a friend who takes her family on increasingly exotic holidays every year. They save like mad in between before jetting off to new and exciting places and revelling in the jealousy of their family and friends. That’s fine if you can afford it and it’s what you want. My friend’s little secret though, is that she and her family’s favourite holiday was spent in a caravan in Hastings. All she really wants to do is take her family back there, but she’s too worried about her image.

Another friend is planning on spending her savings on a giant TV. She barely watches TV; she’d rather spend the money on a new sewing machine, but her family already tease her for only having a small TV so she’ll spend the money on that because she feels she should.

3) Choose your choice
Buy what you want, not what you think you should buy. Don’t buy a classic novel just because you feel you should improve your reading habits; if buying a trashy chick-lit book will make you happier then do it.

4) Prioritise – and stop feeling guilty
Another friend is worrying because she ‘needs’ to buy her son a DS for Christmas and she can’t really afford it. It is upsetting not to be able to treat your family, but this is a DS we are talking about, not a necessity. Cheap trainers might get your kids teased a little, but if it means being able to afford to eat next week, they’ll learn to live without the latest designer shoes. Learning that money has to be worked for and that they can’t have everything they want is a lesson they will have to learn eventually, unless you want them to end up in crippling debt. Stop beating yourself up because other people’s kids have stuff that yours haven’t; keep them warm, fed and loved, and congratulate yourself on doing the best you can.

5) Give it away
Studies show that people who spend their money on others are happier than those who spend it on themselves. So give a little. No one expects you to bankrupt yourself for others, but give within your means. If you have a little money spare this Christmas, make a charity donation, give a present to someone who won’t otherwise get one, send a shoebox parcel abroad, or just drop a few pennies in a collection box. Give presents to your family and friends, even if they are just small homemade trinkets, and enjoy that little moment of pleasure you get when someone opens a present from you. Smile – you’ve just made someone else life a bit nicer. Doesn’t that feel good?

6) Live it, don’t own it
Try spending what you can on things to do rather than ‘stuff’. £20 can buy a takeaway, or it can buy a day out with the kids. The takeaway can last 30 minutes (although the extra lbs might stick around for a while), but the memories of a trip to the beach or a day at the zoo will last much longer, and experiences can colour your life for years to come. What pleasant memories do you have from childhood? Are they memories of listening to music on the new stereo, or are they memories of days out or time spent with your family; first time on a train perhaps, or first trip to the cinema? The beauty of experiences rather than gifts of course, is that you can plan them according to your budget. If you’re on the breadline, then a walk to the park for a picnic and an ice-cream on the way home costs very little. If you’re more comfortable, then a keeper’s day at the zoo will be remembered for years, or even a holiday for a whole raft of memories.

My daughter’s strongest memory so far isn’t of any of the fancy toys people have bought her; it’s of a two-day cut-price caravan holiday I took with her. She mentions it at least once a week and often asks if we can go again. She doesn’t remember that we lived on toast for those two days or that we couldn’t go into the town because we couldn’t afford the parking; she just remembers jumping into bed with me in the mornings, sitting outside in the sun, having Mummy all to herself and visiting the kid’s club in the evenings.

7) Save sometimes, splurge often
Saving for a large purchase is all very well, but the pleasure you get from any purchase rarely lasts as long as you hope. Let’s go back to that big TV. You save and save and save, buying no treats, living in austerity, until the big day finally arrives – it’s yours! It sits in your lounge, gleaming, and you glow with pleasure. The following day, you enter the room, and there’s that glow again. The following day, a glow – but a little less. And less. And less.

It’s the same with small treats of course, the joy of a chocolate bar lasts just a few minutes. But think of just how many small treats that TV could have brought. You may have struggled for a year to afford that television; you could have had a whole year’s worth of little pleasures instead. So by all means save to buy that big TV if you really want it – but why not save a bit less for 18 months instead of a bit more for 12, and take time to enjoy some smaller treats as well?

8) Simple pleasures
It’s the obvious answer of course but if money isn’t the answer, possibly because no matter how small the amount you just don’t have it, try freebie fun instead. Most museums and art galleries are free, so are the park and the beach. Sign up for freebies with your favourite companies; most makeup and toiletry companies will send samples or enter you into a draw for bigger prizes for something as simple as signing up for their newsletter. One of my biggest pleasures is getting something nice through the post instead of bills! Or settle for putting your feet up in front of the television (you know, that little one we talked about) or browsing the net for something funny or interesting, or just something to kill a few minutes other than doing housework. Reading this blog for instance.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cooking up a storm

I had a bit of free time a couple of days ago so I decided to make a start on trialling my Christmas present recipes. I thought I’d give you a rundown on the effectiveness (or otherwise!) of the items I’ve tried out so far.

Salted caramel lollies / praline lollies
Such a basic recipe it seems hard to get wrong, but I managed to ruin the first batch. The secret appears to be patience, something I don’t have much of.

Lay some greaseproof paper over cookie sheets. The sheets will get hot so put them on something so they don’t burn your countertop!

Put 150g of golden granulated sugar into a saucepan (not a dark based pan, you need to be able to see the colour of the caramel). Melt the sugar VERY SLOWLY over a low heat and keep cooking it slowly until it turns dark gold. It takes a while to melt but providing it’s on a very low heat you don’t need to stand over it, just check it every few minutes. If it’s melting in one area and not another, you can swirl the pan gently. Add a pinch of sea salt flakes and stir gently.

If you want praline lollies, add chopped hazelnuts to taste. Then, working quickly, pour the caramel into blobs on the greaseproof paper and add lolly sticks (I used cut down wooden skewers – made sure there are no splintery bits if you do the same). Leave the lollies to set for a couple of minutes, and then peel off the paper. Don’t leave them for too long to set before removing the paper or it will stick to them.

Don’t be tempted to do a bigger batch as the caramel sets extremely quickly and you won’t have time to pour it all into lolly shapes before it sets in the pan. It also gets very hot so don’t dip your finger in to test it and keep the kids away.

These unusual, sticky little lollies are deceptive. We weren’t convinced when we first tried them but you develop a taste for them – we managed to eat the whole batch within an hour! I’m planning to invest in a silicone lolly mould for future batches as they all came out in different sizes and shapes. Good excuse to eat them all though!

Smoky paprika peppers
Slightly time consuming but not difficult to make, this recipe will produce three jars of beautiful jewel-bright peppers. They are not terribly cheap to make but they do look very professional and well presented when finished, and are definitely cheaper (and nicer) than buying them.

16 peppers (8 red, 8 yellow or a combination of red, orange and yellow)
500 ml olive oil
300 ml white wine vinegar
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp fennel seeds
Pinch of salt
300 ml water
3 jars with lids

Sterilise your jars. I washed them in the dishwasher, then put the jars top down in a cold oven and heated them to 160 degrees, then left them in the oven to cool until I needed them. With the lids, I boiled them in a saucepan of water for 10 minutes before leaving them in the water until I was ready.

Cut your peppers in half, leaving in the seeds and stalk. Place them cut side down on a grill pan and grill until the skins are blackened. Put the peppers in plastic food bags while they are still hot, tie the tops, and leave to one side.

Put the oil, garlic and paprika in a saucepan and heat gently for about 5 minutes. Leave to cool, then take out the garlic slices. You can strain off the paprika using muslin if you like but I left mine in for a stronger flavour. Dry fry the remaining spices in a frying pan for a minute then stir into the oil.

Once your peppers are cool enough to handle, pull out the stalks and seeds, and take off the skins. I find the easiest way to de-skin them is just to use my fingers. This bit is the time consuming and very messy bit, but it’s not hard to do. Tear the peppers into large pieces.

Put the vinegar and water in a pan and bring to the boil. Add your peppers, return to the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Drain and pack into your jars. Reheat the paprika oil gently and pour over the peppers. Seal.

If you have sterilised your jars and put the lids on while they are still hot they should last a few months. Once opened, keep in the fridge and consume within two weeks.

I don’t like the taste of peppers but I really enjoyed making these. They look so gorgeous in the jars, I don’t want to open them!

Stem ginger in syrup, candied ginger, and ginger syrup
I’m doing these recipes in one go as the starting steps are the same. Cheap and easy to make although they have an extremely strong taste so only for real ginger fans!

1 lb root ginger
1 lb sugar + extra
Pinch of salt

Peel the ginger and chop. I did half in small chunks for the stem ginger and the rest in thin julienne strips for the candy. Put the ginger in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat, simmering the ginger again.

Put the sugar, ginger, salt and a litre of water in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer until the liquid is the consistency of thin honey. Drain well, keeping the liquid.

Toss the julienne strips in granulated sugar and leave to dry out overnight. Store in a jar or box. These candies will keep for a few months.

Pack the chunks in sterilised jars and pour enough of the liquid over to cover. Seal. This will keep for up to a year if unopened. Store in the fridge once opened.

Pour the remaining liquid into sterilised jars and seal. This is your ginger syrup – try it warm over ice-cream or add to lemonade or sparkling water.

I’ve made a start but I’ve got loads more to try out yet. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Fun for free

I’m always looking for things for Jess to do and lots of her favourite activities don’t involve any expenditure – always a bonus! I thought I’d collate some of them here. You probably do most of them anyway, but hopefully some of them might give you a few ideas. I’ll update this as I remember more so keep checking back for more ideas.

Indoor activities

Peg pictures
Jess will play for ages with my clothes pegs and I love it because afterwards she can just scoop them into a bag and there’s no mess. Jess finds they make excellent sunflowers and loves just using the pegs to make designs on the floor or clipping them together to make structures. You can always dip them in paint to use as stamps too, but I like to keep them as a non-messy game!

Indoor bowling
We stand pegs up on end or use empty plastic bottles. Then I make a ball out of newspaper and wrap a bit of sticky tape around it so it doesn’t unroll. If it’s for older kids or you want to use a more powerful ball such as a foam one, you can add some rice or water to the bottles to make them heavier.

Paper ball games
We use the newspaper ball (above) to play loads of indoor games as it’s light enough not to cause any damage. Catch, rolling the ball to each other, target throwing (try to bounce it off a soft toy’s nose!), seeing if we can touch the ceiling with it, batting it back and forth with our hands like volleyball, indoor tennis using books as racquets, football and so on. The possibilities are endless.

Painting activities
Potato stamping is fun and cheap. You don’t have to be particularly artistic. We’ve made Christmas cards with one cut into a Christmas tree shape, and experimented with simple shapes like squares or triangles. Sprinkle a bit of glitter on while the paint is still wet for added interest.

Try stamping using everyday items like bottle tops and jar lids, small plastic containers, or paperclips.

Painting with something other than a brush can also be fun. As well as the obvious finger-painting, try using scrunched up paper or kitchen foil, pieces of pasta, or experiment with dragging an old comb, ruler, fork or toothbrush across the paper. If you don’t mind the mess, you could also experiment with using different things for ‘paint’, such as baked bean juice or soy sauce! Try chalk pictures too.

Collages too of course; set older kids free with an old catalogue, a pair of scissors, and a scrapbook. For younger kids, just have everything cut up ready – bits of paper, wool off-cuts, bits of material, rice, lentils, anything they can stick down. If you want to combine a day trip with a craft activity, try collecting shells, sand, seaweed and driftwood on the beach, or sticks, leaves and flowers from the park or the woods. Then use them to make a collage. You could also make an outdoor collage without glue – arrange them on the ground to make a picture. Try a mermaid with seaweed hair and shells for a tail.

Most kids seem to have a fascination with magnets. If you have fridge magnets, they will often play for hours with them, seeing what they stick to and what they don’t. There a few games we play with our magnets such as fishing and races. I cut out lots of paper fish shapes and Jess decorates them, then I stick a metal washer on each one. I tie a string to a stick, attach a magnet on the end, and Jess tries to catch the fish. For races, Jess and I make two paper characters or animals (you could use cut up photos) and stick a washer to each one. Then we put them on top of a sheet or large piece of paper, and use magnets underneath to ‘race’ the characters. A lot of our magnets are round and different colours – Jess uses these to make designs on the fridge. She also likes to see how many magnets she can stack on top of one another. You can often pick up packs of cheap magnets at poundstores; even if you aren’t a fridge-magnet sort of person it’s worth getting some for the kids to play with.

Painted dominos
Jess and I often make and play colour dominos. I cut out lots of paper rectangles and draw a line down the middle of each piece. Jess paints a coloured blob on each side. We leave them to dry and then play like normal dominos, matching the colours rather than numbers.

Alphabet games
I spent a bit of time finding pictures on the net – two or three different pictures for each letter. I tried to find ones that start with the sound of the letter (so ‘cat’ rather than ‘chair’ for example). I printed them out along with the letters themselves, both small letters and capitals, and then laminated them.

Although it took a bit of time to do the cards, it was well worth it as we use them all the time. We use about 10 of the letters and 10 of the pictures to play pairs with, matching the picture to the letter. We do a snap game, matching capital and small letters or letters and pictures. We use the letters to do an I-spy type game (can you see anything that begins with this letter?) and the pictures to practise letter sounds (what is this picture? What letter does it start with?) and what they look like (can you see the letter that this starts with?). Jess also likes just playing with the cards, putting the pictures into sets (animals in one pile, people in another, vehicles in another and so on). Really, the only limit is your (or their) imagination. And it’s educational too; Jess’s recognition of letters and sounds has improved no end.

Treasure baskets
This one is for younger children (babies and young toddlers) but I thought it was worth including. There are companies willing to sell you treasure baskets if that’s the route you want to take, but you can put one together yourself in minutes. Get a basket or box and put in about a dozen household items that are different textures and shapes. It’s as simple as that. Ours contained: measuring spoons, a sponge, a scouring pad, a metal spoon, a wooden spoon, ribbon, a small rubber duck, a walnut in its shell, cotton wool, a wooden curtain ring, scrunched up tin foil, a shell, a sweet wrapper, a piece of plastic sheet, a peg and a bit of furry fabric. Plonk your child in front of it and let them explore. Just ensure there’s nothing they can choke on; if you are putting in small items then supervise them carefully.

Box games
You will already know that most young kids seem to prefer the boxes to the toys that come in them. If you have a large box, they’ll love it. You can always pick one up at the local supermarket, they are usually glad to get rid of them. We’ve used boxes to make cars, a space rocket, a train, an aeroplane, a bus for Jess’s soft toys, a tent, a den, a doll’s cot, a doll’s house, all sorts of things. They can decorate the box and add smaller boxes or cushions etc. or just play with it as it is. When we stayed with some friends and their children, the kids made a big box into a tank, tied thick string to it, and took it in turns to ride in it while the others pulled them along.

When they’ve finished / the box has fallen apart, we use the card for other things. We cut out wobbly shapes and play ‘Peppa Pig and Muddy Puddles’ which is a version of musical chairs; they have to jump in a ‘puddle’ when the music stops. I cut out circles or shapes and we make masks. Or you could tear it up into small bits and use for papier mache.

Outdoor activities

Chalk pictures
Chalk pictures outside can be a great way to spend a bit of time without too much clearing up, especially if you plan it for a day when rain is forecast later! Get the kids chalking pictures on the pathway or flagstones, then just wash away when finished. Or draw a hopscotch grid and teach them how to play.

Water play
One of Jess’s favourite activities is water play and water painting outside. I give her a big bowl of water, an assortment of kitchen bits (funnel, spoon, small plastic pots, jug etc) and a paintbrush. She will spend ages just pouring water from one pot to another, ‘painting’ pictures on the floor with water, and washing her dolls and toy cars. Sometimes she’ll ask for a bit of washing up liquid in the water and use it to clean the garden furniture or the front door - bonus!

Buried treasure
One for the beach, the sandpit, or if you have a bit of garden the kids can dig in: Jess and I take it in turns to bury an item and the other one has to dig to find it. If you’ve got older kids and can be bothered with the effort, you could do a ‘treasure map’ for them.

Picture I-Spy
(Suggested by a friend) This one is great for car journeys. I find pictures on the net of various things we might see on our journey (traffic signs, post-boxes, vehicles etc), put them all on one sheet, print it out and laminate it. Then Jess has to spot each item and either tick it off or put a sticker over it.

Anywhere activities

Running quiz
This is a good game for parties or a group of kids. You need a fairly large space (enough to run around in) and a bit of preparation. Plan your quiz questions. For youngsters, television programmes, nursery rhymes, books and toys are a good starting place; such as what is Peppa’s brother’s name? What colour is Thomas the Tank Engine? What was Little Miss Muffet scared of? As well as the questions, you also need three or four possible answers for each one.

You then need three or four corners or areas (you can mark circles out on the floor if you want). Label each area with either numbers, letters or colours.

Call out a question and the possible answers. Allocate each answer to an area. The kids have to run to the area that they think represents the right answer. So it might be something like this:
“What is the eldest Tweenie called? If you think it’s Jake, run to number one. If you think it’s Fizz, run to number two. If you think it’s Simon, run to number three. If you think it’s Bella, run to number four. Ready, steady, go!”

If you want a ‘winner’, make sure the questions get progressively harder. For older kids, trick questions can be good – they often rout out the ones who are just copying their friends! If they still aren’t being picked out, you can disqualify the last child to get to each corner. Stick to two or three area / question answers for younger kids.

It sounds harder to organise than it is, especially with older kids. They usually have so much fun just squealing and running around, the questions barely matter anyway!

Jess loves making tents under the kitchen table. She takes a few cushions and a range of toys and plays there quite happily, which is especially handy when I’m cooking. Sometimes I’ll put a sheet over the table so the sides are covered but she’s perfectly satisfied without it. On sunny days, I put a blanket on the ground outside and then take two chairs and put them back to back with a space in between them. I drape an old sheet over them weighed down with a few books on the chair seats, and Jess sets up camp underneath. She loves playing in there, and I can either play with her, do some gardening, or (my preferred option) put my feet up and read a book in the sun!

Messy play
I’ve put these under ‘anywhere’ as I guess they could be done inside but it’s much less messy outside. If you do try it inside, use smaller bowls or trays, and put them in the kitchen or bathroom – somewhere with a washable hard floor! Take a large bowl or a small paddling pool. Fill with any one of the following: Rice Krispies (super-cheap value ones because you’ll want a lot of them), cornflakes, shaving foam, play foam, shredded paper, pasta or rice (particularly good if you cook them lightly with a bit of green food colouring in the water), water mixed with bubble bath and / or food colouring (just a drop or two!), polystyrene balls (the ones you get in bean bags), plastic packing ‘quavers’, or anything else you can think of. Put the kids in OLD clothes or strip them off altogether if the weather is warm enough, and let them get on with it. If food colouring is used anywhere, the old clothes are an absolute must as it will stain. Older kids love the green pasta or rice – put in some plastic animals and they can play jungles. Bubbles or shaving foam are good with toy cars (car washes). For very young children steer clear of the polystyrene balls and stick to cereal, then it doesn’t matter if they stuff it in their mouths. If you do use cereal, it makes cleaning up easier as the birds will do most of the work. You could also combine this with the buried treasure game and hide things in the mess for the kids to find.

Animal game
Great for car journeys and queues! Take it in turns to describe an animal, the other person has to guess what animal it is. You can vary the descriptions depending on the age of the child: “The animal I’m thinking of goes oink” for younger kids, “This animal is what we get bacon from” for older ones. The kids love describing the animals too; be prepared for some interesting descriptions!

I-Spy colours
Another one for queues and car trips, this is a version of I-Spy for younger children who can’t spell yet. I-Spy with my little eye, something… yellow / red / whatever. Once they have a rough knowledge of their letters you can combine the two: for example I-Spy with my little eye, something red beginning with T.

Seasonal activities

Christmas List
How about a picture list to Father Christmas for the ones who can’t write yet? Much like collages, give the kids a few catalogues and ask them to find pictures of what they’d like for Christmas. The slightly older ones can cut them out, the younger ones can tear them out, or you could cut out a pile of pictures yourself for them to sort through. They can then stick them onto a ‘letter for Santa’ and either burn it in the fire if you have an open one (obviously I mean you can burn it, they can watch!), post it to one of the charities that replies for a small charge, or leave it somewhere outside for the elves to collect. (Don’t forget to remove it when they are in bed and sprinkle a bit of glitter [fairy dust] around.)

If you want to encourage giving rather than asking, try the catalogue pictures and a pile of (unwanted) family photos. They can stick a picture of a family member on a piece of paper and add pictures of things they think they would like for Christmas. You never know, they might even give you some ideas!

Homemade decorations are fun to make, the kids can always use their creations to decorate their bedrooms if you don’t fancy glue-streaked paper chains everywhere! Try salt dough decorations (see my article on ‘A Homemade Christmas’ or just google salt dough); ours came out nice enough to give as presents. You can always get the older kids involved with stringing cranberries, and even very young children can help make cards or wrapping paper. Older kids can make tags from old cards or scraps of paper.

More ideas will follow as I remember what else we do!