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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Ideas for When You Absolutely Have to Get Out of the House....

So, if you happened upon my previous article, you will have found me full of chirpy suggestions for making the most of a yucky day indoors.  Well as it turned out, having merrily expounded, on Friday evening, the virtues of entertaining pre-schoolers inside, just a few days later Sunday saw me stuck indoors on a rainy, cold day in the middle of moving house.  Just to keep things really interesting, Miss Nearly-5 had been up all night with a terrible cough, so was in absolutely rotten shape.
No problem, I thought, let’s start the day with pikelets.  Good start, much sifting, stirring and beating was enjoyed by all, along with the fruits of our labours.  The kitchen was not quite cleaned up when some sort of altercation occurred outside involving two pre-schoolers and some chopsticks (I had turned a blind eye to the escapees into the Antarctic conditions in the hope of getting on top of the kitchen mess) so I lured everyone inside with the promise of playdough making.  Fantastic, so two batches of playdough later (one pink, one yellow – shortly to be melded into a highly attractive yink/pillow) all is well at the kitchen table for some time.  Playdough morphs into play school which involves mat time complete with news (which must be presided over by the adult who has to pretend to be the teacher, of course) kai time (didn’t we just have breakfast?) more news, ballet lessons, an attempt at a board game involving some sort of 3-year old melt down, a desperate call for lunch - soooo when the man of the house walked through the door at just after 1 pm I announced that we absolutely had to get out of the house, poked the kids in front of a DVD and slunk off for a shower.  Hence the theme of this article...

Sometimes you just absolutely must view life beyond your own four walls, regardless of what the weather is doing.  Here are some ideas when another coffee date in an over-crowded café just doesn’t appeal to the mind or the wallet.

Rug up and go for a walk  Get all your winter gear on, get out there, get wet and wild and come home, throw everyone in the bath and snuggle up warm.  Whether it’s a trip to the park, a walk on the beach, Gray’s Bush or in the arboretum, sometimes everyone benefits from getting wet and muddy and wind-blown.  There’s something smugness-inducing about getting out there on a yucky day, and nothing better than getting warm afterwards.

Invite yourself to a friend’s for lunch  If you’re craving company, hit the supermarket or the bakery and then head around to a friend’s house for a bit of a BYO lunch.  It’s often easier and cheaper than the café variety, and you all benefit from some company other than your own.

Do the supermarket shopping  For me this is a bit like cooking.  To be enjoyed as a parent-child activity, the parent must not be under any time pressure – allow the shopping to be the only thing that you really need to get done and let the kids get involved in choosing things for the trolley and putting things away at home and lo and behold the morning is filled and the shopping is done.  To be fair though, this one can go either way – if it all turns to custard buy a packet of ice-blocks or lollipops and give them one each on the way to the checkout…
If you’re wondering what wholesome family activity we engaged in during our escape from the indoors that memorable Sunday, well we actually went shopping for a new duvet cover for Miss 3 who had finally decided to sleep in her own bed.  And that’s another story…

Banana Cake
•  115g       butter                                •  ½ cups   flour
•  ¾ cup     caster sugar                       •  1 tsp       baking powder
•  1             egg                                  •  1 tsp       baking soda
•  2             ripe bananas                     •  ¼ cup     milk
•  1 tsp       coffee essence
Getting ready: 
Soften the butter and take the egg out of the fridge.  Grease an 18cm square tin with butter, and line the base with baking paper.  Preheat the oven to 180˚C.  Peel the bananas and mash them well with a fork.
Mixing and baking:
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the egg, followed by the mashed bananas and the coffee essence.
Sift together the flour and baking powder, and dissolve the  baking soda in the milk.
Fold in the dry ingredients alternately with the milk and baking soda, and combine everything together.  Bake for about 45 min.
When the cake is cooked it will have shrunk slightly away from the sides of the tin and when you press the centre gently with your finger, it will spring back.
Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.   
Ice when cool and store airtight.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Marble Magic

One of the things that I found absolutely terrifying in the months before our eldest daughter started school was the idea that we actually had to be somewhere in particular, by a particular time, that time being 9 am, on five consecutive days a week.  At that time we were seemingly fighting a losing battle to be anywhere much before 10 am, no matter how early we got up, and giving up the luxury of not really having to be anywhere at any particular time seemed quite daunting.

At Easter I met up with a very old friend who has a 5 and a 6 year old.  My friend is a self-confessed “morning hater” so I quizzed her on how she managed to be a non-morning person and get her kids to school on time.  The answer, she told me, was fairly simple.  Her children wake up starving, so they were required to be dressed before breakfast was organised.  Then they had to be all ready to go to school before they began playing with anything.  Hmmm I thought.  My girls are never actually very interested in breakfast, but there was potential in the idea.  So we began working on the idea that there was no getting engrossed in games, puzzles, art projects, or generally any fun stuff until we had had breakfast, cleaned our teeth, got dressed, and packed kindy bags.  This was actually amazingly easy and the girls just seemed to get into it, particularly the youngest, who seems to love these little systems.

Fast-forward a few months and we are now happily into our second term of school.  I am still amazed that we have actually managed to get there on time every day (sometimes very much JUST on time) but nevertheless on time.  We have recently enhanced the system with the addition of marble rewards – a marble can be earned at each end of the day for getting ready for school/kindy/bed with no fuss, plus can be rewards for super-special things, and can be removed for bad behaviour.  We keep the reward/removal action for the extremes as I don’t want to be hassled for marbles every 5 minutes, and the loss of a marble is viewed as an extreme disaster so the crime must be serious enough to warrant the major meltdown that will ensue.  The threat of loss of a marble however is a potent tool that can be used reasonably frequently. 

The marble system also doubles as our pocket-money system.  We were grappling with what to do on that front as it seemed like a good time to introduce pocket money for our 5 year old, but we knew that the 3 year old would want to be in on the action too, so any system needed to be simple enough to apply to both.  This works awesomely as 10 marbles can be cashed in for $1, which must be deposited in the piggy bank, and piggy bank money can be saved for purchases of the earner’s choice.  The girls had a head start as were each given $5 for their birthdays by a family member, so the $2 they have earned since then quickly gave them a reasonable amount, which I’m slightly embarrassed to say, was immediately spent.  They might get a bit of a fright about how hard it will be to save for the next purchase but if it gets too demoralising we can always alter the marble:money ratio.

So, for now, we have found a pretty good system for getting the girls out the door, on time, in reasonably good condition…most of the time!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Ideas for When You Just Can't Get Out of the House

By the time you read this the school holidays will be over and we will all be rolling back into the routine of school and pre-school activities.  For our family this is a particularly poignant time as our oldest starts school and our youngest kindergarten – how time has flown!  I’m so glad that we’ve been lucky enough to share so much time as a family during these precious pre-school years.  

So although it may be a little late to be really useful, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how best to enjoy family time during these (sometimes unbearably long) winter days.  Let’s be honest, must as we love Gisborne just as it is, it’s this time of year that the grass can sometimes seem greener, the walls can close in a little, and we can find ourselves wondering if there might just be more on offer elsewhere.  But actually, I reckon there’s plenty of winter-time fun to be had Out East, so read on for my ideas for those days when you wake up with the rain hammering the roof and the wind howling through the windows and no idea of how to fill the space between breakfast and dinner time.

The mind may be willing, but the body just can’t make it out the door... sick kids, sick parents, not enough sleep, too much condensation on the insides of the windows... If you simply can’t be bothered getting organised to go out, embrace the day for what it is, and make the most of the home-body life.

Make playdough  There was a period where I refused to make playdough – a few bad experiences (too sticky, too dry, too stuck in the carpet), but I rediscovered the joys of playdough a few months ago, along with a seemingly fool-proof recipe (see opposite).  With a few implements available for rolling, cutting, chopping and serving, playdough can keep those little minds and hands busy for quite a while, and stored in an airtight container can by pulled out again and again... and again.  And actually, those squished into the carpet bits do dry out and vacuum up reasonably easily...

Get cooking  I have concluded that the secret for enjoying cooking with pre-schoolers is to allow plenty of time and have no need for the actual meal to be served any time soon.  I have had loads of fun recently making soup with my 3 year-old and stew with my nearly-5 for dinner the following night, and nearly gone nutty with offers of help when trying to cook dinner that actually needed to be ready sometime soon.  Chopping, stirring, grating, sifting, greasing pans, running Zhu-zhu pets over rising bread dough – these are all great ways to involve pre-schoolers in the kitchen.

Have a pyjama day  Just call it quits from the word go, and announce that the whole day will be spent in pyjamas.  Haul out the board games, the puzzles, the coffee and the books, and just enjoy being inside with nowhere better to be.  By 2 pm you will probably feel disgusting, so that’s the time for the DVD player and a long shower.

So next time you wake up with the rain pounding the windows and it just seems too hard to breach the threshold to the great outdoors, embrace the inside!  Watch this space next month for ideas for when you just have to get out of the house.

Playdough Recipe 

• 2 ½ cups of white flour
• ½ cup salt

• 2 tablespoons cream tartar
• 2 cups boiling water

• food colouring

Mix flour with salt and cream tartar in a large bowl.  Add boiling water, oil and food colouring.  Mix quickly then knead on a floured board until firm.  Add extra flour if sticky.  Store in an airtight container.

Tips from bitter experience:
Don’t be tempted to use cooking salt if you bought it by accident...  It is too coarse and just doesn’t work.
Add plenty of food colouring directly into the water – the colour needs to be strong or the playdough will be an insipid colour and adding extra colour to the dough results in a rather unattractive slightly ‘80s motley effect.
Add about ¾ of the water initially and then add the last little bit slowly until you get the right texture – I usually find that I don’t need the whole 2 cups and it’s easier than adding flour at the end to make it less sticky.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Re-use, Reduce, Recycle

At this time of year, with the dragon of rampant Christmas consumerism breathing its hot and heavy breath in our faces, it takes an iron will and a very firm plan to avoid succumbing to the excesses of the season.  I clearly remember my first Christmas of motherhood, which involved a child of not quite 6 months of age being absolutely over-whelmed with stuff - stuff from us, stuff from Santa, stuff from grandparents, aunties and uncles, great-grandparents, great-uncles, fairy-godparents and get the picture - and, as the old but accurate cliche goes, being only really interested in the wrapping.

Every year since I have vowed that we would not go over the top - that we would just buy one thing for each child, a few stocking stuffers would be provided by Santa, and then family would complete the picture.  So how is that every year that somehow the underneath of that Christmas tree is chokka and I fully know I have only myself to blame for the vast majority of the paraphernalia that overwhelms my children on Christmas morning.

This is my fifth Christmas as a parent, so you would think I might have a few clues by now.  However, as I write this I am mentally reviewing the various things stashed in the top of my wardrobe throughout the year, adding to that the slightly OTT order that I placed via our kindergarten fundraiser, convincing myself that a worthwhile cause justified a few extra bits and pieces, and thinking that not much of that stuff is of the right size to fit inside a stocking, so therefore some more shopping on behalf of Santa will be required.  Ugh.

In the midst of all this I am also reflecting on the most long-lasting and fascinating toys to have entered our lives this year - maybe a close second to paper and pen - these particular toys arrived in the guise of a new vacuum cleaner and - you - guessed it - the rather large box encasing said vacuum cleaner.  In the blink of an eye this box became a car, and over the various weeks and now months of its existence this car has gradually been enhanced with various features (this weekend saw it sporting a large extension which apparently is a smoke stack, complete with smoke, turning it into a train).  It has been the favourite spot for reading, spelling practice, and the centre of all sorts of games.  It has had a boot added, which contains treasures of all descriptions.  Periodically it gets relegated to the garage as it (plus its smaller sibling-version) takes up a lot of room and we get a bit tired of tripping over it from time-to-time, but it always re-enters the house and is embraced with as much enthusiasm and it generated on Day 1.

So, what is to be done about the Christmas stash.  In the process of writing this I think I have come up with a plan - stick to the plan.  Sift through the stash to find the things that can be rammed into the stockings, pick one or two extra things for each child, and leave the rest in the cupboard for birthdays (our family's or others) and perhaps to be brought out at odd times when it seems like a new toy could be welcome, rather than on one crazy day when it will just be lost in the pile of wrapping paper.  Surely with Christmas now only a few weeks away I can manage to remember that plan?

Chocolate Truffles

A perfect Christmas treat - adults only!  Truffles can be made 3 days ahead, keep covered in refrigerator. Recipe unsuitable to freeze.
100g dark chocolate melted
1 ½ tablespoons dark rum
2 table spoons cream
30g butter melted
1 ¾ cups icing sugar
1 cup ground almonds 
¼ cup cocoa
Combine melted chocolate, rum, cream and butter in bowl. Stir in sifted icing sugar and almonds in 2 batches. Cover, refrigerate until firm. Shape rounded teaspoonfuls of mixture into balls, roll in cocoa, place in refrigerator until serving. Makes about 15.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Power of Praise

I have always considered myself absolutely hopeless at art - as in a total non-starter.  Creative, I could be, as long as we could loosely define creativity to include cooking, gardening, sewing, but as far as drawing or painting, count me out.  

The peak of my artistic endeavours was a caterpillar created from egg-carton at Raetihi Primary School, of which I was extremely proud.  Unfortunately its existence was uncannily short-lived thanks to a couple of bullies, lurking around the corner of the classroom after school, who accosted me and stomped the poor creature into oblivion.  Luckily I have a partner who is quite talented in the artistic way, so it was pretty easy for me to avoid challenging myself by fobbing off my daughters’ requests for drawing to their more talented father.  

However, recently I got talking to a friend who told me that it has been proven that anyone can become good at anything with the will and enough practice.  This passing conversation, in conjunction with watching my daughters learn to draw, made me wonder if it really was kind of lame of me to put myself into a “non-able” box, when maybe I could actually learn this skill, in the same way that I have learnt to do other things in my four decades on this planet.  

So, I have been trying to actually learn to draw.  Not in a really academic kind of a way, but just in a “well let’s give this a whirl” kind of way.  When the girls are drawing, I sit down and draw too, and when they ask me to draw something, I have a go.  I have to say, that the very best part of this whole thing has been the positive feedback from my girls.  “That’s a really great fish Mum.”  “You’re really good at drawing princesses.”  “Can we pin my Mickey on the wall Mum.”  “Dad, look at my Spongie that Mum drew.”  Even the aforementioned Dad has contributed with positive comments regarding my efforts.  

Now if anyone outside of my four walls actually saw my efforts, they would no doubt conclude that there was an artistically-challenged seven-year old with a penchant for drawing Sponge Bob, Mickey Mouse, and renditions of the various fish from “Tiddler” on the loose, but I am quite proud of my little efforts, and get thrilled to my core by the kind comments from my family.  It’s really got me thinking about the power of praise, and how, if a 40 year old can learn something new with a little bit of positive feedback from those around her, how much can our children achieve with our support and encouragement. 

I know that we all do work hard to praise and encourage our nearest and dearest, but I think it’s easy to forget just how good that really feels.  Equally, how much do we teach our children by being prepared to give anything a go, and really showing them that we can do anything that we set our minds to?  Be brave with your efforts, and be generous with your praise - both will make you and yours great.