Monday, 31 August 2015

Five ways to release your child's inner naturalist

My eldest son, seven year old E, has always been insatiably curious about the world around him. And, unfortunately, my GCSE in biology hasn't really equipped me to answer his numerous questions about the natural environment. I'm usually saved by Google, but my access to the internet isn't always great when he's asking me to identify common trees, flowers, birds or insects.

We are lucky enough to live in an area with a wide variety of natural environments: we live close to the beach, the river, the town and the countryside and not far from Dartmoor. So we're trying to learn more about what we see, hear and smell as we explore the world. I say we - because I'm embarrassed about my igorance and I want to learn this stuff too!

Here are a few ways I'm helping to unleash his inner naturalist. Who knows, maybe I'm nurturing the next David Attenborough?

1. I've bought him several spotter type books so he can tick off things he's found and take notes about when and where he came across it. His current favourite is the Nature Detectives' Handbook.

2. Our local nature reserve wardens at Dawlish Warren often run Junior Rangers events for children aged between 7 and 11 years old. Earlier in the summer he attended a free session on Dragonflies and Damselflies. As well as exploring the reserve, the children also made a model of what they'd seen. Art and craft are not favourite subjects of E, but he thoroughly enjoyed putting his damselfly together and I was really impressed with the result. The Junior Rangers get their own badge and newsletter too!

3. We try and take part in activities and campaigns run by charities and organisations that promote the natural environment, such as the RSPB, which runs an annual census of birds in your garden, or the Woodland Trust, or the WildlifeWatch section of the Wildlife Trusts.

4. Forest and outdoor school. E's school often runs a 'Forest School' after school club and he loves taking part. Locally, we also have a couple of Forest Schools that run holiday and weekend activities. We've yet to try them, but they are definitely on the radar.

5. When we're out and about we often stop and look or listen for signs of wildlife. I ask questions like: what do you think this is? what do you think made this? what do you think makes that sound? why do you think that? Even if we don't know the answers, maybe we can look them up or maybe I'm just helping him to further develop his curiosity about the world we live in.

How do you help your child learn more about nature?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Silent Sunday

A trip to Minehead

Last weekend, we visited Minehead for our annual weekend away with my sisters, nieces, nephews and mum. This year, with the addition of Baby O, we numbered four adults and eight children!

Minehead, to many, is synonymous with Butlin's. Indeed the site dominates one end of the town centre and promenade. But there is more to the town than its famous holiday park and we stayed just outside the town in the Minehead Youth Hostel. It's a tradition that we always stay in a Youth Hostel for our annual weekend away.

We aimed to meet late morning and my sister inkspotsandgrassstains had found a soft play centre based in Minehead Baptist Church's youth and family centre, the Hub, that sounded ideal. In fact, we were all a bit later than late morning. We had been held up by traffic for Dunster Show, which was taking place just outside Minehead. And my sister - well, she had to travel a bit further than us. So meeting in a soft play place was a great solution as it meant the children were having fun and not bored at waiting for everyone else. The only problem was the soft play only served snacks and we were all hungry for lunch - but we made do with crisps, cake and chocolate!

Once we had all had a good cup of tea and the children had worked off a bit of steam after the journey, we decided to head into the town to have a look around and to find the beach, before going up to check into the hostel.

Minehead Youth Hostel is probably the most family-friendly I've stayed in. The staff were warm and friendly and the request for everyone to remove their shoes before coming in actually made the hostel feel more like a home than holiday accommodation. I was even more impressed that, unlike most youth hostels, this one even had a bath, which makes cleaning children up after a busy day a lot easier!

Saturday was our full day. With several train fanatics in our party, we decided to catch a steam train on the West Somerset Railway - England's longest heritage rail line, to pretty harbour town of Watchet and then back to Dunster to visit the castle and Medieval village.

We wandered round a small market in Watchet before getting the train to Dunster where we took a somewhat scenic walk (alright - we got lost and took the wrong footpath) to the town and up the hill to the castle, which is owned by the National Trust.

It was definitely a very scenic route.

The children really enjoyed the dressing up room and outside they were able to play with hula hoops and other outdoor games. I was a little relieved that the archery was finished by the time we'd finished walking round the interior of the castle.

On Sunday, we opted to travel in the opposite direction and visit Lynton and Lynmouth, where the older boys, 7 year old E and my 8 year old nephew D, were fascinated to learn about the tragic floods of 1952 in the Lynmouth Flood Memorial Hall. We then travelled up the cliff railway to the neighbouring village of Lynton where we had lunch. One of my sisters then had to travel back up north, but the remaining Devon contingent decided to travel on to visit Porlock Weir. The two older boys were keen to see more of the hills described in the account of when, in 1899, the lifeboatmen of Lynmouth had pushed the lifeboat up 1000 feet on the 14 mile journey to Porlock Weir to come to the rescue of the 1900 ton cargo ship, the Forest Hill. The weather was too stormy for the lifeboat to be launched from Lynmouth. The journey over Countisbury Hill was stunning and the ice-cream we enjoyed in Porlock Weir was a delicious end to a lovely weekend.

Even better, was the scenery as we drove over Exmoor on our journey home. The heather and gorse were in full bloom and the hues of purple and yellow were simply amazing. Sometimes, a trip fairly close to home can be a reminder to enjoy what we have. I definitely plan to return and explore the North Devon and West Somerset border a bit more. And I'm very tempted to do that bit of the South West Coast Path. And maybe next time I'll try and make sure I take a camera with room to take a few more pictures.

Now to decide where we should stay next year. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Sweet little lies - why has motherhood corrupted me?

Honesty is the best policy. That is something I have always truly believed in and I have always taken pride in telling the truth the majority of the time.

However, since becoming a mother, I have found myself telling more and more lies.
It started with Father Christmas, then the Easter bunny, then the tooth fairy.

I can't believe I'm posting a picture of Santa Claus in the middle of the summer.
 But tonight really took the biscuit.

As I was kissing 5 year old B goodnight, she said to me: "Look mummy, look up there." B's bed has a canopy over it and as I looked up where she pointed, I saw a big spider's web and, sitting proudly above the web, was its creator.

Now, while I'm not exactly frightened of spiders, I'm not that comfortable with handling them either. And I didn't fancy the circus of a spider chase just as I'd put her to bed. So I lied...

"Oh, you are such a lucky girl," I said. "That spider has spun a web to catch any bad dreams and now the spider is sat over you to watch you and make sure you sleep well."

"Spiders don't sleep, do they mummy?" she said.

"But they do rest B, they do rest." I replied.

And as I gave her another kiss goodnight and left her room I felt terribly guilty. How could such blatant lies so easily trip off my tongue?

What have I turned into?

What lies have you told your children?

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Siblings (August)

The blogger, Dear Beautiful Boy, runs a monthly linky that celebrates the sibling bond as it grows and develops.

I find it very difficult to capture all four of mine in one go, so hopefully, Dear Beautiful Boy has given me the inspiration to try and get a photo at least every month so I can watch as all four develop and witness as their bonds grow.

Here's my picture for August:

This was taken on the morning of B's 5th birthday. All four of them were crowded into our beds for the ceremonial present opening. You can see how excited they are about the presents. Unfortunately, Baby O is a bit of a wriggler, so it's almost impossible to take a photograph without some blurring around whichever limb he is waving around at the time.

dear beautiful

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Camping at Woodlands

What could be better than a campsite with its very own theme park?

Not much, according to my children after we had an amazing weekend at Woodlands, just outside Dartmouth in Devon.

If you book two nights at the Woodlands Grove campsite, you get free entry into the theme park next door. And if you work your arrivals and departures out right, you can end up spending nearly three days on the rides.

We arrived at 1pm on the Friday and went straight up to our pitch to start getting the tent up. Well - I say our pitch. This is August and the height of summer, so we were shown an area of the top field without any particular markings and informed that this was our pitch. After some slight misunderstandings about where our friends we were supposed to be camping with, and who had already arrived, might be located, we were eventually united and able to get on with pitching our tents. Luckily, there was plenty of room for our tent along with a smaller hiking tent for our au pair and our friends tents and parking for all our cars.

There were a few downsides to booking in peak season:

  1. You can only get electric hook-up if you book for a minimum of three nights (although Mr B says this was a good thing because it meant that I was without my phone, which has a battery life of about 20 minutes, for the weekend).
  2. The showers were freezing, unless, like Mr B, you got up early and showered at about 6.30am

On the day of our arrival, Peppa Pig was making an appearance in the park, so we sent 5 year old B and 3 year old W straight down into the park with our au pair to see their favourite character in the flesh, while we set up our home for the weekend. We headed down later to check out a couple of rides and the small zoo area.

The Saturday was a scorcher and Woodlands is brilliant for its water rides. The benefit of being on site is that we were able to get into the park first thing and avoid the worst of the queues. We had originally planned to head back up to the tent for lunch, but we were having so much fun that we ordered a hot dinner from the pizza and chicken parlour and retired to the shade of one of the indoor play areas to enjoy our food and revitalise ourselves for a busy afternoon.

By the end of the day, we had managed to cover about 80% of the park and we headed back up to the tent for a well-earned hotdog and burger, cooked on the barbecue.

On Sunday morning, we got up and packed up our tent before heading back into the park for a final day of fun. We headed to the bits we missed first before revisiting some of our favourite rides. 7 year old E was a big fan of the Swing Dragon Swing Ship, B loved the water slides, and the Dinosaur Farm ride in the zoo farm was a firm favourite with W.

Would I book again? Definitely. It was lovely to spend a weekend without having to use the car. And even if we aren't blessed with good weather, Woodlands has a lot of indoor attractions and, further down the campsite, a large shower and toilet block with a TV and games room. I have a feeling we'll be returning to Woodlands quite a few times in the coming years.

What campsites would you recommend for family fun?

Monday, 3 August 2015

Carry on breastfeeding...when you go back to work

Many women stop breastfeeding when they return to work. It often seems impossible to continue nursing your child when you are apart for many hours of the day. And the idea of pumping can be a real turn off.

This year's World Breastfeeding Week aims to support women to combine breastfeeding and work.

And I'm here to show you that if you want to carry on nursing, then going back to work doesn't need to stop you. I've managed it three times:

  • With my eldest son, E, I returned to work part-time when he was seven months old. He transitioned onto solids very quickly and soon dropped to just morning and night time feeds before he fully weaned from the breast at a year old.
  • My daughter B breastfed until she was four years old. I went back to work part-time when she was 10 months old. We continued nursing during the day when I was at home, but when I was at work, she just had solids and water. But she tended to catch up at night (whether I'd been at work or not) until I night weaned her when she was two and a half years old.
  • I went back to work part-time when little W was just four months old. I pumped every lunch time when I was at work and he took bottles of expressed milk from the childminder. He also caught up overnight and breastfed throughout the day when I was at home. W is now three years old and continues to nurse.

So if you need to go back to work and want to continue breastfeeding, you can make it work for you. Here are my top tips:

  1. Tell your employer in writing before you return to work. If you don't let your employer know that you plan to continue breastfeeding and tell them how they can help, then you can't expect them to be supportive. Before you return to work, write a letter explaining that you plan to continue breastfeeding and reminding them that they are legally required to provide somewhere for pregnant and breastfeeding employees to rest. You might also like to direct them to the Health and Safety Executive website where they will find information on good practice (but sadly not a legal obligation), to provide 'a private, healthy and safe environment for employees to express and store milk' - not a toilet. In reality, this means a lockable room with an electric socket (for your breast pump) and a fridge in which you can store your milk. You may find it helpful to include a list of benefits to the employer of you continuing to breastfeed, such as reduced absence due to childhood illnesses). My experience with two different employers has been really positive. After my daughter was born, I provided written notification of my return to work date and included a paragraph explaining that I would still be breastfeeding and that I would need somewhere to pump milk and somewhere to store the milk.  After my second son was born, I started a new job when he was four months old and still exclusively breastfeeding. After I accepted the job offer, I spoke to HR and told them I would still be breastfeeding and that it would be good practice to provide me with somewhere to pump and store my milk. I added that if they failed to do so, there would be a risk of me developing mastitis. All my requests were met and my employers bent over backwards to help me out. I realise that in some jobs, having the time to pump can be quite difficult. But by raising the issue with your employers before you return to work, you can at least discuss possible solutions and enable them to help. The more working women that raise the issue of breastfeeding, the more pressure will be put on employers to enable women to continue their nursing relationship.
  2. Just breastfeed when you are together. In the UK, most women are able to take at least six months of maternity leave. This means that by the time you are back at work, your baby will most likely have started solids. So, in reality, you can just breastfeed when you are with your child (bedtime and/or first thing or even through the night) and then encourage your child to take solid food and water from a beaker during the times you are at work. If you are worried about dropping all milk feeds during the day, you could express breastmilk or leave some formula with your childcare provider. You will be surprised at how quickly your body and your child adapt. How do I know? I returned to work when my eldest was 7 months old. I expressed milk and left it with the nursery. After a couple of months, the nursery staff told me my sone was refusing to take the expressed milk from a bottle and actually wanted to have water from a sippy cup and a snack like the other children. We continued nursing when we were together, but when he was out and about with other carers, he was quite happy to take on other forms of nutrition.
  3. Ask for flexible working so you can take breaks to breastfeed your child during the day or you can manage your shifts so you're not away from home for 12 hours at a time. This is an NHS suggestion and not something I've managed to do myself, so I can't really comment on how feasible it is. But I'm sure for some women it's a viable option.
  4. Arrange for your childcare to be close to where you work so you can actually breastfeed your child in your breaks rather than pump. Again, this isn't something I've tried, although I now work from home and my childminder is round the corner, so it might be something I attempt later this year with Baby O.
  5. Relax and be flexible. You and your child will adapt to whatever works for you. Don't beat yourself up if you can't express. Don't be disappointed if you are only managing to nurse once a day or just at the weekends. Have faith in your boobs they will adapt to supply enough milk for whenever you manage to nurse your child. And your child is growing and developing every day and will easily manage the transition to fit in with whatever you can provide.
Have you successfully combined work with a continued breastfeeding relationship? How did it work? What tips would you add?

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Days out in Devon - an eventful trip on the Dartmouth Steam Railway Round Robin

Little W is three years old and is obsessed with trains, boats and buses.
A day trip involving all three would surely be a winner.
So earlier this week we took my mother (who loves steam trains) and our au pair (who loves the Devon countryside) on the Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company Round Robin trip. It was an eventful day. But more of that later. First I'll explain the trip.
The round robin involves:

  • a steam train between Paignton and Kingswear and then a short passenger ferry over the River Dart to Dartmouth
  • a passenger cruise boat up along the River Dart between Dartmouth and Totnes
  • a double-decker (sometimes open top) bus between Totnes and Paignton
The direction of travel depends on the tides as the water needs to be high enough for the boat to travel along the River Dart.

We began our trip by taking a regular train to Paignton. The steam train station is next door, right in the town centre. So as we transferred from our modern(ish) diesel train and wandered next door into the ticket office of the Dartmouth Steam Railway, it was like stepping back in time to an age when steam engines powered the world.

We bought a family ticket, which covers two adults and up to three children. Under 3s are free, but must be 'declared'. It was a lovely touch that our very own under 3 (baby O) was given his own special 'My first round robin' ticket to commemorate the occasion.

Our train departed at 10am. The route is beautiful as the railway follows the coast out of Paignton along through Goodrington Sands before dipping inland behind Churston, past Agatha Christie's house at Greenaways before hugging the River Dart back down to the coast.

It's well worth hanging around on the platform when you arrive in Kingswear to watch the steam engine unhook from the front and chuff round to the other end of the train for the return journey.

Outside the station you follow the ramp down to the river to get the ferry across to Dartmouth, which runs every 10 minutes or so.

Dartmouth is a beautiful town with lots of lovely shops - including a SeaSalt samples and sale shop which is great if you are a Size 10!

We wandered through the shops and along the river wall where lots of families were enjoying a spot of crabbing and enjoyed lunch in a fish and chip shop before heading back down to the quayside for our 2.45pm River Dart cruise.

It was at this point that the day took an interesting turn. We decided to pop into the supermarket for some extra food supplies for the next stage of the trip (strawberries and a packet of biscuits). Little W was being carried by his grandmother when a seagull decided to spatter them with epic proportions of droppings. They were absolutely covered. Obviously, before digging out wet wipes to try and cleanup the mess, I stood in fits of laughter and grabbed my camera! Karma meant that I only managed to get one photograph before the battery went.

If you look closely, the seagull managed to get W's hair and shirt and my mum's arm, cleavage, hat, bag and vest.

Once we had cleaned them up as best we could, we went down and boarded the boat. We opted for the open air top deck for the best views (although I did regret failing to bring a jumper as the wind was fairly fresh at times).

The commentary on board was interesting and pretty amusing. Our skipper had a very dry sense of humour. We looked out for some seals, but only managed to spot a few herons. However, the scenery was beautiful and it was a really relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Things began to go wrong when we got to Totnes. The plan was to get straight on the bus back down to Paignton as we were planning to head to the carnival back in our home town later that evening and we wanted to grab some supper before the procession. Unfortunately, everyone else on the boat had the same idea and by the time the bus arrived (20 minutes late), there were more passengers than seats, so a group of around 20 of us were left behind. We were promised that an additional bus was on route, but given no assurances about how long this would take. So we waited, and waited, and waited.  Luckily Baby O is pretty chilled out for a 16 week old baby. And the rest of us were happy to take advantage of the adjacent ice cream shop. An hour later (about 5 minutes before the scheduled last bus), a 'relief' bus arrived. By this point, the queue was really long again so by the time we'd all clambered on, there were still passengers left waiting.

As we boarded the bus, I joked that all we needed now was for this bus to break down. And yes, you've guessed it, two miles out of Totnes and the bus broke down. Luckily, this time, we only had to wait about 25 minutes for what was the original bus to pass by and we were able to resume our journey back to Paignton. 

We got back with one minute to spare before our train home, so we hot-footed it through the station and over the footbridge with seconds to spare and got back just as the carnival procession started.

If all the transport had gone to plan, this would have been a perfect day. Although the boat trip is a little long for toddlers and the top deck of the boat is pretty precarious. You need to make sure they stay sat down in their seats and I was holding on to baby O very, very tightly!

But sometimes the best memories are when things don't go to plan. And I don't think little W will forget the time the bus 'breaked down'.

What are your favourite day trips in Devon?

Silent Sunday