Monday, 31 October 2011

Child Friendly Restaurant Review: Frankie & Benny's

Lo, what fresh hell is this?

We got caught feeling hungry whilst out of the house with Rory again.  Schoolboy error.  Hence, on Saturday we ended up in a Frankie & Benny's restaurant somewhere in the sprawling metropolis of concrete and drizzle that is Stoke on Trent.

Rory was in a particularly demonic mood which felt quite in keeping with the restaurant, which was decorated for Halloween.  Yes, nothing says 'child friendly' like a load of carved pumpkins stuffed with precariously placed candles in easy poking reach.  And now I come to think of it, nothing quite says 'quality dining' like a huge polystyrene skull looming over your table.  There were children everywhere, at least half of them better behaved than ours, but all of them yelling at the top of their voices and drinking far too much Coke for my liking.  Rat pack music blared above it all and despite Bobby Darin's insistence, I predicted that this was unlikely to be my Magic Moment.

Our waitress was wearing purple contact lenses with slits for pupils, which made her look like Voldemort with cataracts.  Despite this, she was fairly perky and cheerily handed Rory an activity book (aimed at a more sophisticated audience than a 2 year old) and a pencil (sharp, pointy, nearly got shoved in my eye and Richard's nostril  over the course of the meal).  We ordered various fat-making portions of steak and burger type things, including a burger and chips with salad dressing for Rory from the children's menu.  He was overjoyed at this and attacked it with gusto, although most of his gusto was directed at sucking tomato ketchup off of the chips and then posting their soggy potato carcasses down the side of the seats.  At no point did he touch his salad dressing.  I inhaled my burger and congratulated myself on sitting Rory next to Richard, meaning that I was out of the line of fire of most of the hurtled cutlery.

Lots of things got thrown on the floor in a rage: The activity book and pencil, every napkin in the vicinity, various knives, his entire body.  The couple dining next to us stopped finding him cute after the first 10 minutes.  I sympathise with them.  I also stopped finding him cute after the first 10 minutes (of his life). Despite all of this, I couldn't fault the staff (even the waitress with the Voldemort eyes) and they were polite throughout and obviously used to dealing with hyperactive children, and chatted to him as they cleared the plates.

We skipped dessert.  I briefly longed for the days when I could eat a brownie/ice-cream/chocolate sauce stacked thing without gaining any weight whatsoever, then briefly considered having it anyway as a sort of trauma therapy, then realised that the best course of action would be to exit swiftly as my son had just stuffed a napkin into the gaping mouth of a pumpkin and it was in danger of going up in flames.

Matt Monro sang the opening lines of 'Born Free' as we beat a hasty retreat.   I couldn't help thinking that 'Born Feral' might have been more appropriate here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

"Noise With Dirt On"

Isn't that what someone once referred to boys as?  That sums them up fairly accurately to me.  If you also add "obsessed with anything with wheels", you've just about got them covered.

I'm all for this gender neutral trend for allowing children to play with what they want, wear what they want and generally be how they want to be without enforcing gender stereotypes on them, but what has become apparent to me since having a boy of my own is how he seems genetically programmed to like doing boy things.  He has been boring us about cars and trains ever since he could first point.  He does occasionally give a baby doll a cuddle at playgroup, but that's usually shortly before throwing it on the floor and running it over with a tricycle.  He likes to seek and destroy and take things apart to find out how they work and create mess where you'd think mess couldn't possibly be made and generally be caked from head to foot in noxious substances.

I'd like to say that I don't know what I'd do with a girl, but I do.  I'd do a lot of nice colouring in and twirling and playing with dolls and dressing up and going for walks with a child who would willingly hold my hand and walk next to me and skipping and maybe occasionally go to Rhyme Time with a child who actually likes it - all the things that my friends do with their young girls.  It's a lot more civilised and there's less emphasis on having to spend the whole day exhausting them so that they'll sleep at night.  By contrast, Rory and I can often be found standing by the nearest dual carriageway making racing car noises as we watch the traffic and point out good lorries to each other.  It's a rubbish way to spend your day, but he loves it.

Yesterday, we went to the farm.  We go to the farm quite a lot because there's one just a 20 minute walk from our house.  Going to the farm is brilliant, yes?  You get to see the animals and feed them and stroke them and....sorry, no.  You're wrong.  You can do all those things with a girl.  Here's how it goes for us:

*Rory and I are walking along the road to the farm*

Me: "Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm he had a...."

Rory: "Tractor."

Me: "Well, yes, he probably does have a tractor, but this is a song about animals.  Think about the animals we're going to see at the farm.  Lets try again: And on that farm he had a...."

Rory: "Bat 'beel"

Me: "I'm almost certain that Old MacDonald doesn't have a Batmobile.  Can you think of an animal that he might have?"  And on that farm he had a..."

Rory: "Boogly woogly."

Me: "That's not even a word."

Rory: "I think of an animal."

Me: "OK then.  And on that farm he had a..."

Rory: "Gremlin."

Me: "Whatever."

And so it continues.

We get to the farm.

"Oh, Rory, look at the goats.  Would you like to feed the goats?" I say, hoping that by speaking in a ridiculously over enthusiastic tone of voice, some of it might rub off on him.  But no.  He tells the goats to go away then spots a fork lift truck in the distance and goes running over to stroke it, screeching with joy.  During the rest of our time at the farm, he spots a digger, several tractors, a combine harvester, two trailers and a "very funny pumpkin", all of which he has to inspect at close range.  He goes on the slides and the climbing frames in the adventure playground.  He makes me pay a fiver for an overpriced cake and a drink in the cafe.  He jumps into every available puddle, emerges like a bedraggled swamp monster, then rolls in the hay, creating a primitive wattle and daub effect all over his body that dries and starts to crack as we walk home.  At no point does he give any animal a cursory glance, and when Richard asks him what he did with his day, he looks blankly at him and replies "errrr, played cars?"

Boys are infuriating. I quite want a girl.  I don't think I'd laugh as much but I might at least have an appreciative audience for my animal songs.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

List of Bothersome Things

I used to write these frequently from the age of 15-22ish, only they were entitled "List of Crap Things" and said crap things were usually related to idiotic men (well, boys) and the fact that I had a hole in my tights and was failing Philosophy or whatever.  The idea was that I could tick the items off the list when I'd dealt with them*, thus being able to quantify how much less crappy my life was getting as I went forward.  Of course, by that point, I usually had yet another useless bloke on the go to add to the list and an endless stream of wardrobe malfunctions, so it was all a bit pointless.  These days, I prefer not to dwell so heavily on the negatives in life, and  I realise that I have it pretty good compared to most.  However, a number of irksome things have occurred recently, and I felt that this called for a list:

1. Yesterday, Rory got hold of a bottle of lavender oil and sprinkled half of it all over our bedroom.  The house now stinks of grannies and we are so 'soothed' by the calming aroma that we're floating around the house with our eyes half closed.  It's like Lush have invented a crack den.

2. Rory's toy Cranky Crane from Thomas the Tank Engine appears to have become possessed by evil spirits (not surprising. I've always felt that he has a rather malevolent look on his face) and keeps telling me that I'm a "very reliable engine" in a slight German accent when nobody is near him.  I now fear some sort of Thomas & Friends mass murdery thing occurring at Halloween while we're asleep in our beds.

3. John From Next Door has started his yearly campaign of ABH against the local squirrels and was witnessed throwing a wet sock from his washing line at one a couple of days ago.  I do fret about the squirrels.

4. Rory is eyeing up the autumnal pot pourri speculatively.  This worries me.  He ate a handful last year and it never reappeared at the other end.  One day he's going to end up having emergency surgery to remove 3 mini pine cones, some sticks and a handful of rose petals from his intestines.

5. There have been no less than three fascia board salesmen knocking on my door this week and two cold calls from other fascia board sales people.  I don't even know what a fascia board is. More to the point, I don't care.

6. There's a hole in my tights.  Some things never change.

*Have just realised that this may read as if I bumped off my ex boyfriends to 'deal with them'.  I did not.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Jelly Cat: Revisited

Check it out mo fo's.  Check. It. Out.

That's right my friends, I have reached the pinnacle of motherhood and here I sit on the successful jelly maker throne, laughing manically and dropping little silver cake decorating balls down upon those less fortunate than me.  Suck it up, losers.

After this recent jelly disaster, I was given some jelly making advice by the women at my Thursday evening class.  Apparently, jelly packets lie, and instead of following the instructions and adding cold water to the mix to make it up to 1 pint, the seasoned jelly maker adds enough cold water to take it to just over three quarters of a pint.  What amazed me was that they all seemed to know this and were nodding sagely at these words of wisdom.  It's one of those things that Only Mums Know (there are a lot of these: How to remove mould from a rubber bath mat, what muslin squares are for etc etc).

Now I too have The Knowledge, I am passing it on to you.  Use it well.

My jelly cat is brilliant.  It resembles a cat for a start.  It's firm yet wobbly, it's features are still intact.  You know what?  I might go wild and make up a lime version and mash it all up with a fork to make it look like it's lying on grass.  I could do that, because I'm that skilled now.  Little flowers hand crafted from marzipan and tinted with food colouring to scatter amongst the jelly grass?  Yeah, I could probably make some of those while sprinkling hundreds and thousands on fairy cakes with the other hand and one eye shut.  If I wasn't so tormented by the threat of nut allergies that is.  But I could.  Hell yeah.

Friday, 21 October 2011


I was going to write a new blog post this afternoon, but seeing as Rory has decided that he is not going to have an afternoon sleep, and instead has coloured every available millimetre of his naked body in with a blue felt tip pen (an act which somehow only took him 30 seconds), I'm going to be rather busy. Please send cake and any form of alcohol.  Or hallucinogenics maybe.  I'm not fussy.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Innocent Kids Review

Don't get me started on Smarties.  Several years ago, some moron in their design department decided to do away with the cylindrical tubes and plastic lids and replace them with a rubbish hexagonal design.  Did they consider the impact of this on their customers?  They did not.  You can no longer sneakily remove the lid from your brother's tube and steal all the good colours (orange, green, blue. Red at a push) and replace them with yellows and browns.  There is no more popping the plastic lid off the tube at your dog.  But most importantly - most importantly Nestle, you set of cretinous fools, the youth of today can no longer COLLECT ALL THE PLASTIC TOPS WITH LETTERS ON THEM AND MAKE A PRETEND TYPEWRITER OUT OF THEM.

Thank goodness then for Innocent, who know about the importance of these things.  Rory and I were sent some Innocent kids products to review recently, and before we even address the deliciousness of their smoothies, I must inform you that these guys are a shining beacon of marketing brilliance in a world of retail that doesn't seem to try.  The reason for my joy?  They put 3 alphabet fridge magnets* in their packs of children's smoothies and fruit tubes.  Innocent, I applaud you, nay, worship at your feet.  Thank you for taking up where those eejits at the Smarties HQ left off.  We now have a fridge door full of beautifully designed letters, which have tied in beautifully with Rory's first foray into phonics.  Not only that, the packaging is a miracle of marketing genius, with fun facts and/or educational games or activities printed on the outer side of the boxes, and other activities inside the box (we had a monkey that you can cut out and attach to people to annoy them).  Those of you who are familiar with Innocent will already know that everything on their products is written with humour and personality, and this is much the same on their kids products.  Well done Innocent for knowing your customer base so well, and especially well done on your attention to kiddy friendly detail.  It really does make such a difference.

OK, on to the actual products.  We tested the orange, mango and pineapple smoothies and the strawberry and raspberry fruit tubes.  

The smoothies were an immediate hit with Rory.  He'll eat some fruits but isn't a major fan, and it can be a struggle to get him to eat enough of the stuff, so it was brilliant to be able to give him a smoothie carton knowing that it contained one of his five a day.  He thinks they're delicious and really enjoyed them.  I found them particularly good for breakfast as I could give him a slice of wholemeal toast and a smoothie, knowing that he'd had a fairly nutritious breakfast and was well set up for the day.  He's also a bit of a pain about eating in general (he's too busy to be much bothered about food), so on the odd occasion that he was refusing to stop playing and eat something, I could give him a carton and know that he'd at least had some fruit.  And they are really really tasty.  I should know.  I stole one.  My only request is this:  Please please please make the cartons an easier shape to put the straws in.  I couldn't do it without a struggle and getting smoothie all over the place.  Please, won't somebody think of the cack-handed.

He wasn't as keen on the fruit tubes initially.  They're basically fruit puree in a tube (like those Frube fromage frais things that you can buy, but puree), so brilliant for lunch boxes.  They're easy enough for a child over the age of 5 to open, and the puree gets sucked out of a small hole, so they're unlikely to explode.  They appealed to me because their content is more or less the same as those pouches of fruit that you can get for babies by Ella's Kitchen and Plum, but they need to be refrigerated because they're fresh.  I find this need for refrigeration reassuring.  My non scientific brain doesn't understand why those baby pouches don't need to be refrigerated if they don't contain any preservatives.  I am convinced that it is some kind of magick at work (note spelling: 'magic' = Paul Daniels and co, 'magick' = potential involvement of pixies.  I don't trust pixies).  So, yes, they need to stay in the fridge and I would assume that you'd need some sort of cooling implement to keep them fresh in a lunch box.  

Rory wasn't bothered about them (as he isn't about the baby pouches) until I discovered putting them in the freezer and turning them into ice pops.  After that, he was hanging out at the freezer door demanding them approximately every 20 minutes.  This is an excellent trick for getting fruit into your child, and as freezing them means that they don't go mouldy, I am now quite happy to have a box of them in my freezer for fruity emergencies.  I guess you could also do this with the smoothies by pouring them into ice lolly moulds.

So, there we have it.  Innocent kids products are a resounding success in this household.  Well done that company for making tasty healthy fruity things and knowing that it's the little things that make all the difference. The Domestic Disgrace household salute you.

*Be aware that they state on the packaging that the magnets are not suitable for children under 3.  I am guessing that this is a disclaimer for legal reasons as swallowing magnets can be seriously dangerous and can even cause death.  It's up to you as a parent to decide if you allow your child to have them.

**Disclaimer:  These opinions are my own.  I do not work for Innocent, nor have I been paid for my opinions.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Things To Do With Your Child #10: Bubble Pictures

Who made these 30 years ago?  (or 20 years ago, for those of you who are less decrepit than me).  I remember doing this activity at nursery when I was 3 years old and it's still as awe and wonder inspiring now as it was back in the day.

You Will Need:
Thick paper
Poster Paint (ready mixed or powdered)
Washing Up Liquid
Plastic cups

Risk Assessment:
Please ensure that your child knows the difference between blowing and sucking before attempting this activity.  And even if they do know the difference, how sure are you that they won't drink the paint and washing up liquid mixture?  Rate your certainty out of ten, then halve it and deduct 5 smug points, because we all know that complacency in parenting comes back ten fold IN YOUR FACE.

In plastic cups, mix some paint, some water and some washing up liquid.  No, I don't know how much of each you'll need.  Be serious.  Just wing it.

Place straws in cups and instruct child to blow.  No, blow.  BLOW!  BLOW, YOU SIMPLETON, NOT SUCK.  Oh for the love of Mike, have a glass of water and stop retching.

This will happen:

Then this:


Now grab your sheet of paper and plonk it on top of the bubbles.  

Congratulations; you have spawned an artistic genius.

Now continue in this vein until you start to twitch about the state of the furniture.



* If you add lots of white paint to the mix, you get pretty pastels that show up on black paper.

* You could choose colours that complement the colours scheme in your child's room and frame a couple of the pictures for their walls.  They could even bubble print directly onto a small canvas if you can trust them not to balls it up.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

30 Second Mummy Failing of the Week

Ten years ago I was a chef in a small brasserie.  I ran the kitchen and sent out three course meals of a high standard to a restaurant full of customers every night.

Yesterday I attempted to make a jelly cat for Rory.

I. Suck.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Elixir of Youth For the Embittered Old Crone in the Corner Please

I got asked for ID in Waitrose the other day.  This is possibly the most exciting thing that's happened to me in....oh....forever.  Apart from the discovery that Mr Bloom off CBeebies was on the same acting degree course as me in the year below me at Bretton Hall.  Now there's a thrill that's hard to beat.

Back to Waitrose and the ID incident.  I'd nipped into town to pick up salad and a bottle of Pinot Grigio and at the checkout I was blessed with a cashier who clearly should have gone to Specsavers.

"Can I have some ID dear?" she asked.


The joy of handing over my provisional drivers licence to prove that I am, in fact, THIRTY THREE YEARS OF AGE.  Although I doubt she actually needed to look at my date of birth after I'd scrabbled through my bag in search of it, removing tissues, toy cars, sticklebricks, handfuls of acorns and conkers and a lump of playdough and plonking them on the conveyer belt.  Nothing says "MOTHER" like a lump of playdough in your handbag.

I practically skipped home from the shops, convinced, in my head, that I could still pass for 17.  Well, 21.  Or is it 24?  I've lost track.  In my day, you were only asked for ID if you looked under 18 but there's all sorts of complex guidelines about how old you need to look now.  OK, worst case scenario is that I passed for 23.  That's ten whole years younger, which is a bit of a result. I must look like the sort of person who knows how to use an iPhone!  Or who understands how digital TV works!  This is brilliant!  More importantly, nobody has asked me for ID since I began to look visibly pregnant with Rory.  Before that it was fairly standard to be asked, but as soon as a bump appeared,  I seemed to age several years in the eyes of shop assistants.  I took to sidling up to the queue with my bottle of wine, trying to look as shifty and knocked-up-teen-crackwhore-esque as I possibly could, but nobody was buying it.  And as soon as you've got a baby in a pushchair with you, you're dismissed as a sad old mummy who needs her weekly gin fix.  Wish I'd thought of this when I was in 6th form.  Taking a toddler or two along to the off licence might have resulted in a greater hit rate of getting served.

I try to convince myself that I haven't aged much, and to be fair I have been lucky.  I don't really have wrinkles, which I put entirely down to not smoking in my youth.  I'm still thin. Ish.  Although I may not be for much longer if I continue to do a half hourly cruise of the kitchen cupboards when I'm supposed to be writing.  Nothing's sagging particularly noticably.  I even got away without wearing a bra the other day until Rory took it upon himself to yank on the tie of my halter neck dress and I had to act promptly and imaginatively with a bottle of water and a pack of Dairylea Dunkers to avoid flashing the 32Fs at the other occupants of the park. And the pregnancy fairy decided that in exchange for retching my way through 9 months, losing all the feeling in my hands, an excruciating, complicated, drawn out labour and bleeding like a stuck pig all over the delivery room floor, I could forgo the stretch marks, so on paper I'm almost a spring chicken.  I have a lot of grey hair, which I ferociously dye every month, but that's not so bad is it?

Or is it?  The truth is, you can convince yourself that you still look young until you come across actual young people.  Then you want to hide yourself away in your troll hole for the rest of your days, weeping at the unfairness of it all.  18 year old girls look absolutely nothing like 33 year old women.  They are ridiculously slim and supple, with peachy, flawless skin.  They have actual gaps between their thighs.  They wear clothes that I don't understand. (Those MC Hammer trousers; the ones that my husband delightfully refers to as 'shit catchers'.  Just...why?)  And then I found an old photo of myself in my first year of uni, and there I was, all glowy and effortlessly slender with bright eyes and glossy hair.  There's nothing like a non sleeping infant to crap all over your bright eyes and glossy hair.  Thanks son.

I had a shocker of a thought the other day:  Rory is actually closer to the age of 16 than I am.  It barely feels like any time has gone by since I was that age and kissing boys up against walls at parties as my dad pulled up in his Peugot estate to pick me up; windows down, Classic FM blaring, shovelling shame upon shame on my teenage self.  Before I know it, my treasured little boy who calls me his "best friend in wide world" and loves to snuggle up with me on the sofa and give me kisses and cuddles will be the teenage boy at the party getting off with some vapid little tart like 16 year old me.  I want to rip her (hypothetical) eyes out for corrupting my precious boy already, and she's only two years old at the moment.  There she'll be in her tiny little dress, displaying her long teenage legs, and there I'll be in a sensible car, wearing a beige anorak, honking the horn and shouting "Put her down Rory, you don't know where she's been."  I'm half way there already; our family car is a Honda Jazz and I really really like Classic FM.

I wonder how much longer I'll need to carry ID about with me.  It can't be long before I'm consigned to the dustbin of "middle aged" in the eyes of the  cashiers of Waitrose.  If they ever ask me for it again, I might save myself the time and humiliation of rummaging through my overflowing bag, drop my trousers and show them my backside, because there's no way in the fiery bowels of hell that my bum could pass for 17 years old these days.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

PRODUCT REVIEW: Ben and Betty Activities

I was so pleased to be sent a Ben & Betty demo disc to review, partly because Rory's starting to get curious about letters and words (he likes playing with words and sentences at the moment, saying words in different ways, stretching the syllables out, elongating certain phonemes etc) but also because I used to teach in primary schools, so would be able to review this resource from the point of view of a parent and that of a teacher.  Ben & Betty is an interactive learning system which allows your young child to learn concepts about phonics, numeracy, reasoning and IT skills through playing a variety of mini games on the PC and following up with printable worksheets.  The website - has plenty of other ideas for follow up activities, plus a range of toys that reinforce these concepts for sale.

The first point to note is that I liked it a lot and would recommend it to other parents and will pass on the info about it to teacher friends, but it's not quite as simple as that, so please read on. It's a long one I'm afraid, but useful thoughts, so bear with me.

Rory is a bright child.  I say that from the point of view of an early years practitioner, not as a competitive parent.  If it helps, he tends to use his rather unnerving intelligence for the purposes of mischief and showing off rather than putting it towards any great academic achievement.  Children are different and they learn different things at different rates.  Please please don't compare them and don't try to push them to do or learn anything that they are not ready for.  Just because I have been doing this with my son doesn't mean that your child should be ready, and likewise, some of the same age may have got these concepts even earlier.  He's 2 years and 3 months old, so a few months short of the 2 and a half year minimum starting age that is recommended for these activities.  I thought I'd see if he liked them, knowing that he's fairly advanced, and see what happened.  I'm not a pushy parent and not fond of formal learning at home or baby and toddler classes, preferring to let him learn through everyday experience, but it's always nice to have a starting point for phonics.  The CD came with two levels - starter level and level 1.  I had a brief look through level 1, but due to Rory's age we only tested the starter level.

It was easy to use as a parent.  Rory hopped onto my knee as I sat at the computer and I introduced him to the letter 'a' on screen.  We were able to see how it is written, and there was a handy link to click to repeat the sound (very useful for parents who may not be aware of the way that phonics is taught these days - it's important to pronounce the sounds correctly).  We then clicked through to a range of short games, all related to 'a'.  Rory easily picked up the activities which involved pressing the space bar to make something happen (he particularly liked helping the ant to eat the apple).  They seemed ridiculously simple to me, but were actually perfect for his level and  great for demonstrating the cause and effect of a computer to a toddler.  There was also a game in which you had to spot the odd one out of 4 objects (3 of which were the same).  I was amazed to find that he could do this straight away without any help, which was useful to me as I hadn't known that he possessed this level of reasoning yet.

The only activity that he found difficult was the one in which you had to spot 'a' in various words.  He tended to be able to find the letter fairly easily, but struggled to select it by pressing the space bar when the letter was highlighted, as the highlighted bar seemed to move too quickly for him to keep up.

We did the activities for 'a' every day for about 3 or 4 days, each time following up with one or two of the related worksheets.  As a teacher, I am not a fan of worksheets at all and rarely use them, but for some reason, very young children seem to like filling them in occasionally, so we gave it a go.

Hmmmmm.  One of Rory's efforts is displayed below:
Yeah, what can I say?  The child's a genius.  You can see above where I held his his hand, guiding him around the capital 'b' in the hopes that he might attempt the lower case one on his own.  Also visible are various scribbles of rage that he did when I suggested that he may like to try this.  You can also see half of a butterfly that I lovingly coloured in (God, I love colouring in) and various squiggles that Rory did that are, apparently, "froggerhoppers" (Translation: grasshoppers).  Not exactly a resounding success.

Nevertheless, we continued in this vein for about 10 days, looking at 'a', 'b' and 'c', also doing some of the follow up suggestions on the website.  I wasn't convinced that it was working.  He asked every day to do the activities and seemed to enjoy it, but no real progress seemed to be made, especially as the activities for each letter were more or less the same but with different characters.  I fretted a bit about how I was going to write the review as it wasn't doing much for us, and I worried that I may have overestimated Rory's abilities.

Then, several days into the experiment, we were drawing together.  Rory sat very quietly, concentrating intently on something.  When he'd finished, he showed me proudly.  "Look Mummy, it's an 'a'." It wasn't.  it was a particularly exquisite squiggle, but in Rory's head, it was an 'a'.  "Now I do a 'c'", he said, and produced another squiggle.

I felt so stupid.  I had broken the major rule of teaching emergent writing and tried to push him into doing something that he didn't 'own'.  He didn't want to trace around letter shapes, but he did understand the concept and wanted to produce his own version of it.  "Let me write you a letter", I said, and wrote him a little note, then gave it to him, telling him what it said.  He wrote me a reply and 'read' it to me, ascribing meaning to each squiggle.  At the end, he did a few shorter squiggles (more 'a's apparently).

Since then, we have spotted all three letters while we're out and about - street signs, number plates, clothing and books, sometimes extending to other letters. (Me: "Oh look Rory, it's a digger! Digger starts with 'd'."  Rory: "You are wrong Mummy, that is actually an excavator".  Precocious little smartarse).  I watched him watch Alphablocks on TV (CBeebies phonics programme) and saw his face change with recognition, as he began to put the letters into context.  Slowly but surely he's getting it, and I'm happy to continue at this level.

So, time for my concerns:

1. My expectations of my son were too high and not compatible with the early years philosophy.  If I (as an ex early years teacher) can make this mistake, other parents will probably make it too.  It worries me that some parents will assume that simply sitting their child down in front of this every day will teach them, but you really do need to put a lot of effort into it yourself, not just when you're doing the activities, but on bringing out the learning during other situations.

2. The activities could do with a bit more variety.  Rory got quite bored with them and he's only very young.

3. It would be handy if there was an option for the activities to be presented in the order that phonics is taught in nurseries and schools (starting with S,A,T,P,I,N).  This is not essential, but may be useful.

4. Rory wasn't the slightest bit interested in the rabbit characters.  If the characters were, say, cars or trains, it would have had him from the moment the activities flashed up on screen, but bunnies left him decidedly un-arsed about the proceedings.

5. Following on from that, although the activities are gender neutral, I definitely think that Ben and Betty would appeal more to girls.  Sitting down and doing activities and worksheets is something that girls tend to learn better from.  Not so for a lot of boys.  Sometimes I think I might  develop a brilliant way of teaching phonics and other literacy concepts to boys, but sadly for boys, so far I have been too distracted by eating Mars Bars and pottering about the house to get any further than this initial thought.

That's not to say that I didn't like Ben and Betty though.  We will probably purchase the full disc and book (£29.95 from the website) as it's working to some extent and I think it will continue to work right the way through to the time that Rory is ready to start school.  If I was still teaching, I would certainly consider having it in a nursery or reception classroom (especially as you can play it with a keyboard and mouse or on an interactive whiteboard) and also think it would be a valuable resource for SEN children in Key Stage 1.

I would recommend Ben & Betty to other parents, but only on the condition that you don't get frustrated when your child can't do what you think they should be able to manage and that you don't sit them down religiously every day to fill in worksheets for the rest of their pre-school lives.  Let them go and dig up worms or do that annoying thing where they twirl around and around until they fall over.  Let them be toddlers.  Oh, and the most important condition of all:  Don't ever use it to be competitive with other parents over what your child can do.  Just don't.  Nobody needs that sort of pressure, especially a two year old.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Memories...light the corners of my mind...

...misty watercolour memories...of the time that Mummy accidentally made jam with a maggot in it.  So the song goes (well, it does in this household anyway).

The autumn leaves made me remember my time as a teacher earlier, specifically a misty October day several years ago when I took my class out of school and down the road to the local park. It was cold outside and we all wore our scarves and gloves and formed a crocodile; me at the front holding a small gloved hand in mine, the rest of the class snaking behind, puffing little clouds of steam like baby dragons.  Once in the park, we stopped still and listened to the sounds around us: birds in the trees, leaves scrunching, wind rustling the branches.  A bonfire was burning some distance away, bringing with it the particularly autumnal smell of burning wood and leaves.  We hunted for special leaves - the biggest and brightest ones we could find on the grass, and put them in a carrier bag for later, then played on the swings and the climbing frame just because.  Afterwards, we snaked back to school and sat down with mugs of hot chocolate to write ideas down for autumn poetry.  Later that week, we wrote our poems on the pressed leaves that we'd gathered and suspended them from the ceiling.  As we walked back from the park that day, the child at the front of the crocodile asked me if I had any children.  I laughed.  "No - I've got you lot.  25 children are enough for me, than you very much."  "That's a shame," he said.  "I wish you were my mum.  You do the best things."


It's sort of true though.  I loved teaching - all aspects of it, but the bit that appealed to me more than anything else was the ability to create childhood memories for the children in my class.  We did our fair share of normal classroom stuff, but I always tried to throw in something special occasionally.  We squidged through mud with our shoes off when it had rained, looking for worms.  We wrote on unpeeled bananas with biros during handwriting lessons (try it).  Whenever it snowed we all stopped what we were doing immediately and ran to press our noses against the windows to watch and speculate about the possibility of it settling on the ground properly.  Every December, Sinterklaas visited my classroom and filled the PE shoes with chocolate coins, lit a candle and left a trail of glitter.  I fulfilled my job of instilling my classes with knowledge, but I also tried to ensure that even the children who didn't have much of a home life would have something to look back on and smile about when they grew up.

I was definitely better at being a teacher than I am at being a mother.

My own childhood memories seem to kick in at the age of two, starting with a memory of my 2nd birthday party and my birthday cake - rectangular and pink, scalloped with white icing, my name written on the top, flaked almonds pressed around the sides (no such thing as nut allergies in 1980).  It had apricot jam in the middle (which I did not like) but the sponge was light and fluffy and the icing was just the right sort to stick to your teeth.  What follows after that is a jumble of images: Coming home from nursery school to the scent of freshly baked bread, the smell of damp earth as I helped my Dad dig in the garden with my wellies on the wrong feet,  ironing with my mum in the kitchen - her with the steam iron, me with my toy iron and board, the smell of starch in the air, both singing a song about ironing which, to this day, I am not sure is a real song or just something that she made up.

Rory was 2 in June, so I know that he may well remember things that happened from that day onwards when he's older.  This worries me.

I sweated blood to make him a chocolate hedgehog cake for his 2nd birthday (you know the sort - studded with chocolate buttons to look like prickles).  I presented it to him ceremoniously a couple of hours before his birthday party.  "Oh, very lovely pinecone" he said, crushing my cake decorating self esteem and ensuring that his enduring memory of his 2nd birthday will that Mummy made him a cake in the shape of something that falls off of trees into the drain outside our house.

There is, of course, the memory of Mummy making jam with a maggot in it.  And the recollection of when I sat on his cheese spread sandwich due to his sneaky slight of hand and he laughed so much that he wet himself.  There is the time that he fell down the toilet because I was plucking my eyebrows in the bathroom mirror and wasn't paying attention.  And the time we threw cake at each other for an hour in a field.  And the time that Daddy had an actual panic attack because a jelly had upended in the fridge before it set a few days previously and I'd forgotten to clean it up (in my defence, I did clean up the jelly that went on the floor. I just forgot about the fridge at the time, and anyway, it gave it a pleasing raspberry fragrance which masked the smell of the rotting cucumber at the back.  You say 'almighty mess', I say 'novel fridge deodoriser').  It's hardly the stuff of childhood dreams is it?

So, I am setting myself a task.  This week, I am on a mission to make memories and will report back at the end of the week.  If you have any ideas, please leave a comment below.  They must all be memories that can be made without the use of a car and with as little money as possible as I have about £3.00 to my name. (ie no going to the zoo - you need a bank loan to do that these days).  I don't think this morning's disastrous trip to Storytime at the local library counts somehow.  ("This story is TOO RUBBISH for me", said Rory to the librarian running the session.  "Please be quiet."  The shame.)

Pinecone, my arse.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

An Absence of Pants

Years ago, during my first year as a teacher, there was an ongoing problem in my classroom: A pair of homing pants.  Like a tenacious pigeon, the same pair of age 7 Leeds United briefs kept appearing and reappearing in various places around the room.  I first located them at the end of a PE lesson after everyone had got changed, perching jauntily on the back an abandoned chair, grey from too many washes and to put this?...soiled.

I picked them up with a pencil and waved them in the air like a flag.

"Who is minus a pair of pants?" I asked.


"Anyone accidentally take their pants off when they were getting changed and forget to put them back on again?"


*sigh* "Right, everybody check to see if they've got their pants on."

*flurry of pant checking related activity and much sniggering*


"One pair of Leeds pants, age 7, must belong to somebody," I called, whirling them around my head.

"Eurghhh, they're not mine!"

"Leeds are the scum!"

"They've got someone's bum juice on them."

"Last call for a pair of Leeds pants, going in the bin in five...four...three...two....ONE."

The pants hit the bin.  The episode was over.

Or so I thought, until a few days later when they reappeared on my desk.

"Seriously now, whose are these pants?" I asked, and the class collapsed into fits of giggles, which was fair enough; pants are funny.

Again, they ended up in the bin.  Throughout the rest of the school year, to the delight of all in the classroom, the persistent keks turned up in my desk drawer, in various PE kits ("EEEK!  Miss Hale!  Those skiddy pants are in my PE bag"), wedged behind the pipes of the  class toilet, on the book shelf hidden behind "Sharks and Other Creatures of the Deep" ("ARGHHHHHH! MISS HALE!  I touched them!  I've got PANT FLEAS" and brazenly sellotaped to the window.  They took on the status of a legend within the class.  Rumours sprang up that they were haunted.  One child swore that they glowed in the dark.  Nobody ever claimed them, and no matter how much I tried to bury them in the bin, they just kept on reappearing.  I never found out who was doing it although I suspect a colleague or a child in the class who had a particularly malevolent sense of humour.  I finally got rid of them for good on the last day of summer term, although I half expected to receive them as a leaving present when I moved away a year later.  Happily, I did not.

In this household, we seem to have the opposite of homing pants.  We have a distinct absence of pants.  Rory's pants, to be precise.

We potty trained him several months back and purchased two multi packs of underpants; some with pirates on ("ARRRR") and some featuring the beaming faces of Thomas the Tank Engine and his pestilential mates.  We definitely started off with fourteen pairs of pants.  We're now down to four.  I discovered this a few days ago.  One pair was in the wash, one pair was in his drawer where they were supposed to be, much rummaging about uncovered a stripy pair lurking at the bottom of his toy car box and an inspired moment of motherly intuition resulted in the discovery of the Percy the Green Engine ones stuffed into a Russian doll.  The rest were nowhere to be found, and, knowing Rory as I do, I looked everywhere, even in the freezer.  Especially in the freezer.

"Where have all your pants gone Rory?" I asked.

"Oh, I just don't know Mummy" came the innocent reply.  "Maybe perhaps in the washing machine."

They were not in the washing machine.  

I pondered this for a couple of days on my own, not wishing to drag Richard into the trivial domestic thoughts of a mother who is clearly Losing It, but eventually I gave in and asked if he'd seen any rogue pants anywhere.

"Oh," he said, "I caught Rory throwing a pair in the bin last week after he took them off."

"Rory", I asked, "have you been throwing your pants in the bin?"

"Yes, pants in bin.  Very stinky indeed", he replied.

So that solves that.  Ever since he was a tiny baby, we've thrown urine soaked nappies straight into the kitchen bin after removing them (go on, judge me.  I'm sure I should have been wrapping them in little scented bags with odour neutraliser and anti bacterial what-have-yous inside them and throwing them in the dustbin.  If it makes you feel better, we always put poo nappies in plastic bags and put them in the wheelie bin, although admittedly we usually left them festering on the doorstep for a few days because the bin was an entire 5 metre walk away, probably delighting the milkman and all other doorstep dwellers in the process).  He was just copying what we'd always done.  Slack parenting comes back and bites me on the arse yet again.

Tomorrow we will purchase another multi pack of age 2-3 pants, all of which we will not lose.  I'm considering getting some Leeds United ones.  They seem adept at coming back and biting you on the arse too