storytime sounds – a review

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Although I know the value of imaginative storytelling, I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t come naturally when I’m with my kids – so I jumped at the chance to review this new, free app from notonthehighstreet.com. Launched in the summer, ‘Storytime Sounds’ aims to “bring an extra element of fun to story time for families with kids aged 3-7”. It’s designed for iPhone, but works equally well on iPad. The app was launched with five story themes (Pirates, Lost World, Fairytales, Space and Monsters), but a new Halloween theme was added recently.

I was interested to see whether the app helped me become more imaginative with storytelling, and also to see how my 3-year-old and 5-year-old engaged with it differently. Whilst we don’t own an iProduct ourselves, our kids love playing with Nanny’s iPad whenever we see her, and we’re not always sure that what they’re doing is particularly educational. I was keen to download something which could lead to more creative interaction on the iPad, something which we could enjoy together as a family – rather than the more isolating batch of individualistic games our kids often play on it.

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Firstly, did this app help me to make up stories with my children? Yes, it did. I was slow at first, but soon got the hang. Each theme contains nine sounds – enough for a decent story, not so many to become perplexing – and are wide-ranging enough to allow for a variety of characters and situations. They are also – this is important for a music teacher – decent sounds. Not bad at all for a free app. A small but important feature is that the sounds can be used simultaneously – so, for example, you can simulate the sound of not one but three witches cackling. You can have galloping horses and a fanfare. Again, with my music teacher’s hat on, this creates some very interesting textures within a story’s soundscape: moving from quiet, sparse sounds to busy, dense bustles of noise as the action develops. Some sounds were more of a struggle than others to get into a story (air lock, anyone?), but this is a minor niggle.

Secondly, how did our children use it differently? The three-year-old enjoyed sitting and listening to Mummy’s made-up stories (less discerning than the five-year-old perhaps?), and enjoyed joining in by pressing the sounds that I pointed to. The five-year-old started to make up his own stories – not long, not particularly coherent, but that’s not really the point is it? Both children also enjoyed simply playing with the sounds, experimenting, without the need for a story.

And thirdly – does this app have the potential to engage our whole family as we use the iPad together? I think it does, yes. We will be able to tell new stories, developing them and lengthening them as appropriate for our growing kids. Of course they will become more proficient at telling us stories, too. And I expect we’ll also be able to use the sounds to tell familiar stories, those from books or films.

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Those who designed the app were particularly keen to know how we enjoyed the Halloween sounds. Those of you who know me, or have read enough of this blog, will know that we don’t celebrate the darker side of Halloween in our family (and yes, there is a light side: more to come later this week!), but I have to say that I found the Halloween sounds imaginative and well-chosen, and certainly wasn’t uncomfortable using them to tell my children a ‘scary’ story. It verged on the darker side of a fairy tale, that was all. So thumbs up to the Halloween sounds, too.

I would love to see an Android version for those of us who haven’t yet sold our souls to Apple. It would also be brilliant to be able to mix and match sounds from different story themes, to further the weird and wonderful possibilities! Altogether, a great free app: why not download it now? (And, when you’ve done so, those helpful peeps at notonthehighstreet.com have even written a short story to start off your own storytelling – if you’re as hopeless a storyteller as I am, why not have a read?)

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things i have learnt since sending my son to a school in special measures

This post, explaining why we were confident about sending our son to a school in special measures, provoked a big response this summer. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, why not have a look now? It will make more sense of the following!

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So we’re already half a term in to our son’s school career. Forget what he’s learnt – I feel like I’ve been on a hugely steep learning curve since term began. And already God has graciously affirmed the decision He led us to make regarding our son’s schooling – time and time again. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed. (Please forgive any unintended arrogance/offence/political incorrectness caused by the words I use, and instead remember that I come from a position of naivety, having been in a pretty middle-class bubble my whole life.)

Those from tougher backgrounds are often more open than those from more advantaged backgrounds. We who have been lucky enough to have more advantages in life do feel the need for a facade, don’t we? All through life – whether on UCAS forms, CVs, in job interviews, on dates, and in social situations – we learn (indeed, we’re conditioned) to hide our flaws and promote our positives. This term, I’ve had people I hardly know share pretty deep and personal things with me during a brief exchange in the playground. I’ve had to learn how to hide my shock at what I may have been told, and replace with sympathetic nods and words. There is no facade, no pretending that life is OK when it’s not. I find it refreshing. I’m learning how to be open about my weaknesses, my mess, my falling apart. As new friends start to enter my home, I’m remembering that mess and dirt are OK – they’re the reassurance that I don’t have it all sorted. And hospitality (search the blog for more on this!) is the ultimate display of our vulnerabilities.

I’m suddenly embarrassed by all the Stuff. Exacerbated by the onslaught of new Stuff from the kids’ birthdays, I’m seeing afresh just how much we have – not just the quantity, which we try and keep on top of, but the quality. I’ve never been one for designer brands, and mainly buy my clothes from charity shops, but walking through the playground in my Hunter wellies while my kids ride their expensive scooters does make me realise how privileged we are. I wouldn’t go back to leaky wellies, or heavy, hard-to-manoeuvre scooters – but where do I find a sensible balance?

Difference doesn’t matter – integrity does. There is no shying away from it: I look different to a lot of the other parents. On weekdays the ones who look like me trundle past our house to take their offspring to the More Middle Class School Down The Road. But perhaps I’m not so different to the other mums I’m meeting after all. I’m not going to dress differently, disguise my non-local accent or pretend I don’t live in the huge house opposite the school (although I will remind people, ad nauseum, that we don’t pay for it, it comes with the job). To do any of this would be ingenuine – it would be an insult to those I’m meeting, as if I were saying to them You couldn’t possibly want to be friends with someone like me. How arrogant and patronising. If I’m open to getting to know other mums, then they will want to get to know me too. We will find there’s more in common than we thought.

A simple greeting breaks the ice. I’ll be honest: there have been times when I’ve stood in the playground and felt like some weird social experiment – a misfit, an oddity. What am I doing here? I imagine the worst of those standing next to me: they’re looking at me weirdly, I’ve offended them, they hate me. If I’m brave enough to be the first to smile, the first to say hello, then I discover no such thing. In fact – perhaps they were thinking the same about me? We break the ice, we connect.

I can refer to Al as ‘my husband’, and not as ‘the kids’ dad’. This is actually a Thing. Our kids are so lucky to have an amazing dad who lives with them and is fully invested in every part of their lives. End of.

I bet your kids have been learning loads at school this half term – but what have you learnt? Do share your thoughts…I’d love to hear them 🙂

35th ‘breakfast-themed’ birthday party

Hubby turned 35 the other day. Seeing how this is halfway to 70 (of which he bizarrely keeps reminding me) and therefore very important, we decided to engage in a bit of celebrating. I let him choose the theme, and he chose a nice, streamlined theme of ‘breakfast’.

After being pounced on by our children at whatever o’clock in the morning, we headed down the stairs for an exciting treat awaiting us in the dining room. (Last night’s dishes, to clear away before festivities could begin.) We enjoyed a small amount of party food – I think Missy had rice crispies, and I went for toast. We sat on real dining chairs. There were some cards and presents, which hubby quickly got stuck into opening. Presents from the kids were going to be a day late because, you know, I hadn’t had that much warning about hubby’s birthday popping up on the exact same day as it does each year.

There were no games, because I felt that, to stay true to theme of ‘breakfast’, and seeing as we don’t usually play games at breakfast, there should be no games.

There was no music, because – again – we don’t usually have music at breakfast, so why break the theme?

We did a little open-ended craft activity. I gave each party-goer a drink, and let them get creative. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of a success – only Missy really engaged with this, and made a lovely milky pattern all over the tablecloth and floor.

We did, however, have decorations. A couple of limp balloons left over from Joel’s birthday, a nearly-dead orchid on the sideboard, and some mess on the floor.

I could have made a card, but ran out of time. Ditto cake.

There were no photos, as we wanted to savour the special moments being created by this wonderful family time together. Why live life through a lens, right?

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Can you guess that, by October, I’m partied out?? Apologies Desert Dad, I’ll make it up to you at Christmas.

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(With thanks to the wonderful Marilyn and Derek, who prompted this post.)

 

peter rabbit 5th birthday party

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Each year, my kids get to choose their party theme. So far, this has resulted in much more interesting and quirky ideas than I could have thought of. Usually I hit Google with the themes they’ve chosen, and a variety of supermum blogs come up trumps and give me the ideas I need. But this year, Mr Internet was not my friend. Type in ‘Peter Rabbit party’, and you get baby showers, christening parties, and 1st birthdays. You even get Prince George’s 1st birthday celebration, which is a delight to read about, but not very helpful in this instance. A baby’s birthday is all about the cuteness – the decor, the food and the cake. A boy’s 5th birthday party is all about activity: lots of running around and games and getting messy. So, my challenge: create a Peter Rabbit-themed party perfect for a 5 year old boy and his friends. It’s such a wonderful theme, with lots of endearing characters as well as dark moments – surely it should lend itself well to a morning’s worth of fun activities?

(Advance apology: I’m very sorry for the poor quality of these photos. I’ve been having camera issues. I may enjoy organising parties, but I sure as heck can’t do anything else – like get a camera fixed – at the same time. Hopefully you’ll get enough of an idea.)

We kept the decorations simple: white, blue and gold/brown balloons, to represent Peter Rabbit’s colours, and some garden tools at the entrance. I dressed as Mrs Rabbit:

Al as Mr McGregor:

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and our fantastically thespy friend Sam as the Naughty Fox:

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Like Missy’s party, we held this one in our church hall, not our home – so there had to be some open-ended activities that the children could get stuck into when the games weren’t happening, in the absence of any of our toys. It was good to have a variety of options, as small children are quite often very determined about what they Will and Won’t do. So there was a craft table, where the kids could make rabbit ears or fox masks:

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There was a digging trough, full of carrots, radishes and onions to find:

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There was an area in which to build as tall a tower as possible out of flower pots:

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And, because it’s always more fun to make something you can eat than something you can’t, there was a biscuit decorating table:

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The biscuits were gingerbread rabbits, baked by me and Missy a couple of days previously. Because there is always a huge amount to do in the evenings, after the kids go to bed, I love it when I can not only tick off a job during the day, but turn it into a fun daytime activity to do with one or both kids 🙂

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I also set up a little ‘chill-out burrow’ with Peter Rabbit themed toys and books – this was mainly for the younger siblings of Mister’s friends, but it’s always good to have an option for kids who are just getting a little overwhelmed by ‘activity’.

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Of course you think through all these ideas in advance, but it’s impossible to tell what will actually work until the day itself. Given this, I was really pleased that all the activities seemed to go down well – particularly the biscuit decorating and vegetable digging. There was also plenty of putting fox masks on and running round the room roaring at each other! (Whoever knew that foxes roared?!) It was so lovely to see Mister reunite with lots of friends he hadn’t seen since the summer, all considerably more grown-up after a few weeks at school.

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Games-wise, we had five: Pass the Parcel (obviously!), Mr McGregor’s Footsteps (like Grandmother’s Footsteps!), a wheelbarrow relay in teams:

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Pin the tail on Peter Rabbit (using cotton wool tails, of course!):

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and a vegetable hunt in teams. I printed out three each of ten different vegetables onto card, cut them up and hid them round the room.

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The kids had to find them in teams – with the added challenge of not being allowed to collect more than one of each type of veg. This ensured that it wasn’t simply the fastest/strongest child who got to do all the hunting and finding!

Once the games were done, we brought out the cake, for the sake of some friends who had to leave early. It was my first attempt at sugarpaste, and I was fairly pleased – PR looks a little fat, but he’s recognisable, right?!

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The Peter Rabbit sugarpaste success made me want to sugarpaste all the veg, but I decided they’d look more enticing made out of sweets, so that’s what I did. (We are very blessed with sweet shops here.) They may look less accurate, but they were a heck of a lot more yum to eat 🙂

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Then lunch. Very standard party food – but served in plant pots, of course. If my favourite restaurants can serve food in plant pots, why can’t I?

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I cut the sandwiches into rabbit shapes – because if you’d invested 79p in a rabbit cutter for gingerbread rabbits, you’d want to get the most out of it too, right?

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The table was laid simply – pale blue gingham tablecloth and napkins from Asda, blue cups from Poundland, and Peter Rabbit plates from an online supplier.

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As the children left, sugar-happy and Peter Rabbitted-out, they each got to pull a ‘carrot’ from a tub of soil.

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These were cone-shaped gift bags, lined with tissue paper to look like carrots, and containing a few little treats:

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Mister loved the party, and had a great time seeing friends and playing silly games with them. His chosen theme didn’t disappoint…although he’s already started thinking of the theme for next year!

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how to be a great school mum – from a teacher

Well, the new school year is definitely underway (can you believe it’s nearly half term??) and I, particularly, am loving being on the other side of education for the first time. Prior to having my kids, I was a teacher – but a teacher without her own kids. Now I’m enjoying being a parent who’s also a teacher. Maybe one day I’ll go back to my first career and be a teacher who’s also a parent. Suffice to say there are advantages in seeing the other perspective – so that’s why I wanted to write this blog post: to encourage all you parents (especially those, like me, whose eldest has just started school) to be a blessing to your children’s schools. The title says ‘mum’ but really this is for dads as well – it just had a better ring with ‘mum’ than ‘parent’. Forgiven? Great, let’s move on.

Be a grateful parentWant to know what your child’s teacher does for them? They know exactly where your child’s strengths lie, and, as you read this, are probably constructing ways of moving them on to further learning. They know where your child struggles, and will sit patiently with them for however long it takes, giving them one-to-one time whilst the rest of the class get on with an activity the teacher set especially so that they could give your child some individual time. They know how your child is doing in each of the curriculum areas, where they were last week, where they should be next week, and how to get them there. They know your child’s interests, hobbies and quirks. They teach your child phonics via flashcards, building towers, or jumping in the sand pit – because they know how best to get through to your child. Amazingly, at the end of this year, your child will do all sorts of crazy clever things that you tried in vain to teach them over the last four years – because their teacher is flippin’ awesome at knowing how to get your child on board. And then multiply this by 30, because they do all this for every single child in their class.

So – be grateful. Thank them. Regularly. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Just say thank you. If you can, write a card every so often – at half term, perhaps – to tell them you’re grateful for what they do. Yes they get paid, but with what they do in evenings, weekends and holidays, I work it out to be around 24p an hour – and it’s always nice when people thank you. Make a point of doing this – write a reminder in your phone, week commencing 20th October. I don’t care how you remember – just remember. It might be in our heads that we’re grateful – but teachers, however fab they are, are not mind-readers. Get what you’re thinking out on paper.

Be an encouraging parent. When your teacher – or the school – does something great, tell them. Drop an email. Mention it verbally. Teachers – and especially senior management – get a lot of flack. Brighten up their inbox – your email may be the only positive one they receive that hour, that day, that week. I went to assembly at my son’s school the other week. It was so positive, so affirming, so celebratory, and I loved how the children were rooting for each other, clearly pleased with each other’s success. I spent two minutes writing a quick email to the head – and, whilst I wasn’t expecting her to reply, got a lovely email in return. Who wouldn’t want to open up an encouraging email first thing on a Monday morning?

Don’t complain before you’ve praised. Teachers, particularly primary teachers, get to know you quicker than you think. Establish yourself as a Good Parent to have around. Make sure the teachers know you’re supportive. Being grateful and encouraging will definitely help to establish your ‘parent persona’ around the staff room. If you ever need to complain about some aspect of school life (although read below for how to do that!), at least the staff won’t be rolling their eyes when they read your letter or listen to your phone message. Honestly, when I was teaching, there were some parents who we just couldn’t take seriously because they were always being so negative – you start to become deaf to it. The school will take your concerns a lot more seriously if they know you’re generally supportive.

Sometimes you will have to apologise for your child. When I was a childless teacher, I couldn’t understand why so few parents ever seemed apologetic about their child’s effort/attendance/punctuality/behaviour/whatever. Now I’m a parent, I get it. For 4+ years, you’ve defended your child, protected them from the world, cushioned them from pain and spoken up for them when they couldn’t speak for themselves. You’ve learned to put your child first above all else, even to the point of embarrassing yourself for their benefit. Quite rightly, you’ve learned how to ignore the critics and stand up for your child’s needs, whether that was breastfeeding in public or standing up to another child’s parent when that child hit yours in a toddler group. Now, however, your child is going it alone. They don’t have you by their side, and they won’t always make the right decision. Sometimes they will make a mistake by accident, unintentionally. Teach them that we apologise to others even when we didn’t mean to hurt them or disobey them. Sometimes, they will make a mistake deliberately. This does not mean that your child is a horrible person. Quite the contrary: reassuringly, it means that your child is human. Apologising for them, or getting them to apologise (whichever is appropriate), is not losing faith in your child, yourself, or your ability to parent. Don’t be defensive about it. Just know that this is part of the process of letting your child go into the world and make their own mistakes. Teach them that mistakes have to be sorted out, and an apology is the best place to start.

When things go wrong – think carefully. Do you have a genuine concern? Is something worrying you? Don’t storm into school or write an angry letter. Give the situation a little while to settle – this might be a day, a few days, a week or a couple of weeks, depending on how urgently you feel it needs to be sorted out. But don’t attempt to try and sort it when you’re feeling emotional. When you feel calm enough to approach your child’s teacher, first of all give them the benefit of the doubt. The story your child has told you may not be the whole story – don’t assume it is. Again, when teaching, I was surprised at the number of parents who would believe their child’s version of events before even asking us what had happened. If, as you talk, you realise that the situation is just as you thought, then make your point firmly but kindly – remembering that the teacher is a human being too, possibly a parent just like you. How would you want to be spoken to? If the situation is not resolved, seek the perspective of others that you trust – fellow parents, friends who are teachers – before approaching the senior management or head.

Above all, aim for a good relationship with your child’s teacher. The success of a child’s education is largely dependent on the relationship between school and parents. Give your child the best possible start, and be a great parent to have around.

celebrating five

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Last week, Mister turned five. We celebrated with our usual traditions – measuring him on his height chart (3cm in the last 6 months, for those of you who keep track of such things), eating cake for breakfast, a homemade card from us (featuring a poem co-written by me and Desert Dad), and – Mister’s choice – a drink and a bit of cake at our favourite Bistro Guy after school. There was also a helium Spiderman balloon because, well, five.

Unknowingly, I have started a tradition of blogging about my children’s birthdays. The other day I thought how nice it would be, on my children’s 18th birthdays, to print out all of these birthday blogs and compile them into a little book, so that each of them could read what I was thinking on all their age milestones.

But, you know, I don’t always feel particularly deep or insightful during birthday month. Just because the children have gone up a digit doesn’t mean I’m suddenly struck by a philosophical muse. I just keep looking at Mister, running and climbing and drawing and writing, and in his school uniform, and all I can think is…“They handed me this big red baby – and I loved him instantly, and couldn’t stop gasping and wow-ing and laughing at the incredible fact of this tiny person, who had needed to live inside me for nine months, now being able to survive outside of me – and that was approximately five minutes ago – and now he’s a boy“. And that doesn’t seem very insightful.

It’s true that my big red baby is now definitely a five-year-old. In the last year, he has mastered the monkey bars, developed an interest in Lego and superheroes, learnt how to draw and colour accurately, started reading short words, enjoyed longer books read by me and Desert Dad, made new friends at his new school, and taken part in a range of activities without us.

If, on 30 September 2009, I was amazed at how independent this little baby now was, by being able to survive outside the womb, I never cease to be amazed by each stage of independence Mister gets to. The same boy who screamed when I left the room three years ago now leaves us happily to go to school – and even wants to go when it’s a day off. (Hmmm, maybe this says more about how boring mummy is to spend time with…)

So – nothing deep, nothing insightful. A bit like the day-to-day of parenting really – you’re aware you’re doing something pretty important, in the scheme of things, but actually it doesn’t feel very important from day to day. This post mirrors that. Nothing big to say – just that I love my boy very much, and am so grateful to have him.

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