Monthly Archives: July 2011

Outdoor Painting

Reading this post on Putti Prapancha reminded me that I set up something similar with MG and DG a few weeks back – and it’s about time I posted about the children on this blog!

For a change, I managed to set up whilst MG and DG were amusing themselves elsewhere (usually they help). Firstly I laid out three long strips of easel roll paper, weighted them down with bricks due to the wind and took the tops off a set of six watercolour tubes (from Poundland). I managed to choose a fairly dull and windy day (British summer!) which meant I had to use a few bricks to keep the paper from flying off.

Once the girls had started, it became apparent that two strips of paper were more than enough, so I removed one. I tried not to influence their painting but they worked out to use their feet and hands fairly quickly!

Later water became involved, to spread the thick paint around more (and mix all the colours). Most of the colours other than black had been used up at this point.

Later still sand became involved, being scattered over the wet patches of the paper – and the water and paint were added to sand on the patio too! Once the paint ran out, I whisked the girls into the bath and hung up the painted strips to dry – the wetness of the paper caused it to tear in places but the wind dried it quickly.

The end result isn’t pretty, but the girls had a great time painting (and then playing in the bath). Next time I think I’ll limit the colours available for them and probably offer acrylic paints instead of watercolour tubes to get a better spread of colours.

On Schooling

It is difficult to be unbiased. I was good at exams, so school wasn’t a problem for me, and I was lucky I was never bullied considering my personality but looking back I can’t see what I really learned from the schooling I was forced through. I knew most things from primary school from having older siblings – I have memories of lessons where I’d be whispering answers into a friend’s ear (I never spoke at primary school) because I knew it. At secondary school I was good at what I liked and rubbish at what I didn’t like because I didn’t work hard, I wasn’t interested. I was good at swotting up for exams and passing things. I have done loads of complex subjects at degree level at both bricks and mortar university and Open University and I can’t remember any of it – looking back at old work is like reading something in an ancient lost language. So, in retrospect, schooling was fairly pointless and irrelevant to my life. Anything I have been interested in I’ve read up on, “played” with and learnt because I wanted to. I needn’t have ever finished my degree with OU other than feeling I needed to prove I am degree educated, as I got through my working life from what I knew and not from what I learnt once and forgot.

So yes, I am biased. In retrospect, and only after reading several books that got me to re-examine my education experience. My views on schooling are coloured by the writings of John Holt; John Taylor Gatto; Maria Montessori (although I need to read her actual works rather than interpretations of it); books on Home Ed; my local Home Ed community; TED talks from Sugata Mitra, Gever Tulley and others; I’m starting to read Alfie Kohn, Margaret Donaldson, Ivan Illich; blogs of Montessori home educators (mostly US); blogs from UK home edders; Home Ed and Montessori mail groups… I read to my interest, and my interest is away from the mass schooling system.

So, I do feel, given my feelings on schooling and my realisation that actually I didn’t get much out of it either that I should choose an alternative for my girls, that I should give them different opportunities to become the best adults they can be. Everyone is different, and I don’t believe that people who send their children to school are wrong or not giving their children a good education or are not engaged parents who have thought through the options and are giving their children the best education. But for me, I just have this niggling feeling that school isn’t the right place.

But MG talks about school all the time, she’s so excited about going, she wants to be at school. She definitely doesn’t get that from me! So, if I “follow the child” which is my ultimate aim (I’m not there yet, I try…) then school it is, because that’s her choice. And I remind myself that I am an engaged parent, I am an interested parent, I will have more time with her when she’s at school and I’m not working than I did with three days a week at nursery, all year round. Not to mention how lucky we are to live where we live, with the primary school that we have… So I shall just have my doubts and niggles, which I have to keep quiet around MG and DG, and just be the best parent I can be.

Montessori Madness! again!

Lori from Montessori MOMents blog is offering the Montessori Madness! book by Trevor Eissler in a giveaway. The rest of her blog is well worth reading too! Click here for a direct link to the giveaway.

See my previous post on why this book is worth buying. And because it’s so fab, here’s the video again:

Bigjigs Wooden Roadway

Wooden railway sets are fantastic – there are so many different shaped track pieces, practically all the different brands are compatible with each other and there are accessories to fit every budget – from stations and engine sheds to shipping docks and cement works. Plus all the engines and rolling stock. The main brands are Brio, Thomas Wooden RailwayPlan City and Bigjigs. Brio is great for the serious train fan with a selection of famous trains and great quality sets. Thomas fans have all the Thomas trains to choose from with Thomas Wooden Railway, although I’m not as keen on the Thomas track as it doesn’t connect as well with other brands. Plan City is the most expensive but is beautiful. Bigjigs is the budget range but, comparing cost and quality, it’s also the best value for money.

As well as railway, Plan City has wooden roadway which adds to the play as you can then connect parking garages, petrol stations, airports… You don’t need roadway but the Plan City vehicles are so nice they deserve their own road 😉 There are more serious arguments for roadway: increasing the complexity of a rail/road system gives greater problem solving skills and the varied interest keeps them being played with. I had bought some Plan City roadway for MG and DG, so I was really pleased to see Bigjigs had bought out a range so there is more scope for expanding our existing pieces. I must have missed Brio’s roadway range being released, so I can only assume it’s fairly new too but I love that there is now roadway from three of the major wooden railway brands.

I’m not a huge fan of ‘sets’ when it comes to wooden railways. I feel that it’s nicer to be able to pick and choose pieces to build up the railway, which is why I haven’t mentioned any of the high street store brands when it comes to wooden railways. On the whole, they seem to offer a ‘small’ set and a ‘big’ set and nothing else. With Brio, Bigjigs, Plan City and Thomas Wooden Railway there are a huge selection of track pieces, rolling stock, buildings and accessories to slowly build up a unique and tailor-made set that suits your own children’s preferences (and your budget).

My favourite online toyshop, Play Merrily, very kindly sent me the Level Crossing Set to test for compatibility with Plan City roadway. Looking online, Bigjigs roadway looks like it has been designed to be most compatible with Brio roadway – both have white centre markings and slightly raised edges; whereas Plan City roadway has grey centre markings and slightly depressed edges.

Brio on left; Bigjigs on right:

Plan City compatibility (Bigjigs on right; Plan City on left):

The Bigjigs roadway is slightly wider than Plan City and there are the differences in colour marking and edge but otherwise they fit together well and the differences will make no difference to play value – besides, in the real world, roads do vary 😆


Review of the Bigjigs Level Crossing Set: I am so glad I was sent this set, I’d wanted to get MG and DG a level crossing for their train/road but the cost of the Plan City one had put it on hold (approx £12 + p&p) The Bigjigs level crossing has more play value because the gates not only stop the road traffic, they can be pushed ninety degrees to stop the trains instead. All this for under £5 (+ p&p). If you have no other roadway, it’s worth getting this version of the level crossing because it includes ramps so road play can move onto the carpet if prefered but then there’s the option to add roadway in the future (and it’s the same price as the railway level crossing).

I will definitely buy more Bigjigs roadway, in fact I plan to get the Zebra Crossing Set next. Not only does it look fun to add to the girls’ existing pieces but I can sneak some roadsense education in whilst they’re playing. Even without any other items of roadway this looks like a great set to talk through road crossing scenarios with small children.

Montessori Madness!

I first read about Montessori before I had any children or had started planning to have children and was ‘sold’ on the philosophy from the start. The more I read, the more involved in Montessori education I want to be.

Last week, I saw this video for the first time:

Ever since, I’ve wanted to share it with everyone I bump into. Trevor Eissler’s book, Montessori Madness is being offered in a worldwide giveaway by the fantastic Montessori Print Shop (load of info on their blog and site on use of Montessori principles, as well as printables that reduce the cost of buying materials that aren’t needed in a home environment). If the contents are anything like the video, it looks like a book I’ll be gently lending to all the parents I know (after I’ve devoured it myself) 😉

To enter their giveaway, click here.

My answer to the question Why is the best product in the world (Montessori Education) so poorly and timidly marketed? How can we change this? is: I think one of the problems is that anyone can use the word ‘Montessori’ without really knowing what it represents. When I told other parents that I was thinking of home educating using Montessori philosophy, many of the comments were along the lines that it’s very prescriptive (certain materials used in certain ways) or that Montessori ‘hated imaginative play’ or that it’s just for pre-schoolers. In the UK, we have an early years framework that requires play based learning until age 6 with children free to choose activities, so those parents who are aware of Montessori also think this is ‘the same’ as Montessori. Montessori schooling is considered an elite choice, so many don’t even think to look into it – and that’s from the small sub-set of parents who look into any alternative to State education for their children.

It seems strange that Montessori education should be such a ‘hard sell’ but I think sadly it is to do with cases where the word ‘Montessori’ has just been added to a school run by people with only a vague idea of what the philosophy is about. It seems like the connection between MMR and autism – there’s no link but people think it’s there because of media exposure; Montessori and hot-housing seem to be linked inextricably in people’s minds. The solution? I have no idea, but I think Trevor Eissler’s video is a very good step in giving the world a bite-sized introduction to what Education could be like.

But on thinking more, I wish I’d added that parents need to be made more aware of alternatives to state education, and that alternatives are not ‘hippy’ or ‘out there’ or just being alternate for the sake of it. How much media coverage is there on “X% of school/college leavers can’t <insert basic skill here>”? I don’t think the media is helping anything but instead of blaming schools, teachers,  parents, ‘the youth of today’ maybe more debate on the value of testing, tables, standardisation etc should be in the mainstream so that there are a variety of educational choices?

Quadrilla Wooden Marble Run Melody Basic Set

[Written: April 2011]

This isn’t just for children, every house should have this set 🙂 I recommend going to YouTube, typing in “Quadrilla melody basic set” and watching the first video that comes up (2min34sec) All of the runs in that clip are made with this one set.

I got this for my eldest daughter’s 4th birthday and she is definitely at the lowest end of the age range for this. When we first opened the box and tried to follow the instructions I have to admit I was a little lost and it seemed too easy to knock down but it was very easy to get the hang of, is very stable when put together properly and the chunky wooden pieces mean that it is possible for even a younger child to start putting tracks together. I think for younger children like mine, the musical tones are needed although I would think older children (and adults) would get hours of fun out of any Quadrilla sets. Watching the marbles is surprisingly therapeutic.

My 21 month old also loves this and under VERY careful supervision it is fine with younger children. One of her favourite toys is a click-clack track and this is an extension of that idea (with so much more fun) so she loves putting the marbles in and watching and listening. However, definitely be careful with younger children in the house – the wooden pieces are generally okay (there are a couple of small pieces but most are a good size) but the marbles are apparently very tempting to suck and tantrums ensue when they’re put out of reach!

All the blocks are colour coded and each coloured block has a different purpose so after a few plays, it’s easy to grab the pieces you need. There are enough pieces in this set to make many different runs (unlike some “starter” sets), and picture based instructions to allow play to start as soon as the box is first opened. The 5 musical tones are actual notes (it’s possible to get extension sets with a full octave) so this is a great extendable present for anyone musical too (search “Quadrilla old Mc Donald” on YouTube!). The quality of the pieces is very high, this is a product made to be enjoyed for a long time.

Definitely a favourite for everyone in my house, and a contender for favoured plaything. If I could, I think I’d give this 6 stars out of 5!

Rubbabu Magnetic Alphabet

[Written: January 2011]

Rubbabu toys are a sensory experience, they are “squishy” but hard wearing, very playable and also cuddle-able. We have the upper case magnetic alphabet letters from Rubabbu, but this review probably covers the lower case letters and numbers as well.

Small children learn with all of their senses and I believe that it’s good to give them the tools to experience, experiment and discover in order to cement their understanding. Which is one of the reasons I love these letters – they are a touchy-feely experience of the shape of letters. They’re big enough to be hugged by small children, and you do just want to hug them. They can be sorted by colours (vowels are all the same colour), put in alphabetical order, used to make small words (although this is just one alphabet so you’re limited to what you can spell with them) but aside from all that, they are fun! They’re attractive so will be pulled off the shelf and played with in all sorts of ways whilst surreptitiously cementing the alphabet shapes into your child’s mind (you can add in the sounds if you get your child’s attention!)

These are magnetic, but we have them in a tub in the play area rather than on a magnetic surface (the fridge is covered with artwork held on by small plastic magnetic letters and numbers so there’s no room for these) They are very eye-catching on white goods in the kitchen as well though, and are a lot harder to lose compared to small plastic letters. The colours are vibrant and just cry out to be played with.

My daughters are 19 months and almost four years old. The 19 month old does try to chew these but she does that with everything 😉 My older daughter got these for her 2nd birthday and has played with them in many different ways, now recognising the letters.

BigJigs Wooden Eggs

[Written: December 2010]

Quick review: There’s not a huge amount to add to the description above for these eggs. On the one hand, yes, they are just six wooden eggs. On the other: they’re realistic so appeal to children more, they’re lovely to hold, they generally appear in most of my girls imaginative food-based play (and there is a lot of that). An absolute essential for any toy kitchen / market / shop / picnic / tea set…

BigJigs Rail Mini Track

[Written: September 2010]

This is a great pack to add to a wooden railway system. When making large track layouts, there are often times where you end up with two innie or two outie connectors next to each other that therefore can’t join together. This set includes small track pieces with innie connections on each end or outie connections on each end, solving the problem (I’m sure innie and outie connectors have proper names, but I don’t know what they are I’m afraid!)

The normal small track pieces are very useful to get the track layout to connect too. The set includes 8 pieces of track.

BigJigs Shipping Container Yard (for Wooden Railway)

[Written: September 2010]

Background: I have two daughters, aged 3.5 years and 15 months. They have a variety of wooden railway pieces – no big sets but various smaller sets, buildings, trains and accessories from the four main toy wooden railway manufacturers (Big Jigs, Brio, Plan and Thomas). I look for pieces that create interesting and non-limiting play options for them.

Review: Big Jigs Rail Container Shipping Yard is a fantastic addition to an existing wooden railway set. It comes with the main track piece that has an extended area for a building and the (removable) magnetic crane, plus a lorry, a canal boat, a train carriage and two shipping containers with magnetic tops (many of the Big Jigs Rail individual carriages have removable containers with magnetic tops so lots of combined play if you already have some of these carriages.)

There is a separate wooden ramp that the lorry can drive up to the yard – this allows the train set play to start connecting with other vehicles that you might already have (e.g. cars, wooden or otherwise, and perhaps a garage, airport, play mat etc.) The picture doesn’t show it very well but this set does come with a small barge / canal boat which can hold one shipping container. This gives three loading / unloading options: onto or off the barge onto or off the lorry onto or off train carriages. The magnetic crane has a slightly flimsy cord which is a little too long (the weight of the containers pulls it down) but kids seem to be drawn to anything magnetic and the unloading/loading options, plus circling the crane between the barge, lorry and train has kept my girls amused for some time (a definite plus in its favour!)

Being Big Jigs, it is cheaper than other wooden rail sets and therefore excellent value for money for the variety of play options it provides. A very good gift for train-mad children who already have a wooden rail set.