A Banquet in a Castle

Long, long ago, in the kingdom of Dunbroch, a King and Queen hosted a banquet…

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The preparations went on for days – decorating the castle, making silver “goblets”, writing the “mennyou” (menu), cooking the food, weighing ingredients, researching the decor, food and entertainment – this was a “worth the effort” activity rather than falling into the “quick and easy for busy mums” category, but was really, really worth it, and our banquet really was fit for a king (and queen!).

Banquet

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This was an extension of our playtimes based on Disney’s “Brave”, which L and N are showing no signs of getting tired of – they have heard the story every day for weeks on end now!  It was also a bit of a history lesson and hopefully preparation for visiting a real castle one day soon.

L did the research – we have several books about castles and knights, and he loves an excuse to look things up on the computer.  N joined in with researching this much more than i thought she would be able to without actually reading – the books are illustrated in lovely detail, so she was full of ideas, and if she wanted to read something she simply asked L to read it to her!

Then we wrote the menu

L's Menu, with "Thunderstorm Knight" crest design

L’s Menu, with “Thunderstorm Knight” crest design

N's sparkly Princess Menu, and first proper writing!

N’s sparkly Princess Menu, and first proper writing!

L could do this by himself – he is going through a stage of not wanting to write, and complaining that it is boring – so rather than push him and put him off we are taking a little and often approach, and trying to do something every day involving writing single words, hoping to develop his fluency so that he finds sentences less taxing.  I can understand why it is boring for him – he isn’t yet at a stage where he can express himself in writing.  Hopefully when he is, he will be enthusiastic again.  This is working well for him anyway because he seemed to enjoy writing “cheez” and “meet” etc, and I found it so so cute!

N managed to write “menu” all by herself, when I told her one at once which letters she needed to write, and she was so pleased with herself.  She then filled the menu with what seemed like random letters, but when she talked me through it, she definitely had a plan for the meal, and the letters were in fact featured in the words she wanted to use – “I’ve done an a and a p because we’re going to have apples”.

We made goblets to drink from.  We did this by covering plastic champagne flutes with foil, and decorating them with plastic gems. Half the fun of this was getting L and N to think about how we could make the goblets, and use some problem solving and creative thinking skills.  I think it also added to their pride in the activity, having designed and made things for themselves. We used silver foil platters to serve the food.  I thoroughly washed out a wine bottle and filled it with blackcurrant squash, and they found it very exciting to have “wine” – as well as learning that in Medieval times the water was often unsafe to drink.

"Silver" Goblet Encrusted With "Jewels"

“Silver” Goblet Encrusted With “Jewels”

Our feast started with “broth” (we made  root vegetable soup – recipe here in our Autumn themed meal) – the king and queen very kindly helped the servant in the kitchen!

Princess Merida peels carrots

Princess Merida peels carrots

We arranged rings of onion into size order!

We arranged rings of onion into size order!

It turned out to be challenging to prepare a vegetarian banquet, but we used quorn ham slices and glamorgan sausages for the roasted peacock, alongside slices of cheese, grapes, a platter of dried fruit, and a trencher of foccacia bread.  The children liked the idea of using the bread as a plate, but L in particular enjoyed being allowed to eat with his hands.  I was quite glad he had missed the bit about throwing the bones on the floor!

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Eating With Hands - Business As Usual for F!

Eating With Hands – Business As Usual for F!

We turned out the lights and used real candles, and put on a CD of chamber music.   An extra bonus was getting L and N to arrange the dried fruit on a plate – sorting by colour, and arranging in patterns.

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Between courses L and N acted as jesters (with juggling balls and jokes), conjurors (with the magic set L got for Christmas), and musicians (we got out our box of instruments and keyboard and arranged them all in the lounge).  F could join in with this part, with her own contribution to the music.

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Our last course was poached pears and custard, giving us the chance to talk about the fact that fruit was usually cooked, or dried to preserve it.  We also served a butterfly-shaped jelly, and “Princess Merida’s Magic Cakes” – which would work equally well as Valentine’s Day cakes, as they have a secret heart hidden inside them!

We made these using a basic sponge mixture, taking a little bit out into a separate bowl, and adding red food colouring.

We baked the red mixture in a silicone heart-shaped ice cube tray we happened to have, but it would also work if you baked a shallow sheet cake and cut out the hearts with  a cutter or template.  We baked these first in the oven.

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We used a castle shaped silicone cupcake mould (yes, I really did just happen to have these things!).  We filled the cases halfway, put our ready baked hearts inside, then covered the heart with more batter.  We baked the cupcakes, and L and N decorated them with grey buttercream icing.  I tried very hard not to be precious about my cakes and let L and N do the decorating, and they did a great job, choosing jellied shapes for windows and doors, and silver balls to decorate.

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When we cut the cakes, we unleashed the “magic” – and pretended to turn into bears (as in the film) – the hearts worked really well, as long as we remembered to cut the cakes in the right direction.

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After dinner we danced to the music, and had our own “highland games”, where we tried to throw plastic “rocks” (from a dinosaur collection originally) into a yoghurt pot.

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The children got right into this and it was a game that lasted all day.

We really did have so much fun – and learnt so much too:

  • I learnt more history than I ever did at school.  I think this will have made some facts about castles really memorable for the children, and for me too!
  • Baking and cooking involved maths (weighing, measuring), creativity, practical skills
  • Our Highland Games involved Gross Motor skills, and there was plenty of fine motor skills practice throughout the day, with crafts and decorating cakes.
  • Creativity, thinking about how to decorate the house, how to improvise.
  • Research skills, in using books and the computer to find out what we needed to know
  • We practised reading and writing.
  • We worked out how many of each item we needed for the number of people.
  • Role play
  • Working together, sharing and co-operating
  • Even F (10 months) could benefit, by investigating and playing with different objects, dancing to music, playing with basic instruments, and experiencing new tastes.
  • I’m sure I could add to this list, but it was certainly a very happy day that we will all remember for a long time, and so much fun all round.

Playground Maths

This is my kind of maths lesson.  I have honestly never enjoyed doing anything remotely relating to numbers with the children – even playing shop is spoilt for me when we start talking about giving change and adding up cost.  It feels wrong that I feel like this – but I just hate maths.

We all went to the park today, and this is what we did:

We estimated who was the heaviest, the lightest, whether two of us could be lighter than one of us (ahem!) and used the see-saw to test our theory.  N was very good at this, but using the see-saw really seemed to help L to catch on.

We discovered that L and N are almost the same weight, but L very slightly heavier.

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We discovered that F is the lightest of all of us

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We found out that L and N together are lighter than Mummy (well, they only weigh about 2 stone each!), and that N and F together weigh more than L.  We tried to guess whether Daddy would be heavier than Mummy and I was relieved he wasn’t there to find out!  We also discovered that N’s toy doggy is lighter than all people, even babies.

We looked at the tall slide, and tried to decide how many times taller than Mummy it was, how many times taller than L, how many times taller than N.  We think Mummy is about 2 N’s tall!

The 3L's high slide

The 3L’s high slide

We tried to guess which of us would be able to fit under the little slide without banging our heads.  N could, L couldn’t without bending his knees, and Mummy had to bend in half!

The 1N tall bridge

The 1N tall bridge

We estimated how many steps it would take to get across the bridge, the tested it out.

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And we tested whether we were quicker sliding down the slide if we lifted our feet – some materials are more slidy than others, we decided.

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We played on the swings, with an extra bit of maths – “I’m going to give three children nine pushes, how many pushes each?”

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We played hide and seek, and added in a few number games – “if we have six turns left before we go, how many turns can we have each?” – “If L has had 5 turns, and N has had 3 turns, how many does N need to make it fair” – and so on.

And, as if they knew what we came here for, a number puzzle was provided for us to finish up with – which L and N volunteered to work out, and even asked for more sums!

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Being “Brave” at Bathtime!

The Disney film, “Brave” has had a huge effect on L and N.  When they first saw it at the cinema, they were terrified.  Mainly of the bears, and the loud roaring.  But since then, they have become its greatest fans, perhaps in processing the story and coming to terms with watching it, they have asked for the story version again and again, re-enacted the story, and talked endlessly about it over a period of months.  I like the story because it has depth.  And so we have been doing some “Brave” themed play recently.

The latest was a “Brave” themed bath, which all three children loved.

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To create a forest scene on the wall, we used craft foam to make some basic tree shapes, rocks, the “Ring of Stones”, The doorway to the ruined castle, and cut out some purple stars to represent “will o’ the wisps”.  The castle doorway, with its crossed axes, just like in the story, particularly delighted L and N – in fact, I think that if I’d just put this on the wall by itself they would have been delighted!

We used our Happylands Castles and knights from the Early Learning Centre as Merida’s home, and the Lords.  And a Happylands wizard to represent the witch in the story.

We had to be creative with Mor’du Bear and Elinor-Bear, using a polar bear and a friendlier-looking brown bear.

We put a magnetic fishing set I had picked up in a charity shop into the bath, which made the bath itself the river, from the scene where Merida and Elinor-Bear fish and play in the river – and added green food colouring to the bath for extra effect.

I also gave the children some plastic aida, safety needles and scooby strings, so that they could “mend the tapestry” like princess Merida.

L and N were delighted, and it gave an extra dimension to their usual “Brave” play.  it was lovely to be able to help them develop the game and give them props to enrich their understanding of the story.

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F enjoyed playing with the large foam pieces, and catching fish with her hands.

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L enjoyed playing with the castles best, and it was a real novelty having them in the bath.  He hasnlt played with his castles for a little while so it was lovely to see how a fresh set-up could re-ignite his interest and develop the way he used the toys.

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At the end of the bath, I added some glowsticks to the water as extra “will o’ the wisps”, and turned the lights out to follow them through the dark forest.

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Ithe effect was extra special as I happened to break a glowstick, spraying glow in the dark spots all over the bathroom, which delighted L and N!  I’ll let you know whether it comes out!!

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This was all a success, and we have kept the play scene in the bath to play with for a while.  We also have a few more “Brave” activities planned, so watch out for them soon!

Can We Fix It?

Here is a fun activity that passed a rainy Sunday afternoon for all of us – it was the most popular activity we have done for a while, and kept L and N occupied for well over an hour, which is amazing considering their concentration hasn’t been brilliant recently.  What we did was a simplified version of the “Fixing Station” from Teach Preschool.

They love to mend things, and play with a tool set, and also love building things with cardboard, so this activity was perfect for them.  We called it “can we fix it?”.

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I cut paper plates of different shapes and sizes into pieces – some big, some small, some just in two, some into lots of tiny pieces.  I put them all in the middle of the table and told L and N there had been an accident in my kitchen, and all my plates were broken, and that I need their help to mend them.  They caught on to the game right away and were full of enthusiasm.

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They enjoyed finding the right pieces to fit together, and found this easier than expected – next time I might try some 3D “mending” of boxes and cardboard tubes for an added challenge.

I had supplied them with lots of materials to mend the plates with – tape and scissors (this was insulating tape in different colours for added interest, from the pound shop), glue sticks, PVA and paperclips – to allow them to experiment with which worked best.

L went straight for the tape – and used it very effectively.  He quickly worked out that the best way to make it a strong join was to use several pieces of tape across the join, rather than one running lengthways.  He then decided he wanted to cover a whole plate in tape, and was very methodical about it, measuring lengths and cutting appropriately.

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N experimented with the glues, and overlapped the pieces to join together effectively.  She found it more challenging to use the tape, but by the end she managed to use it very effectively, and got in some good practice at using scissors too.

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There was some great maths going on here (shape and space), as well as problem-solving skills and fine motor skills.  It also allowed them to experiment with and practise using different materials for construction and craft.  they also got a great sense of achievement from completing the task and solving the problem.  I absolutely loved this activity and we will definitely be doing more mending activities!

Presents for L’s Teachers

Soon we will be moving house, and tomorrow is L’s last day at his school.  He and I had some special time together making some presents for the teachers and teaching assistants in his class.  I thought I would share them here as they are easy and fun, and make lovely presents for children to create themselves.  L and N are always so proud of anything they have made, and can’t wait to give it to the recipient.  I hope it encourages thoughfulness, and an appreciation of the things people do for them, as they realise the effort involved, and also have to think about what other people might like.

As we made these presents we were having a conversation about how someone might feel if they were the only person left out of the present-giving thank-you’s and goodbyes, and how we can make sure nobody feels left out – I think these are really valuable conversations to have, as long as they are done in a way that doesn’t make the child feel guilty.

there was actually no danger of anyone being left out because L wanted to go on making more and more!

For his teacher, we made this notebook:

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To make this, I used a plain notebook from the pound shop.  This is what we did:

  1. We cut 2 pieces of upholstery wadding the same size as the notebook.
  2. We used spray adhesive to stick a piece to each outer side of the cover.
  3. We covered the notebook and wadding in pretty fabric, and used more spray adhesive to stick it together.  be careful not to use too much, or it stains the fabric.  An alternative would be to use PVA around the edge of the fabric.
  4. We used pritt stick to glue the first and last page of the notebook to the inside of the cover, hiding the ends of the fabric.
  5. L drew a picture of his teacher on plain fabric, using fabric markers.
  6. I used spray glue to attach the picture to the front of the notebook, and stitched around the edge to secure it and decorate.
  7. To finish, we tied a ribbon around the notebook – this is ribbon printed with “Handmade by L” which I ordered very cheaply off Ebay last year to use with their handmade gifts (N has some too, and I think F might need some soon!).

You could cover any book like this to make a pretty gift – photo albums, scrap books, the children’s own stories…

Then, L and I made some truffles.  This was messy but easy, and L loved rolling the chocolate ganache into balls.  He also very much enjoyed licking out the bowl of ganache afterwards.  The recipe we used was not really a recipe, but went something like this:

  1. Melt chocolate in a pyrex bowl over a pan of boiling water.
  2. Mix with warmed cream in a ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part cream.
  3. Add some butter (I didn’t measure the butter; it was probably about 100g in 250g of chocolate).  If you are using milk chocolate, you will probably need to use more chocolate and butter relative to the cream, to get a really thick ganache.
  4. Chill until at the right consistency – it should hold its shape when you scoop a bit out.
  5. Roll into balls – a less messy way would be to use a small ice cream scoop.
  6. Coat in cocoa powder, dried coconut, crushed nuts, icing sugar – whatever you like.
  7. Keep refrigerated.

So, we needed something pretty to present our truffles in.  L decorated 3 pound shop glasses, which turned out to be perfect!  We coated them in PVA glue, rolled them in coloured glitter, and added sequins.  They would make fantastic tea light holders as the light would shine through them beautifully.  L was so proud of the way they turned out!  His favourite was a rainbow one he made by using stripes of differently coloured glitter.  It always pleases me so much when he comes up with something creative and tries it out, as even a few months ago he wouldn’t do this for fear of making a mistake.  Open ended craft activities with no set end point have really helped him develop confidence to try things out.

Here are our glass pots:

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So easy to make and so pretty, plus the children got their dose of glitter!

We also made alphabet cupcakes for the children in L’s class, using sugar letters as decoration.  Similar to the alphabet pudding we had at tea time the other day!

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Beaded Valentines Hearts

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N and I did this simple but lovely craft together today during F’s nap time.  Threading beads onto pipe cleaners is something we have done many times before (it is much easier for little fingers than fiddly thread, and the beads don;t fall off the other end).  N loves being completely independent, not needing me to cut thread, tie a knot for her, thread a needle, etc.

In a simple twist (literally!) on this activity, we shaped the beaded pipecleaners into a heart shape, and hung them from a branch using ribbon.  It made a beautiful, simple Valentine’s tree that we can add other crafts to.

As well as developing fine motor skills whilst threading, this activity has so much scope for development.  Following patterns of beads is an excellent pre-maths activity, as is sorting the beads by shape and colour (sorting by two or more characteristics makes it more challenging).  N found it easy to alternate colours (e.g. red, blue, red, blue…) but found more complicated patterns (red, red, green, green, blue…) too difficult to repeat without prompting, so i think this is a fun way we could develop that skill.

Younger children might also use the beads to identify colours, then shades of colour, and patterns (stripy, spotty, checked).  We used a lot of adjectives and opposite words today (rough, smooth, curly, straight, fuzzy) and identified materials (wood, plastic, metal) – N even remembered that a magnet would only pick up the metal objects.

Beaded pipecleaners would also make excellent bracelets for small children to make, or star shaped decorations for Christmas.  You could even make beaded letters spelling the child’s name.

Here is N concentrating hard on threading her beads.

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Showing off the pattern she made:

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And here is our tree:

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I like its simplicity and the natural materials – I almost don’t want to add to it but I know we will, because where little children are concerned, more is definitely more!

Fun and Games

My favourite post of all time has to be The Day We Did Nothing – because I love realising that learning doesn’t have to be hard work for me or the children – in fact, they never stop learning as we go about our daily lives.  Playful learning doesn’t have to be structured – in fact the best times can be spontaneous and relaxed.  Just spending time together is building family relationships and happy children, which is every bit as important as learning to read.

Today the children and I all felt the need for some “down time”.  You would be forgiven from reading this blog for thinking that our lives are jam-packed with crafts, baking and days out –  we do plenty of those things and we love it – but I believe that children need unstructured time too, and this is when they out into practise the skills they have learnt, process the events of their little lives, develop their social skills without coaching from an  adult – and so many things that are just as important to their development as anything else we do together.

So this morning we watched a film together,  then all three spent time playing with their toys.  L and N played a fantastic game involving lots of different animals, and made good use of their dressing up box.  Their whole morning was free play, followed by a picnic lunch on the living room floor – and in the afternoon we got out the board games.

We love board games.  And they exist to prove that playful learning doesn’t have to be high maintenance.  Sitting down together, the children had my time and attention, and someone else had done the creative thinking and careful planning, so all I had to do was relax and play!

We played Junior Scrabble, Jenga, and Guess Who.

Scrabble these days has two levels for juniors.  Level one is a simple matter of matching letters, and N (3) is a whizz at it.  Whilst L (5) doesn’t seem to have the concept of a strategy yet, N plans her next move carefully and strategically, and L is learning from his sister.  So in playing scrabble, they are not only learning letter recognition, but a whole range of other skills – turn taking, planning, deferred gratification, and second-guessing what other players might do next.  This is why N is at the moment a better player, even though L can read!  Level 2 requires players to form their own words – L can do this but N needs to work with a partner.  The main stumbling block for L has been learning to read the words going down the board – the “wrong” way.  But after having played a few times, he is getting quite good at unscrambling his letters to make a word, and by joining in and watching, N is understanding how words are made in preparation for reading and writing.

F wasn’t upset not to be able to play the game – since we were all sitting down on the floor at her level, talking to her, she felt included and not left out.  She played with plastic letters – interesting shapes and textures for her to explore, but also alongside daily stories it should hopefully help her to be familiar with the shape and appearance of letters, and make them a part of her life, even whilst she is far too little to read.

I apologise for the poor quality photos in this post – taken on my phone in a room with poor lighting.

Junior Scrabble - Kangaroo and princess outfits optional!

Junior Scrabble – Kangaroo and princess outfits optional!

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Jenga

We were given this for Christmas, which I was very excited about as I’d wanted to get it for the children.  It is just great on so many levels.  Even building the tower requires co-ordination, care, fine motor skills, and following an alternating pattern (a pre-maths activity).

The other thing I love about Jenga is that it forces L and N to slow down in order to win.  It rewards care and attention, whilst still being fun.  Slowing things down without telling the children off for being bositerous is brilliant!

This is a game that L is better at, being older and having more refined motor skills.  But N makes up for it with effort, and practise is definitely the way forward in learning and development, which is why I tend to take the age guidelines on a game with a pinch of salt.  As long as it isn;t so beyond their reach that they become bored, frustrated or demoralised, I think underestimatin g them does more harm than letting them have a go.  Equally, they can often benefit from a toy that could be considered too young, by using it in an unexpected and creative way.

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The friends who gave us jenga were thoughtful enough to include F by buying her stacking cups to go with the Jenga, so she played with those, although she did also want to explore the wooden blocks!

Guess Who?  just proves my point about the age guidelines.  N plays it brilliantly.  Both L and N love this game, and it encopurages observation skills, reasoning, early maths (sorting into categories) and also social skills and particularly differentiating their own perspective from others’.

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It always reassures me to remind myself of the benefits of what I’d think of as a lazy day – and how much the children are learning even while they are relaxing.