What I learned while travelling home with my kids

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have seen that we’ve just got back from a month in Trinidad and Tobago, where I’m from. It was our first time back in four years. We’re grateful to have been given the opportunity to have an overseas holiday as a family and to help our kids grow their connection with a country that is a part of who they are. I’ve no idea when next we’ll make it over, five tickets to the Caribbean is a hefty goal but as I readjust being back in Cornwall, here are a few reflections.

Home is where I’m raising them

This is the first time I’ve been back and known that Trinidad and Tobago is no longer my home. The deep ache I felt when we landed  there on a visit four years ago has dulled considerably. It’s a beautiful country. I am grateful for the childhood I spent there and for its ongoing place in my life but I’m also relieved to no longer feel so torn between places. I miss the people I love who live there but home is where I’m raising my children. So much life has happened in the thirteen years I’ve lived in the UK. I have little concept of what life as a parent or even simply as an adult would look like if I lived there. It’s bizarre that simple chance can change the course of your life this way.

Jet lag is worse going West to East

We experienced this two years ago when travelling East for my brother-in-law’s wedding in Thailand and we get hit with it every time we’ve come back from Trinidad. Now that we have three kids who are finding their way through it, it’s quite something in this direction, not least because they are ALL on different schedules right now!

They want to know about my past

I was really surprised by how many questions my seven and four year olds had about my childhood: what I did, where I went, what it was like. My four year old, especially, was in a constant stream of this. I don’t know, I never thought about this trip meaning learning more about me. And actually, I also realised that I don’t talk much about Trinidad and Tobago at all and about my memories. When I was little, I loved hearing about the “old time days” from my parents, peppered with anecdotes from when they were children but I’ve supplied so few of my own. Could this be because I’m not surrounded by cultural and physical markers that would jog old memories for me?

It’s hard meeting people and sightseeing

Gosh, I should know this as I find it exhausting as an adult. Yet, I had such big expectations of the kids and then had to pull back and to give them a break when it was all too much.

I am done travelling with preschoolers

Man oh man, I know from a fair bit of experience that you can do long hauls with little ones but I’m sure glad I’m unlikely to ever have to again. Between the multiple outfit changes for everyone and the overnight journeys where working out sleeping positions is a game of Twister, I think we’ll give it a rest until my youngest is at least four, should we get the chance again.

Every child is different

That said, all our travels have convinced me that how one child travels at a certain age does not dictate how another will. My first two struggled terribly with long haul flights as babies. My youngest was perfectly content to and from Thailand at 5 months old. Travelling with my eldest at any other age has been a dream. She in no way prepared us for things that came up with the younger two.

Mosquitoes are utterly relentless

At this stage I have tried everything that does not contain DEET. I am convinced that the only two things that work in rainy season are covering up and DEET. Please feel free to share magic secrets if you have any.

Kids can connect across cultures pretty easily

It’s been so brilliant seeing my kids play with other children while we were out there and connect with adults who made the effort with them as well. At some points, meeting new people was just too overwhelming but a lot of great memories were made, friendships sparked and even more reasons to keep in touch.

I revisit my own childhood

There is a sense in which I revert to being a child myself when I go back which is such a complex experience  to navigate now that I’m also in parent mode when I visit. It’s little things like this being the first visit on which I’ve driven a car. But it’s also the much bigger things, like having to shelf confronting some painful personal issues because the priority while out there was keeping it together for my kids. And there’s the stuff that come up with straddling cultural expectations. For instance, my children call adults whatever we call them and it no longer comes naturally to me to refer to everyone as “auntie” or “uncle” and that’s certainly not on Laurence’s radar.

It’s possible that they may choose to live somewhere else someday

I always, always leave wishing we didn’t live so far away from my family. This time was no different in that respect. But this time it fully came home to me that my kids might also choose to migrate some day, that I might have to hold the future loosely, with simple trust.

The Holiday Makers – a closer look at engineering for kids

This post is brought to you by government campaign the Year of Engineering

With an aunt who’s an engineer and other friends and family in STEM careers, my kids have no trouble imagining themselves in those fields. “Engineer” and “scientist” regularly feature alongside “ballet teacher” and “pop star”.

Unfortunately, according to government initiative the Year of Engineering, not enough young people – especially young girls – are considering careers in engineering.

To tackle this big shortage, they’re committed to “inspiring the next generation of innovators, inventors and problem solvers by showing them what engineers actually do.”

The Holidays Makers challenges are an important part of that. This is where your kids can get involved.

Every week the Holiday Makers issues a fun new challenge to get your kids (ages 7-16) thinking about engineering in fresh ways.

This week you can take part in the Ring Wing Glider challenge and be in with a chance to win a STEM workshop for your school or home education group.

Talitha’s really enjoyed making and testing out hers while on holiday in Trinidad. Get everything you need for the challenge here.

There’s even a downloadable journal to help you keep track of what you get up to this summer. I reckon it’s a fun addition to the holiday bucket list.

The Ring Wing Glider Challenge

The Holiday Makers challenged us to use their ring wing glider template to explore a design used by modern aircraft and NASA’s futuristic concepts for individual air travel.

They’ve even supplied questions to help you think about potential variations – what happens if you change different things.

To enter to win a STEM workshop for their school or home education group, children and young people can take a picture or video of their ring wing glider in action and ask an adult to share it on social media by August 10th, 2018 including the details below:

  • Twitter – Include #TheHolidayMakers, @YoEgovuk and @RoyalAirForce in the post
  • Instagram – Include #TheHolidayMakers, @yearofengineering and @royalairforceuk in the post
  • Facebook – Respond to the challenge post on the Year of Engineering page including #TheHolidayMakers, @yearofengineering and @RoyalAirForce

See the Holiday Makers website for full terms and conditions.

For our children, for us all – making more noise on gendering

“Is your husband a sports fan?” my phone provider’s rep asks nonchalantly. Distracted, I reply, “Yes he is but he doesn’t need his phone to…” The penny drops. “Hang on,” I flounder, “Isn’t that kind of sexist? Shouldn’t you ask if I’m a sports fan?” They sound amused, “Well, are you?” I’m flustered. That kind of isn’t the point and I tell them so. I tell them they should not be asking that question, that it reflects badly on their company.

Then I move the conversation along quickly because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, even though I feel uncomfortable. I want to challenge, not shame. In any case, my discomfort isn’t really with them but with a culture that isn’t evolving fast enough. They casually make this gendered assumption and speak it out loud because it’s not only deemed acceptable but it’s profitable. Get me talking about my husband and sports and maybe I’ll sign up to the deal. But we move on and I forget. I’ve mentioned it. Perhaps that’s enough.

It’s more than I would have done in times past. It’s more than I did on Monday when the theme park employee smiled at my four year old and told her that the next show was “the girls’ show”. Should I fill in the blank and assume that the pirate show was “the boys’ show”? But I don’t react. I return their smile and thank them because they’re just being friendly, even though they’re reinforcing a message I consider harmful to my child. My four year old chimes, “I’m a girl!” Then I really don’t feel like I can say anything. Except I do once the worker is gone. “We know boys and girls can like the same things,” I say. We smile and shrug at each other. And we do go to the show. Because my children love to dance and they recognise the Lego Friends from Heart Lake City.

But as I put my seven year old daughter’s World Cup chart to one side, I wonder if the captions I give the things they hear and see are enough. I wonder if asking questions is enough to prompt them to think critically and ask their own. I explain my concern about the gender stereotyping in an Asterix comic book and worry that I’ve appeared to judge my child for liking Asterix. I am frustrated with myself for not kindly but firmly challenging everyday stereotyping. Even if talking about it in the privacy of our home goes some way to helping my kids ask the big questions about gender and identity, we have to have these conversations with people outside of our echo chamber if we want things to change.

I hope my exchange on the phone gives the rep that called me pause. They’re calling me again tomorrow. I wonder whether I raise it again either with them or in a letter of complaint and gently articulate what’s on my heart with this, that though I may not follow sports myself, I’m raising three girls who may well do. The world around them does not get to decide their interests for them.

Our family bed set up

Debenhams recently sent us new bedding to give our bedroom a mini makeover.

We’ve been through lots of configurations when it comes to sleep. Having bought a cot and a Moses basket with our first baby, we surprised ourselves by being three in a bed instead. Bedsharing proved a natural fit for our family so, though we got a moses basket again second and third time around for daytime naps (and it went unused!), we didn’t bother with a cot. Instead, we’ve sometimes been four in a bed, four in a bed and one on the floor, two in a bed, two in another and one on their own. Different set ups for different seasons. Currently, we only have twenty-two month old Delilah in with us. Ophelia, who’s four, occasionally joins us too but mostly prefers her own space. If Laurence is away, all the children join me.

It’s not perfect; I do love my space at night. I probably wouldn’t be adverse to twin beds instead of our king, though that might be the touched-out-ness of these early years talking. We even have separate duvets, partly so we don’t steal it off each other, partly because I run hot while Laurence runs cold. But for all the crowding, it’s also plenty lush, cuddling little ones to sleep, knowing even those who have outgrown the cuddling still find security in being near to me. And, of course, it won’t be forever. I came to bed to find Laurence holding sleeping Delilah and five years later, the memory of Talitha at that age is already blurry.

We’ve mused that Delilah might stay in with us longer than the other two did. We moved them out of necessity because I couldn’t bear to breastfeed at night while pregnant and they found it difficult to sleep next to me if this wasn’t an option. With Talitha, it was a simple transition. She was two, we’d just moved house, we decorated her room with her and she loved the idea of her own bed. Laurence was sometimes in with her if she woke but she mostly slept through.

Ophelia found this a lot more difficult. I fell pregnant with Delilah when she was 21 months old and, in retrospect, she just wasn’t ready for all the sudden change, whether because of age or temperament. We moved her out, I night weaned but she was up and unsettled every night for months. It’s easy to look back and say what I’d do things differently but, in reality, all I can say about it is that we did what we thought was best for us all at the time, we muddled through, and thankfully things are settled now.

But neither of us are ready for a repeat and we’ve both got so much more go with the flow with each child added to our family. As Delilah’s our last baby, she’ll likely stay in until she wants to join her sisters. So this is our family bed set up for the foreseeable.

In our last place, we had quite a high bed so used a bed guard with a towel rolled and tucked into the gap for added peace of mind. It worked but it felt like a function-over-style choice. When we moved we bought a low futon-style bed, complete with matching side tables. Initially we chose it so we could sit comfortably in bed with our cottage’s sloping ceiling but it’s also offered the benefit of causing less worry about little ones rolling out of bed or crawling off.

And it’s got us thinking a bit more about how we style this space so it’s actually somewhere we enjoy being, not the dumping ground our bedroom always used to be. Updating our bedding has definitely been a part of that. The Bedeck 1951 “Juma” duvet covers pictured here are a departure from my usual penchant for grey and white sheets. The South American-inspired geometric designs are eye-catching without being too busy and the combination of the ink blue pattern and deep green edging is cosy without dominating our airy bedroom. A child (or two or three!) may sleep here but it still feels like a grown up’s bedroom.

What’s your family bed set up like? Do you all sleep together or in some other configuration? Have you a massive bed? We used to love our extra king! It was definitely needed for a season. Let’s share some inspiration for others making it work with bedsharing.

For more posts about bedsharing, check out this golden oldie about bedsharing as a family of four and this book about nighttime and naptime strategies for breastfeeding families.

Thanks for sending me the duvet covers for this post, Debenhams!

Seven ways to amp up your garden as a learning space

In partnership with Groupon

Sunny warm days not quite here just yet in Cornwall (I was wearing my winter jacket yesterday!) but we’ve had the odd summer-like day and that’s been enough to lure my children back into the garden. They’ve pretty much decided to live there now.

So I’ve been thinking of ways to improve the space so they can get the most out of it. We love lazy days at home and if we can make those days spent outside, all the better. Here are a few things we’ve done and a few on my list to get going over the coming weeks.

1. Take nature walks in your garden
When I was home educating with a newborn a couple of years ago, I relied on being able to head into the garden for a bit to give us all our hit of the outdoors without having to actually leave home. Taking it easy was definitely the season we were in.

Since moving to Cornwall, I’ve felt we always need to be going somewhere exciting to really get into nature, even if that means taking to the woods across from our house. But that can put a lot of pressure on our time in busy weeks so actually, being able to treat a potter around our little garden as a nature walk can be quite freeing.

So last week, we did just that, observing the wildflowers in our garden. It may be that you take the time to check out some snails and read about them or keep some bird books by the door so the kids can identify what they see or even just note the questions the kids ask while playing outdoors to suggest finding answers later.

Invite nature into your garden
On that note, could you invite more critters into your garden? A friend made a pond with an old tub and this year, a frog laid it’s eggs in it – amazing to watch! We’re looking forward to getting a pond going ourselves. If we attract frogs, hopefully they’ll also help combat our slug problem.

Even with less space, you could hang a bird feeder or build a bug hotel. Great for observation and much needed, especially during the winter.

Take your read alouds and projects outside
If you have more sedentary activities you’re working on, you could suggest taking them outside, whether it’s painting or writing, a maths workbook or a science experiment. I often take a stack of books out and read them aloud on our garden bench while the kids play or make daisy chains.

A couple of years ago, Talitha had a morning routine for a while of checking the tomato plants and sitting at the table on the patio to write down what she noticed about them. It could be investing in some new garden furniture or even keeping a picnic blanket to hand to encourage everyone to take projects out there.

Make it a play space
Forget learning through play – play is learning. A really simple way to get young children to spend more time in the garden is to set it up as a play space. There are so many options from putting up a trampoline to building a play house to getting a rocker or a water table.

We actually have a very tiny garden so we’ve opted for a mud kitchen, which at the moment is just a table Laurence made from an old pallet, some kitchen bits we were getting rid of anyway and a corner of the garden that the kids are allowed to dig. I’d love to set up something more organised and visually appealing but they love it even as it is.

Get growing
Of course an obvious way to spend time learning outdoors is to grow things. We currently have salad in our front garden and we’re planting sunflowers and a wildflower “meadow” this week. Even if you just plant a couple of pots, there is so much to learn from that process, especially if the kids can eat what they grow.

Observe the weather
Get a rain gauge and an outdoor thermometer up and the weather patterns suddenly become very interesting! We need to get a chart going so the girls can note their findings.

Have a picnic
Finally, take a break outside. Eat lunch or dinner there. Move poetry tea time on to the grass. It pretty much makes our day whenever we do this and meals in the garden can lead to interesting conversations about all sorts of things around us.

Are you working on any garden projects with your kids this year? Do you have a garden bucket list for the Spring/Summer months, maybe?

Thanks to Groupon for working with me on this post

Our homeschool term: Spring

We’ve been following Story of the World since September. It’s our first year consistently checking out history. I very loosely look to The Well Trained Mind for ideas of what to offer when so we’ve been hanging out in the ancient world.

Six-year-old Talitha has been drinking it all in and was especially enthralled with ancient Egypt. I suggested we pick up the pace quite a bit more this past term because I imagined she would love arriving in ancient Greece (we have and she is) but we found lots to capture the imagination along the way, especially in ancient China and Persia.

Last term, I read them adaptations of The Trojan Horse, The Odyssey and Shanhameh: The Persian Book of Kings (still going on this one and she’s read it to herself a couple of times too).

In all this, I’m amazed at how interested Ophelia is. She often wanders in and out doing her own thing, not appearing to be listening at all and then will ask a poignant question or later muse about something we’d been reading or talking about. I don’t think she’s even aware that we’re reading these things primarily for Talitha’s benefit. To her there’s no demarcation. She may only have just turned four but she regards herself as home educated. All the things we do are, to her, just another part of how we live together.

And so she expects to participate. She’s been asking me to write words for her, which she copies, and she now knows most of the letter sounds and can sound out very simple words. She recognises a lot of numbers and works out simple sums without realising that’s what she’s doing.

I’m so laid back with her, partly because in the end Talitha became a fluent reader on her own. Apart from occasionally offering her Reading Eggs or, more recently, Teach your monster to read so she can play alongside Talitha, I just let Ophelia be. As she fills pages with random numbers and letters, three-letter words and her own name, as she sits and recites books to herself and her baby sister telling me she’s reading, it’s such a pleasure seeing her develop in her own way, a constant surprise.

This last term saw her suddenly shift to longer books so although we have a steady stream of picture books, she devoured James Herriot and was suddenly all about Beatrix Potter – we need to get some more of the latter. She also listened to her first chapter book, My Father’s Dragon, which is also the first chapter book I read to Talitha when she was four.

Talitha has read it a few times since so I read her The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We’d been putting it off for ages because I tried reading it to her about a year ago and she was too worried about what would happen when they got to the witch so we shelved it. With a lot of discussion and the promise that we’d stop if it became too much, we approached it again. This time, the book was a delight from start to finish. This was absolutely the right time for her to encounter it. I’m glad I didn’t try to push through with it when she was five.

At the moment we’re halfway through Charlotte’s Web. Talitha’s already read it but she’s finding that listening to it is quite a different experience. We found the same with Little House on the Prairie. She flew through it on her own, enjoyed it and clearly understood it because she kept accidentally giving us spoilers when I read it aloud but she was still super keen for me to read it.

I’m finding that she’s begun to prefer to read fiction to herself than to be read to. Recently I’ve been wondering how to navigate this and I found the transcript of The Read Aloud Revival’s recent podcast on reading aloud to 8-12 year olds helpful on this point. Sarah McKenzie explains why we stop reading to children when they become proficient readers and value of continuing to read to them. For one thing, their listening comprehension is generally a lot higher than their reading comprehension so it exposes them to richer language and prompts discussion. Reading aloud also keeps a relationship around books open, which I’m keen to sustain. Anyway, do check that out if it’s something you’re interested in. It’s given me lots to consider.

We started using Mystery Science this last term which both of the girls are loving. The lessons are videos with open and go activities, set by grade. If there’s any writing required, Ophelia just draws instead. Again, there’s no expectation that she’ll join in but she expects to join in! We spent the term mostly on the human body, driven mostly by Ophelia’s many questions. So we looked for “mysteries” on body systems, dug out a Whizz Pop Bang magazine on bones and an OKIDO magazine on lungs and read the human body books we have here at home.

We once again moved a lot of our home ed stuff to the dining room. We have a playroom but I think I need to stop insisting that all this stuff has to live there when the kitchen/dining room is the natural hub of our home. This included putting rehoming the Spielgaben (a collection of open ended wooden toys we managed to get second hand a few years ago) in our diningroom shelf which has been brilliant for encouraging me to use it.

They’re always creating with it but it was a bit out of sight out of mind for me in the playroom so moving it here got me looking at the resources that came with it and I asked Talitha whether she’d like to try out the maths games. So that’s been fun to do alongside Life of Fred and Mathseeds and I’ve had a new appreciation for the precision the collection is made with in terms of how the sets all fit together. I’ve also started offering Delilah sets to play with. She loves hiding the knitted balls, posting pieces or threading beads on a stick.

The older two are also heavily into boardgames now that Ophelia can (with support) hold her own. That’s even led to them inventing games of their own. Talitha’s also started using Scratch, which is one of her favourite things right now, a fun free programme which teaches kids to code by allowing them to create games and animations.

As always it was a term of special days with Candlemas Day, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, Chinese New Year and, of course, Easter. And Talitha and Laurence went to see a touring First Experiences version of Julius Caesar by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Newquay. I’m still gutted I was too ill too go but it was a good experience for them to share. AND it snowed and settled! TWICE! Thrice?! I actually can’t remember. In Cornwall where it NEVER snows! I know that’s more a life thing than a home ed thing but actually, it all flows into each other, doesn’t it?

Talitha’s continuing with the violin and Beavers and both she and Ophelia took up capoeira last term and have just started with a Spanish class. We’ve also continued with our community art group. I’m conscious that we’re probably too busy (and it all adds up!) and Talitha has been asking about swimming lessons so we’ll have to make some changes this term.

The takeaway for me, as always, is that a lot happens without me noticing or needing to cause it happen. We don’t have any plans for the term ahead but I’m going to try to chat about what we’re up to a bit more regularly here on the blog. I tend to share a lot on my Instagram stories if that’s more your jam. We’re likely going to continue using the resources I mentioned here but the changes I expect we’ll slow down a lot, spend more time up at the allotment and once the boat gets in the water, that’ll become a focus too.

Done at three: saying goodbye to the baby phase

I started writing this when Delilah was upstairs having a nap and the older two are watching Netflix. The morning’s excitement included Delilah refusing to wear a nappy and using the potty instead – mostly. She’s been doing this off and on for a couple of weeks. At some point I will get it together and give the situation enough focus to help her close the deal.

She’s twenty-one months old and I’m so aware that life won’t long be punctuated by naps and nappy changes. She saying lots of words now and is determined to keep up with her older sisters, often refusing to be carried, insisting that her little legs will take her wherever Talitha and Ophelia go. She soon won’t be a baby anymore. Some would say she’s not a baby now. She probably would if she could.

When Ophelia was her age, I was one month pregnant. When Talitha was her age, I was trying to get pregnant. Yet it doesn’t seem strange that she’ll soon be two and no other babies are potentially or actually on the way. In fact, we’ve closed that chapter as firmly as we can with a doctor’s appointment for Laurence.

Life is oh so full with three children and yet the idea of trying for a fourth baby did come up from time to time. But neither of us ever suggested it with any seriousness and neither experienced the deep longing for another child that I did before conceiving Delilah. Despite exclaiming as I got out of the birth pool with Ophelia that I was never doing that again, I got teary parting with most of the baby things and I ached for another baby in a way that I can’t explain. It didn’t feel like we were done. We fortunately welcomed Delilah. And I haven’t known that ache since.

I expected to be really emotional about the vasectomy (there’s time for that yet, of course) but mostly I’ve felt relief. I’m ready to move out of the baby phase. As much as I’ve loved it and, oh, I have loved it, I’m happy to leave the physical demands of pregnancy and small babies behind. I can’t imagine facing the exhaustion of the first trimester again. And I’m as busy as I want to be.

I’ve felt space incrementally opening up for other things as we move out of the intense baby stage. There is room in my mind for people and projects beyond the ones under my roof. I’m looking forward to writing more and creating more content. And yes, Delilah is not yet two and I am still home educating so I won’t go too crazy running down ideas but I’m not expecting to be hitting the reset button with a newborn so I feel able to dream harder and plan more concretely. It’s all vague right now but I’m still allowing myself to get excited about the possibilities.

You hear people say that you just know when you’re done, when your family is complete. I’m not convinced that that’s the case for even most of us. There is part of me that can’t quite believe we won’t have another baby but I’ve realised the melancholy attached to that has more to do with feeling nostalgic for my three babies than with wanting to do it all again.

Talitha will soon be seven and I am haunted from time to time with the thought that I somehow didn’t soak it up enough, that short phase when she was really little. Logically, I know that worry is misplaced. Even if it weren’t and I hadn’t enjoyed her earliest years as much as I could, there’s just so much to delight in right now. Taking pleasure in the present is ultimately what makes it easier to move on.