Paused for thought

Paused for thought

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Staycation postcards: CBeebies Land, Alton Towers

Last year, following eager anticipation, CBeebies Land was opened at Alton Towers. We waited a few weeks then took our excited two children and a growing baby bump along for a family day out. Unfortunately, due to problems encountered during our visit, our day did not go as planned but we were kindly invited back. This week, as part of our staycation, we returned.

I must say, on arrival at the park I was pleasantly surprised. Areas that had been broken last year which we had highlighted in our concerns to the management had been removed rather than patched up. The staff were knowledgeable (another thing lacking last year) and friendly, and really engaged with our children. We had not indicated when we would be back, and neither would I expect any sort of special treatment, so this change cannot simply be put down to ensuring that we had a good day on our return. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the recent very serious event in the main park, it was quite quiet on the day that we visited. The queues were short and well managed, and the children were entertained whilst waiting for their turn on the various rides. Our boys started on Postman Pat’s ride, helping to ‘deliver’ parcels via an interactive dashboard in the Postman Pat van as it travelled around Greendale. We then moved on to the In the Night Garden boat ride which had the boys mesmerised. Gentle music and commentary on the boat really enhanced their experience. Justin’s House was higher octane (and loud!) which we visited before having a very fun hands on experience at Mr Bloom’s Allotment where children and adults alike were encouraged to help the ‘neighbours’ look after the Veggies whilst Mr Bloom was on holiday. The staff at this particular attraction were fantastic, so full of fun with a happy and relaxed approach when chatting to the children, we all certainly felt part of it! The Tree Fu Tom playground next door to the allotment was fun and the Get Set Go ride a little further on was just right for two young boys who loved to have a good nose at what was happening around them. We had hoped to finish our visit to CBeebies Land with a trip on the newly opened Octonauts ride but sadly that broke down whilst we were waiting so we set off around the rest of the park.

One aspect that really impressed me about our day out at Alton Towers was how well organised it was. Our middle son was given a wrist band to confirm that he was over 0.9 meters tall which saved time when waiting for rides, and saved any worry on our part that one attendant would measure him one way and another would measure him differently. It was also refreshing, given our recent experience at Legoland, that one adult could accompany two children on all of the rides that they wanted to go on so there was no double queueing. The Sealife Centre area was a hit with all three boys and an area that I think our baby would have gone round again and again, carefully making attempts at saying ‘fish’ to every under water creature he saw (at 8 months old I wasn’t going to correct him and the staff were very professional when we must have looked quite funny, Fffffsh! Fffffsh! Fffffsh!) Like all major attractions I would recommend taking a picnic rather than filling up on the rather pricey refreshments on offer, but unlike other major theme parks there are so many places to sit down and relax with a picnic at Alton Towers without feeling that you’re cramming in to the one area designated for your own food under a small tree along with ten other families. In fact, on that note, I would urge you to find reduced priced tickets or special offers as at full price it quickly amounts to a very expensive day out especially with little people in tow. All of that said, would I recommend it? Based on our experience this week, yes I would.

Have you visited CBeebies Land at Alton Towers? I'd love to hear what you thought!

I did not receive any compensation for this post. All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Staycation postcards: Snibston Discovery Museum

This year for various reasons, instead of a holiday away we have chosen to have a family staycation, making various day trips whilst remaining at home over the course of a week. We have chosen a variety of locations for these trips to maximise the fun that we can have as a family. The first of these was Snibston Discovery Museum in Coalville.

Under current UK government policy, one action point is to engage the public in science and engineering by encouraging science in schools and inspiring students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects*. It therefore seems rather short-sighted for a council to close a wonderful and engaging facility such as the one that we found at Snibston, which closes on Friday (31st July 2015) due to budget cuts. There is particular thought that to truly engage students and encourage and promote STEM subjects to them, their imagination needs to be captured at a primary school age which we felt the facility at Snibston did remarkably well.

When we entered, our children (aged 4, 2 and 0) were instantly engaged by the interactive displays which were thoughtfully presented and accessible for all ages. There was a small Mini which they could lift using an electromagnet, a pretend fire with a twizzle stick designed to simulate a spark and bellows to provide air to keep the fire going. There was an area to build a drainage system and an entire section devoted to exploring electricity including its generation and how it helps to power different things from a light bulb to gears. There was a tornado simulator to demonstrate how the air current can be interrupted but join together again. Air pressure experiments were presented in different ways tapping into different interests and engaging different minds. In my career as a Human Resources professional I was keenly interested in different learning styles and now, as a mother, my interest in this subject has continued and grown and transferred onto watching how our sons explore the world around them. This need to attract different minds and different learning styles was superbly met by the museum.

Walking on from the science area was a static display of multiple vehicles which crossed different eras. I was delighted to see a Sinclair C5 and show it to my sons, reminiscing about my childhood. A milk float raised further interesting conversations, as did a model spitfire. The construction vehicles were a big hit with more interactive displays as was an old fire engine.

Outside the play area was well planned out with plenty of space for play for all ages. Our older boys had great fun with outdoor music bars and parabolic dishes, whilst our baby was content to watch the play unfold from the comfort of a baby swing. Water experiments were set up which were entertaining a large group of children who were learning together without having previously known each other. The older ones helping and explaining to younger ones and all of them sharing and exploring together. 

That a museum can offer such a wide variety of hands on activities and capture so many minds in so many ways was something to be proud of. I, my husband, and our boys, will all miss Snibston when it has closed to the public.

* source: UK Government Policy Paper. 2010 to 2015 government policy: public understanding of science and engineering.

I did not receive any compensation for this post. All opinions are my own.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Me and You, You and I

An interview with my eldest son, aged 4:

1. What is something Mama always says to you?
I love you.

2. What makes Mama happy?

3. What makes you happy?
Going in the garden and seeing the snails.

4. What makes Mama sad?

5. What makes you sad?
When the snails have gone.

6. How does Mama make you laugh?
You tickle me sometimes.

7. What is Mama’s favourite thing to watch on television?

8. What do you like doing most of all?
Making R (our baby) laugh.

9. What does Mama do when you’re not around?
Play in the garden.

10. Where do you like to go?
To the soft play.

11. What is Mama really good at?
Making sure R has food every day.

12. What is Mama not very good at?
Putting the light on.

13. What do you want to do when you’re grown up?
Go to work.

14. What would you like to do for work?
I’d like to play.

15. What do I do for work?
You play.

I’m going to play in the garden now and look for snails Mama.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Does free will exist?

My husband and I engaged in a very interesting debate recently, does free will exist? Is it possible to make your own life choices based entirely on the direction that your grey matter takes you? Without other forces drawing you on one life path or another? Neither of us are religious and I confess that I thought that this was a time old philosophical argument that generally ended with does God choose your path or do you find your own way. As it turns out, I was wrong.

My husband believes that it is not God, but physics that determine our way of life. That the universe is effectively programed, much like a computer, and then life is acted out according to said programming. His argument is that we are all a type of biological computer. That there are a variety of codes, or inputs, that then determine an output which is beyond our control. That Nature rolls our life out before us like a personalised metaphorical carpet. What about love I ask? Were we predetermined to be together? (Those of you who know me know that I'm a romantic and hate the thought of someone or something else making that decision for me!) Yes, said my husband. We were meant to be together either because of what we might achieve together or because of what the children who we have created might achieve. But is this not religion? Are we not having a time old conversation but using different terms? No, he said. It’s physics. It's determined at an atomic level over which we have no conscious control.

My views are different. I very much believe in free will. I think that there is cause and effect, I think that our actions are on occasion decided by the actions or reactions of others, and I do believe that social awareness and intelligence determines our choices too. I am also quite spiritual and consider that there is a strong external force that factors in the workings of the world and one which I am unable to name or define. All that to one side, I think that we have the opportunity to make our own decisions, to define our own life paths. I believe in taking responsibility personally for our actions and the choices that we make and not entrusting them elsewhere or following a path that we have not set ourselves, in our own minds. I’m interested in the idea of fate, but I think chance, luck and judgement are much more real determining factors in how life unfolds.

I think about some choices I have made: relationships I have, those I was not brave enough to start, or ones that I have turned away from; studies which I have dropped or taken up; career choices; where to live; where to go on holiday. I wonder about how they might fit together as a jigsaw. I realise that there are some pieces that slot together nicely, but would these have happened anyway? My husband and I went to school together, but only started dating years later after meeting again at a mutual friend’s party. Did fate, the universe, some higher power mean that we went to school together? Or did fate play a hand in bringing us back together at the party? Or did it feature in both? I think it was circumstance that we went to school together and a fortunate coincidence but not a surprise that we were at the same party. Then I think it was individual thought and commitment that saw our relationship blossom and grow into the strong and loving marriage that it has become. The career I initially chose was not my first choice, but one that I discovered through temporary work. Was this a planned diversion from my passion growing up? Was this a case of fate taking over from my brain? That my free will, my free choice, was removed? Was this to keep me in a location where I would meet my husband, a second time round? Or to give me some grounding, some real life experience and broaden my mind so that I could carefully pour this into my writing at a later date. Did I need longer to develop my written voice and this career gave me that opportunity.

This leads me to so many more questions. Do I feel this way because the values, the choices, the relationships that I hold so dear I cannot begin to believe are made by anyone or anything other than me and my grey matter? Is it because I like to believe that I’m in control? Unwilling or perhaps even unable to accept that I do not have the ability to make the most powerful, most important decisions of my life. Some scientists, much like my husband, believe that our brains are preprogrammed to make choices so that our conscious mind thinks it is making decisions and thinking through a variety of options, but actually it is being coerced into the path that science, physics or neurobiology, has chosen for us. Perhaps that is the case, perhaps I am willingly blind to the lack of freedom in life, in the predetermined route that I am following, the actions that I take. Are my feelings real? Or might they be subject to the same?

This topic I am sure will run for years, maybe centuries to come, with valid arguments and evidence from opposing sides. I am not going to solve it with one blog post and I am certainly not going to persuade anyone to my way of thinking. But I do think, and I do consider that my thoughts and actions are pure and led by me, whatever they may be. I do believe in the romance in life, that we are free to be whoever we want to be, to act and react as we choose. I believe that we live within whatever restrictions we choose to follow, not those set by a preprogrammed scientific code.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Summer Holidays

The summer holidays are nearly upon us, and this year I have 7 glorious weeks of playing, exploring and creating with my boys. I look forward to this holiday most of all. Yes it’s long but because it’s long you can get into your own rhythm, your own routine during the day. I love that it feels endless and that we really get quality time together, something that can feel rushed during other holidays.

A few people have asked me recently if I can share my enthusiasm and give them some ‘survival’ tips. I disagree with the phrasing of that, it’s not about surviving, it’s about living it. I do have some top tips though, which I have shared below:

1. Routine
At school, children have a routine. There are markers throughout the day which help them to know what might happen and how far through the day they are. Try wherever possible to keep this going through the holidays. You don’t have to be rigid and restricted, but get up at the same time for example, have lunch at the same time, dinner, bedtime and so on. For young children plan a morning and afternoon activity so they get used to the idea of doing something before lunch then having something fresh to look forward to after lunch. Don’t let this prevent you from far flung day trips, but do bear it in mind for regular days where you stay at home or use home as your base for meals and bedtime.

2. Plan
This should not be underestimated. Of course it’s lovely to have days where you kick back and relax and take things as they come (see below) but planning is important too. Want to paint a picture? Get the paint, brushes, sponges, paper and anything else that you might need out the night before to save on preparation time whilst you have impatient young people around your feet. If you’re going to have a mass building session find all the blocks and heap them in a room waiting to be used when you’re ready. Of course build in elements for your children to take charge and realise their ideas which might not be quite what you had in mind in the twilight hours of the previous day, but at the very least attempt to organise, to maintain momentum for everyone’s sanity.

Planning ahead is equally important and worthy of a mention here. If you’re thinking of organising day trips, spread them out, consider the weather, think about what else you might be doing during the course of a week. Don’t bunch everything into the first couple of weeks exhausting yourself and your children in the process. 

3. Back up plans
Best laid plans can go awry, rather than have a panic about what to do now the weather report has changed, your car has broken down, your dog needs veterinary attention, have a little list of back up plans, or a box of new books, stickers, paper, dressing up clothes that you can dip into if needed. They’ll be other holidays you can use it for if everything runs smoothly so it’s never a waste of time and effort to put back up plans in place.

4. Research
There’s nothing worse than turning up somewhere and finding that you can only pay in cash, that you should have taken wellies, that you might need a picnic. Do your research before you go, look at reviews, read the relevant website. Look for money off vouchers or top tips to make the most of your time and save some all important pennies for your next adventure.

5. Involve others
Hoping to see friends or family? Don’t sit there waiting for an invitation, invite them on your days out, ask if you can have a play date, arrange a sleep over or look after each other’s children for a few hours to give other parents (and yourself) a little breather. If you’re feeling adventurous split the cost of a holiday or go camping for a night or two locally with your little ones.

6. Have a breather
In and amongst the planning, days out, days in, and holidays, schedule what I refer to as ‘down days’. Days which you take as they come. Nothing may be planned but you can have fun being spontaneous, playing games, making dens, reading stories, watching a film, listening to music. Days where the pressure is off and you can relax with your children, play with your children, enjoy time with your children.

7. Take advantage of offers
As I noted above there are nearly always offers for one place or another, for meals out, for cinema bookings. Keep your eyes open, read the local press, sign up for email alerts, join pages on Facebook or follow venues on Twitter to keep up to date with their latest deals.

8. Let your children take charge
This is so much fun! As I’ve noted in a previous post you can learn so much from your children and it’s delightful letting them take the lead and observing their favourite kind of day. If your children are very young you may want to limit the time that they are in control to an hour or two, but give them long enough to feel that you’ve listened to them and enjoyed their favourite activity too.

9. Outside
There are so many things to do in the big outdoors without spending much or any money. Bark rubbings? Treasure hunts? Pack a pair of binoculars or a magnifying glass (or both) and head to your nearest park. Relay races are fun as is playing with a football or beach ball. Use chalks on your patio, let them paint a plant pot or some stones, give them clean bushes to wash down your doors. Invest in a paddling pool for your back garden. Not warm enough for water? Fill it with balls. Buy some seeds or ready grown plants (especially fruit or vegetables) and get digging with your little ones. Small watering cans are normally cheap and can be picked up at a DIY store or supermarket to get children involved with looking after any green space you own or potted plants you might have.

10. Inside
Baking normally goes down a treat here, and whatever goes in the oven is normally cooking for long enough to have a story whilst you wait. Or get creative, pull out a pile of recycling and see what your little ones turn it into. Boxes and bottle tops have been used to make cars and robots in our house. Act out a favourite story, make a video, what about a theme day? Get your children involved with the ideas then turn a room into a wonderland for them the following morning. Many an hour has been spent in the evenings here creating a train track around our playroom, or a little city with a transport network to enthral our boys the following day, with elements purposefully left out to give them space to make amendments or additions to our design. Music days involve playing, composing, and dancing. Perhaps you can have a family focussed day, get out some old photos, make a family tree, watch videos, talk about important events in your family life.

11. Mix it up
Do you normally eat breakfast, lunch or tea inside at the table? Take it outside, into the garden or better still, to the park. Do you make your dens outside? Bring them in. Do you have stories downstairs on the sofa during the day? Take them upstairs. Bring toys down. Let your children have water play in the bath in the middle of the day instead of in a paddling pool. Think of new settings for favourite activities and watch how the change reinvigorates an old game or a standard part of your daily routine.

I hope you enjoy your summer holiday! Please check back here for our postcards of what we get up to.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A love of words

Fresh faced and 18 I set off eagerly to university to undertake an English degree. I was so excited. City life. University life. Higher Education. They lay before me waiting to be explored and enjoyed.

It was Thomas Hardy who sealed the deal when it came to studying English. Reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles really moved me. I could see her, in my mind's eye, I could feel the wind that might have moved her red ribbon at the May-Day dance. I could probably still recite large chunks of text now, over a decade since I last read the book, such was its impact. 

My love of reading slowly became a love of writing too. I had written on and off for years but at university I took the opportunity to join the student newspaper and, in my second year, I set up my own website. The former provided good experience, the latter was hard work to begin with (mostly because the publishing package I used didn't upload correctly so I had to learn then rewrite the HTML so that my efforts were displayed on the live version too) but it was worth every second. I published poem after poem after poem on my website then slowly but surely I started to write prose. Anything went, holidays, events, things that inspired me. It was what you might now call a blog. I got it off the ground and thoroughly enjoyed it. Then along came 'proper' work.

I had wanted a career in writing at one stage but knew that I needed to pay the bills and didn't have the same confidence or determination as authors such as J.K. Rowling so I went for one that offered a real job with an actual, regular, salary. Slowly my writing dwindled beyond what my job required and before long it was only the odd poem that my tired brain was producing.

My job and career was satisfying but was soon overtaken by family life. Filled with enthusiasm and fresh opportunities once again my writing started. Just like before the poetry came first, but slowly the prose has followed.

I don't proclaim to be good at this, I certainly don't think that this little corner of the Internet will suddenly start to pay for so much as an apple, but I do make a promise, to my readers but mostly to myself. I am passionate about this and this time I am quite determined too.

It may take me years but I have a big writing project very, very, slowly taking shape. I look forward to the day that I might share that and I hope that for now this little venture will, this time, bring years of unbroken enthusiasm and learning.

As always, thank you for reading. I'd love to hear about your passions and how you make time for them in your life! Feel free to comment below.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Postcard from Legoland Windsor

I find from time to time that having a young family can restrict the opportunity for spontaneity. That said we recently visited Legoland Windsor as a fairly last minute family outing. Our boys had been super all week and I had won a fabulous Merlin Annual Pass from Take it from Mummy so it seemed an opportune time to visit. Plus the sun was shining and, let's be honest, once you've had that thought to do something exciting you don't really need to find many excuses to actually do it. 

So picnic packed, we set off. Unfortunately it seemed that most of the UK had the same idea and despite getting there early it was extremely busy. My husband didn't queue for too long but getting my annual pass sorted took nearly an hour! Once in it was equally frantic, children running around, adults hotly in pursuit, sun cream splashing, sandwiches falling, staff shouting out to be heard, families squeezing in to the little available shade to cool down. So we reiterated our one family rule that goes for any busy day out. We'd stick together. 

It has been around 18 months since our last visit and in that time we've had the wonderful addition to our family of our youngest son. This was a flaw in our 'stick together' plan. As it happens, Legoland is somewhat difficult to fully enjoy if you have 3 or more very young children. It seemed that a lot of rides were only suitable for children 90cm and above (so baby couldn't join in) but children 130cm or below had to be accompanied by an adult (baby couldn't join in and an adult had to sit with eldest or middle child). This doesn't seem too bad but factor in that a lot of rides only had two to a 'car' and you will get the picture. Baby couldn't join in, adult had to sit with older children, but could only do so one at a time. This meant that I had two rides on DUPLO Valley Airport for example, whilst my husband and I busied about swapping children around under the impatient eye of the staff, but it also meant that it took longer to go on rides.

So we moved away from the rides and to Duplo Valley. Armed with swimwear my husband boldly strode into the throng, the two eldest tottering along at his side, and baby and I sat at a safe distance so I could nurse him. A few minutes later, or so it seemed, my hot and flustered husband trotted out of the splash area announcing that it was 'Valley of the Screams' and proceeded to re-clothe our biggest boys.

I must interject here that our boys were having a wonderful time. The middle one had forgotten all about the ‘stick together’ rule and kept attempting to join other families in their observations of the park, proceeding to offer his views to anyone who would listen, the eldest was delighted to be able to go on rides with his younger brother and tell him all about how they worked, and baby was happy to people watch. Even the hot sweaty messes that my husband and I melted into are slowly becoming standard for days out in the sun and should not be mistaken for a lack of enjoyment.

Having felt that we had made the most of the rides that we could on that visit, our final stop was Miniland. We thought that as our boys were starting to show the tell-tale signs of tiredness form the heat, queues, rides and general fun we'd spend just a few moments there en route back to the shop and the car but we were wrong. With the benefit of hindsight I don't know why we didn't just manoeuvre through the crowds to Miniland in the first place, we were finally away from the press of people and the queues and our boys loved it! The lorries delivering goods, the lifts moving up and down, the wind turbines, the boats, the roads, buildings and vehicles. They were entranced. Every busy, hot or tired moment of our day out disappeared. It was perfectly enchanting. We spent nearly an hour watching the models, chatting about how they might have been constructed and what we could make as a family once we returned home. My tip for anyone planning a trip to Legoland, including my future self, is to venture there first.

After a short stop at the shop we piled back into the car and headed home. A busy, hot but fun and interesting day out, and somewhere that we will return, perhaps once at least one child has made it to the 130cm mark.

N.B. Like many Merlin Entertainments attractions there are often deals to be found online for entry tickets. Worth checking before you visit.