Paused for thought

Paused for thought

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The problem with grapes...

I’m guessing you might not read many blog posts about grapes and grapes alone. I don’t suspect they’re a particularly popular topic outside of the first aid and healthy eating arena. Here’s the thing though. I don’t like grapes. I did. I used to munch through bunch after bunch after bunch. Juicy, full-bodied grape after juicy, full-bodied grape appeased my pregnancy induced sweet tooth when I was expecting our eldest. It doesn’t surprise me that some have labelled grapes a super food, and studies have been conducted into the benefits of eating (and in moderation, drinking) grapes. Take the red variety for example. It’s well known that red wine has certain benefits for your heart when drunk in small quantities. This actually comes from resveratrol which is a type of polyphenol contained in the skin so can be easily added to your diet by eating a portion of red grapes. Grapes of all colours (the palette extends to at least 7) contain plenty of vitamin C, and their seeds are packed full of antioxidants.

All that is very interesting. Not to mention they taste great! So, why don’t I like them? Shortly after the arrival of my first born my mind was changed. I found myself at a first aid course being taught how to handle and help a child who was choking. And we were warned: “grapes are a hazard, you must cut them in half”. Grapes are round and malleable, making it very easy for them to be swallowed whole. The windpipe of a child under the age of two is around eight millimetres wide, making it very easy for a grape to become lodged and completely obstruct the airway. The windpipe of an older child is not much bigger, you get the picture. Dislodging a stuck grape can be virtually impossible without proper medical equipment and combine that with the knowledge that you have maybe three or four minutes until a serious situation turns into a deadly one I found myself asking was it worth the risk?

I emerged from the class on the edge of going into some grape cutting frenzy lest my little one come into contact with grapes when he was weaned. I wanted every grape for miles around cut in half just in case. I got twitchy about it at play dates and parties, it consumed my once pragmatic and sensible mind with worry. I even brought it up at every nursery setting I visited and pre-school I went to look around lest they were not aware and might inadvertently offer my son a whole grape. They probably thought I was mad. I was. Mad with love and overcome by my maternal instinct to protect delicate throats from innocent looking monsters.

Around two years after the first course I diligently trotted along to a first aid refresher course. I have been going on first aid courses for as long as I can remember and things change so I know how important it is to keep up to date. This course confirmed that. Half grapes were now also considered a hazard. Sometimes they were still too big. They should be cut into quarters. I started to eye them with distaste in supermarket aisles and in the local greengrocers, opting instead for other varieties of fruit. The inward flow of grapes from a shop to my fridge certainly reduced. I was content with that. Not making a big deal out of them but cutting them into very small pieces when they were on the premises. I good balance I thought.

Then came the news. A local couple had found a black widow spider in a bunch of pre-wrapped grapes that they had bought from a local supermarket. Along with her babies. Quick research showed that this was not uncommon and in some grape growing regions these spiders are actively encouraged to ward off pests. Whilst black widow spiders may not be a huge threat to a healthy adult (they rarely bite and when they do it is uncommon for them to pose a serious problem) they certainly are to children. Just days later, another black widow was found in another punnet of grapes, also from a shop that we frequent. It felt like a sign.

So, there you have it. Somewhere between the choking hazard warning and the unwelcome guests I lost my appetite for those juicy little bites of superfood. We still have grapes on the premises, our boys enjoy them and I still snaffle the odd one in its quarters off their plates, but I will happily admit that we are much more careful now.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

On starting school

As you walk away with his hand,
You walk away with my heart.
An angel in disguise,
A rainbow brightening my day,
I wave goodbye and he is gone

Into the wilderness that is school.
He travels with a skip in his step,
And I travel, homeward bound, with lead in mine.

I know you will take good care of him,
And his fragile childhood mind.
I hope you will make good memories with him,
Whilst he is away from me during this time.

I look forward to the day’s end,
I am eager to hear his thoughts.
I will treasure every sentence,
And hold them tight forever more.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Postcard from the Think Tank, Birmingham

We have been frequent visitors to the Think Tank in Birmingham (also called the Brain Centre by our children) since our eldest son was 5 months old. Whilst a number of guests have been left disappointed that some areas are a little thin on the ground (the ‘We Made It’ section on the first floor for example seems to have been left partway through a thought process that could have made it really engaging) we are not amongst them. Our eldest son is particularly keen on science and technology subjects and the Think Tank plays delightfully to this interest. The museum is divided into several sections and carefully set out with plenty of space for all the visitors it attracts.

Just beyond the ticket desk (on the 2nd Floor of the Millennium Point building) you will come across The Street Gallery, home to an interactive recycling display which shows the process for breaking down materials used for everyday products and groceries and making them into new things. The Street also demonstrates other every day processes that happen all around us. Younger members of the family may wish to try their hand at using a digger to scoop up balls whilst older children or adults can see how crimes are solved using clues and data provided in the Forensics Van.

Beyond this gallery is Kids’ City. Designed for small children it boasts a doctors surgery, a cafĂ©, an animation studio (we had lots of fun making videos of ourselves with Shaun the Sheep), a water play area and a mechanics workshop to name but a few.

Also on this floor is a Wildlife area with a Triceratops skull (a big hit with our dinosaur mad middle son) and information on habitats around the world. Although we have yet to try one, you can borrow a wildlife pack from the front desk to make this section of the museum more engaging for all the family.

The Things About Me section is one of the two favourites for our young family. Several displays show you how various sections of your body function, including the heart pumping, your digestive system, your senses and even basic human reproduction. Activities include a bop the crocodile style reflexes game (which I delighted in beating my husband at) and an exercise area (where I realised after some time I was the only member of our family inanely flopping around in an attempt to master star jumps whilst laden with bags, I really should have checked those in to the lockers at Kids’ City).

Just beyond this is the Medicine Matters area with video footage of operations and a dissected human brain which has been donated and is a fascinating organ not often viewed by the general public.

If you venture upstairs the main attraction is the Planetarium, the second of the two favourite areas for our sons, which has shows throughout the day for a small additional fee. Staff are on hand to talk through what each show entails and provide recommendations.

You can also meet the RoboThespian who is very entertaining along with other robotic displays demonstrating some of the innovative manners in which this technology is applied.

Go down one floor from the entrance to the first floor, and you will find the How Things Are Made gallery which is perhaps the most disappointing area. However next to it, and newly opened for 2015, is the Spitfire Gallery. From this section you can view the Spitfire which hangs spectacularly over the ground floor exhibits, and see displays detailing how this magnificent aeroplane was manufactured, and flown by talented pilots.

Birmingham was a key player in the Industrial Revolution with many manufacturing plants being based here, a tradition which continued for decades in the Midlands as a whole. The ground floor brings this to life with two galleries – Move It and Power Up. With the Spitfire now hanging over your head, along with a Hurricane, you can view robots ‘welding’ car parts, explore a steam locomotive and see the Smethwick Engine which would once have been used to pump water through the canal system in Birmingham.

Irritatingly, and much to the frustration of our children, you have to venture back up to the second floor, out past the entrance desk, back down to the ground floor of the main building and outside to get to the Science Garden but it is worth the trek and confusion of little people in tow. A giant hamster wheel, water pressure experiments and a pulley seat (my husband got his own back on that one and easily excelled over my futile attempts to get off the ground) are some of the attractions that await you here.

There have been well over 1 million visitors to the Think Tank since it opened in 2001 and it’s not hard to understand why. A lovely family day out with good facilities and great displays. Yes, perhaps more could be made of some of the attractions, but every time we visit we lose 4 or 5 hours just playing, learning and having fun. We would highly recommend it!

This post represents my own views. I was not compensated for it in any way.

Thursday, 17 September 2015


Parenting is a peculiar thing. With the very odd exception, I believe that we all try our best. We bring up little, vulnerable humans and present to them an uncertain world through a combination of realism but also joy, exploration and humour. We try to instil in them the idea of hope and love above all else, before they come face to face with some playground horror or another. Our mind abuzz with ideas of what we should be doing, what we could be doing, we balance plates of baked bean juice and fragments of fish cakes, inwardly cursing that we should have encouraged our children to tidy up, outwardly smiling at the muddy little creatures exploring the garden and making a snail shelter or two.

When I was employed, with a boss who wasn’t 3 feet tall sporting an almost constant food smudge at the corner of their mouth and a voice that required a volume control especially in public places, I strove to do my best. At the beginning of every year, I would set out my development plan. This invariably consisted of events outside the working day, like evening or weekend workshops and reading up on innovative industry ideas and case law. I never wanted to be stagnant. I always wanted to be the best that I could be. My Core Professional Development (CPD) points most probably went through the roof, but I didn’t do it for that. I did it so that I could provide the best service to my customers, the best support to my team and the best advice to anyone who was in need of it. I wasn’t asked or worse, told, to do this, it was and remains part of who I am.

When I became a parent I gave up paid employment. For one reason or another the idea of wiping noses, bottoms, eyes (not necessarily in that order of course) appealed to me more than a clean carpeted working office with warm cups of tea and adult conversation. Eager to please my little charges, I set about with the same determination that I had harnessed my professional career with. Books were read, some with interest, others discarded when it was clear that my children had no interest in these expensive developmental toys being pushed as the only thing to help your child master one skill or another. While pages, no doubt endorsed by some of the big players in the toy market, held up products like diamonds in the light, my children turned their backs and chewed on a Velcro style hair roller or a wooden spoon.

I looked into courses but was told by a somewhat weary consultant paediatrician that I wouldn’t learn anything I didn’t already know. My insatiable desire to be the best that I could be and set myself development targets as a parent began to wane. The internet supplies a plethora of information if you ask the search engine nicely, but some of this is the totally unfounded hypothetical writing of someone who once saw a child actively helping their parent complete the gauntlet that is the weekly shop and presumes to know more than an actual parent with actual real little people running around underfoot.

I started to feel somewhat disheartened. That I might somehow miss a crucial milestone in childhood development and my children would stray so far from the rails in their adolescence to make up for it that I might be required to retrain as an Intelligence Officer. But the most amazing thing happened, they started to eat solid food, recognise colours, numbers and letters, they slept through the night. They even potty trained at which point any thoughts of a teenager unable to fathom a toilet disappeared.

I do believe that education and learning is a constant, and I continue to strive to do my best, to learn about ideas new and old, to read and read again, over and over until my brain has definitely absorbed the latest concept in child rearing. My conclusion though, is this has to be paired with a great deal of common sense, determination and experience. Neither one nor the other will suffice alone, I love being a parent but it is a job of sorts after all, and I maintain that all jobs, whatever they may be, require time and patience to master.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Staycation postcards: A final flourish, week two

We started the final full week of the summer holidays in great spirits. It’s birthday season in our household so we have a bounty of new toys and books to freshen young minds (and old!). Our two eldest boys’ birthdays are just 9 days apart and only a month after my husband’s birthday so the summer months are filled with celebration and fun.

Unfortunately whilst we can make meticulous plans, some elements such as the weather can put the kibosh on these. Such as it was on bank holiday Monday when Mother Nature felt that a good watering session was in order. And not just a quiet little, “excuse me I’m just going to sprinkle some water on the grass” type of watering, rather an upturned bucket type of watering. Plans for a fun filled family day out at a nearby museum were therefore postponed and instead we had a science and craft day at home with stories and den building thrown in for good measure. Air drying clay was moulded into various shapes (mostly snails and cars, in keeping with current favourite interests), water experiments complimented the mood outside and stories in the den were a lovely way to spend some quality family time.

Undeterred by the rain which continued further into the week than the weather forecasts would have us believe, we ventured to a local garden centre on Tuesday for lunch with my parents and a visit to the pets area which housed tropical fish including Rope Fish which we watched, and were watched back by beady, uncertain eyes. Garden centres are a fantastic cheap (or free) way to while away a few hours and discover a feast of interesting plants, garden apparatus and if you’re lucky a few pets too.

By Wednesday the rain had eased to drizzle so we escaped to Conkers. Set in the heart of the National Forest, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Conkers plays to the land around it. With lakes, trails, a maze, a wonderful playground, a small train and a barefoot walk no amount of temperamental weather could dampen our enjoyment. For the moments of heavier rain a discovery centre provided entertainment through hands on educational exhibits. A thoroughly enjoyable day out and one that we would recommend!

The week ended much as it had begun, library visits, park visits, reading, playing, dancing, and all those wonderful moments of exploration that regularly pass by the in the midst of more planned days. A highlight for our boys was managing to track down 10 snails in our garden and feeding them cucumber, and then going out for a celebratory restaurant lunch!

I have absolutely loved this 7 week summer holiday and I don’t feel at all ready to let it end. It has been a whirlwind of days out, days in, new places and old, family and friends. Just perfect. I hope that you have enjoyed our staycation postcards and that they may even offer some inspiration for new places to visit for you and your family.

The Freerange Family