EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: MAKE CHOCOLATES FOR FRIENDS!

Each year we set up a small chocolate factory at someone’s house and make simple chocolates with friends – we then divide the creations and give the assortment of chocolates to each family.

This year was a rather impromptu, and on a school day, so the younger members of the families represented their clan in the chocolate making.

If you feel like adding some home made treats to your gifts, then here are our top 3 child friendly chocolate making endeavours:

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White chocolate (melted) mixed with shredded coconut and then simply heaped into blobs of sweet goodness on your foil/baking paper.

We then chose to add some sugar bling to these, just for fun.

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Similarly easy is dark chocolate (melted) mixed with nuts (we like slivered almonds, though any fruit and/nut will do). These then also become blobs of tasty treats on your baking paper.

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Each of these are delicious and very easy for even the youngest hands to master. If you want to get a little creative with an actual Easter egg then you may like to try the following. (Afraid we didn’t do this one this year so there are no pictures to go along with the instructions this time, but it is a simple activity even without pictures.)

  • Obtain a pre-made Easter egg and chocolate chips of the opposing colour. (Ie white chocolate egg with dark chocolate chips, or dark chocolate egg with white chocolate chips.) The colour of your base egg will be the primary taste, so choose as per your gift recipients tastes!
  • Open your Easter egg and sit in an egg cup.
  • Melt you chocolate chips in a separate bowl.
  • Using a paintbrush (suitably clean for edible artworks!) simply paint your own pattern onto the existing egg (using the melted chocolate chips of the opposing colour as the ‘paint’).

If you are ‘painting’ with white chocolate you can even add a little colour paste to your chocolate (just as you would normally when colouring chocolate) and this gave us a range of coloured ‘paints’ to work with. We did this last year and even added a few edible sparkles to our eggs.

Of course once you have finished your chocolates let them set while you make a card to accompany the chocolates, and lick the bowl clean!

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Enjoy your Easter creations.

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CONFESSIONS OF A CRAZY PARTY MUM (AND WHY WE CHOOSE TO CELEBRATE BIG).

When I first had my children I was among those who openly looked down on those talked about ‘party mums’, believing that the party was more about their own status as a mother rather than the child. I would joke about people who hired an entertainer and a pony for a first birthday etc!

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But as my children have grown I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that most people probably see me as one of ‘those party mums’ and to embrace the role without feeling shame. I have grown to love kids parties more than is normal.

Ridiculously, we start preparing for parties about a month in advance, my kids and I work on costumes, decorations, games, gifts, invites. It is a whole family affair and the sibling of the birthday girl is just as active in party-mania as their sister. We make most of it ourselves and our life just becomes a little world of whatever theme they have chosen. We’ve had Bugs, Dinosaurs, Monsters, Princesses, Fairies, Circus, Solar System, and Beatrice Potter Parties. This year Elka wanted Under the Sea, so we made jelly fish, and mermaids, and sea stars, and pirate ships, and transformed our lounge room into an ocean with shiny blue streamers and LOTS of sticky tape.

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We collected shells so our friends could make mobiles and necklaces, we gathered driftwood, we sewed (and glued) fish for print making kites. I honestly think that the preparations are probably enjoyed more than the actual party itself. But what is this doing to my children?

Sure, they are learning during the preparation process (I don’t mean about how to host a party, but about their chosen theme and a range of practical hands on maker skills). But what is it doing to their sense of celebration, and indeed their expectations of what birthdays are about?

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When I first had children and criticised those vain party mums for spoiling their children and making the party into an event rather than a celebration of the child’s birthday – I used to think that it was better for the child to have a quitter birthday that was more focused on them.

Now I see my children planning a party for their friends. Their birthday is, in many ways, about their friends more than it is about them. They think about what games their friends will like to play, they make things for their friends to take home. They actually think very little about what they will receive for their birthday, because they are so excited about the party we are throwing together. I have come to think that this is healthy for my children. I wish I could install the same philosophy about christmas (but this involves a larger cultural shift that I have less power over!)

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I might be growing children who are disappointed later in life that celebrations are not as overt as they were in their childhood, but instead I hope that they continue this playful giving nature around their own life celebrations. That they are able to share their future milestones with their friends, with out feeling self-conscious about celebrating their own life.

PADDOCK TO PLATE WITH KIDS.

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We are lucky enough to know a lovely couple who invited us to their small home farm for a day of fruit picking and pie making. If you don’t happen to know such a lovely couple with a farm, then there is apple and pear picking at Sorrel Fruit Farm (as we did earlier this year for strawberries) or another PYO farm will do just fine!

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We pilled in the car and headed 40min South. It has been a year since we last visited and but during our drive the girls recalled so much of our last visit (explaining it to us as though we hadn’t been there!) and looked forward to re-living each moment of it this year.
When we arrived we were greeted by smiles and fury friends who’s happy tail wags could brighten any day. My young ladies instantly wanted to start the harvest so we headed first for the blackberries, then the pears and apples, then the tomatoes.

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It is wonderful for the kids to see how much this productive garden progresses each year, and indeed how much food it yields. (With our own vegetable garden still being constructed, it is the perfect opportunity to see how much we can grow and eat ourselves – indeed it wasn’t that long ago in our big history that home grown was the norm!)
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With old varieties of apples, and tomatoes fresh of the vine the taste is so different to the supermarket varieties, and for every spare patch of soil the kids want to know what will be planted there next.
Next it was off to the kitchen to make some pies (and indeed, we even tried our hand at ice-cream making to accompany our pies, though we have not quite mastered this one yet!) Each made (and then ate!) their own special pie (and of course the adults had a good share too!)


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On our way home we stopped by to feed the fallen apples to the calves that the girls had chosen names for last year; Haha, Hoho and Alice are all growing into beautiful bovine. The girls asked after the calf they fed on their first visit (pictured below) and we explained that he had been sold on to make way for the new calves, and that the land could only sustain a certain number of cows healthily. Introducing farming practices in this gentle environment is the ideal way for children to grasp the early concepts needed to understand some of the larger environment issues that face our growing population who loves so much farm intensely so we can have steak for dinner every night!
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After a busy weekend, this was the perfect way for the entire family to re-set for the week ahead. Thank you Jane and David for your wonderful hospitality!

EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: MULTI-SCHOOL GIANT WHALE PROJECT.

This is a not quite as big as a real blue whale, but it certainly is a monster project (unless you are working with a large group, or have an enthusiastic marine biologist on your hands, you may like to scale this one back a little – the Blue Plate Whale is a smaller one to do at home!) IMG_4661 First, fashion a ‘box whale’ from a few cardboard boxes and lots of packing tape. The exact shape of your whale will be determined by your boxes, but we found it far easier than initially imagined to make the basic whale shape. (We also used some packing to help support the inside of the shape, though this was more about what happened to be in our boxes rather than something you need to seek out.) We then had a little more ‘softening’ to do before our box looked truly like a whale. We scrunched newspaper and taped this down with sheets of paper (like wrapping a big newspaper present!). We did this in any places our whale needed a few more ‘curves.’ IMG_4649 Once the shape is achieved mix 1part water ; 1 part PVA glue in a tray. Tear paper into more manageable pieces and dip in the glue before placing over your whale. Aim to overlap your paper for strength and cover as much of the whale as possible. (Our young sculptors were not so focused on the idea of overlapping for strength, but their enthusiasm for covering the top of the whale meant that it happened anyway!) Your whaled dry time will be different depending on the thickness of your layers. Ours took about 4-6 hours to dry on a sunny day. IMG_4926 Once dry we painted our whale (blue of course!) and the squelchy squashy finger paint was a hit, as always. IMG_4930 This particular whale will then visit my 5yos Prep class soon, for a little more decoration and as they are investigating sea creatures at the moment, it will then come back to us for an under the sea birthday party, and then find it’s home at the daycare centre – not bad for a bit of news paper, a few old boxes and lots of little enthusiastic hands!

HOW TO LIMIT SCREEN TIME WHILE BUILDING DIGITAL LITERACY.

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Screen time, it’s an issue that we all confront. An issue that is changing drastically in our kids short lifetimes. I highly recommend listening to this segment from our favourite radio host Ryk Goddard speaking with Professor Stephen Houghton on ABC Radio.

On the other hand we also want to prepare our kids for the future, and building their digital literacy is an important part of that. For a little listen on this front you might like to click over to this segment where ABC Radio’s Rachael Brown speaks with Jillian Kenny about how Australian students are chasing non-existent careers.

As many of you may know, I have spent a good deal of my life creating videos for a living. (Everything from film clips to schools programs on drug education – a wonderfully divers and mind-blowing job). Yet when I had my first child we didn’t let her watch TV or videos. Even now, with a 3 and a 5 year old, we still don’t have a TV at our home.

But this lack of TV does not mean we don’t have screen time, we indeed do have a wide range of screens in our house, and our young kids are no stranger to using them: They find their own audio books on the ipad, they send e-mails on the laptop, they draw letters on my phone (indeed they asked how I could have possibly learnt hand writing in the olden days when there were no ipads with LetterSchool to teach me!) and they also like a good deal of shows on iView (particularly when our oldest is suffering from her Arthritis, there is nothing quite like a movie to take your mind off feeling sore and sick!)

While I certainly don’t believe kids should spend their entire lives waiting for the next show, I do think that screen time comes in a range of different levels of educational quality, and while we are living in such changeable times that there is no clear research from the past that we can accurately apply to the long term effects of what our kids are faced with today, this is how I have built my own personal philosophy on screen time:

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With less than 5% female representation among professional coders (and indeed; low representation across all technology fields) I actively want my daughters to be given every opportunity to “think like a coder”. Fortunately for us my brother is a software developer and has been able to introduce my children to the simple puzzles that allow them to gain the first basics of code. Like any activity for children, these games are fun, playful, challenging and lets them solve puzzles of increasing difficulty. Watching the intensity that my 5oy has when solving these puzzles I am in no doubt what so ever that her analytical brain is building at a rapid rate during this type of screen time. Puzzles that are programmed to respond and change individually with the child’s developing mind is far more advanced than ever before, and indeed personalised development supersedes any previous notion of following a precise generic sequence of puzzles laid out in a work book.

Physical interaction with the screen is something that is not taken into account with many of the previous studies done into kids watching TV. A 3 month old who is learning the finer points of controlling her fingers was held in front of a touch sensitive light pad, and her little arms went wild as she discovered the colours she could create by touching the screen. She explored fine details, sweeping motions and saw what her actions could make. Very few parents would be willing to let their 3 month old baby loose with finger paints, and yet this (less the valuable tactile squashy feeling she will get to experience a little later in life!) was exactly what she was doing. She was painting with light, learning physical control and the relationship between cause and effect. The ‘screen time’ was giving her an opportunity to do something that she would otherwise not have been able to do. Screen time will never replace the learning that is achieved with direct human interaction, but when used as an age appropriate tool (rather than a substitute) the learning potential is immense and to be encouraged.

This TED talk by Salman Khan is a great look at how screen time can assist rather than hinder in an older educational setting.

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Let’s sit and watch something. This is the one we all feel a little uncomfortable about, myself included, and yet in smaller doses I believe that this entertainment is a valuable and important part of growing up. In recent discussions about volcanos my 5yo clearly explained to me the cause of hot springs, volcanos, and tectonic plates (while she was missing some of the technical terminology, her understanding was surprisingly comprehensive!) I asked where she had learnt this – perhaps school? Or did her grandparents explain it to her? No, it was the “dinosaur train” – one of the shows my kids like that I am the least enthusiastic about but in watching it she has gained a conceptual understanding of the Earths structure that astounds me.

I am careful about what my children watch for entertainment because I can directly see the themes and relationships shown being re-created in their games, wiring in to their understanding of the world. But I also know it is important that they have a connection with those around them. I myself grew up largely without TV and radio, and while that had a great impact on my life, my adult friends often need to explain cultural references that I miss because I do not have the same “cultural background” as them. The entertainment of a culture is part of that culture, thus TV watching (even the trashy kind!) is part of growing up and being a part of this culture too. In a sense, it is important for my kids social and emotional development that they know who Elsa is, but they don’t need to watch Frozen enough that they model themselves on it!

Of course, none of us will know how this new kind of screen time effects our young ones until many years from now, and indeed what ‘screen time’ is will continue to evolve at a rapid rate, but this is how I personally navigate the current screen time dilemma. Love to hear how you are approaching this with your young ones.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO: SORELL STRAWBERRY FARM

A Sumptuous day of picking strawberries in the sunshine, who wouldn’t enjoy that!?

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Somewhere along the line we (collectively) stopped producing our own food in favour of supermarkets. While many families (ourselves included) are bringing back a bit of token home grown produce to the table, the true art of gardening for sustenance is not as common as it once was.

As a result, a growing trend in teaching kids about the process of ‘paddock to plate’ is emerging as an essential learning area to cover in the early years. This is a concept we will re-visit regularly throughout the year… And strawberry picking surely has to be one of the tastiest and most enjoyable ways to get started!

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Just past Sorell, this fruit farm was perhaps the children’s favourite experience yet. We met at tthe entrance, paid our entrance fee, and then were let loose to pick as much as we desired (provided that we didn’t leave with more than our container full – eating as much as you can on the farm is entirely encouraged.)

The costs are:

$13.50 per adult

$6.00 per child (3yo and under free)

By the time we left I had no doubt that we had well and truly got our money worth. We were at the farm for about 5 hours, exploring the different fruits at various states of growth, picked continually, filled our containers and our bellies with an array of fruits and all 5 kids were fully engaged throughout process.

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So while we left with a tub of berries each, we achieved far more than the acquisition of fruit:

  • We expanded our berry tasting pallet (even the pickiest eater was willing to try each new fruit that we came across while in this environment, and she found a new berry that is her favourite food now!)
  • We ran, laughed, jumped through the rows (with fairly good sight lines the kids had a little more freedom to explore independently while we could still see them easily). For young children the responsibilities to explore freely with friends are few and far between!IMG_3679
  • We searched, spotted, assessed for ripeness, plucked and tasted each fruit. The day was like a giant tasty tactile game of hide and seek, even the youngest member was delighted with this sensory rich experience.

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  • The kids asked lots of questions and we all expanded our technical fruit knowledge. (The different kinds of bushes that different fruits grow on, what shows us it is ripe for different fruits, what season each fruit ripens etc.) The kids (having seen corn and apples in the field near the berries) can’t wait to return in Autumn for another harvest experience.

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As always, learning is re-enforced by re-telling and/or acting out what has been learnt. The story telling process fires up and connects those exact same neurons almost as effectively as the actual experience itself. I’m delighted that the ‘harvesting’ has continued after we returned from the farm. We have even been treated to a ‘harvest festival’ entirely planned by the children. (With a selection of fruit, herbs (and weeds!!) that they picked from the garden – a good opportunity to hi-light that not all plants are good to eat!

With strawberry season coming to an end, get yourself out to Sorell Fruit Farm for a delightful day of exploration and learning. There are good facilities (toilets, a little shop and even a cafe) it is easy to find, open 7 days, and we highly recommend the experience!

THINGS TO SEE AND DO: BUILD A GIANT SAND SCULPTURE.

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Summers Bay, sunshine, splashing in the shallows, schools of small fish swimming past our feet, soldier crabs in the sand, and even the guest appearance of a stingray swimming slightly out of reach. We were delighted by the spontaneous S learning that we found at our trip to Sommers Bay (Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania). And while we’re told this is not unusual for this location it’s not something you can usually plan for in an outing. (As much as you’d like to, wildlife just doesn’t run to a predictable booking schedule!)

Sand sculptures on the other hand are something you can create at any beach (or large sand play area). Bring a bucket, spade and an (adult sized) shovel to get digging! The kids (and you!) will be amazed at what you can create in a beach trip.

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First up we chose a location, and the kids told me what to draw as I followed their collective instructions mapping out a big tummy, curly tail, long nose and head on the sand. We then all got our little spades and started to dig a big trench around the shape (piling the sand in the middle of the picture, as you would when making a mote around a sand castle.) Gradually the children tired of digging and got a bit distracted safely splashing in the shallows near us, and generally had a good time in the water. As us adults continued digging (and sharing the few facts we had learnt about seahorses!) the children came back and joined us. By the time we were ready to pat down and sculpt the shape, all the children were involved again. The giant 4m seahorse came together remarkably fast, and then much time was spent as the children decorated it with shells.

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The older children planned and placed and organised themselves on a mission to complete the seahorse (very important work, this seahorse building!) while the younger delighted in sticking shells in the sand.

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Sand play is always a winner for many reasons. It’s the elemental stages of physics, it’s tactile, it’s physical… and when done in a team like this the social development, planning, and problem solving involved is spectacular.

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Plus it’s satisfying. Go build a giant seahorse that will be washed away at the next tide. It’s brilliant.

ONE SIMPLE STRATEGY TO HELP KIDS OVERCOME FEAR.

Each of my children, at a particular point in their lives, have become terrified of spiders. Not caused by any traumatic event, but as though an instinctive ‘fear switch’ for 8-legged creepy crawlies is suddenly turned on. I’ve talked with other parents, and this seems common.

Elka, the 3yo, recently started being scared of spiders. She is fine with all other creatures, but spiders make her squeal.

As luck would have it, when we were looking for S words on our first day we spotted a spider on the wall. Initially seen by her older sister who said ‘SPIDER!’ I replied ‘Yes, SSSSpider SSSStarts with SSSSS too! well done!’ But then she corrected me, there was one on the wall behind me. And this is when the screaming started. Elka climbed on the table and squealed in a pitch that could shatter windows!

I trapped it under a glass, and showed it to her. It was a little one (locally known as a ‘daddy long legs’ because of it’s ridiculously long legs in relation to it’s tiny body). I asked Elka to count the legs, to think about how the spider was feeling trapped in the glass with all us big people looking at it. To look at it’s funny knee joints. She instantly relaxed and started using the logical part of her brain to think about the spider, rather than the instinctive part of her brain to react to the spider.

Before long she was drawing the spider, squinting to get a closer look at it’s eyes, and very happy for me to “let him go in the garden so he wouldn’t be scared any more!”

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This is a technique I have read about and trialed a number of times for various situations. In this instance the conditions were right for Elka to face her fear and very quickly overcome it. It may not have been so successful if she hadn’t been as receptive (ie tired or hungry etc) but for now Elka is far more sympathetic towards spiders than she is scared of them.

If only all the problems of the world were this easy to solve!

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Update: This last image was taken recently at SIngapore Zoo and and I thought I should add it to show how Elka’s new found curiosity for our 8 legged friends has truly taken over any fear that we dealt with all those weeks ago, putting in the effort to deal with the situation as we did seems to have paid off in this case!

EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: MAKE SIMPLE BUTTON CASTANETS.

Simple button castanets are a delightfully easy way to bring a little spanish culture into your home.

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Ask your tot to choose 2 large buttons.

Give them some elastic to thread through the holes.

Tie off the back of the elastic and attach to fingers.

This takes just a few moments, then they’ll want to make a set for the other hand!

We then held a little dance performance where each child showed us their moves. What we intended as a simple fine motor skills activity with some cultural background (making the castanets) turned into a full body improvisation of spanish dance and the kids couldn’t have loved it more! (Even Anica, who typically shys away from any performance, allowed her whole body to become a proud spanish dancer – see her take the stage with gusto below!)

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Allowing children to act (and excell) out of their usual comfort zone allows those parts of the brain that are rarely accessed to get more of a look in and build stronger connections for other areas of their life. What triggers this will be different for each child, just as will the skills that are outside their comfort zone! Anica in this instance showed all the traits of a percussive, passionate, extravert in her Spanish solo – where as previously she has told me she is the best at ‘staying in the middle and not being seen’! Anica is likely to always be a little more shy than her outgoing sister, and we don’t want to change this about her, but the more she has the opportunity to choose to venture outside her comfort zone, the more she will be able to function with her whole brain in day to day life.

Without getting carried away talking about the plasticity of the brain, this applies to a variety of what we deem to be inbuilt ‘personality traits’ – Our brain changes to physically become stronger at what we are told we are and what we are allowed to do. As parents, carers and educators we have a huge responsibility to the young ones around us to explore all the possibilities of who they could be, rather than predict or label their personality and limit their ability to grow into the well rounded adults we all want to see in our future!

As an ex-dance teacher I was also delighted to see how this simple prop changed the way the children moved from a technical movement point of view. Having watched a video as part of our research last week (that showed some spanish dancing) the children instantly changed their default flowing movement (influenced by their friends mimicking ballet) into a staccato passionate movement that they had seen in the flamenco dance. Their feet stomped, their arms held power and their little castanets went wild!