Sunday, 24 February 2013

Organising Paperwork into a Household Folder System.

One of my goals for 2013 was to 'get the house organised once and for all and maintain it'. I have tried (and failed) on and off over the years to get more organised and I've gradually gained a bit more control, picking up a few ideas here and there but then I got stuck. About 18 months ago we started looking for a bigger house and lots of things that needed doing here, whether they were house maintenance or decluttering, were put on the back burner 'until we moved'. Three failed house purchases later (we have a really complicated system here in the UK) we have decided to embrace small home living...... and finally get organised!

In the last couple of months an awful lot of decluttering, downsizing and re-organisation has taken place, but our paperwork has sat in several boxes in the lounge until today..... it was useful in a way as every time I found some I added it to the boxes...... but it has been nagging at me from it's place beside the sofa!!!

This morning the mood took me to sort it out and I went through it whilst flipping breakfast pancakes for my children - a good use of a long time spent standing in the kitchen!! I made piles of different sorts, put a massive stack in the recycling bin and anything of a sensitive nature by the burner to be destroyed. As I worked I noted that there were two sorts of papers...... those that we used regularly and those that are rarely needed but still important.

I had kept two large lever arch files from a previous massive paperwork purge and into these I neatly filed everything in plastic pockets between dividers, using large white labels stuck back to back over the edges of the dividers (to cover up the previous writing and to make them stick out more. I was happy to be recycling stationary from previous uses...... I had been momentarily tempted to create pretty labels and covers like I have seen on numerous other blogs and sites but quickly decided that it wasn't necessary and my financial statements would be perfectly happy in a plain folder!!
The short term folder has space for gift lists, schedules, budgeting and goals as well as pure paperwork. I like an idea that I've seen before where the folder was like a household manual that could be picked up by someone else if there was an emergency and things would run smoothly - so it included things like times and addresses of sports lessons, doses of medication and where to get a replacement prescription, phone numbers of friends who knew the children well and could help out and so on. There is still some work to do to get all that together but the paperwork is well organised at least!

To finish off, there is a 'to-do' file and a 'to file' folder in the letter rack in the hall, simple hole-punched plastic folders that open at the top and are easy to add things to. I deal with the mail as soon as I pick it up and recycle and file whatever arrives. A 'one in one out' approach works for things like water bills and I keep other papers for longer such as a year's worth of payslips. I have tried a few different ways of organising it over the years but I have a good feeling about it this time! It feels good to be one step closer to having a properly organised home and life!!!

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Scripted Earth Science/ Geology session on Fossils

Science is 'my thing' but I didn't realise until recently what a gift it was to understand it easily and how many other parents didn't feel very comfortable with it. With this and my 2013 goals in mind, I offered to put some things together for a new monthly home ed group that we are involved with. Here is the basic script that I wrote (it was embellished and altered as we went according to the children's responses!). The PDF of this session is available here
Beginning – Story Sandwich
Tell the story of coastal animals that met grisly ends and encase them in a bread layer as I talk – shaped marshmallows for jellyfish, flat laces for seaweeds, milk bottles for fish, chocolate mice for shelled ammonites, cover it in plastic, put heavy books on it and come back to it later.
Part One – What is a fossil?
If I wasn’t here any more and you wanted to tell a stranger about me, what would you say? How would you describe me to them? (blue eyes, brown curly hair, clothes wearing, woman etc)
Show children the picture of the fossilised dinosaur – What can we tell about what this dinosaur was like? (big, had horns, teeth etc) What about the colour, the pattern on the skin, did it have fur or scales? How do we know? Do we know for sure or are we guessing? (discuss children's ideas)
We struggle to answer some of these questions because when an animal was fossilised, not all of the animal became the fossil. Which bits do become fossilised? (bones/teeth) What happens to the other parts? (eaten/rotted).
Have you ever watched a wildlife film where a lion kills an antelope or something and lots of animals come and pick at the carcass until there are only bones left? Do you think that happened to dinosaurs?
What if the animal died by a river and then there was lots of rain and the river burst its banks and a huge torrent of water rushed down and swept the bones away? What might have happened? (demo this with remains in tray and jug of water as the ‘torrent’ washing them away) It splits the bones up/spreads them out so they aren’t altogether as one skeleton.
Do you think it is easier for palaeontologists to guess about the animal if the bones are altogether or scattered down the riverbed? (lead them to suggest easier if not scattered) Why is it harder if they are scattered? (because like a jigsaw to put back together – demo putting the ‘bones’ back together the wrong way to make a silly skeleton).
Play Fossilisation Game
Children are given roles to play that match the coastal creatures in the story – seaweed (waves), fish (wiggle and blow bubbles), jelly fish (bob up and down), ammonites (twizzle round), Flying dinosaur (flap arms and squawk), sea predator (shark fin and ominous noises made).  Shout ‘go’ then ‘freeze’ and walk around, touching various creatures on the head and announcing the grizzly end that they met and which meant that they weren't fossilised e.g. seaweed rots, jellyfish washed away, fish eaten by flying dinosaur, etc etc. Shout ‘go’ again and continue until only two left – ammonite (buried in a mud slide) and sea predator (dies from old age, sinks to the bottom and is covered with sand brought in by a coastal storm).  Explain to the children that this shows that not many animals became fossils, it was actually very rare for it to happen and they are pretty special!
Part Two – How do Fossils Form?
So we know that fossils are the remains of ancient creatures and it is rare and special, but HOW does it happen? How does this (hold up dinosaur) become this (hold up dino skeleton), (talk about answers the children give).
Have a look at some fossils that we have and some pictures. There are different ways that animals and plants become fossils, and I’ve set up some activities for you to have a go making some of them for yourself take the children to the activity table and go round it, talking them through the types of fossil.
There are impression fossils - imprint fossils, small thin things like leaves, feathers and fish became squashed in layers of sediment and rotted away, leaving the imprint of themselves behind and ‘mould and cast’ fossils where a bigger creature such as an ammonite was buried under the layers. It took longer to rot so kept its shape as the layers turned to rock. Eventually it rots and its size and shape is left exactly in the rock (the mould). The cavity can eventually fill up and this takes on the exact shape of the original animal (the cast) – demonstrate pulling one out of the mould.
fossil 'moulds' ready to be cast
Adding plaster of paris to the moulds to make a fossil 'cast'
There are trace fossils which are marks and tracks left by animals to show that they were once there but have moved on – these could be footprints, egg shells, coprolite (fossil poo) etc.
Making dinosaur footprints in playdough
Preserved organisms – encased in snow and ice like woolly mammoths, soft tissue preserved and doesn’t rot so know more about them. Also insects in sap, hardens to amber over time – hand out ‘preserved’ sweets in jelly cubes.

Mineral replacement fossils – familiar dinosaur bones, water seeps through rock, dissolves bones but leaves minerals in place, turning the bones to stone.
Breaking open fossil rocks

Part Three – How do People find Fossils?
Go back to the sandwich story and peel back layers, see what happened to the different fossils, which were cast and mould, which imprint, which mineral replacement etc – one at the bottom died first, would it be unearthed first or last by palaeontologists? Why? Talk about it, show activities – dinosaur dig in sand and brushes (mark on a grid if they like), coffee ground ‘stones’ with pasta pieces to ‘excavate’.
I used various books and websites for inspiration, many of the activities were adapted from the ideas I read, to suit the materials and the time that we had. Here are some of the links and further information:
  • Fossil sandwich idea, I used five pieces of bread and told a dramatic story as we went about coastal storms, mud slides, and strong currents, and embellished how the various animals died, I used different types of sweets to illustrate different types of organisms - after explaining the different types of fossils to the children, at the end of the script, we unpicked the sandwich to see how the sweets had fared and which type of fossil they thought each one was most like - then they ate them in a bit of a free for all!
  • River flood demonstration was my idea - I bought a sand pit mould set of a large dinosaur and arranged it in an underbed storage tray then 'washed it away' with a jug of water with the tray slightly angled, then the children could see how it would get jumbled up and try to rearrange it.
  • Fossilisation game adapted from here, I made it mirror the fossil sandwich story in what happened to the creatures as they were destroyed or fossilised. The children were enchanted with this game and asked for the post-it notes afterwards to play it by themselves!
  • Imprint and trace fossils were made with play dough and leaves, feathers, a large plastic fish with textured skin and dinosaurs to make footprints.
  • Mould and cast fossil instructions, I found that the ration of plaster of paris: water was roughly two:one to get a nice creamy texture. I made up enough moulds before the session for each child to choose one and make their cast in during the session to take home and allow to dry then paint if they wished. The picture below shows the moulds in the process of being made. I used shells and dinosaur sand pit mould pieces to make the moulds, and the kiwis were needed to weight them down into the plaster of paris as it set (which takes about 40 mins). I then popped them out to dry fully. The tin is a six hole muffin tin, my 'quarter cup' measure made about enough plaster to fill these moulds, the larger ones needed more.

  • Preserved organism jellies - I can't remember where I saw this idea, I made up some jelly with just over half the recommended amount of water and poured it into a sandwich box lined with waxed paper. I allowed it to cool for a short time then carefully spaced out small jelly sweets inside as the 'insects' with the jelly as the 'amber'. The children were cautious initially as I offered them a fossilised insect to eat but caught on quickly!!!
  • Coffee ground stones - I added more sand to this to make it grittier, and baked them for about forty minutes - we needed a small hammer to get into them, the pasta pieces inside weren't very successful, they broke up too easily or couldn't be extracted.... the fact that they go into the oven restricts what you can put inside them.
All told, it went really well, the children were eager to share their ideas and knowledge and loved the activities, there was a real hum of activity around the table afterwards and children of ages ranging from 19 months to 8 years anjoyed the hands on activities. All the families are keen for another session so watch this space for further earth science next month!!!

Friday, 22 February 2013

A Little Spring Warmth......

I'm writing this on Thursday evening wrapped in a blanket with a hot water bottle on my feet, after spending the day putting coats and hats on and off, shutting doors after children and keeping active to stop the 14C temperature in my house getting to me!! What a change from Tuesday when it was glorious all day, and the back door stood open all afternoon - the thermometer in the house was still reading 14C but I wasn't interested as I was sitting in the garden in a sheltered spot soaking up the sunshine and feeling rather Springlike!!
The children relished the warmth and rapidly shed outer layers to invent pulley systems with ropes o the climbing frame (which they can't actually play on due to the huge stack of wooden cabin pieces stacked underneath it waiting to be built into said cabin).....
Dewi cracked on with his garden to-do list which pretty much resembles my lists in that as one job is ticked off, another one (or two) is added..... he is cutting pieces to box in the new raised veg planter that has been installed......
Faith got creative with the off cuts - this is a swordfish she tells me...... or a sawdust fish as she assembled it underneath where Dewi was cutting wood..... after getting sawdust in her eye she spent the rest of the afternoon with her goggles on..... wish I'd got a picture of that!!
Idris thoroughly enjoyed digging and didn't seem to have dug up too many things that we actually wanted IN the soil.....
Here is the veg planter - it was helping to move this beast over the fence that ended up in broken rib in January - ahem....... it will be worth it to garden at waist height!! And help to hide the ugly pebble dash garage that next door erected two years ago.....
And what was I busy doing? Well it's a tough assignment but someone has to sit still and keep an eye on everyone!!!
And the weatherman? He says we may be back to this by the weekend - booooooo!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Tips for Using the Reading Reflex with Your Children

I discovered the Reading Reflex last year and I really rate is as a way of teaching children to read for the main reasons that it is simple, flexible and suits all children. To be more specific:
  • it simplifies the phonemes that a child is required to learn by eliminating the need to learn 'sp' or 'fr' for example and concentrating on the vowel sounds. Their reason for this is that consonant groups can be sounded out easily (apart from things like 'kn') and do not need to be learned by rote...... so vastly reducing the number of phonemes that need to be both taught and remembered. It groups similar sounds together which helps to make sense and build understanding of which sound pictures belong to which words (for example oe/ow/oa/o/ough) This makes the whole process seem much less daunting to both teacher and student in my opinion.
  • minimal resources are needed and they are cheap and fast to produce. I have looked at many 'teach your child to read' systems over the last few years and find that in general they require the printing out or purchasing of vast amounts of repetitive materials that are costly in terms of time and money. The Reading Reflex requires a sheaf of printer paper, a printer and an evening of cutting out.... a refreshing alternative to most schemes!
  • perfect for teaching a dyslexic child to read as it allows the majority of their 'working brain' to be used in processing the sounds and their applications. Read 'the dyslexic advantage' by Eide and Eide if you want to understand this more, and read this list from for a broken down 'what not to do' in teaching reading list that shows how this program is perfect for a dyslexic child!
  • the bite sized 'lessons' are interchangeable, and interactive without being overwhelming. They cover all they key skills needed for reading and spelling the phoneme groups without becoming overwhelming as there is no pressure put on. You can go at the child's own pace and recap or fly ahead according to their needs. My 'literacy lesson hating' daughter enjoys the RR at which I am amazed and grateful!
It can seem a confusing system at first which may put people off it but I jumped right in and forged ahead and found that it is actually simple and logical once you know how!!!! Here are my top tips for making the Reading Reflex as user friendly as possible:
1) Read the whole book first to understand what you are trying to achieve and how it works.

2)Write a crib sheet for yourself with the major points you want to remember without reading back through the book, such as the orders to do things in and where to start with different children etc.

3)Photocopy and cut out the pieces for the word building, the little mini books and the boxes with the sound groups in. Paper clip them to the corresponding pages in the book to make them easier to locate, use and refer to (the author recommends a system of envelopes but I like having them right there on the page. I also clip the mini book and the sound sorting exercise together with the mapping and sorting box.
4) Use a simple A4 lined book to write the exercises in and any pen or pencil that works for your child.... there are quite specific instructions about where and how to do the activities but important thing for my children is quiet and lack of distractions, which needs some creativity if you have more than one child! I have one child work from the front and one from the back so it is all together and easy to refer back to.

5) Use a record sheet to keep track of where you are. At first I jotted down the dates and used symbols for where we were and how it went but it looked like this:
It quickly became unmanageable as you can imagine, so I typed out a record sheet for the advanced code which both girls were on by then and this is what it looks like:
I want to make it available as a PDF but need to work out how to do it first so for now if you would like a copy, please e-mail me at and I will send you one!

6) Don't be afraid to move on and try the next section if you seem to be wallowing around and going nowhere - you can come back and cover a little of the 'sticking point' section each time you do it until it clicks if you want to!

7) Cross out the words in each box that don't match your dialect or accent, for example I crossed out 'coal' from the 'oe' sound box as we don't pronounce it 'coel' and it would confuse my children.

8) Keep plodding on, little and often, my children will happily do about 20 minutes, and we do it three to four times a week. I shorten or lengthen each lesson/activity to suit their receptivity at the time!

9) Don't be tempted to walk away and leave them to it whilst you do something else - you need to be there to correct as they go, and keep them on task so that the sessions remain short and to the point. You can also observe how easily they do the exercises and whether to recap another day or move on to fresh material. I also note down if my youngest child needs to work on a particular letter formation; my oldest writes using cursive as she found that easier to learn and we learned each carefully together, my youngest has learned to write in a much more organic way so forms quite a few letters incorrectly!

It was hard to get into but I found that after a week or so we were in a groove and it was easy to use and effective as the children began to use some of the strategies in their reading straight away without being prompted. Plus anything that they enjoy doing is a bonus in my eyes!! I hope this was useful for someone!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Balancing Outside Activities with Time Spent at Home

As a home educating parent I often find myself re-calibrating the balance of time spent between outside activities and home. Some families stay home all the time and some seem to be out every day! It can be very tempting, with the exciting opportunities on offer, to spend every day going out taking part in outside activities, and this can fit with the home educating philosophy of many families, such as the autonomous route, or of those that want to make use of tutors and classes. From reading the many blogs of families that live a self-sufficient life on abundant land, staying home all the time can seem like the ideal also, and the best thing to do for your children. This may suit families in small, close communities or those that are very structured in their days and need to cover a lot of material so have not the time to go out. Most families will fall somewhere between the two!

The truth of the matter for us is that we live on the outskirts of a city with a 'large for the city' sized garden that doesn't fulfil the energetic, outdoors loving natures of my children.  And whilst I embrace some aspects of simple living, I don't want to automatically discount all outside activities and then miss something that will enrich their lives or fail to support the children in developing their passions and talents. Our girls happen to be sporty and it is difficult to nurture swimming, gymnastics and canoeing within our home!!

There have been times when I've panicked that we don't do enough and signed up for everything going then hit exhaustion point about three weeks into the month and cancelled the rest of the planned outings and activities! I have come to learn that for us, a 'busy day out' must be followed by a quieter one at home. Neither I nor the children operate at our best when tired and it is much easier to keep on top of household jobs if I am home half the week or more! On the flip side, I would go stir crazy if I never went out at all. I need the company of other adults and I enjoy the occasional bit of head space when the children are running free and I am not needed for a short time!!

So what do we do right now? We have a good balance at the moment. We go to the 'Tuesday Club' from ten til two on (you guessed it!) a Tuesday. There are lots of great opportunities there where other parents and grandparents give of their time and talents for the benefit of all. The girls enjoy History artifact handling sessions, French, Choir and an 'around the world' session there currently, as well as art tutorials, science and cooking activities, crafts and plenty of time for socialising and play (both structured and unstructured). I have not been brave enough to put myself forwards to run a session there yet!!

On a Thursday afternoon we meet with a couple of other like-minded HE families for a few activities, a run around the park and a supportive chat with the other mums. We have done this for about 18 months now but it is beginning to fade off as one family prepares to return to America. We probably won't meet regularly with them after the summer which is OK with me as Fridays are beginning to shape up with some lovely opportunities also and I am happy with two days booked up a week! One of the families we meet quite often at our favourite places to go and I am good friends with the mum so we will stay connected!

Fridays currently have a few things happening. Eve has joined a creative writing group that meets monthly for two hours and she loves it..... an old HE group has been resurrected once a month in our home city by some fresh and energetic mums and it had a really good vibe last month with a few families that gel really well so I have high hopes for it...... and we go to the art gallery once a month for a fine art session on a Friday also..... I am really enjoying the new possibilities that Fridays are offering and hope that they will develop further into some great sessions and activities.

There are also the sports that the girls take part in. Most of these happen at the weekend which suits us at present as Dewi works nights every weekend and I would rather those days were tied up with lessons and coaching than the weekdays when we can spend time as a family. There is gymnastics on Friday evening for both girls then gymnastics for Faith on Saturday afternoon and synchronised swimming for Eve which slot nicely in between each other for drop off and collection times! Sunday morning is Eve's swimming lesson (used to be both but Faith has moved up a level and I wanted her with a specific coach so had to move times/days) followed by church. Monday is Faith's swimming lesson then Tuesday evening is her third gym session. We share lifts with another family for the gymnastics which is a wonderful gift!!

How do I choose what we do and what we pass on? I have a few criteria that I go by:
  • Is it high quality?
  • Does it fit with what we are currently interested in or could it offer new avenues or ideas to explore?
  • How far away is and how expensive is it? (I have an entry cost limit I stick to unless something really special and I tend to stick to things no further than 30 mins away, again unless really special!)
  • Will it suit all the children somehow at some point and will I enjoy taking them?
  • Is it with families with a similar philosophy of life/education as our own? (Whilst we value our HE friends and acquaintance from all philosophies, if I am paying for something that includes a talk/activity/other guided session then I want to ensure as far as possible that it won't be disrupted and we will get the best out of it)
I usually make fairly split second decisions over the trips and activities on offer at any one time but some I do discuss with Dewi and some we try before we decide! Like so much of HE, you have to make it fit with your family circumstances. I see the mother of four children facilitate four times as many sporting sessions as I do and wonder if I should stretch my children more but then see the raw deal her toddler gets and realise we are just right for us. I also see the face book posts of the mother who is at a different outing every day and wonder if I should try to afford to do more but then remember why we need down time at home too and relax again!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Goals for 2013

It may seem a little late to be posting about a New Year topic in February, but instead of one New Year's resolution this year, I wrote a list of goals for the year that I would like to achieve. Some are bigger and some are smaller, but all have featured in my to-do lists for a long time! I went to a life coaching conference last October and learned some really interesting techniques for self motivation and achieving goals. One of them was to 'put them out there', that some how you are more accountable and more likely to work towards them and complete them if you make them public. Public could be the back of an envelope under a magnet on the fridge door, or it could be blogging but here are mine, and here goes nothin'.........
  • get the house organised once and for all and maintain it (I'm SO close!)
  • good momentum with home education
  • build friendships
  • Make time for my marriage
  • change car to a more eco friendly one
  • get Idris to sleep better
  • Blog more - be less afraid of what others think
  • finish rag rug
  • make quiet time dolls for the girls
  • get to grips with technology
  • bake every week
  • give more of my undivided attention to the children
  • pension!
  • home ed co-operatives
  • crochet
I listed them exactly as I wrote them in my notebook. Looking back I am interested to note that the only two things that I listed beginning with a capital letter were my marriage and blogging..... significant? There is lots more I could say of course about each of these, why it is important to me, why it is on this list as opposed to remianing on one of my other lists (insert wry smile here, I have lots of lists!) but I will leave it there. Looking at it again, I can see one that is very unlikely to happen as we have changed our minds about the wisdom of it, and a couple that are in progress already, so perhaps I will have achieved them all by the end of the year!!