5 things I’ve learnt about long car journeys with small children…

Thirteen hours in a car with two small children does not sound like fun. Unfortunately, (or possibly very fortunately) I didn’t think about this before I booked our holiday in the Vendee… a thirteen hour drive away. I spent a long time researching ways to entertain a two year old and a five year old (and had two willing volunteers to test them) and here’s five things I learnt:

1. It is important to know where you’re going – printing off a map of the journey with the route on seemed to give Quibble a sense of ownership because he could see where we were. ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ was replaced with the slightly less annoying ‘where are we on the map?’
2. Busy hands make for quiet mouths – Both kids love play-doh, so to make it child friendly I put it in balloons making a stress-ball that could be squashed into simple shapes (although Squeak’s bananas bore little resemblance to the actual fruit). Another favourite was fiddling with pipe cleaners – Quibble made me a crown, a bracelet and a snowman and Squeak, well, she mostly just squashed them.
3. I Spy gets old very quickly – we were bored of it before we left Derbyshire, but we got a lot of mileage from a ‘Who can see..?’ variation and the kids excelled at ‘What am I?’ where we tried to guess the object, person or animal from a noise (Squeak always roared, even after Quibble tried to explain the rules to her). As Quibble loves counting, we tried counting how many of a certain thing (e.g. cow or tractor) we saw in a given time, sometimes trying to predict the answer first. I brought a couple of EyeSpy books with us, and although the kids are too young to start ticking them off and working out their point score, they quite liked going through them and announcing what they had seen.
4. Bags of toys rock – I gathered up all of their smallest toys (many were freebies from magazines) and found two little homemade cloth bags (previously given to them as party bags) to give out special treats whenever they really were bored. Lots of parents recommended wrapping toys, but putting them just a couple at a time in the little bags to pass back required less forward planning, created less mess and meant the same toys could be re-‘presented’. Their favourites were finger puppets, toy phones (they liked to phone each other) and old wallets filled with pretend money and out of date business cards.
5. If all else fails, snacks can save you – We had bottles of water, breadsticks, snack bars, boxes of raisins, biscuits and kinder treats, but the most popular snack by a long way was the fresh baguette we’d bought for lunch eaten Lady and the Tramp-style.

French bread is the best snack!
Baguette babies!

Here comes the sun (please)!

Last week had several sunny and warm(ish) days in a row and I was hit with a sudden need to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Unfortunately, my children don’t seem to share my enthusiasm. To be fair to them, the toys and TV are inside, whereas the garden is a relatively dull square of grass and a small plastic slide, so their reticence isn’t entirely unreasonable. I’ve tried quite a few ways to persuade them outside and these are the top five I’ve found:

1. A picnic – for some reason Quibble and Squeak think this is against the rules, so lunch, or even just a drink and snack, on a rug becomes an illicit treat.

2. Tunnels – we have a few pop-up tunnels in the shed and they are great for hide-and-seek, crawling (and chasing) through, rolling round in, squashing down and popping up… and anything else they can think of.

3. Water play – I’m not great with messy play in the house (luckily they get lots of it at nursery), but water outside doesn’t require cleaning. In full summer heat, we have the paddling pool and sprinklers, but in the spring-time warmth, I gather all sorts of jugs, bottles and bowls, paint brushes and spoons onto a towel on the patio or straight onto the grass.

4. Bubbles – ever since they were babies they’ve both loved watching bubbles. We now have a little bubble machine that I can set up for them to chase, but they are very keen to produce the bubbles themselves, so I also have some big sword wands and handheld bubble-makers for them to use. This summer I have big plans to use string and straws to create a giant bubble wand like this one for Quibble.

5. Box of toys – a little bit like a cheat sensory box, I like to grab a plastic box and throw in some toys and books at random, then take them into the garden with a blanket and some pillows. The kids are always a bit intrigued by what might be in the box and end up playing with the toys in a different way just because they are outside. This week we’ve had cars racing down the slide and Tre-Fu Tom fighting dinosaurs in the jungle (or lawn as it is usually known).

Of course, today it is back to rain and I should probably admit that I have bought them matching all-in-one waterproofs, for those rainy days of summer!

Reporting back to work: Life after maternity leave

Aside from teaching, I can think of few jobs where everyone takes their holiday at the same time. On the last day of term schools empty themselves of pupils and teachers and (although the latter will undoubtedly devote some time to schoolwork over the holidays) when the new term rolls around, nothing will have happened at school while we were all away.

 As someone who hates missing things, this works well for me, but it made the idea of going on maternity leave a very scary prospect. I would be at home, while everyone else carried on planning and teaching and marking. There would be meetings missed, policies changed, new staff becoming familiar and colleagues moving on. More unsettling still, my A Level students would turn into university students while I was off and the new intake would have no idea who I was.

 Of course, by the time I reached my maternity leave I was tired and slow oh-so-ready to do nothing more in a day than a little gentle antenatal yoga or meet up with my antenatal class for lunch. And once Quibble had arrived, there was very little space left in my mind to worry about the things I might be missing at work.

 With both Quibble and Squeak, I returned from my maternity leave in the middle of the school year. I was excited to get back, ready to use my brain again and looking forward to interacting with children whose toilet habits were not my responsibility. Having not taught them for a year, I found that some lessons seemed very out of date, so I planned something new. Old worksheets bored me and so I revamped them. The dull Rites of Passage topic that I’d always hated was given a complete overhaul into an exciting term-long creative group project. All those improvements made the lessons more interesting and the pupils were noticeably more engaged.

 I wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner, but then I looked around at my colleagues. After a long hard winter term getting all their classes started, they had endured a weeks of report-writing and parents’ evenings, capped off with January exams. They had gone into a sort of survival mode, doing what they knew would work, but without the time or energy to do yet more work.

 And every other year, that had been me, too. But twice now, I have been able to attack the second half of the school year with the same energy as we give to the first half and my students have felt the benefit. A year out gave me the perspective and freshness to improve my teaching. It is almost worth having another baby in a few years to inject more excitement… No not quite. But I really hope one of my colleagues will be going on maternity leave soon.

I wish it could be Christmas everyday

It’s nearly time. Christmas is so close I can almost smell the turkey.

I am one of those slightly annoying people who start wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’ on the 1st December and break into seasonal songs at the slightest provocation. I decorate my house near the beginning of the month so I can have weeks of joy from the shiny, sparkly things. I change my route home to make sure I drive past the house with flashing coloured lights around the windows and illuminated reindeer on the roof. I wear novelty earrings and Santa hats and I’m not going to apologise for it.

I’m not naïve, I know it can be a hard time for some people. If you can’t spend the day with the people you love or if you can’t buy them the presents you’d like. There are people in this country sleeping rough over Christmas, there are children going without food and there are wars going on. But because it’s Christmas and I want the world to love it too, I try to help out where I can. I set myself a the target of spending at least as much on charity donations as I do on wrapping paper. I make sure the cards I send out are charity cards and I try to be generous everytime I see a collection box. I know it won’t solve the world’s problems, but it has to be a start.

I love finding a little present to make someone smile or opening a card from someone I haven’t heard from in a while or having an excuse to go out and celebrate with friends, but they aren’t the best bits of Christmas. It’s unpacking the decorations and remembering the best bits of all your Christmases. It’s sharing smiles and trying to spread a little joy at this time of year. It’s taking a moment to enjoy this moment.

 Merry Christmas everyone.


Ten Reasons why I loved Mumsnet Blogfest (and have to go back next year)

  1. It was a whole day of listening to interesting, articulate and intelligent women with only a few token men (most of whom were also quite good, I should say).
  2. I laughed. A lot. Particularly when Jo Brand came on. (And when I learned the phrase ‘mimsiwoowoo’).
  3. For nine hours, my having kids was just assumed and not seen as a disadvantage I had to overcome.
  4. People wanted me. Well, mainly advertisers. It was a new experience – as a teacher you have nothing to give, so nobody tries.
  5. I got to interact with friendly strangers as we tweeted each other on the big screen while the debates went on.
  6. I discovered some new role models; Stella Creasy, Viv Groskop, Sonya Cisco, Prof Tanya Bryon, Laura Bates, Sarah Crown, Helen Lewis, A L Kennedy and Jo Brand. (If I’m honest, some of these may have developed into girl-crushes).
  7. I got to bump badges with other bloggers (no really, we were wearing fancy badges that share contact details when tapped together).
  8. I was reminded how special words are. As A L Kennedy said, ‘I love shoes, but nobody burns f*cking shoes’.
  9. I learnt a new word – ‘aphorism: a truth written or spoken in a concise and memorable form’.
  10. The champagne and canapés.