Thursday, 5 April 2012

Toy Review: Birdwood Playhouses

Our new playhouse arrived this weekend!  Hurrah!  I've got big plans for this little house which I'll post about as I get it done, but for the moment it is being used empty and the kids are loving it.

I ordered it from Birdwood Playhouses for the bargain price of £250.  Their basic small playhouse runs less, but I had ours customised.  Andrew, the owner, added an extra window, window box, stable door and painted it for me which are standard customisations.  He also made the house taller and the door taller at my request as my boys are tall and I'd like them to get a few years use before they are stooping to get in.  The delivery was reasonable and the delivery company was fantastic.  It came as 4 walls, a floor, two pieces for the roof, the roofing felt and the trim.  There were basic instructions and the only tools I used were an electric screwdriver, hammer and stanley knife.   My only quibble was I would have found illustrations or more detail instructions useful.  Having never put roofing felt on a roof before I had to experiment to get it right (and I'm not entirely sure it is, but it keeps out the rain so far!).  
I didn't realise quite how tall the door would be and in hindsight would have made it a bit smaller as you can see that the shorter kids aren't going to get much use of the stable door until they grow a bit taller!  This doesn't seem to affect their enjoyment of the house though.

Overall I love, love, love it.  It is sturdy and well-built.  The customer service was excellent.  Andrew even phoned as he was doing the painting to explain the colour to me to check it was what I wanted (it is a light grey, not periwinkle as it looks in the photos).  I feel good that I was able buy one from a small UK business, rather than an off-the-shelf made in China from one of the chain stores.  I also love that it is wood - it wont still be around in a landfill in 500 years creating problems for future generations.  Great value for money.  I highly recommend Birdwood Playhouses - go check them out if you need an awesome playhouse too!  

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Sensory Bin / Discovery Box: Valentine's Day Hearts

A bit out of season, but this was one of my most popular sensory boxes and got regular daily play through the whole month.    

Included in the Valentine's box were 2 lined baskets, a couple of packs of plastic hearts, a pack of painted wooden hearts, a pack of red plastic jewels, some red wire balls and a couple of stray Christmas decorations.  The containers are small wooden bowls and an empty red bucket.  There are metal scoops in each of the baskets and a large pair of wooden tweezers and a small pair of tongs.

To extend the play I firstly added a mirror.

The following week I added a treasure chest.

I found the children used this in very different ways.  The younger ones enjoyed the sensory experience - running their hands though the hearts, listening to the different materials rattle in the the different containers, transferring and transporting using all the items.  
The older children used the materials for sorting and imaginative play - setting up shops and kitchens.  

Can't wait to use this one again!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Sensory Bin / Discovery Box: Gardening (with optional water station)

The weather has been glorious here in the West of England for the last week or so and all my attentions have turned outdoors.  I have a small stockpile of posts to write about some of the ways I've been making my tiny garden a haven for outside exploration and play.  I'll try to get a few more posts up in the next week to compensate for my bloglessness over the past couple of weeks (we've been sick here.  repeatedly.  annoyingly.) However, first I wanted to share the new gardening sensory box.  

After the Spring Birds sensory box, the contents of this one aren't particularly spectacular: compost, seed packets (fantastic fine motor skills practise - learning to tear delicately so as not to spill the seeds!), small recycled plastic pots, child-sized gardening tools, gloves and a watering can.  Great for kids of all ages. The baby likes to get his hands in the compost and explore the tools and pots and the older kids figured out how to plant the seeds in the pots with no adult instruction needed simply by looking at the materials available and figuring it out.  Love it when that happens!

This is a great one on it's own.  However, the addition of the 'water station' has seriously extended the scope of play with this sensory bin and I really recommend it. 

I don't have an outside water tap in my garden (don't get me started, it is the biggest gripe I've got about this house).  Rather than live without a water source this summer or let the kids run in and fill endless watering cans spilling through the house with every step, I've simply bought a portable water carrier.  It folds flat when not in use (crucial for those of us with no storage space) and holds 15 litres when full.  I specifically looked for one with a turning mechanism rather than a button to push in and hold.  I felt that a push button may be too difficult for the kids to use independently (particularly when filling bottles), whilst the turning mechanism is a great way to build up those hand and wrist muscles.  The downside is that the kids have to learn to turn off the water or it all drains out.  Next to the water jug, I've placed a spray bottle and another watering can.  On the other side of the sensory table (not pictured) is a shelf full of other items including scoops and containers which are always available for use.  I deliberately only put out a few items so that there isn't too much choice*.  

This combination kept them all busy and entertained for hours, which is a very long time indeed.

*It is my belief and experience that too much choice leads to overwhelmed kids who don't play deeply, but throw things around and bicker over ownership.  Life is too short to set myself up for this.  I'm too lazy to sort out all the wars over stuff.  They still argue with less stuff, just not as much.  And they are less likely to throw.  I can't stand the throwing.  Because then I feel compelled to tell them not to throw and to pick up the thrown things.  Sometimes they don't want to do this and whining commences.  I can't bear the whining.  Or the thrown things.  Or myself sounding like my mother.  So, I just put a few things out. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Simple Project: Rainbow Bird Mobile

We are in full Spring mode here, even if the weather isn't quite as warm as I'd like.  One of the things I've been working on in spare moments is this rainbow bird mobile.  Easy, cheap and cheerful!

I ordered the polystyrene birds from Yellow Moon with the intention of just quickly painting them and hanging them in the front window.

However, as you can see, the paint didn't cover very well so I had to adjust my methods.

I dug out some tissue paper and glue and shredded two variations of each colour.  Then I just glued the paper over and let it dry.

Once it was fully dry I added small hook and eye screws to each of the birds (except the purple one which only has an eye on the top of the bird).

I used a small piece of string to hang the first one and then just connected the others using the hook and eye screws.  I've got some left over birds I plan to set out for the kids to do their own mobiles - great process art for them and a finished 'project' for showcasing around the house!  

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Montessori: Posting Eggs

One of the little girls I look after is mad for posting in any form.  I put this Easter themed activity together with her in mind, but added numbers to the eggs as a way to introduce written numbers 10-20 to E.  He is still working with the wooden sandpaper numbers I made a couple of weeks ago, but is beginning to verbally count beyond 10.  

I started off by cutting a slot in the top of an empty peanut butter jar.  Ta da!

I printed the numbers on Easter coloured cardstock, cut and glued it to some squares of cardboard I had already.  I used Montessori Script just to keep it consistent with the numbers the children are already using.

When the cards were dry I cut them into egg shapes by hand, ensuring that none of them were too big to fit through the slot in the jar lid.

I added some shredded paper 'grass' into the jar to make a nest and placed the eggs into a small wooden bowl.  Added to a small basket and presto!  Posting eggs!  

This has been far more popular than I anticipated.  The 4 year-old I mind keeps getting it off the shelf and enjoys telling me all the numbers.  As he has mastered his numbers already I didn't expect this activity to have much appeal for him.  M, the little girl this was created for spent nearly an hour yesterday working with this.  In addition to the posting, she loves twisting the lid on and off to get the eggs out.  Handing me the eggs was also good fun.  Best of all, the whole lot can be recycled once we're done with it and I don't have anything to store!  Hurrah!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Sensory Bin / Discovery Box: Birds

I am a HUGE fan of the sensory bin / discovery box and always have one out for the kids.  I do change them every 4-6 weeks or so, depending on interest and season.  This week I've put one together around a bird theme as the birds have all come out and are chirping away in my back garden (unfortunately it won't be long before my cat starts leaving them as 'presents' for us, upcoming talks about the circle of life me thinks).

I've included lots of different sensory elements: the lentils for pouring and sound, smooth cool rocks, both wooden and feather birds, feathers and wool for building nests, different size eggs and egg cups.  I've also included a pond / bird bath area where I've re-purposed the glitter bag from my squishy bag table

The lentils were meant to be of the green variety, but my on-line order keeps getting delayed and the kids were badgering me about when they were getting their new sensory box.  So I've put aside my adult ideals of aesthetics and just used the yellow lentils I had already.  The kids don't mind and, let's be honest, it is all going to end up on the floor anyway!

With each box I try to change up the utensils and containers included to facilitate different types of play.  For the Bird Box I've included the utensils below.  The little 'melon baller' type scoop came from a little bug specimen kit I bought from Homebase.  They are really cheap and one has already needed gluing, but the kids  LOVE them.  If anyone knows where I can get better quality ones please share!

As an extra treat I've included a secret element to this box.  When I introduce this box I will initiate a conversation about birds: bird homes, birds fly, water birds, bird babies and nest building, and bird food.  Where do birds look for food?  What do they eat?  Where do we find bugs?  Oh!  Under rocks you say?  Well let's have a look!
Oh yes, gummy worms and chocolate covered raisin 'bugs' hiding in crushed cookie 'dirt' for them to dig for and pick up with their tweezer 'bird beaks'.  Taste!*

After the novelty of the sensory bin wears off a bit I'll add some other bits to extend the play.  I am working on some clothes pin birds to clip onto nests.  You may also have noticed that there are no trees in this box - we'll be hunting for suitable trees together in some woods behind my house next week.  I'll also be looking for some suitable branches to cut into tree blocks, but that's another post.

*I am not insane enough to leave this out - this bit of the box is for limited supervised use.  After meals.  I don't want sugar-crazed kids running around my house with tweezers.  Just sayin'.  


We've gotten hours of play out of this Bird Sensory Bin.  The 'mellon baller' grabber toy is a favourite by far.

Also of note - the 'dirt' box was not as popular as I expected.  I don't think the kids really understood what it represented.  E did enjoy getting his hands in it and eating it, of course.  However, on a walk over the weekend we found some real bugs under a log and he tried to pick one up and eat it.  I still think the 'dirt' box is a fun idea, but probably with older kids who aren't so literal!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Toy Review: Grimm's Spiel und Holz Extra Large Wooden Stacking Rainbow

I love this rainbow stacker from Grimm's.  No, really.  It makes my heart sing and I intend to own it for the rest of my days.  Ostensibly I bought it for the children and I do let them play with it.  This is one of the very few toys we own that doesn't get rotated off the shelves.  Sometimes I do move it around just to rekindle interest though.

The Rainbow Stacker from Grimm's Spiel und Holz Design is a truly beautiful toy.  Handmade from sustainably forested woods (mostly Alder according to their website), their toys are finished with water-based dyes.  The colours are bright, the dyes are even and the wood is light enough for children to use safely, but robust enough to withstand actual play. DO NOT let your kids stand on the pieces though, they are not designed to be weight-bearing and will crack and break (so I've been told).  If this does happen you can order replacement parts off their website.  Grimm's is a well known producer of Waldorf (or Steiner) inspired toys and has an excellent reputation for making beautiful, functional, open ended toys.  There isn't much more you can ask for really.

The rainbow gets regular use in our house.  At the moment E mostly makes a tunnel or bridges for his cars and trains.  Other children who visit have used the arches as animal shelters, sorted them according to colour, stacked and just generally arranged the pieces.  When E was younger he loved rolling balls and cars back and forth through the tunnel with any willing adult.  Because the toy is so open ended I expect it to be used for years and years, particularly as the boys' construction play becomes more advanced.

The Grimm's Stacking Rainbow comes in 3 sizes - small, large and extra large and costs from roughly £15 to £50 (or $20 to $80).  We went all-in for the extra large which has 12 pieces and I have no regrets.  This is a toy I'll pass on to my grandchildren (after I die - I'm keeping it for myself until then).

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Simple Children's Sofa from an Ikea Bedside Table

So I've been on the search for a suitable child-sized sofa for a while now.  Everything I've come across is too big, too bland, too childish or too expensive.  I was recently browsing IKEA Hackers and inspiration struck.  Here's the result!

I started with the RAST bedside table from Ikea for the bargain price of £8.99.  I wanted to have some storage underneath so made sure to drill the new holes for the seat high enough to fit a couple of baskets underneath.

Once the seat was fitted I toyed with the back support until I was happy with the angle, made a couple of marks and then guesstimated where to drill the holes.  Not hugely precise, but I've got a pretty good eye for these sorts of things.

The finished sofa frame.  Complete with pen.
What I don't seem to have a good eye for is when my child is drawing on sofas with pens whilst I am building them. Clearly not one of my best parenting moments as despite being less than 6 inches from him I had no idea what he was doing.

I filled the pre-drilled holes with coloured wood filler (I chose a colour that was too dark, so shows quite clearly). When it was dry I sanded the excess off and applied a coat of Danish Oil in the Jacobean Dark Oak with a lint-free cloth.  In hindsight I should have used a small wood dowel to fill the holes and stained over them.  A bit of wood filler would still have been needed, but the finish would have been much nicer.

For the cushions I opted for easy.  I bought two Lusy Blom cushions (£4.99 each) also from Ikea and simply cut one end of each cushion and took the stuffing out.  When they were empty I measured and cut the excess fabric off, stitched the ends and put roughly half the stuffing back in.  I made small throw cushions from the fabric remnants.

The end result was less than £20 and fits two small bums comfortably.  I love it.  More importantly, so do the kids!


Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Toy Review: Djeco Tac Boum Pom (or the Wooden Apple Tree!)

Djeco's Tac Boum Pom is a wooden ball track disguised as an apple tree. 

The small bird is spring-mounted and the bird bends back to let the ball through to make its way down the tree and over the leaves to bounce off the small flower at the base and make it's way to the front again. We bought this for E's first birthday and it was one of his most beloved toys. The bird on our tree does not bend back with just the force of the ball and requires the child to push it through the hole. This seems to add something to the toy though and makes it a bit more interactive. 

Which brings me to the big downside of this toy – it really only does one thing. The lack of versatility means it is only going to hold a child's interest for a brief period of time in their development. At 25 months my son only gets it off the shelf about once every two weeks, as opposed to playing with it multiple times a day when he was younger. 

 O (7 months), is just starting to eye it up and enjoys waving the balls around and watching them to down the tree. His hand-eye control isn't yet developed enough to put the balls on the track or push them past the bird unassisted. He's trying though!

Great for small babies up to 2. The disappearing and re-appearing 'apple' is fascinating for little ones developing object permanence. E loved mastering putting the ball on the track and pushing in past the bird. It also makes a pleasant plonking noise bouncing down the leaves at the base of the tree.

Quality: This toy is fully painted and looks to be constructed of both real wood and MDF (I'm guessing). I would say it has average durability – the MDF tree part of the toys has several dents and minor chips in the paint where it has been dropped. However, the finish has held up much better than some of the other wooden toy brands we have purchased, the wooded tracks still look new. The balls have been thrown across our tile floor more times than I can count, but there are no chips in the paint at all. Unlike many other ball track toys, this one is smooth and the balls don't bounce off the toy at any point (as long as it's on a flat surface), meaning the ball returns where it's supposed to. It is a beautiful toy and one of the first that children and adults are drawn to in our house. I expect Tac Boum Pom to last through many children.

Green factor: Despite repeatedly e-mailing the company I've not had a response to my enquiry about whether they adhere to an Environmental or Sustainability policy of any sort. As always, I assume this means that environmental impact of the toy, materials and manufacturing are not taken into consideration. Djeco looses big points with me for this (and their lack of response to their customers!).

Value for money: Djeco's Tac Boum Pom is unique, beautiful and functional and it has been loved in this house. Retailing around £40 it is pricey. Despite it's limited shelf-life I would purchase another ball track toy. However, the finish could be better and I would prefer a fully wood version.  I love this from Selecta and if someone wants to send me one to review I would.  Just sayin'. 

Friday, 24 February 2012

Friday Fun: Squishy Bag Table

I'm a big fan of the squishy bag or glitter bag.  Simple, cheap, and mess free - what's not to like?  I have used these with kids from babies to 6 and they are loved by all.  Even the adults who venture into my house can't resist them.  If you haven't seen these before the instructions are simple: fill a plastic freezer bag with something squishy, zip it closed, and tape over the top edge unless you want little hands prying it open.

In order to encourage some mark-making and colour experimentation I recently decided to do a whole squishy bag table. I taped white paper down (which aids visibility when mark-making) and then taped 5 squishy bags to the paper.    

This one contains super cheap hair gel (15p a jar at Sainsburys!).  I used two jars and then added in some silver glitter, because who doesn't like a bit of sparkle?

These are filled with paint.  As they get squished around the primary colours will mix and, hey, accidental learning!  Or oblivion.  I think my job is to provide the learning experience and they 'get' it when they get it.

The last one is a combination of hair gel and some globs of red and blue finger paint.  You can't really see in the photos, but I've placed a shatter-proof mirror under the bag for discovery.

In the centre of the table I've placed a box with different objects from our heuristic play basket for mark-making.  

On the shelves above the table I've 'planted' more mark-making tools for discovery.

Huge success!  The kids were really engaged with the bags and trying out the different tools as well as using their hands and fingers. 

I don't have a photo, but my 7 month-old loved them as well - I sat him on my lap and he squealed with utter delight as he pushed his hands into the bags and banged on them with the different objects on offer.  He also smooshed his face into them in an attempt to get it in his mouth. 

An excellent sensory activity for building fine motor skills, learning about colour, and practising first letters and pre-writing mark-making. 

My playroom table is wall mounted, so I am able to fold it down to make a 'squishy bag wall' after the table looses some of its novelty.  In addition to extending interest, it allows the children to experiment with the bags in a different way as the paint and gel pools in the bottom of the bags.

Most importantly - it was fun.