Thursday, 26 May 2011

Children’s health in a computer age

Children today face far more alternatives to playing outdoors than we ever did as children. It has been well documented that the number of hours children spend playing computer games and watching television has rapidly increased from just ten years ago. Children between the ages of eleven and fifteen now spend more than 55% of their waking lives in front of televisions and computers, and half of three year olds have a television in their bedroom (The Telegraph, Feb ‘08). Whilst this development may give parents a useful outlet to get some well earned peace it is also storing up problems for children’s physical, social and emotional growth and development.

The big question is how to entice our children out of their rooms and into the parks and outdoor spaces that become even more useful as summer approaches. The best way to do this is for parents to get involved themselves, introducing your child to the outdoors from as early an age as possible. Children who grow up walking and playing in parks, woodland and our beautiful National Parks are far more likely to continue doing so as they get older. Added benefits of outdoor play include getting more vitamin D (a lack of which is currently causing the alarming return of the bone disease rickets) and that children tire themselves out and sleep better at night (The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy). Surely reason enough for parents to get their trainers on!

In this era of frenzied media coverage of child related crimes, parents have become more nervous about letting their children play out in the way we would have done as children. However, with a small number of precautions and parent participation, this perceived risk can be lowered, allowing children to be more active and develop their social skills. These perceived risks can be reduced by parents taking turns to supervise a local group of children, attending group activities at a secure location such as a tennis club or leisure centre, or putting your child on one of many locally available holiday activity camps.

Structured sport is also on the wane, especially among the traditional team sports such as football and rugby. The reasons for this are numerous and relate to some of the issues discussed above. A typical problem occurs with many children feeling disheartened where they don’t make the school football or netball team. The danger here being that they come to associate sport negatively and this mind-set becomes more entrenched, as they get older. In this scenario it is up to parents and schools to develop alternative play and sport options.

Many schools offer a wide variety of after school clubs, ranging from fencing to street dance. Such clubs offer children a route back to sporting enjoyment and may help them discover talents they weren’t previously aware of.

Where lengthy direct involvement is difficult due to busy work schedules, there are a number of alternatives available. Schools and local authorities offer a wide variety of sports and activities which children can benefit from hugely. All that is required is a small time commitment from parents. The results will mean healthier children, who gain vital experience of how to interact with others and learn the vital lessons that both winning and losing
can provide.

As the London Olympic Games approach in 2012, we face a great opportunity to re-engage our children with sport and play. Children can learn that sport isn’t just running around chasing a ball in the cold and the mud. The full array of sports will be on show for all to see. It is up to us as parents to give our children the opportunity to try new sports and get active, the benefits of which will continue to be felt throughout their young lives and into adulthood.

Mathew Burns, Sports Xtra

What's in it for the parents?

When I was nine, our teacher wore dark glasses, grey nylon trousers and the smell of stale cigarettes. Every morning she instructed us to curtsey to a photograph of the queen and stand alone to recite our times tables. I remember the feeling of pointless repetition and disengagement. This was such a bleak contrast to the quiet embrace of the catholic nuns who had founded our convent. From then on I committed only to my friends and to my duty. I scraped by, doodling and dreaming until the year I went to tutorial college to re-take my A levels. There I discovered the poetry of Hopkins and became alive again to that 'dearest freshness deep down things'.

So when a friend asked me recently, 'what makes us choose the education we give our children? What's in it for the parents?' I sat down to unravel my memories and unpick the fabric of the different types of education I have offered my four children.

Eventually I found the red thread woven through my choices - my hope that my children will feel safe enough to remain present, passionate and curious. Dragged through foreign postings, divorce, remarriage and relocation they have attended international, preparatory, independent and public schools. I have tried to balance disruption by sometimes crippling us financially to find coeducational schools that help me to help my children move through their school years with clarity, integrity and vitality.

Faced with my own limitations and inadequacies, I have looked for schools willing to support me in trying to keep the children's bodies and their spirits strong and alive, encourage them to define their unique rhythm, learn to listen to others without losing themselves and be recognized for their inner drive not just their intelligence.

A friend, Linda, puts it simply, "Education needs to help them discover and remain alive to what really gets them out of bed in the morning."

Perhaps, when we consider where to educate our children, many of us are completing our own search and trying to redress imbalance with which we have struggled. Some of us choose to adhere to the safety of a system that is familiar and others make choices in opposing reaction to the education we were offered. We are fortunate to be in a position to choose.

Sarah, a mother at Lewes New School, recalled how, "It was exhausting being a success at school. I wasn't asked to make decisions about who I was, not encouraged to discover what my passions were - just to get the grades. We were driven by the fear of failure. When I came out at eighteen, the only goal I had was to go to university. We were told, 'keep going and the world will be your oyster'. Nobody told us about creative thinking and about how learning is such an amazing buzz. I want my children to have a thirst for knowledge, to experience a complete way of learning."

Our education system is taut with contradiction and cliché. So many schools, state and private, pay lip service to the importance of developing the whole child but their primary drive is to bolster their place on league tables. With glossy brochures and slick PR they subtly invite us to join an intellectual, social or creative elite. I know that I have made choices that have bolstered my ego and fed my desire to belong. If we were honest, we would admit that, sometimes, it is our own insecurities that shape our choices and fuel our fear that our children might not fit into the adult world or be able to adequately compete.

In his book, The Re-enchantment Of Everyday Life, Thomas Moore says, "Imagine a form of education that does not try to change the child or transform it into an adult, but rather provides a place where the child can flourish as a child....Such an education would ask the adults to be full of faith and trust that the child would discover the world and learn its nature and ways over time."

During the time that I was a single parent of three children, I understood the importance of the presence of the other adults in their lives: their grandparents, my siblings and girlfriends, our neighbours, their friends' parents and their teachers. A sense of belonging and of community is invaluable.

Now I am learning to stitch with the red thread. In Lewes New School, I have discovered a place where there is no uncomfortable seam between home and school, where I can place my trust and our two youngest children in a community where both child and parent experience the value of their unique contribution.

Perhaps it is time for us to learn to slow down enough to contemplate our choices, cease the drive to have and start to be; to listen to ourselves and to our children and allow them to live their own lives. We need to acknowledge what's in it for the parents. It's up to us to help our children find the balance between the person they know themselves to be and our hopes for everything that they can or might become.

Louisa Thomsen Brits,

Style and Content

By Charlotte Bates - Factory 55

It’s sad but true that most people’s first consideration when choosing a professional photographer is price. Unfortunately, this can often result in disappointing pictures and a waste of the hard-earned money you were so desperate to save.

Once you’ve decided to have professional pictures of your child or family taken, take your time and look around at what’s on offer. Do your homework, and consider more than just the initial price. Consider value, consider experience, and perhaps most of all, consider style.

Professional photographs can be whatever you want them to be; treasured memories, a bit of fun, or personalised wall art. But if you are going to invest in professional photography, you should think about what it means to you, and how the pictures will fit into your home and your personal style. After all, there’s no point spending money on very contemporary pictures and a modern frame when you live in a traditionally decorated cottage, or likewise paying for very formally posed pictures when your child is a bit of a free spirit. Your photos should capture your child’s personality and quirks. Style should reflect character.

Choosing a style is a hard line to follow. You want something fresh and contemporary, but that won’t look dated this time next year, yet alone in 10 years time. Don’t choose a photographer just because they are offering a free studio session, choose one who will work with you to create pictures that you will love to look at year after year. Photographers tend to have their own distinct style, and these days there is a trend for a more candid, photojournalistic style of photography that captures a moment rather than the more traditional formally posed portraits. Alternatively many portrait photographers are heavily influenced by fashion and beauty photography, but whether it’s romantic, conceptual, classic or contemporary, make sure the photographer’s style works for you and your own personal style.

You also need to consider display options. Choosing frames or wall art can be confusing and expensive, and can either make or break a photograph. Remember you want something that will work with your interior design if you intend to display the pictures prominently, and something that compliments the style of the picture.

A professional photographer is (or should be) an expert in their field, and can give you lots of advice on what will and won’t work in a picture from the concept right down to what you wear. They can also advise you on how best to display the picture. After all, it’s in the photographer’s interests to make sure your picture looks its best as their work taking pride of place on your wall is great advertising for them.

Lastly, make sure you choose a photographer who puts you at ease, and who takes the time to get to know you a little and what you hope to achieve from your portrait session. If you feel comfortable in front of the camera then you are already halfway to a fabulous photo that will last you a lifetime.

Why an outside learning environment is so important in the early years

by Kim Streeton, Well Place Day Nursery

The outside learning environment is an extension of our inside learning environment.  Having an 'open door' policy allows children to choose when they access either environment.  Providing an experience rich in learning opportunities in both areas is important for the development of young children.
The outside learning environment is of vital importance to the physical and mental development of young children. Playing outdoors give children the freedom to run, shout, jump, climb, hide, be themselves, express themselves and really let off steam!
The obvious benefit of the outside learning environment is the physical activity children are getting by crawling, running, climbing, shouting, rolling and jumping.  Children experience and enjoy the outside environment have a much higher likelihood of becoming adults who enjoy activities such as jogging, hiking or walking. With excessive use of the TV, games and computers and obesity becoming an ever greater concern, the learning in an outside environment is critical to a child’s healthy physical development.
Playing outside teaches toddlers about their own physical abilities. How fast can I ride a tricycle? How high can I climb? Can I roll down the hill? Lots of fresh air re-charges their batteries, gets their heart pumping faster and lets oxygen surge into their brains. Being out in the fresh air also helps to dissipate infections that are often spread quickly indoors. Physical play should be encouraged by providing climbing equipment, tricycles, scooters, hills and grass where toddlers can run, roll, crawl and lie. It should not be too controlled, and should allow for child initiated activities, as well as adult led activities.
Construction activities outside tend to be toddlers’ favourite, as not only are they fun, but the children control it. Playing with sand and water, wheeled toys, outdoor art and craft, shapes, bricks and beanbags, writing letter sounds in the sand or with chalk on the ground and matching numbered cars to numbered parking bays, using natural materials for mark making like sticks for painting, stones for printing, and grasses, twigs and flowers for collage making all help develop their motor skills and should be encouraged.
Outside activities are also important for social interaction. Although it should always be supervised, there is less adult instruction and involvement when children are playing outside.  They are given more freedom as to who to play with and talk to and how loud they can talk! Activities that encourage the engagement of more than one child help develop good basic social skills like having a picnic, pulling each other in a trailer or carrying a watering can or bucket together.
Outside activities give the child the opportunity for discovery, and to learn about the world. They learn about nature , the seasons, the weather, what flowers smell like, how plants grow, how snow feels, when lambs are born, what noises ducks make and how to make a tricycle go faster. Having a sensory garden and growing herbs and salad vegetables helps develop smell, sight, touch and taste.  When children discover something for themselves in the natural world, it is retained effectively as it was real, meaningful and fun!
Dramatic play should also be encouraged. Playhouses or other structures that allow children to pretend and impose their own meaning, help to expand their imagination. Games with rules such as 'Tag' and 'Simon Says' help children learn about following instructions and are much more fun (and practical) outside!
Providing for the needs of children in the outside learning environment can be challenging. A variety of factors must be considered; the different forms of play, the level of supervision but most importantly, their safety. We need to give children the opportunity to explore the outdoor world but their safety whilst doing so is paramount. Equipment needs regular risk assessments, equipment must be suitable for the age of the child, supervision must be constant although not always invasive and children need to be dressed appropriately with sufficient sun protection.  Of course having a good effective 'safe in the sun' policy, allows parents and practitioners confidence that the children are safe.
Even babies who cannot walk yet should be taken out in their buggies every day and allowed to sit and feel the grass, feel textures of natural materials and experience outdoor sounds, weather and colours. Outdoor play is educational and fun and should form a significant part of each child’s day no matter what the age!

Let the Children Play

By Wendy Dartnell, AD Landscapes Ltd

There is nothing better than fresh air and natural outdoor play to wear your little ones out!

Don’t we all remember the days when we were safe to run around outside climbing trees, without a worry?  Maybe times have changed, but why not bring the “Good Old Days” back in a safe environment, namely your garden with a hand crafted Timber Playhouse for your children to enjoy.

I remember as a child the joy of having my own “Den” – sometimes sneaking the odd table cloth and plastic picnic bits out of the house to have a mid morning snack and adventure with my friends. Every child dreams of the day that they own their own house (especially girls).  Dressing their Play Houses, inviting their friend in for “tea” – gingham curtains drown for the ultimate in “girly privacy”.

But Play Houses aren’t all about the girly thing, what boy doesn’t want to climb the ladder, leading to his secret hide away to indulge in his treasures found in the depths of the greenery below? AKA you’re back garden. Why not add a timber Fort to the adventure that leads to the ultimate Ariel Runway?! Set only for the courageous.

Providing children with a safe Play Area, not only benefits them but you too as parents! 
While they happily play in the safety of the leafy comforts of your garden, you can sit back and relax knowing you don’t have to get behind the wheel, pay entry to an event (and even more for parking.) You can maybe treat yourself to a glass of chilled wine at the weekend – so everyone’s a winner. Even get some friends over to share the day. 

With the summer barmy evenings ahead of us, BBQ’s are going to be on the menu, while you occasionally turn the meat and vegetables on the BBQ let your little ones and their friends run around the garden, climbing around their Play House – working up an appetite.  Once the food is cooked why not set them up to eat “al Fresco” in their “Den” – a real treat from the norm.  You can then sit back and chat to your friends, knowing that the children are happy and content, whilst you enjoy your food and another glass of some chilled, watching the sun set.  Then taking the children up to bed, knowing that they will be dreaming of the adventures of the evening.  The perfect evening!

The summer months really are an excellent time to put the television to bed for a while – getting the children outside from Breakfast till Supper time is the best mental and physical simulation that they can get.  Why not serve Breakfast during the Summer Holidays in their “Den” as a treat.  Leaving you to set nearby and drink your morning brew.   Once they are finished you can all set about harvesting your Organic Vegetable produce that you planted earlier in the season around the base of your Play House, ready for supper.

Then there’s the “Sleep Over” with camping becoming all the more popular during these trying recession times why not go even easier? Set up the sleeping bags and let your children invite a few friends over to have a “Sleep Over” in their Play House so why bother with the weekend away?! And whilst they are snuggled up tight why not invite their parents to stay for supper and drinks? Any excuse for a social event.

A D Landscapes Ltd are a professional Sevenoaks based company that specialise in tailor-made Children’s Playhouses, Forts, Tree Houses with Draw Bridge and many other magical natural timber structures.  Established in 2001, Director Antony Dartnell trained for 7 years before establishing his company.

“It’s my passion” explains Antony. “There is nothing more satisfying for a Designer and parent to design and construct a Playhouse to suit my clients needs” “The look on their children’s faces as they explore the completed project is worth all the meticulous work that goes into each project.

“There is so much pressure for children to perform educationally, I think that sometimes we can forget that active play, with loads of imagination both relaxes the brain whilst stimulates the want to learn”.  Antony adds.

Aren’t we all sometimes stuck for that special presents for our little ones, with a Tailor Made structure, how could that not put a smile on their face, Especially when they see its been customised with their name and inscription above the door for prosperity.

And there’s more, each structure is Tailor Made to stimulate your little ones whilst complimenting your garden, with a unique feature enhancing the existing tranquility of your garden, there is no need for the overpowering equipment that children’s toys can sometimes bring to your garden. Don’t worry if you don’t have a massive garden each Play Area is designed, constructed and personalised to your own specification to sit, within your existing garden whilst set in proportion for all your needs.  

All kinds of parties for all kinds of kids

by Karen Bryant

There is a huge amount of choice when it comes to children's parties but one thing that becomes clear is that it isn't the amount of money spent that is important. I have seen some fantastic, extremely expensive parties which the children involved will never forget and some very 'cost-effective' parties which have been equally memorable for all the right reasons!

Children are unpredictable creatures at the best of times, and party time can bring out the best and worst in them. It doesn't really matter if he forgets to say "thank you" for a present in all the excitement, or gets over tired at the end of the day and has a meltdown. The most important thing to keep in mind is that this is your child's special day so as long as he is happy, and the party goers have a good time, not a lot else is worth worrying about.

We often hear about peer pressure and it's affect on children, but I think us adults can be guilty of giving into it at certain times. If you want your child to enjoy himself on his birthday, make sure you are doing what they want (as far as you can) rather than what you think is the 'right' thing to do. Talk to your child about how they would like to celebrate their birthday. If they would prefer to have a day trip to a theme park, or go to the cinema with just one special friend, then don't insist they have a big party, just because all their friends have. Most people will understand and will probably be secretly envious that you have got out of organising a big party!

There are so many ways of celebrating your child's birthday that you really should be able to find one that suits your budget and that will make your child's day. As the weather gets warmer you have more options as you can have the party outdoors, but always ensure that you have an alternative ready in case you are forced inside. The earlier you plan and book things, the more likely you are to be able to get what you want. The best entertainers and party venues will be booked up months in advance, so as soon as you have worked out the date of the party book your entertainment and venue first. Most of the other items such as party bags, food and drink can be left to nearer the time.

Unless you feel completely confident in running the party yourself it is best to call in the professionals! You do generally need a focal point to a children's party, otherwise children will be running around your house and this often ends up with tears at some point and arguments when they can't agree what to do. My daughter once went to a party where the party girl had asked if she could organise what they did. When I went to pick her up, the girls were just sitting around and apparently hadn't really done anything because they couldn't agree on what to do!

If you have the party at home, there are many entertainment options such as magicians, make-over parties, science parties, music parties or you could even have a mini zoo. Take a look through this magazine for ideas that you may not have even thought off. When you book an entertainer, make sure you confirm the following:

• Date, venue and timing (ring the day before as well, to double-check).
• Price and what is included, for example invitations, party bags.
• Do they stay to help with the tea?
• What do you need to provide?
• How many children can you invite? This will also be dictated by the venue.

If you are not having the party at home, there are even more options such as go-karting, ceramics or jewellery making parties, cinema, theatre or farm trips, and soft play centres. The type of party will be dictated by your budget and the number of people you want to invite. Your three-year-old will probably be able to invite his whole nursery class to a party at the local play centre, and you are likely to have a relatively stress-free party whilst the children race around. However, your ten-year-old may need to limit the number of friends he invites to a go-karting party.

Whatever kind of party you decide, there are some things that you will nearly always need to organise. Take a look at our checklist to make sure you haven't forgotten anything.

• Entertainment and venue
• Invitations
• Food and drink
• Plates and cups
• Birthday cake
• Candles and matches
• Party bags
• Contact details of parents
• Camera

There are parties for all sorts of children and all sorts of budgets. It's important to chat to your child about what they would like as you may get some surprising answers. Most children just want to feel special on their birthday and to have a fun time with their family and friends. There are plenty of ways you can do this, whether you have a small or big budget, and whether you have thirty children or just their best friend.

Signing with your baby

Whilst speech and language therapists have for years used signs with language delayed children to encourage speech, many parents ask what the benefits are of signing with preverbal infants who are likely to speak soon.  Why is it worth the effort of learning signs, and how do they go about it?
What is “baby signing”?  Babies use all kinds of signs and gestures as a natural part of learning to talk.  Encouraging your baby with extra signs like milk, more, change nappy or tired will help your baby communicate!
Anyone who has seen a signing baby in action quickly realises that it allows babies to express thoughts and needs they would otherwise be unable to communicate, because their spoken language is simply not yet developed enough.  As baby grows into a toddler, the second year of life can be one of great frustration for infants and their carers and one of the major causes of tantrums is the toddler’s inability to communicate.
Signing provides a window into the infant’s mind and personality, as they communicate outside of the here and now.  This enhances carer-child bonding and facilitates closer relationships, reducing frustration all round.
As babies begin their verbal communication, it is common for the same sound to be applied for several meanings.  For example, “ba” could mean bath, ball or even sheep!  When the baby can sign alongside the speech sound it allows the carer to recognise what baby is trying to communicate.  As infants are often over two before they can construct more complex sentences, many parents observe babies mixing sign and speech to create more complicated requests or observations as skills develop.
Research also demonstrates that signing babies have an increased IQ, tend to be more interested in books (using signing alongside looking at books allows an infant to become an active participant in the story telling), benefit from larger vocabularies and engage in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies.
A common misconception is that signing with your baby will inhibit his or her natural instinct to talk, but signing is not a replacement for talking with your baby; in fact it encourages you to talk more!  Extensive research has shown that children become better communicators when their early attempts at communication are understood and they are responded to, not when they are frustrated.  Babies love the sound of their own voice, and when they start to sign they will also make attempt at words.  Signing also allows your baby to understand you better.  You can be very clear about things like No or finished.  It takes the guesswork out of sharing your ideas which reduces everyone’s frustration.  Signing with your baby also helps establish good eye contact, and it encourages you to slow down your speech and highlight the important part of a sentence.  As your toddler starts to use simple two or three word sentences you can use signs to help explore new concepts, such as colours, emotions and even phonics, with them.  This will help them to understand and remember these more sophisticated concepts.
Some simple guidelines to follow when signing with your baby:
Always SAY the word – never sign in silence
Keep it simple – one sign per sentence
Accept your baby’s attempt at signs, even approximate imitations of your signs but...
Be consistent in how you show a sign (don’t change to match their attempt)
There are many ways you can get signing with your baby.  It’s perfectly possible to make up your own gestures or signs.  The sign you use isn’t really important, as long as you use the same sign consistently so that you and your baby know what it means.  For many people though it is quite difficult to think up and remember a whole range of signs and they find it easier (and more fun!) to follow an existing programme, either by attending classes or using a DVD or book at home.

Working together

An interview with Ruth Hart Head of Infants at Greenacre School

 We all know how vitally important it is for parents and school to work together. Ruth Hart, Head of Infants at Greenacre School for Girls in Banstead, tells us about the Home Learning Project for Nursery and Reception children, a new initiative that has recently been launched by Surrey Early Years’ and Childcare Service. Greenacre is one of only two schools in the area currently piloting the scheme.

The scheme was introduced at Greenacre in the autumn term and its aim is for the school to support parents to ensure that the time they spend with them, is educational and fun. It helps parents involve their children in home learning activities that stretch a child’s mind.

The programme is designed to help all parents, but is especially supportive of working parents with young children. It covers some of the routines that parents regularly experience with their children and helps them to ensure these times are a positive influence for learning, development and achievement through warm, loving, activities such as play, talking and reading. Learning through play is very important for young children - and, according to Mrs Hart, learning is more effective and meaningful when children are participating in
practical activities.

She comments: “As a school, the scheme helps us to cement the partnership that we have with parents. We support them to enhance their children’s achievements in their daily routine
and get them involved in their learning.”

This is undertaken through a series of workshops that show how everyday activities can promote learning. Teachers are given a framework by the Surrey Early Years’ and Childcare Service, with suggested subjects and activities. These involve routine activities such as shopping, meal times, bed time, bath time, quality time and out and about.

During Greenacres’s first meeting, a consultant from the Surrey Early Years’ and Childcare Service, together with the Nursery and Reception teachers, introduced parents to the background of the scheme and how it ties in with the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. Six meetings are planned in total throughout the
school year.

At the beginning of each meeting, teachers give a short presentation around the subject and then parents discuss the topic and any specific concerns. Parents then carry out an activity which they can do with their child at home. The first meeting revolved around food shopping. Every parent knows how stressful a shopping trip to the supermarket can be with a small child in tow. The teachers set up a shopping activity with parents, which they could repeat with their children at home. The simple and fun task demonstrated how to involve their children in planning a shopping trip and make shopping activities into a valuable and fun learning experience for their daughters.

The next meeting has already been planned - it will tackle mealtimes. The meetings are enjoyable and social occasions, where parents can chat with each other and teachers about the everyday problems they encounter with their children.

Mrs Hart comments, “We also discussed how important it is for parents to let us know when their child learns something new at home, for example if they rode their bike independently for the first time. We like to know their achievements outside school so that we can add this to their learning journals and celebrate their successes.”

The benefits to the parents, school and most importantly, the children, are manifold. It helps to provide the children and parents with a much more positive experience in every day routines which can sometimes be quite tricky at home. The activities help to make tasks fun for both children and their parents.

Mrs Hart gives an example: “Mealtimes can be a battleground or a big game to young children, which parents can sometimes find very stressful, particularly when the child doesn’t cooperate. The activities help them to remove the stress out of the situation and make it much more enjoyable.”

The project also has a very positive impact on speaking and listening skills as it can provide opportunities to extend their vocabulary and engage the children’s interest. It helps build on the school-parent partnership and teachers sharing good Early Years practice with parents can be of a real benefit to both.

Parents find the social atmosphere of the meetings extremely helpful. It gives them an opportunity to share similar problems with each other, so that they don’t feel that they are alone in their experiences.

The scheme so far has been very successful at Greenacre, with a high percentage of parents attending and participating. Mrs Hart added: “We are hopeful that the scheme will be ongoing at Greenacre and that other schools, nurseries and playgroups in the area will take it up.”

She concluded: “It was an extremely positive experience for both the parents and teachers. We tried to make it a useful session for our parents. Every parent enjoyed participating and said that they would be trying out the activities at home with their children.”

For more information on Greenacre School for girls aged 3 to 18 years visit, email or phone 01737 352114.

What to look for in an au pair - by Zoe Beauvoisin, Au Pairs By Pebbles

Whether you decide to use an agency or an on-line site to recruit your au pair, you need to consider an applicant carefully before inviting them to join your family. A good agency will already have run a first selection before sending you any applicants, which will save you a lot of time compared to using the on-line sites. You will still need to take the time to study each potential au pair - remember, you are the best placed to know what type of person will suit your family.

There are three key areas you should use to evaluate your au pair: Profile, childcare experience and personality.

Profile - what skills do you need?
Your first step before reviewing applications, should be to think about what kind of help you need - is a confident driver essential (check the minimum age on your insurance policy), is cooking an integral part of the position? (Just reheating or preparing meals from scratch?) Will the au pair be helping with homework? (Check their education and English level). Do you need them to help out with pets? (Check they’re not afraid of/allergic to animals). When do you need someone to start and for how long? (Build in time to train and settle them in.) Once you have established the basic criteria, you are ready to make a first selection.

Type of childcare experience
Next, look at their childcare experience both within and outside the family. An eldest child is likely to be responsible and used to looking after siblings.

What type of experience have they had? Have they babysat when children are asleep or have they really had to amuse and supervise the children? Have they entertained lots of youngsters by working in holiday camps? What age group have they worked with? Discuss how you discipline your children.

Try to find an au pair with common interests to your children. A sporty male au pair would suit energetic boys, or a musical au pair could help with piano practice. Someone creative would have good ideas for arty children. A French au pair could help your children learn the language. Perhaps you need someone with a strong character to be firm with your children - but you need to get on with them as well!

Personality - will the au pair fit into your family?
So now you’ve established that they have the right skills and relevant experience, will they actually become a real member of your family?  Think about your family lifestyle - do you love cooking and eating together around the table, or do you prefer a quick dinner relaxing in front of the TV. Do you like sports or prefer museums and the theatre? Are you animal lovers? Do you want your au pair to take part in all family activities or would you prefer an independent person? Try to find out more about their background, their education and very importantly their reason for becoming an au pair.

If you decide to use an agency, choose one that really knows their candidates well and who spends time working with you to find your ideal au pair who not only has the right profile and experience but who will fit in easily and quickly become a real member of the family.

Essential qualities
·      Genuinely like children
·      Motiviated
·      Flexible
·      Open minded
·      Willing to learn
·      Independent

Selection tips
·      Ask all candidates the same questions
·      Interview the candidates using Skype and webcam
·      Ask open ended questions
·      Send important information/questions by email as it’s easier to understand
·      Make an offer in writing stating hours and pay
·      Exchange lots of photos

Au Pairs by Pebbles specialise in French au pairs and home help. For further information visit or call 020 7158 0328

Experience the rewards of running your own business

By Kim and Charli, Mucky Pups, West Surrey

The opportunity to purchase a business package for an established arts and crafts club for children arose three years ago. We carried out some simple research into what was available in the area and then decided to go ahead with the purchase and have been developing and establishing the club in the West Surrey area ever since.

The fact that we were able to run the classes around our family lives and during term-time, plus could continue to use our business experience, as well as creativity whilst planning the weekly themes, was a perfect fit for us.  It gave us the challenge of creating an established name in the world of pre-school art and craft classes in West Surrey, plus the chance to successfully set up a completely new class for a younger age range that had not yet been tried.

Our new venture allowed us to really get our teeth into something new, learn additional skills and useful business practices, in addition to giving us the chance to get back into employment but enjoying the fact that we answered only to ourselves. At the same time we were delighted to be able to continue giving our daughters the attention they required, since the working hours fitted into family life.  It meant the best of both worlds!

In our opinion no academic skills are required, although having said that we have found that having good common sense, a good accountant to keep the money side in order and lots of creative ability and imagination has been essential to running a successful arts and crafts business.  And of course, where would this club be without little people and their carers to enjoy it?  So some knowledge and drive to advertise and promote the club was also essential, but again nothing that was too taxing.

The rewards have been many but to name a few; our creative skills have been challenged on a weekly basis, putting together new and imaginative crafting ideas that cover as many of the sensory bases as possible.  This has been particularly good for keeping our ‘grey matter’ ticking over and has allowed us to accumulate up to three years worth of class
themes and accompanying activities!   One of the biggest rewards has been watching children develop their skills during the course of the term and seeing the delight they get from having completed a craft successfully and to
their satisfaction.

Our motto has always been ‘it is the process and not the product that makes it fun’ and this is very true from our point of view as the business owners and organisers - we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it!  It is also very true from the point of view of the children attending the classes - as long as they have fun putting the suggested crafts together, using the suggested processes (or not!), it doesn’t matter what the end product looks like.  Along with the children we learnt new skills and experienced new techniques along the way, all of which we will store away in our brains to use again at a later date!

If you are interested in running a Mucky Pups business please contact Kim or Charli at or call us on 07500 544828

Taking the family skiing?

by Pip Parry, Ski Power Ltd

If you are considering taking the family skiing this season and don’t know where to start please read on.We have some useful information and tips to help you when considering booking a skiing holiday. 

Which ski resort?
There are hundreds of resorts to choose from and many are child friendly and  have a good selection of beginner runs. The ski runs in Europe are graded Green - absolute beginners, Blue - beginners, Red - Intermediate and Black - Advanced. There are plenty of websites which describe the resorts and as a pointer some of the most popular ski areas in Europe are in the Three Valleys which cater for all levels of skier and children from absolute beginners to advanced.

Most tour operators will provide an all inclusive package to include catered accommodation in a chalet or chalet hotels, flights and transfers as a standard. You will then need to add in the cost of lift passes and ski hire and also ski lessons and childcare - depending on the age range of your children.

Most operators will provide costs for the passes and ski hire and generally speaking you would be best to book all under one roof - especially if you are first timers!  Lift passes in many resorts are free for under fives and many resorts will have family rates. The cost of equipment hire varies but there are usually child ski packs and adult ski packs which are good value.

Catered chalets do seem to be the most popular with families as it is like home from home and you can relax and enjoy being catered for all week. Some of the best value accommodation is likely to be in chalets that have family rooms. So quad rooms in chalets are popular and very often the child price will be very low if you have two children sharing with parents.

Look for chalets that are close to the slopes, lifts and ski schools. Children do get tired and the last thing you want is to have to bus it to the lifts each morning and evening. Most operators will provide an earlier tea time for children but best to check first.

Ski school
There are many ski schools to choose from these days and it depends on the level and age of the children. My advice is to talk to the tour operator and discuss the ski schools with them first as they will know the ones that will suit your needs best.

Private nannies and creche facilities can be booked through the operator - but many do not run this themselves. Again if you can keep this in house then you have more control and can discuss what is best for you in resort. If you have a few children then a private nanny facility is the most flexible and usually most cost effective. For the babies, the creches are good and you can book them in for the full six days and the rates are usually very good. Most UK companies employ UK staff and you should check that they are CRB checked.

Ski wear
It doesn’t cost a fortune to kit out kids or adults these days. You can get some fantastic internet deals if you shop around and if we have a winter like the last then they will get good use out of their kit!

Skiing really is a great family activity and is a fabulous holiday so don’t delay - get searching and speak to the tour operators now.

For a 10% discount book your skiiing holiday at or phone 01737 30 60 29 and quote ABC09.

A Disney World family holiday

We planned our recent two week holiday to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida for months. A plan is absolutely essential not only to gain as much from the trip as possible because there is simply so much to do but also to avoid those long queues. We used the internet extensively to gather information and found an excellent website with fantastic video clips.

Day 1: Shopping for some strange reason came high on the priority list for the girls and provided a chance to overcome the journey. We really liked the shopping mall on International Drive, Orlando near Interstate 4 (I-4) Junction 64 exit. It was full of the latest trendy shops and boutique stores which were ideal for visitors and local people alike. Some well known brand items were good value and major stores had lots on offer.

Day 2: We decided to get up early to beat the traffic and queues for Disney world's Magic Kingdom arriving at around 8:30am in the morning, plenty of time to buy tickets and get past security. Parking was relatively straight forward and cost $14 for the day.

Once we had our tickets, we walked up to the mono rail; there is also a boat you can take if you prefer a more leisurely trip across the lake to the main entrance. The rail takes around five to ten minutes max to reach the destination. Views are pretty impressive with the lakes spanning either side, plenty of lush greenery and in one instance we pass a Disney hotel, to only then literally 'go through' the inside of another Disney Hotel, quite cool. Picking up a copy of the park map confirms that it covers a vast area and there's going to be a great deal of walking. (Don’t forget water bottles, hats, sun cream etc.)

The main 'high street' is full of shops, restaurants and people playing music or singing. We headed towards the Pirates of the Caribbean, which is still a fun ride, off to our left as we moved through the park. There are plenty of opportunities to take photos and video clips of the Kingdom and we found people in America always happy to help. Next on our plan was the Jungle Cruise which was actually quite amusing with lots of animals and head hunters, albeit dummies in costumes but still entertaining enough. The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was a good little ride, queues weren't that long and on a sunny day the views are reasonably good. Mind you, it does move quite fast so you may find the ride is over before you start! The Liberty Square riverboat ride was good fun, relaxing and just a simple ride around the island on a large old fashioned boat. Seating is limited so best to get there early and after a hectic day of rides, rides and more rides it was a good way to unwind. The Buzz Lightyear ride was next - now that was fun for the boys! Everyone really enjoyed Space Mountain which was worth the wait where at times it was pitch black so you never knew when the roller-coaster was about to drop, twist or turn - cool if you like rides.
Day ?: I am not sure what day it is now as the time disappeared so quickly. We did not visit the theme parks every day but took a break of one or two days in between and relaxed or visited other regional places and attractions including Kennedy Space Centre which took about one hour from the International Drive area - if you use the toll roads remember you need cash
with you.

A one day visit to Universal Studios was included but generally we did not find this as good as Disney World although it did have quite a number of new rides. The Revenge of the Mummy ride was scary yet entertaining and we found the whole experience good fun. Some of the other rides like Twister or even the Simpson's were good but seemed to rely quite heavily on virtual reality. I know not everyone likes a whirly ride, twisting and turning, but I guess for those of us who love a good stomach churning just sitting and watching TV monitors is a tad boring. Universal was relatively easy to find off Interstate 4 (I-4).

We needed a break from Disney World and roller coaster rides and visited the Titanic museum over on International Drive, where many other theme parks and attractions can also be found, which was really very interesting. We arrived at what looks like a giant warehouse and upon entry went through the shop. It costs around $20 per person, usually tours last around just under an hour and the guide is typically an Irishman to add to the effect - it worked!

Now where is our Disney World plan for next year?

For help planning your Disney World family holiday visit

Helping your toddler or child to ride a bike

by Lisa Whalley-Smith, MD
Strider Bikes UK

Teaching my daughter how to ride a bike was not a great experience for either of us! At age seven she still could not ride a bike without stabilisers! When I took her stabilisers off at age five, she was still quite short and even on the lowest saddle setting, her toes only just touched the ground. The pedals scraped the sides of her legs as she would naturally try and put her feet down if she went off balance or wanted to stop. As the bike was so heavy, both it and her would topple over and she would often end up in a heap on the grass frustrated, in tears and not keen to try again. It took us two summers before she could ride that bike! How I wish I had used a different approach!
The fundamentals required to ride a bike are balance and then steering. Learning to pedal comes later and can be learnt in under a minute. Bikes designed to teach balance have no pedals for exactly this reason.

Some balance bikes are extremely lightweight – some as light as 7lbs – about the same weight as a folding scooter. They are so light that the child feels in control of the bike rather than the bike controlling them!

Balance bikes for toddlers need to have an adjustable saddle that goes down as low as possible so that even the tiniest of legs can straddle the bike and feet still be placed flat on the ground. This way the toddler will feel secure at all times as one foot will always remain on the ground as they stride on the bike.

At first the toddler will just want to hold the handle bars (which should also be adjustable) and walk with the bike, but as confidence grows, they will sit on the saddle, stride, run and then glide with their feet up on the integrated foot rests. 

The great thing about balance bikes is your under-five becomes so much more mobile - trips to the park, walks and the school run then become enjoyable and fun rather than dreaded and at snail’s pace! Once a toddler gets the hang of their balance bike, the freedom and confidence it gives them means it’s hard to get them off it! They just love them!

Definitely by-pass tricycles! They are unsafe, unstable and do not help boost your toddler’s confidence. They topple over easily, especially around corners, are frustrating as the child struggles to use the pedals and they do not teach the toddler how to balance. The same goes for bikes with stabilisers.

Using a balance bike from an early age means that children learn those fundamental skills, balance and steering, grow in confidence and can move straight to a pedal bike without stabilisers at a much earlier age and with none of the dramas that I experienced with my daughter!

Balance bikes with adjustable saddles are designed for toddlers as young as eighteen months or even earlier - if they can walk confidently, they can ride one!

The great thing is that it will last them until the age of five with a saddle extension and although they may have learnt to ride a pedal bike by then, there is generally an overlapping period where both bikes are used and the balance bike is favoured for off-road use and jumps!

What a great Christmas or birthday present for a two year old!

For more information, videos and photos please visit

Why getting your child in performing arts could change their life!

by Rachel Crouch, Director of PPA kids.

I have worked with children from the age of four years to eighteen years for the last seven years of my life. I have taught them musical theatre, singing, drama, tap, ballet, modern and street jazz. I have seen twenty-six children go into West End shows and hundreds in TV programmes and commercials. However there was nothing more rewarding than seeing that little child who a term ago, was hiding behind her mummy’s leg screaming “I don’t want to go!” and is now standing in the centre of the stage singing a solo in the end of term show!  That for me is what performing arts training for children is all about.

Parents and teachers have even called me up to say ask what on earth have we done, because their child is now confident in class, asking questions in lessons, putting themselves forward for parts in the school Christmas concert, and in general is a completely different child.

There is something special about performing arts training for children. It seems to get the best out of every child. However it is important that parents choose the right performing arts school. As there are many who won’t get the best out of the children. So how do you know?  My advice is to go and watch the classes; a good school will have happy and confident children. All the children should be running through the door and the atmosphere should be exciting and full of energy.

The other great benefit of putting your child into a performing arts school, is to give them another circle of friends outside of school life. Children at my theatre school are all very good friends and support each other in class. Drama and musical theatre in particular teaches children team work and to respect other people’s ideas and opinions. It teaches focus and discipline and most importantly it is wonderful fun!

Ballet and modern have so many physical benefits as they work on core stability. Ballet improves co-ordination and is also fantastic for focus and discipline. Children can find ballet ‘boring’ so it is important to find a ballet school that teach this discipline in a fun way.

However the class you cannot beat as the children’s favourite is street jazz, there is nothing more fun than dancing like Cheryl Cole on a Saturday morning!

For further information on children’s dance and drama classes in the Guildford area visit or call 01483 684 067