Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Review - My First Bananagrams

My First Bananagrams is a brand new game in the Bananagrams family, aimed at ages 4+, and specially designed for little ones that are just starting on their reading and writing journey. The case is green to show that it's for little ones that are starting to ripen their vocabulary, but the letters are still contained in a handy, distinctive, banana shaped pouch. The set contains a mixture of colourful lower case letter tiles. There are 80 single letter tiles and 13 combo-letter tiles which contain two letters that make a single sound, for example vowel teams like ai and ea, word families like an and et and digraphs like ch and sh.

My First Bananagrams contents

The game comes with instructions for the basic game which can be played by 1-4 players. Using just the single letter tiles, each player draws 15 tiles, with the object of being the first to use all your letters in a connected word grid without a spelling mistake, proper noun or abbreviation. The grid can be rearranged as you go along, and you can swap tiles if you can't use them. For an advanced game, the combo-letter tiles can also be included.

My First Bananagrams game

When children are finding this game too easy then they are ready to try the original Bananagrams game. But if this game seems a little too advanced for those that are only just learning their letters, with a bit of imagination you can come up with lots of different ways to use the letter tiles. There is a handy booklet included with the game which contains ten curriculum based mini-games to give you some ideas.

The mini games are divided into three sections - preschooler, early reader and reader - and I found these really helpful, perfect for little ones that aren't quite up to playing the full game. For younger children you can begin by matching letter pairs and spelling their own name and those of friends and family, before moving on to games with rhyming words or a matching memory game. Mia's favourite game was to use the combo-letter tiles and then add beginning and ending letter tiles to make words, and even though Harry is a confident reader already, he still had fun joining in and playing around with different words.

My First Bananagrams review

The letter tiles are chunky and easy to read. Letters that can be confused if the tiles are upside down, such as p and d, have a clear underlining so you know that you've got it the right way up, and vowels are yellow to distinguish them. I was surprised with how well Mia got on with the game - sometimes I underestimate how much she has learned in her first year of school! We were able to play as a family and she didn't need much help at all, it was great to find a game that we can play together, and of course there was plenty of learning going on too.

Playing My First Bananagrams

Amazon link is affiliate. My First Banagrams costs £14.99. I received a set in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Book review - The Foolish King

The Foolish King: The Secret History of Chess was written by Mark Price to teach his daughter to play chess through an interactive story, featuring beautiful and funny illustrations throughout from illustrator Martin Brown. 

The Foolish King by Mark Price

Chess is fascinating, but although it's one of the world's most popular games it can be a bit daunting to learn to play, especially for little ones. The Foolish King teaches children the different chess moves and rules with the use of a fabulous story, with gorgeous illustrations to bring the characters to life. There are puzzles throughout the book to help children familiarise themselves with the pieces and to practice the different moves, and the story follows a chess game between the daytime and night time bugs.

Harry really enjoyed the story, he found it easy to follow and it helped him to understand and remember the different pieces and moves. The book is packed with little tips, for example how you should start the game and telling you the best places on the board to move your key pieces.

Child learning to play chess

There is also app to accompany the book which is a brilliant idea. It uses the same story and illustrations along with tutorials and tips. The best bit about the app is that there are one and two player options for playing the game, perfect for little ones that are desperate to get started playing once they've finished the book and either don't have a chess set or are without an available competitor! We did find that playing against the app itself was quite difficult, but what is really handy is that when you click on a piece it shows you all the available spaces that you can move to, which really helped.

Learn to play chess app

If you are looking to teach younger children how to play chess then I'd definitely recommend the book and accompanying app.

Amazon link is affiliate. I received a copy of this book and app download in exchange for a review. The Foolish King: The Secret History of Chess by Mark Prince and illustrated by Martin Brown publishes in hardback from David Fickling books on the 1st September 2016 at £10.99. The app is also released on the 1st of September for £3.99 and can be purchased here - The Foolish King.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Book reviews - New books for young readers from Gecko press

Today I'm sharing three new lovely chapter books from Gecko press, aimed at both new and more confident readers.

Three new books from Gecko press

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa is an absurd and endearing story about an African giraffe and his penguin pen pal. Giraffe is bored and wants a friend to share things with. One day he finds a sign from a bored pelican offering to deliver anything, anywhere. So he writes a letter and sends it as far as possible across the other side of the horizon. There he finds a pen pal - Penguin.

The book is written from the point of view of both Giraffe and Penguin and also contains the letters that the two unlikely friends write to each other. It's a very sweet book and instantly appealed to Harry as his comfort object is a giraffe, so he liked it very much!

Life According to Dani by Rose Lagercrantz tells the story of Dani, who is spending the summer holidays on an island with her best friend Ella and they are having a fantastic time. But one day an unwelcome visitor comes and Dani isn't sure that her life is that happy any more now that her widowed father has a new girlfriend. But thanks to her best friend Ella is there to help get things back to how they should be. With lovely illustrations from Eva Eriksson, it's a story that children will enjoy, as well as dealing with a serious issue that many children have to face.

Bicycling to the Moon by Timo Parvela is a beautifully illustrated chapter book suitable for more confident readers. It's all about Purdy the cat and Barker the dog, who are friends that live in a sky blue house on top of a hill and are quite different to each other. Barker likes to potter in the garden, but Purdy has big dreams - he wants to fly south with the birds, win the singing competition, be a Supercat...

It's a quirky and funny selection of stories all about friendship, and because each chapter can be read as a separate little story, it's great for reading aloud to younger children at bedtime or for older children to read to themselves, with a different story each night.

I received these books in exchange for a review.

Book review - The Storm Whale in Winter

The Storm Whale in Winter, written and illustrated by Benji Davies, is the sequel to the equally beautiful The Storm Whale. In The Storm Whale we meet Noi, who rescued a little whale after a storm washed it ashore, and then returned it to the sea.

The Storm Whale in Winter book review

Noi can't forget his friend the whale, and longs to see him again, watching for him while his father sets off to sea every day in his fishing boat. One cold night his father doesn't return home, and Noi goes out in search of him. He can't find him and becomes lost himself, until an old friend brings his whole family to the rescue.

The Storm Whale in Winter

It's a lovely book, and the illustrations are perfect, with touching images that carry so much expression. It's a really peaceful book to read aloud, with a gentle story and a happy ending - just right for a bedtime story! 

I was sent this book in exchange for a review.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Warwick Castle with the family


Family visit to Warwick Castle

We've visited Warwick Castle several times over the last few years with our Merlin Passes, as it's literally just around the corner from where Ram's parents live. It had been a few years since my last visit to Warwick Castle though and a lot has changed, so we spent a lovely day out there at the beginning of the summer holidays.

Family visit to Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle is a very well preserved castle, and has all the features of a castle that you expect to see - a portcullis, turrets, crenelated walls, a dungeon, grand rooms and a huge open courtyard in the middle. You have lovely views across the River Avon and surrounding countryside and there are some beautiful gardens with peacocks.

We started our visit in the Horrible Histories Maze, as we had heard that it can get very busy. The children were given a little booklet with spaces for stamps that they needed to collect at various different locations within the maze. The always love this sort of thing, and had a lot of fun chasing about. Some of the stamps were quite difficult to find and quite a few people were slipping through gaps in the walls, but Harry insisted on doing the maze properly and finding them all correctly!

It was quite educational too, with lots of little informative snippets about different periods in history, like the Vikings and the Tudors.

Family visit to Warwick Castle

Then it was time for the Trebuchet demonstration, so we found ourselves a nice spot on a grassy bank (the picture below is taken from the top of the castle, we were lower down with a wider view). The trebuchet takes a few minutes to get into position, with some very hardworking staff running around the treadwheels in the heat. While this is going on you are told about the trebuchet, in essence a huge catapult, which was used to hurl projectiles at the castle walls. They fired a flaming ball, and it was very exciting to watch, definitely worth making the effort to watch the demonstration!

Family visit to Warwick Castle

Then we explored the rest of the castle. We arrived at the Princess Tower just as the show was starting so we didn't have to wait, but at busy times you need to collect a timed ticket. We met a princess who introduced us to the story of Guy of Warwick, who was cursed and trapped in a painting, and then the children helped her to break the curse, it was a lot of fun and they really enjoyed it.

The Royal Weekend Party takes you through a series of rooms in the castle which tell the story of a weekend spent in Victorian high society, and the Kingmaker exhibition takes you on a journey as Richard Neville, Warwick the Kingmaker, prepares his army for battle in 1471. We also very much enjoyed the Time Tower, where you can join characters from the castle's past to learn all about the history of the castle, very interesting.

Family visit to Warwick Castle

It was a busy day when we visited and if I'm honest it did feel as though the castle wasn't quite set up to handle the large volume of visitors. Even though we arrived just as the castle was opening in the morning we had to park in the overflow car park which was a good 20 minute walk to the entrance, the restaurant ran out of vegetarian food choices at lunch time, and there was a long queue for the toilets.

There was also a queue to climb up the Towers and Ramparts as it's all quite narrow so we gave it a miss. However we were able to climb up to the Mound, which gives you some lovely views both inside and outside the castle.

Finally we spent a lot of time in the Pageant Playground, which fortunately wasn't too busy. It's a good playground with only one entrance/exit, so you can be sure that the children can't escape if you take your eyes off them!

Family visit to Warwick Castle

There was plenty going on during the day when we visited and we didn't have time to see everything - as well as the trebuchet demonstration there was a birds of prey show and jousting, and plenty of colourful characters walking around. 

Family visit to Warwick Castle

There is loads to do at Warwick Castle, there is definitely a lot more there than your typical castle experience, and I'd recommend a visit (avoid peak times if you can, and if you can't, arrive early!)

Family visit to Warwick Castle

We visited Warwick Castle with our Merlin Passes (which we purchased!)

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Book reviews - Belle and Sebastien and The Castle of Inside Out

Today on the blog I'm sharing two lovely new children's books from Alma Books, both aimed at young readers aged 9-11 years old. 

Belle and Sebastien and The Castle of Inside Out

Belle and S├ębastien: The Child of the Mountains by Cecile Aubry was first published in 1965 to coincide with the internationally successful television series of the same name. It tells the story of Sebastien, the son of a gypsy woman who is found as a newborn baby in the Alps and brought up by Guillaume and his grandchildren Angelina and Jean. Belle is a beautiful white Pyrenean Mountain Dog who has been neglected and passed on from owner to owner until one day she escapes from a kennel. Sebastien rescues the runaway Belle from angry villagers, and they form a lifelong friendship, embarking on many exciting adventures in the mountains.

The book has been newly released in hardback with some lovely illustrations by Helen Stephens. It's a classic book which will definitely still appeal to children today, all about friendship and adventure.

The Castle of Inside Out by David Henry Wilson introduces us to Lorina, who is led by a black rabbit through a wood to a magical land where she finds a race of green people who are all overworked, starving, and subjected to the toxic fumes billowing out of a nearby castle. It sounds like a familiar story, and indeed it has been described as Alice in Wonderland meets 1984 (Lorina and her sister in the story Edith even share their names with the sisters of Alice Liddell, inspiration for Alice in Wonderland).

Lorina decides to gain access to the castle for the poor green people, and within its walls she meets the 'insiders' - selfish creatures that treat the 'outsiders' as slaves. Along with the captivating story, the book has plenty of wonderfully detailed illustrations by Chris Riddell, which really bring the story to life.

I received copies of these books in exchange for a review.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Book review - Ada Twist, Scientist

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts is a new picture book, and a follow up to the sucessful Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect.

Ada Twist, Scientist book review

Scientist Ada has a boundless imagination and has always been hopelessly curious. When her house fills with a horrific, toe-curling smell, Ada knows it's up to her to find the source. Not afraid of failure, she embarks on a fact-finding mission and conduct scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. But, this time, her experiments lead to even more stink and get her into trouble!

Ada Twist, Scientist inside

Although the book champions girl power and women scientists (inspired by real-life women in science like Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie) it also appealed very much to Harry, who didn't seem to notice that the book was about a girl, just that it was about a 'scientist', which he what he wants to be when he grows up. It's a lovely story about a little girl who is curious to learn about everything, and her supportive parents that do everything they can to help her in her quest.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Making some simple, colourful bunting for the garden

I was sorting through the craft cupboards recently and came across some fabric paints and crayons left over from previous projects. So I decided to come up with a craft that we could use them for, and settled on some simple homemade bunting for the garden.

Simple bunting for the garden

It's not intended to last forever and to be honest I'm not sure it will last through the winter, but it's a lovely decoration while it's there!

Bunting in the garden

We made the bunting using scraps of old fabric, both plain and patterned. The plain fabric, like a lot of my fabric, comes from a pillowcase. I buy very cheap ones from Asda where they cost about £2 for a pair. I ironed the fabric so we had a nice flat surface to work on.

We cut out plenty of flags, mine measure around 19cm x 15cm but they aren't exact. We decorated the flags using both Fabric Crayons and Fabric Paint (affiliate links). When the paint had dried I set the paint by ironing it for a couple of minutes on the reverse.

Homemade fabric bunting

I was rather proud of my letter J, and the children copied me with flags for their own initials. Mia decided to decorate her flags with the current family obsession, Pokemon. Harry came up with the idea of advertising a bug hunt challenge, and he made scavenger hunt leaflets to keep in the summerhouse.

Bunting in the garden

They are hanging across the entrance to our vegetable patch, and I love watching them fluttering in the breeze!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

Nearly four years ago we took the children to Alton Towers and we had a lovely day. This summer we returned with our now slightly older children (7 and 5) and we were interested to see what had changed, especially with the opening of the new CBeebies Land. To be honest, our children are at the upper age range of the area, and CBeebies isn't really on at home any more, but Harry is pretty timid when it comes to rides, so he was perfectly satisfied with what was on offer.

CBeebies Land is a redevelopment of the Old MacDonald's Farmyard. I'm fairly sure that the only new ride in the area is the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure (which replaced a similar family rollercoaster).  It's the closest land to the main entrance which means that it's not too far to walk, and it's also part of Early Ride Time and opens an hour before the rest of the park. This means that if you pre-book tickets online, are staying in the resort hotel, have a Merlin Annual Pass or Alton Towers Annual Pass, you can enter at 9am.

The Get Set Go Treetop Adventure gives you a nice view across CBeebies Land and it a gentle ride, but exciting for little ones as it is so high up.

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

There's also a large outdoor play area - Tree Fu Tom Training Camp - which we spent quite a bit of time in, although some of the area was unfortunately under construction.

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

Some of the rides get very popular so it's worth heading for these first. Postman Pat Parcel Post is a little track ride in a post van around Greendale, and the In the Night Garden Boat Ride is another ride which can have quite a queue. It really is a lovely ride though and was my favourite. Both children have loved watching In the Night Garden, and I think even very young children that are familiar with the show would really enjoy this ride.

CBeebies Land at Alton Towers

The other popular ride is the Octonauts Rollercoaster Adventure, which Mia rode several times. There are also some nice walk in areas - Nina's Science Lab was empty and had some fun little science experiments to try, and Charlie and Lola's Moonsquirters and Green Drops indoor play area was small but fun, especially when not too busy. 

Alton Towers is spread over a large area, and you do need to be careful when planning your route as you can end up walking a long way. The gardens in the middle are lovely, and if you have a baby that needs a walk with the pram to aid with a nap it's the perfect spot. There is also a SeaLife Centre in the park which little ones love.

If you are only visiting Alton Towers for CBeebies Land then unless you have a Merlin Pass or other discounted tickets it can work out quite expensive for what it is. CBeebies Land itself reminded me a lot of the Peppa Pig World area that is part of Paultons Park in Hampshire, except that I've found Paultons Park to have more to do elsewhere in the park for small children.

Unfortunately many of the rides elsewhere at Alton Towers that we thought the children would enjoy were closed (planned closures for the season). The Charlie and the Chocolate Ride was closed, as were Hex and the Driving School. This meant that the only other ride in the rest of the park that Harry was really up for was Duel (although he did really love it and went round it seven times as there was no queue) and we also went across on the SkyRide a couple of times.

Mia and I went on the Congo River Rapids, which she enjoyed, although we had to queue in a deceptive line for about 40 minutes so she was pretty fed up by the time we got on. She also enjoyed the Runaway Mine Train, and there was only a short queue so she was able to go on it a few times.

Ram and I were very keen to ride the new Galactica rollercoaster, which we would have done using our Parent Queue Share ticket (which means that one adult queues once, then the second adult can enter through the FastPass line), but that broke down early on and the queues would have been too long for us to wait later. We only rode on Nemesis with the pass as we thought it was a bit unfair on the children to have them waiting around for us, but it's a good system if you want to ride some of the faster rollercoasters. You need to get the Parent Queue Share ticket from the Resort Box Office shortly after you enter the park (and you need to have the children with you).

So we spent most of our time in CBeebies Land and that was where the children were happiest. I was really impressed with the theming of the area, everything was really fun and colourful, and it's a lot of fun for little ones.

We visited Alton Towers using our Merlin Annual Passes (that we paid for!)

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Making a holiday scrapbook with Fellowes (with video)

I was recently challenged my Fellowes to recreate a craft using some of their products. Having recently returned from a fantastic family holiday with lots of fun days out, I decided that the children and I would work together to create a holiday scrapbook so that we can look back and remember the great time that we had.

How to make a holiday scrapbook with children

This was our inspiration - Crafting with DIY Blonde - Memory Book:


And I made this short video to show how we made our scrapbook:


Here's a detailed look at some of the pages that we put together. We are all so proud of the finished product! It was a real team effort, with all of us contributing pages for the places that we went and the things that we saw.

Pages from a child's holiday scrapbook

Making a holiday scrapbook with young children

I was sent a selection of Fellowes products in exchange for this blog post and video. 

Friday, 12 August 2016

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

We recently made a trip up to the north of the country to visit some of the places covered by our Merlin Pass which aren't within easy reach of our home on the south coast. The other day I wrote about the Merlin Pass attractions in Manchester, and today I'm going to share the fun that we had visiting the Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool. On our trip to Blackpool we stayed in the Premier Inn at the airport and found that it was an easy drive into the centre, parking each day in the Houndshill Shopping Centre.

We visited all the attractions apart from the Blackpool Dungeons. Although we've taken the children to the London Dungeons and they quite enjoyed it, we felt it's probably best saving that one again until they are a bit older, and besides there was plenty more to keep us busy!

Most of the Blackpool attractions are located inside the Blackpool Tower itself, and the Sea Life Centre and Madame Tussauds are only a short walk away, so it's easy to visit several in one go. Jungle Jim's, the Tower Circus and Blackpool Dungeons can be booked in advance so it's probably a good idea if you are visiting during a busy period, although having said that we were able to walk straight into the Circus and Jungle Jim's at a time convenient to us.

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

The Blackpool Tower Eye


Your visit to The Blackpool Tower Eye begins with a 4D cinema presentation which was a great introduction to Blackpool as well as the Blackpool Tower. Then we ascended by lift to the very top of the tower, where we were greeted with views across Blackpool and the North West of England. There is a solid-glass Sky Walk where you can walk out onto a 5cm thick glass viewing platform and look straight down onto the Promenade below - it was pretty terrifying! You can walk all around the tower and walk up to two higher open viewing platforms, and there is plenty of signage to explain what you can see.

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

The Blackpool Tower Circus


Performances of the Blackpool Tower Circus have been running since 1894, and this year marks the 25th year with the Endresz family at the helm. You can check the performance details on the website - Blackpool Tower Circus show times - as the circus doesn't perform every day, although during the summer there are often several performances in a day. It's included with the pass, but you need to obtain a ticket from the desk prior to the performance for the specific show. Tickets are unreserved seating, so it's a good idea to arrive in plenty of time to secure a good seat.

The circus is hosted by Mooky the clown and Mr Boo, and the children found them both hilarious. The circus lasted nearly two hours with an interval, so it was a long show, and there was a good variety of circus acts to entertain and amuse us.


Blackpool Tower Ballroom


We only popped in here as it was included in our passes but it was a lovely place to visit. The Wurlitzer organ was playing (you can check this before you go in) and even though it was late in the afternoon there were people dancing. We sat watching for a few minutes, and I can see that it would be a lovely place to sit for afternoon tea!

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

Jungle Jim's Soft Play


We visited Jungle Jim's soft play area twice, and the children loved it. It's a large soft play frame with a jungle theme. Adults aren't allowed onto the play equipment itself but you can supervise from nearby walkways within the frame. Ours are old enough to go around it themselves now (which is lovely!) but there is a smaller area for younger children if you want to stay with your child.

Because the sessions have limited numbers there was plenty of room to play, and plenty of spaces at the tables and chairs to sit down. Drinks and snacks are available but there is no obligation to purchase anything. The sessions last for an hour, which we found was plenty, and the first session of the day lasts for an extra 15 minutes as well as being a lot quieter so it's worth aiming for if you can.

Blackpool Sea Life Centre


Blackpool Sea Life Centre is a short walk along the promenade from the Tower. This summer, all the Sea Life centres are taking part in a Finding Dory event with an interactive trail where you can find out about the real life versions of the characters. There are letters to spot in the tanks, and if you complete the trail you will receive a little reward.

We've visited quite a few of the Sea Life centres now and must admit that they are all broadly similar. The children still really enjoy visiting though and there is always something new to spot. The Seahorse attraction was particularly interesting, and Harry was very interested in the new Jurassic Seas exhibit as he's always been fascinated by fossils.

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

Pirate Adventure Mini Golf


When we came out of the Sea Life Centre it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Pirate Adventure Mini Golf located underneath was also included in our passes. There are 12 holes spread over two levels and with lots of pirate themed obstacles it was a really fun course to play.

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

Madame Tussauds Blackpool

Madame Tussauds Blackpool is located right next to the Sea Life Centre. It's a smaller attraction than the London Madame Tussauds, and because of this we found it much less busy, meaning that you can spend longer looking at the individual waxworks and their themed areas. You can 'meet' characters from Coronation Street, TV stars like Harry's idol David Attenborough, and royalty including William and Kate.

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

Our favourite area was the Festival Fields, where Mia spent ages doing kareoke to Let it Go, and they both had fun changing the light displays around Ed Sheeran, Olly Murs and Justin Bieber.

The Blackpool Tower Dungeon


As I said above, we didn't visit the Blackpool Dungeons on this occasion as our children (aged 7 and 5) are still quite little. But it looks like a fab attraction - a similar format to the London Dungeons but with a local twist.

All these places to visit certainly meant that we had a busy few days in Blackpool! We still had time to sit on the beach though and explore the town, we particularly enjoyed spending time in the arcades on the 2p machines and even managed to just about break even with some strong willpower to not put all the winnings straight back in again!

Merlin Pass attractions in Blackpool

I'd definitely recommend Blackpool for a short break!
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