Monday, 29 May 2017

Our family and screen time

With the half term holiday underway and the long summer holiday rapidly approaching I've been thinking again about how much screen time my children have. Their screen time mainly consists of playing Minecraft and watching videos about Minecraft on YouTube on their tablets, often with a film night at the weekends. They each have their own tablet but we look after them and they ask to use them, again they have to ask to use our PCs for Minecraft or other games. But we are pretty relaxed about allowing them.

During the school week I don't let them have any screen time after school until 5pm, which ties in nicely with them giving me some peace and quiet to make dinner and lunchboxes. On a night when we are home straight from school this gives them enough time for homework, piano practice for Harry, and some time for them to play. Several nights we are out, like for swimming lessons, and on those days they don't get any Minecraft time. Then they are allowed to watch their tablets while they eat their dinner. I know it's a bad habit, but it doesn't make any difference to the speed at which they eat their dinner, and they are usually so tired that they aren't in the mood to make any sort of conversation while they eat!

Child playing Minecraft on the PC

Mornings are another time that they are allowed their tablets. They both wake up so early and always have done, so they can come into us half an hour before they need to get up to claim their tablets, and it gives Ram and I the chance to wake up gradually.

At the weekends and during school holidays they do have more screen time than I'd like. If we don't have anywhere to be, the morning tablet-in-bed-slot is extended for as long as they are happy to wait until breakfast (although to be fair it's usually only a short while as Mia in particular can't go long without food!). Then if we are going to be at home most of the day, after breakfast I try to get them to have a break for an hour or so before letting them get straight on and play Minecraft.

We have a set up where we have two PCs that are linked, so they can both play together in the same game. They really love it, and when they aren't able to play they are often talking together about what they are going to do next time they have chance. They usually play really nicely together, but sometimes there can be disagreements and arguing, at which point it is swiftly turned off!

I must admit I find it difficult to criticise too much screen time when my husband and I are worse at using our phones ourselves. So I try very hard to show them other things that can be done instead of staring at a screen - for example by sitting and reading a book, doing some crochet or doing a jigsaw. To be fair they are generally very good when I say that screen time is up and they need to find something else to do, and any initial protest usually dies down quite quickly.

I'd love to know how other people manage screen time with young children?

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Can you save money with underfloor heating?

Today I'm sharing a guest post by Russell Bowes - Google+Twitter

The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you step onto a heated floor may be one of the simplest pleasures in life, especially when the weather is miserable outside. Unlike most luxuries in life, this is one that can actually save you money over the long term.

Unlike conventional wall mounted radiators, underfloor heating generates radiant heat which is even and ambient. Therefore a single panel will generate more heat than a wall mounted radiator of an equivalent size, which will enable your room to feel warmer at a lower temperature, bringing down the cost of your energy bills.

If you are going for maximum energy efficiency, a water based underfloor heating system is recommended. They rely on your boiler, rather than a direct electricity supply, so use energy more sparingly than an electric system. According to Aboutunderfloorheating.co.uk installing a water based underfloor heating system can reduce your energy bills by 40% or more.

However before installing underfloor heating there are some important practical aspects to consider. Firstly, underfloor heating is cheaper to install as part of a new build effort, or a major home renovation project. Updating an existing property to include underfloor heating is more costly and further complications arise with period properties.

Therefore a number of factors are worth considering such as the upfront costs, how long you plan to be in your property and whether or not you’re likely to offset the costs overtime with the savings you make on your energy bills. Even if your personal situation means that you’re unlikely to claim back the upfront costs of underfloor heating, you may decide it's an affordable luxury that you want for your home.

If you opt for underfloor heating, I recommend that you maximise the impact it has by taking other simple steps keep your home insulated and as warm as possible:

● Install cavity wall insulation
● Install double glazed windows
● Use draft excluders on doors, windows and letterboxes
● Replacing your old boiler with an A rated condensing boiler and use an insulating cover. These measures combined could cut your bills by £300 a year and your carbon emissions by 1.5 tonnes.

Sofa and cushions
Photo credit - Naomi H├ębert via Unsplash

This is a sponsored post

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Enjoying the warm weather

Hasn't the weather this week been beautiful! Really warm and sunny - I really hope this means that summer is here!

I seem to spend quite a lot of my time indoors during the day, so I've been trying to make the effort this week to get out and about a bit. On Monday I went for a long walk. I'm trying to find the quickest way to walk to the sea directly from our house without having to go through the private estates that are all along the coast (I'm never really sure whether you are allowed to walk through them if you aren't visiting someone as I feel as though I look a bit suspicious, especially if I'm on my phone playing Pokemon Go). I found a route which came out on a lovely bit of beach that was peaceful and a nice place to stop for a few minutes.

East Preston beach, West Sussex

I'm taking part in a midnight walk next month to raise money for the local hospice, so it was good practice! I'll be walking 7 miles, I don't think that the distance will be too challenging but the fact that I'll have to stay up until midnight before I can start might be! (I'm doing the walk as part of a team and I've not got started with asking for sponsors yet but I'll leave my link here in case anyone is interested in sponsoring me - Jennifer Jain on Just Giving).

I also went for a long walk along Littlehampton sea front with a friend, with a stop to sit outdoors and enjoy a drink and some cake. Unfortunately I wasn't as prepared for the sun with sun cream as I am when we are on holiday, and I now have a tan line which I'll be stuck with for the rest of t-shirt weather!

I've taken advantage of the nice weather to get the cars washed. I only wash the cars in the summer, and usually only once or twice a year, but each time I do it I promise myself that I'll increase the frequency. Let's see how long that resolution lasts! While I was out the front I noticed that the garage door and side door could do with a clean as well, so that's a task for the weekend if the warm weather holds.

Now that Harry can finally ride a bike we've bought him a decent bike that is the right size for him. Ram bought himself a new bike too so they can go out on bike rides together. I'm still debating whether or not I need a bike myself. I can't see any useful reason to have one as we live too far from school to cycle there and back and I can drive or walk to the shops. It would purely be for fun and keeping fit, and it's a lot of money to spend if I don't end up using it much. Cycle carriers, or at least ones that hold four bikes, are also quite pricy if we wanted to venture for cycle rides further afield.

I've made a start planting the vegetable patch although the weeds are growing faster than the vegetables at the moment so I need to sort that out. Likewise my beautifully jet washed paving slabs are starting to look a bit weedy so they need tidying up a bit too.

I'm really looking forward to the children being off next week and being able to spend some family time together - let's hope the lovely weather lasts!

Friday, 26 May 2017

How to save money when booking a holiday

We are lucky enough to travel a lot as a family, and one of the reasons that we are able to afford it is because my husband is very good at finding the best deals and ways of saving money when we come to book. So I thought that I'd share some tips for making your money go as far as it possibly can when you are booking a trip.

If you have pre-school children then the most obvious way to save money is to travel out of season. Before having children we always travelled at quiet times and never went away during the summer, then with small children we always avoided school holiday times. You can find some very reasonably priced package holidays at quieter times of the year, often in places like the Canary Islands where the weather is still very warm even during winter. We had a couple of lovely holidays to Lanzarote out of season, and UK breaks can also be very cheap outside peak times.

We are a bit more limited now the children are older as we have to work around school holidays, but there are some types of holiday where the prices don't increase too much, for example city breaks away from the beaches can remain consistently priced throughout the year.

Even better if you can travel somewhere that has school holidays at a different time to the UK. For example, Center Parcs in the UK is well known for increasing the cost of breaks massively during school holidays. But if you look at the cost of a visit to a Center Parcs on the continent, even once you've added in the extra cost of travel to get there, you can still make huge savings if you check your dates carefully. We've visited Center Parcs in Belgium a few times over the last few years, most recently Center Parcs De Vossemeren, and have enjoyed a very reasonably priced break during the school holiday, the half term holidays are best for this.

You need to keep a close eye on the special offers from various travel agencies. Many will have promotions if you book a long time in advance, for example kids stay for free. If you are booking a cruise, by booking early you can often receive free parking at the terminal or some on board credit. However there is also something to be said for waiting until the last minute, I'm not always a very spontaneous person, but if you are signed up to mailing lists from holiday companies there are quite often some excellent deals that come through if you have a bit of flexibility!

Family on the beach

It's always worth having an account with a cashback site for all sorts of purchases. We've been using Quidco for several years and have made a fair amount of money. For example, when booking with Expedia you can receive 12% cashback, as well as many other deals with hotel chains like Travelodge and airport parking.

If you are a regular supermarket shopper you can collect reward points, like the Tesco Clubcard scheme. We've always used Tesco Clubcard points to pay for travelling on the Eurotunnel which is a significant saving on the cost of the holiday, and they are also brilliant for days out from home or while you are away.

Finally, if you need to pay for the holiday upfront, particularly if you are booking last minute, once you've found the best deal and are ready to book another way to save money when booking is to consider taking out a cheap personal loan to cover the cost of the holiday.

Do you have any more money saving holiday ideas? I'd love to hear them!

This is a sponsored post

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The last big party?

Next week Mia turns six and she's very excited about her soft play party. It will be our fourth party at this particular soft play venue (our first one was Harry's fifth birthday!), because once you've found something that works why change it! It's a good sized soft play which you can hire exclusively so you don't need to worry about it being too busy, it's supervised, and there's only one exit, so you can keep an eye out for escaping children. We know exactly what we are doing now and it's not too much work.

I'm pretty sure that this will be our last big party. Hopefully from now on we can get away with something a bit smaller, or at least something that can be hosted at home like Harry's Minecraft party. This week I've been working on the party bags. In the past we've quite often ended up with a few extra children as people bring siblings along. This time I've specifically invited siblings so I'm pretty sure on my numbers, but I always make up a few extra party bags just in case anyone unexpected turns up. 

I remember how excited I was to be making up party bags for the first time - below are the ones we used for Harry's first big party! I must admit that the novelty hasn't worn off, I love making up the party bags, choosing what to put inside, and actually putting the bits into the bags.

Party bags for child's party

There will be the traditional balloon and cake inside, as well as some sweets and a little chocolate bar. Then a few other bits and pieces - some bendy pencils, a little notebook and so on. I was particularly pleased with one thing that I bought - some little soft emoji keyrings which are quite sweet. I don't have many spares though so I'll have to use them all - I'm just hoping that no-one will be offended by finding a poo emoji keyring in the bag - hopefully they will just find it funny!

I'm also using up leftovers from previous parties, which I hope doesn't break any rules of etiquette. The contents of the bags are pretty much identical, but there will be a few bags with slightly different bits as I didn't want to over order. In particular the actual party bags themselves are the leftovers from four different themes - I'm hoping that no-one will notice or care! I've never done separate bags for boys and girls although I do have both pirate and princess bags, perhaps I'll have to let them choose which bag they want from the pile!

I'll be quite sad as it feels like the end of an era, but I won't miss big parties!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

At the weekend  Ram and I took Harry up to London for the day, and we took him to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It was a bit of a mission to get the tickets, so we were very lucky that my brother-in-law was able to buy some extra tickets quite a while ago, and we could tag along!

This post doesn't really contain any spoilers, but please don't keep reading if you don't want to know anything about the show!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child theatre

We didn't realise when we booked the tickets that the performance we saw was the last one by the original cast. I don't know if the audience is normally so enthusiastic, but there was a brilliant atmosphere in the building! The play is performed in two parts so it's a long show, although we had a break between the two with enough time to grab some dinner.

As you leave the theatre after the first part you are encouraged to take a badge with the hashtag #keepthesecrets, and promise not to spoil the show for other people. Although I had read the script, back when I didn't know that I'd be able to get tickets, there were still plenty of surprises, and I think that people really have made an effort not to give away too many details.

So I don't want to say anything about the play that might be a spoiler, but I can say that it was amazing and we absolutely loved it!  It's a very intense show, loud and fast paced, and as you'd expect from a Harry Potter story it deals with some dark themes. There are some fantastic magical effects and I'm sure that it would benefit from another watch - I'm sure that I missed things!

#keepthesecrets badge

The play is billed as suitable for children aged 10 and up, so I was a bit unsure as to what Harry would make of it. Originally just Ram and I were going to go, but since booking the tickets Harry had seen all the films and read all the books, including the script for the play, and he really wanted to come along. When another ticket in our group became available we decided that all three of us would go, and Harry's cousin, who is also 8, was watching too. I was surprised however not to see any other children in the audience, perhaps because it was quite a late finish for a school night.

Fortunately Harry really enjoyed it, and although he did find some parts of the show a little bit scary (it's a bit different to reading about something sinister happening and then it actually taking place in front of you!) he was really glad that he had come along.

Now I'm just desperate to watch it again!

Friday, 19 May 2017

The cable box

We are very lucky. We have a good sized house, and we have plenty of storage. One of my reservations when buying this house was that the more room you have, the more you find to fill it, and I admit that there are several things in our house that wouldn't be there if space was more limited. However I like to think that I personally am very good at decluttering and passing on the things that we no longer need, and I take on this responsibility for myself and the children.

Unfortunately Ram doesn't share my interest in decluttering. Although he's not really the sentimental type, and he doesn't have the boxes of old diaries or photographs that I like to keep, he isn't good at passing on things that we no longer need, in case they are useful one day. One prime example is the cable box, or more correctly now, boxes.

Boxes of random cables

I'm guessing that one of these probably resides in most houses up and down the country, and I hate it. I don't like the fact that the cables are all tangled, it makes me uneasy in a Feng Shui sort of sense, as though it means that the energy in our home is jumbled up. I don't like that I don't know what most of the cables are for. I don't like it because owing to my lack of knowledge I worry that we might get rid of a cable and then find that we need it and can't replace it. I don't like it because many of the cables relate to outdated tech that we've since upgraded, and it feels like such a waste.

I'm currently going through many different types of item around the house and having a sort out - the so-called komono from the Marie Kondo method. I can't sort the cable box myself because it isn't mine (all the cables that I need for my own personal electronic devices, like my Kindle and Fitbit, are neatly labelled and stored in sensible places for when I need them). So I've hauled the boxes down from the top of the wardrobe and left them prominently in the bedroom for Ram to go through.

It's been there a week and I'm not sure he's really noticed it yet.

Do you have a cable box? I'm sure I'm not alone!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Arundel Castle, West Sussex

Arundel Castle, West Sussex

At the weekend we were invited to visit Arundel Castle in West Sussex. The castle is just down the road from us and we often drive past, so we were very interested to have a look around inside! We visited on a Sunday and managed to find free parking a short walk away. Arundel can get busy on a nice day but there is quite a lot of street parking and several pay and display car parks in the town, including one right opposite the entrance. It took us around 3 - 4 hours to visit the castle.

It was such a lovely sunny day that we decided to begin our visit with the gardens. From the main entrance you first come to the Fitzalen Chapel and White Garden. The chapel was founded in 1390 and is the burial place of the Dukes of Norfolk. Then we walked through the gardens with their beautiful fountains, including the crown fountain where a crown is suspended in the air above a jet of water, fascinating to watch it bobbing up and down. There are also some lovely glasshouses which you can walk through and peek inside.

Arundel Castle Gardens

Next we entered the castle, and started our tour with the Castle Keep. This is the oldest part of the castle and dates from 1068. You reach it by a short walk across the battlements, then once inside you can climb up and walk around the edge to enjoy some spectacular views across the downland and to the sea. 

View from Arundel Castle

Inside the keep you can see the entrance down to the dungeon, and the surrounding rooms have lots of information about the history of the castle, brought to life with models.

 Castle Keep at Arundel

We went on to tour the Main Castle Rooms and the Castle Bedrooms. I couldn't take any photographs inside, but the rooms were stunning. I was really interested to see the bedrooms, it's fun to imagine what it would be like to stay for a few nights in the castle! There are some really interesting things to see, like enormous fireplaces, beautiful pieces of furniture and storage, and lots of weaponry. 

Arundel Castle in West Sussex

We finished our visit with a slow walk back to the entrance through the gardens, admiring the lovely flowers and stopping for a quick climb in a clump of twisty trees. We had a really lovely visit, and I'd definitely recommend it!

I also made a short video of our day at the castle which you can see below, enjoy!


If you have a little more time in Arundel it's a lovely town to walk around. You can take a short walk up past the castle to Swanbourne Lake which is very pretty and a nice place to feed the ducks or hire a little boat. Just a bit further along is the Black Rabbit pub, where I've enjoyed several good meals.

We received a complimentary Gold Plus family ticket in exchange for a review. The Gold Plus ticket allows you access to all areas of the castle, and there are three other ticket options. You can find more information and prices on the Arundel Castle website.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Hama bead flower wreath

Hama bead flower wreath tutorial

The latest craft box that I received as a Bostik Blogger was themed flowers - and I was full of ideas! My favourite item from the box, not surprisingly, was a mini flower Hama bead pegboard and a selection of Hama beads, and so I decided that I would make up lots of little flowers using the pegboard and use them to make a pretty flower wreath.

You need:

Six green lollipop sticks
Green craft foam
Flower cut outs and artificial flowers
Mini flower Hama bead pegboard
Hama beads in bright colours
Bostik Fine and Wide Glu Stick
(Optional - ribbon or cord for hanging)

Materials for making a Hama bead wreath

Instructions:

Use the Bostik Fine and Wide Glu Stick to glue six lollipop sticks together in a circle, and leave to dry thoroughly. Cut leaf shapes from the green craft foam and use the Glu Stick to glue them around edge of the wreath. Then cover the wreath with artifical flower petals so that you can no longer see the lollipop sticks underneath.

Use the Hama bead flower pegboard to make a selection of Hama bead flowers in different colours. I found that 11 flowers covered the wreath perfectly. As they are cooling after being ironed keep them flat - I found it best to let them cool between two heat proof mats. Then glue to the wreath using the Glu Stick. Make sure that you use plenty of glue, and leave to dry.

When the wreath is dry, tie some ribbon through the top for hanging.

Here you can see a full video tutorial for the wreath:


Hama bead flowers used to make a wreath

The box of craft materials was provided to me free of charge by Bostik as part of the Tots100/Bostik Craft Bloggers Club.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Horrible Histories - The Best of Barmy Britain at the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing

At the weekend Harry and I were guests at the Pavilion Theatre in Worthing to see Horrible Histories - The Best of Barmy Britain. Performed by two energetic and hard working actors, some of the more gruesome parts of British History are brought to life using a variety of different costumes, props, along with catchy song and dance routines.

Horrible Histories Barmy Britain at Worthing Pavilion

Here's what the theatre has to say:

Could you beat battling Boudicca? Will King John be a martyr for the Magna Carta? Will you lose your heart or your head to Henry VIII? Can Parliament survive gunpowder Guy? Light up your life with the great fire of London! Stand and deliver to dastardly Dick Turpin? Escape the clutches of Burke and Hare and move to the groove with party Queen Victoria! It’s the history of Britain with the nasty bits left in!


Horrible Histories Barmy Britain tour

The show is made up of lots of different sections that each focus on either a historical figure - like Henry VIII or Guy Fawkes - or an event - like the plague. The actors take on the characters using a variety of costumes, props and accents, and share fun and gory facts. There is plenty of humour, including jokes for the grown ups, along with spoofs, and lots of audience participation.

Harry said - "I really liked the section with Boudicca in because it had a funny song and we all had to clap along. I learned a lot about history like the Tudors and Queen Victoria."

It was a very enjoyable show, and we both learned a lot!

Harry and I received complimentary tickets to the show in exchange for a review.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Predicting which videos will be popular on YouTube

I've been publishing videos on YouTube for a few years now, in fact my first video was a washing machine review published back in 2012. Some of my older videos have done really well. My most popular video - a look around the Playmobil Lion Knight's Empire Castle that we bought my son for Christmas one year - has received over 115,000 views which is quite amazing. I have quite a few other Playmobil videos which have done surprisingly well, and all I do is show the features of the sets and talk about them. I should probably think about making a few more, especially as many of the sets are now no longer available!


Something that put me off adding videos to YouTube for a long time was that it has a reputation for negative comments and trolls. I'm a sensitive person, and if someone said something rude about me or my children I would take it very personally and it would probably stop me uploading videos. Fortunately the worst that I've had was someone commenting on the fact that I was letting my son play with dolls!

I've uploaded videos across a variety of genres, but mainly toy reviews, craft tutorials and days out or holiday videos. I've never really done much in the way of promoting my videos, and I've found that in general they either take off immediately and the views keep growing, or they tank completely. I think that one way to do well is to get lots of views as soon as you can after publishing. I had a lot of success with my video about the pirate play area at Center Parcs de Vossemeren which I shared to their Facebook page and they re-shared immediately. The views came in straightaway, thick and fast! But having said that, my second video about the park which I published a few days later and didn't share has now overtaken it in terms of views.


In general my travel videos do perform well, especially those of holiday destinations abroad, and hotel or room tours. A really quick video that I made of the beach where we stayed in Fuerteventura also took off really quickly without any promotion at all, I've no idea why!

One type of video that I've had poor success with has been craft tutorial videos. This surprised me as I thought they would do well - I obviously need to do some work on improving them! My most popular craft video was this short demonstration of the Chameleon Multiple Tone Pens, one of the first craft videos that I made. It took a long time to get to that level of views though, it was published over two years ago.


Another craft video that I made has done terribly despite me actually promoting it - it's only 30 seconds long and I really thought it would do better - please have a watch and make it more popular!


So sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some videos do better on YouTube than others and I find it impossible to predict! I'd love to know if you have any tips or tricks for YouTube success!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

My crafting lately

My crafting seems to have slowed down a bit lately. I'm not sure why, perhaps I've been feeling a little bit uninspired. So I thought I'd share some recent projects that I'm proud of, to try and get my crafting mojo back!

I was really pleased with my crochet bunting using a kit from Attic24. It was one of those projects that I'd had sitting around for ages, and I was so proud of it when it was finished. It is now hanging up in Mia's room, and she loves it!

Attic 24 crochet bunting in pink

After coming back from holiday with yet another collection of shells, we dug into our collection to create some salt dough shell mosaics. They make really lovely, chunky decorations, and are currently on display in the summer house. I'd like them to go outside but I'm not sure that they are sturdy enough, perhaps I might put them out anyway as a transient piece of artwork!

Salt dough shell mosaics

Most recently I've been working on my latest Bostik Bloggers craft, which I'll be sharing in full in the next few days. I used a mini Hama bead flower pegboard to make a flower wreath, a lovely decoration to brighten up the home for summer.

Hama bead flower summer wreath

Finally I've also been creative making lots of videos for my YouTube channel. Most of my recent ones have been about our days out here and there, but here's a short little crafty one which I made with the children when we had lots of fun making garden art on the patio!


For my next project I'm working on a little kit with mini Hama beads, a craft that I find really relaxing although also rather fiddly - and you do need to keep an eye on your work in progress as a small knock can be catastrophic!

If you share photographs of your crafts on Instagram, it would be fab if you wanted to join in with our crafting community! You just need to tag your photos with the hashtag #craftingismytherapy_month, so we are currently using #craftingismytherapy_may. Every month Me, You and Magoo and I will share some of our favourites, and it's a great way to see what projects others are working on, and perhaps get some inspiration. I'd love to see you there!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Learning to ride a bike

If I'm honest, we aren't the sportiest of families. My husband and I exercise to keep ourselves fit, but when it comes to family sporting activities we don't do a great deal. We tend to stick for walks in the country and along the beach (mainly with the added incentive of hunting for Pokemon or Geocaching).

It's been bothering me for the last couple of years now that Harry couldn't ride a bike without stabilisers. I've had it on my summer activity list for the last two summers, but when it came to it he just wasn't interested in learning, and was quite happy to pootle about on his little toddler bike. A little while ago a friend kindly gave us a bike that her son had grown out of, and it had been waiting in the garage for Harry get around to having a go on it.

Then suddenly towards the end of last week, just as I was about to start making dinner, Harry announced that he wanted to have a go on the bike. It was an inconvenient moment, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity, so we all went out the front of the house, got out the bike, and put Mia on her balance bike to keep her occupied.

He didn't want any help at first but it became apparent that he wasn't sure what to do. I didn't really know how to teach him either, so I did the classic holding on to the back of the saddle, letting him pedal, and then letting go. It took quite a few goes before he got anywhere, but then he suddenly went from one pedal round before he fell of to pedalling up and down the length of the road!

Small boy riding on a bike

It was amazing quite how quickly he picked it up, and we spent the weekend venturing further afield and making use of the cycle paths around our estate. The bike is too small for him, so we've been looking at buying him a decent bike that will last him for a few years, and then passing this one down to Mia so that she can have a go - I'm hoping that she'll pick it up just as quickly!

I'm so proud of him, he was determined to do it and persevered when he was struggling. I think it's an important life skill, and I'm hoping that if we are able to get us all bikes we can start to enjoy some fun family bike rides!

Friday, 5 May 2017

Living in a smart home

Our first foray into the world of the smart home was a few years back when we installed a Tado smart central heating system. We can control the heating from our phones, and because it works on location the heating can turn on and off depending on where we are. If we are going on holiday we turn the heating off, then time when we turn it back on so that the house is nice and warm for our return. If we are only out locally for a short time the house doesn't have long enough to get cold, and it's nice to pull into the drive and see that the heating has come on ready for us without having to worry about it.

The next element to our smart home was the Amazon Alexa, which we bought just before Christmas last year, and since then things have become much more complicated. We started out with just the main Amazon Echo (affiliate link), which was very shortly followed by two Echo Dots (affiliate link), so we now have the main Echo in the kitchen and a dot in both the living room and bedroom. I mostly use Alexa to play music as she's linked to our Spotify account. It's really good to be able to put music on in the kitchen while I'm making dinner. She's can also tell me the news, the weather, and the children love asking her to tell them a joke.


However one of the main reasons that Alexa was purchased was for the next element - the light bulb invasion. Initially intended for just the living room and bedroom, the light bulb empire has gradually expanded to include most of the house. We have Philips Hue bulbs, in a mixture of both coloured and white, some set up individually and some linked. The outside ones are set on timers, and all can be controlled by both voice and phone.

They were quite fun at first, especially the four coloured bulbs in the living room which can be set to flash on and off in time with music. The excitement has worn off a bit now, as has the novelty of controlling them by speaking to Alexa. The trouble is that as we've added more and more, Alexa isn't always sure exactly which bulbs you are referring to. By the time she has asked for clarification, and you've managed to come to a joint agreement about what you are hoping she might do, it's a lot quicker to just pull up the screen on the phone and change them yourself.

Most recently, a few weeks ago we installed a Ring Video Doorbell (affiliate link). This was quite an expense, not just for the unit itself but also for the full morning that it took two electricians to install. It is fab though, the camera is motion activated so whenever someone comes to the door it will record a 30 second clip. If someone rings the bell we have the function to answer it from our phone. So for example if I've just popped out and the postman arrives with a parcel I can speak to him through the doorbell and ask him to leave it round the side. If small boys come to the door to ask us to throw their football back (a regular occurrence) I don't need to go running to the door if I'm busy and I can tell them I'll chuck it over later. It's also comforting to be able to pull up a live view from our front door when we are away and make sure that nothing untoward is going on.

Although it's great from a security point of view although it does make me feel a little bit spied on - the husband will receive an alert whenever I leave the house, when I return, and will see any visitors that I might have during the day (most likely none!).

Ring smart doorbell

So what is next for our smart home? I've not noticed the husband researching anything else recently although I know that there are plenty of add-ons available that work with our existing set up. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts mooting the idea of an indoor video recording security system, but I might have a few objections to that one!

Do you have any of these devices? I'd love to know how you get on with them!

Amazon links are affiliate.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A day at Whipsnade Zoo, Dunstable

Whipsnade Zoo with the family

Over the weekend we had a lovely family weekend away in Bedfordshire, and we enjoyed a great family day trip to Whipsnade Zoo. Whipsnade Zoo is located in Dunstable, and we were able to cover our entry with Tesco Clubcard vouchers. We've visited a couple of times over the last few years, even when Harry was just a tiny baby, and always had a great time.

I made a little video showing some of the things that we saw:


I think that my favourite animal at Whipsnade has to be the elephants. There are lots of them and you can stand quite close and watch them walk about, we say baby elephants 'kissing' their parents which was very sweet. When we visited a few years ago we were lucky enough to see them being walked down the road, each using their trunk to hold onto the tail of the one in front!

Elephant at Whipsnade Zoo

The zoo is quite spread out and so there is a fair bit of walking for little ones. You can pay a bit extra to take your car onto the site, but you would still need to do some walking. It's also worth mentioning that you need to book a time slot for the indoor soft play area, luckily Ram was on the ball as it was closed for a private party later on in the day and the time slots do fill up.

Whipsnade Zoo flamingos

We also watched the bird show which was very good, it's amazing how they can train them! There's a lot to do and we easily filled our day. 

The zoo is in beautiful surroundings, if you are visiting and have time I'd also recommend a stop at nearby Dunstable Downs for kite flying and glider watching.

Whipsnade Zoo with the family

Monday, 1 May 2017

May - Lately I've been...

It's time for another catch up post! Here's what I've been up to lately:

Thinking about

I'm feeling a bit snowed under with clutter in the house at the minute so it's time for a bit of a clear out. We need to do a tip run as we have some broken electrical bits that need to go to the recycling, but it gets very busy at the tip so we've been putting it off. There's a charity drop off box at the gym, so I'm trying to get into the habit of taking along a carrier bag each time I visit.

After having the children at home over Easter and spending a lot of family time together I've been thinking about them and wondering what they get up to all day. I'm also thinking about the summer holidays, they will have 8 weeks off this summer for the first time as they have changed schools - I'm wondering how I'm going to fill all that time!

Crafting

I finally finished my crochet bunting! After my last few projects I've acquired a bit of a stash of different colours of yarn, so I'm thinking about some new crochet projects. My sister bought me a book of crochet mandala patterns and I've already made a couple that I'm quite proud of. I'm thinking about having a go at a larger one that I can use as a lap blanket at my desk in the winter. 

Attic24 pink crochet bunting

Watching

One of our favourite TV series is back - Better Call Saul - so we've been enjoying watching that. Otherwise I've not watched much else. I have picked up the YouTube a bit, I enjoy videos by Cruising the Cut about life on a canal boat, and I follow lots of parent bloggers that make videos like the ones I do which are always fun to watch. I also love watching the Honest Trailers on YouTube and eagerly await new ones - have a look here ScreenJunkies or just search for honest trailer, they are hilarious!

Eating

I've been doing very well at watching what I eat lately. Despite putting on 2 kg over Easter I've managed to get down to my 'low' weight so I'm pleased with that, and it means that I can fit into all my clothes! Hopefully I can keep it off for the summer, maybe if it's warm enough I'll even face the world in shorts!

Travelling to

For the first week of the Easter holidays we were lucky enough to enjoy a lovely family holiday to Fuerteventura. We stayed in a hotel on Jandia beach and spent lots of time playing in the sand and relaxing on sun loungers by the pool. 


Closer to home we've been exploring the local area lately and making the most of the beautiful weather. We've had walks up to Cissbury Ring, Highdown Hill, and through the lovely bluebell woods near our house.


Reading

I very much enjoyed I See You by Clare Mackintosh which I picked up in the library the other week, definitely one to recommend. While we were away I read Coffee, Tea, The Gypsy and Me by Caroline James which was a fun, lighthearted read that I downloaded when it was in the freebie Kindle list. I love 'shopping' on Amazon and downloading all the free books, I've found some good books that way!

Planning

I'm working on a video challenge this year where I want to publish 52 videos. I've managed 15 so far which puts me a couple behind schedule, so I've been coming up with some ideas. If you want to see my latest videos you can find them on my YouTube channel. I really love making videos, people scoffed at my Media Studies A-Level but that was where I first learned about editing clips together (in the very early days of digital video!) and I love the fact that I can make them and call it 'work'!

I'm also trying to make some plans for the garden this summer. Mainly involving clearing it out a little bit, I'm not much of a gardener!

Looking forward to

At the end of the month we are going with Harry to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London which I'm really looking forward to. We originally had two tickets and it was going to be me and Ram, then Harry read all the books and we thought that he'd probably appreciate it more so I was going to take him. Then another ticket became available as they'd been booked as part of a group, and so all three of us are now able to go which is brilliant. From reading the script it does look as though it might be a bit intense, but I'm hoping that Harry will be able to cope with it. It will also co-incidentally be the final performance by the original cast which is quite exciting.

I'm also looking forward to the weather warming up a little bit. We've had our first barbecue of the year already but it was a bit too cold to sit outside, I'm hoping that it won't be long until we can get the garden furniture out.

What have you been up to lately?

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Keeping fit with a Fitbit

Last October for my birthday I got a Fitbit. I have the Fitbit Charge 2 (affiliate link) which has a large display and heart rate tracker. It is quite bit on my wrist which I found a bit difficult to get used to at first, but having been wearing it for six months now I'm used to it. One thing that I really like about it compared to the not-very-reliable Garmin activity tracker that I had before is how responsive the screen is when I raise my wrist - it turns on straight away so that I can see the time and daily steps.

Fitbit Charge 2 on wrist

When I first got my Fitbit I set my daily target to 10,000 steps as was recommended. But I'm afraid that I didn't take it very seriously, and I didn't challenge myself to reach it every day. Some days when I went for a run I would go over, but many days I was around the 5-6000 steps mark which didn't feel like much of an achievement. My lowest step count in a day was just 409 steps - although to be fair that was Christmas day when I barely moved from the sofa!

So in January I made a resolution to complete my 10,000 steps every day. I discovered that in order to hit that magic number I had to do at least one extra activity, whether that was a run or a long walk. At the beginning of February I wrote about how I was managing my 10,000 steps, and at the beginning of March I upped my target to 11,000 steps. Nearly two months on I'm not finding that any more difficult, and so I'm thinking about increasing it again to 11,500 or even 12,000.

I've discovered a good trick for bumping up my step count when I can't leave the house, whether due to inclement weather or childcare responsibilities. We are lucky that the ground floor of our house is quite spacious, and if I open all the internal doors I can just march around the house in circles. Even better, I can do this while I'm reading a book at the same time. I can easily knock out a 30 or 40 minute walk, and although I must admit that I feel a little bit dizzy when I'm finished it's an easy and quick way to get to my target! It feels a bit like cheating, but it gets my heart rate up and it definitely counts!

I'm also enjoying some friendly competition with friends and family members. I rarely talk to them about it so they have no idea, but I feel a sense of smug satisfaction when I'm top of the leader board, as well as admiration for those that are achieving above my targets. I've not taken part in any challenges yet but I've heard that they can be very good for motivation, I'm just worried I'd get a bit obsessive about it! I do really love getting the badges, my best so far is 20,000 steps, but I'm sure I can do better than that!

My Fitbit badges screenshot

One thing that I've noticed about the Fitbit is that it particularly loves stairs. Even on days when I've been for a run and am feeling knackered I don't always meet my calorie target. But if I've been going up and down the stairs a lot, for example on days when I've been busy doing washing and putting it away, or just general tidying, I easily burn more calories.

Talking of calories, the Fitbit has really made me appreciate how few calories I actually need to eat. According to my Fitbit, which seems accurate, I'm usually burning around 1,900 calories over the course of the day. When you think that a takeaway pizza 12-1,500 calories you realise that treats like that will definitely add up quickly! I'm not regularly using the calorie counter as an aid to weight loss, but I've found that when I am tracking calories, which I do from time to time, having the daily exercise definitely helps with the weight loss.

I'd love to hear how other people get on with their Fitbits or other activity trackers - how many steps do you aim for in a day?

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

My Attic24 Summer Bunting

My latest completed crochet project is the Summer Bunting by Lucy at Attic24. I love all Lucy's crochet projects and had been wanting to try one out for a long while, but being fairly new to crochet I wanted to start with something simple. The Summer Bunting is available as a kit to purchase from Wool Warehouse, and at just £9.50 for everything that you need I think that it's a bargain! I chose to complete the project in the pink yarns as I had it in mind for Mia's room, but it's also available in shades of blue.

I received the bunting kit as a Christmas present the year before last, and I'm afraid that I had put it to one side while I was working on my crochet blankets last year. I'm not very good at following crochet patterns, and I wanted to make sure that I did it right. But in the end I found the pattern pretty easy to follow, and although perhaps I may not have got it quite right all of the time, I'm very pleased with the finished result!

Attic24 crochet summer bunting in pink

The bunting uses four different colours of yarn, and the pattern just says to spread them evenly across the triangles. Next time I would plan it out in advance, as I hadn't thought through logically how many different combinations there were! That is what delayed me a little bit going along, as I wasn't sure the best way to do it. I think that I managed to sort it out though.

Bunting is very difficult to photograph nicely, but here it is hanging up in Mia's bedroom over her bed. She was delighted with it and chose exactly where she wanted to hang it.

Pink crochet bunting by Attic24

There was plenty of yarn leftover once I'd finished the bunting - enough to make many many more strings! But I've added it to my stash for now as I have a few colourful crochet projects in mind. I've also been busy browsing the Attic24 kits and pondering my next purchase, there are some lovely blanket kits that have caught my eye!

Pink crochet bunting triangles

Monday, 24 April 2017

Hangriness in the family

Ever since the children were first weaned, I've always been in the habit of packing a drink and a snack to take along with us. Harry was very easily bored as a toddler, and taking a small box of raisins or Cheerios out and about with us was a good way to keep him occupied if we had to wait around somewhere. But it wasn't until Mia came along that I really understood how necessary it was to keep a snack in my bag.

To be fair I should have been quite familiar with the possibility of 'hangriness' (becoming angry through lack of food or drink) because it's something that Ram suffers with and I'm used to making sure that our trips out and about involve regular snack and drink breaks. Ram will often get even more hangry if I try and get him to eat something, but after he has eaten he'll recognise his hangriness in retrospect. But Mia's hangriness is completely different.

I have discovered that Mia needs to eat regularly, by which I mean every couple of hours, to stop her bad mood from descending into a screaming meltdown. It doesn't need to be much, it can just be something that doesn't feel very filling, like some sticks of pepper or cucumber, but it is enough to stave her off for a short while. I can always tell if she's due for a snack - she won't usually say that she's hungry unless I ask, but there is a noticeable downturn in her mood that can often result in a full on lying on the floor tantrum.

Child eating lunch outdoors

So if we are leaving the house to go somewhere and it's been a couple of hours since the last meal, I always make sure that I offer a small snack before we leave, alongside toilet trips and shoes on. I keep a packet of breadsticks and a water bottle in the car ready for the drive home from school, and I always have a bottle of water as a minimum in my bag, even if we aren't popping out for long.

I don't think that it's an uncommon thing in children (and adults!) so at least I'm aware of it, and most of the time I can prepare appropriately!

Does anyone in your family suffer from hangriness?

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A day at Alice Holt Forest, Surrey


Over the Easter holidays we spent a lovely day with friends at Alice Holt Forest near Farnham in Surrey. Alice Holt is free to visit with a small charge for parking, and there is lots to do to keep the whole family entertained.

Alice Holt Forest, Farnham, Surrey

The first thing that we saw on arrival was a sign to the Gruffalo sculpture, and so that was where we headed first. Along the way we found the Gruffalo's Child, then we discovered the Gruffalo himself sharing a clearing with Stick Man - the children were delighted!

Gruffalo sculpture at Alice Holt forest

From the 24th April 2017 there will be a Gruffalo Spotters Trail in the forest along with an augmented reality app for your smartphone - you can find out more information on the Gruffalo Spotters Trail website - something for us to look out for on our next visit!

Children playing with sticks in the forest

The children spent lots of time playing in the forest, collecting sticks and using them to dig in the ground. There were some bridges already built across ditches, and dens that they could play in and add to. Along the paths there were lots of information signs aimed at children with plenty of information about the forest sights and things to look for. They loved running along the forest paths and easily kept themselves entertained.

There are several trails through the forest to choose from in varying lengths, so you can choose the one that suits your family best. We particularly enjoyed the Habitat Trail, which featured large wooden play frames every few hundred metres. Among other things there was an owl with a pole inside to slide down, a huge woodpecker that they could climb up inside and a pile of large wooden tunnels to crawl through. There was also a great playground and picnic area, and you can rent bicycles to explore some of the longer trails.

Boy collecting sticks in the forest

I made a little video showing some of the fun that we had during our visit to Alice Holt, I hope that you enjoy it!


Entry to Alice Holt Forest is free, with a small charge for parking. As a Forestry Commission blogger I received a free parking voucher. You can find more information on the Alice Holt website.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Salt dough shell mosaics

I'm always collecting shells when I go to the beach, and instead of just leaving them lying around the house in boxes and jars I decided that we could do a craft together to enable us to keep our beach treasures on display. We made these simple salt dough mosaics - it was a really fun process and produced some lovely keepsakes.

How to make salt dough shell mosaics

Many of these shells are ones that I have collected on various beach holidays over the years. I chose a selection of smaller sizes, and also some little bits of sea glass. If you don't have enough shells you can also buy them quite reasonably - for example a pack like this Assortment of Mini Shells (affiliate link). You could also press sand and stones into the salt dough to add a bit more texture.

To make the salt dough I just mixed together a cup of salt, two cups of plain flour, and enough water to mix into a stiff dough (I find usually just under a cup of water is needed). The dough shouldn't be sticky, but it should be soft enough to knead and shape without cracking. This amount made enough for six circles, each approximately 10 cm in diameter.

Shape the dough into a ball and press flat to form a circle. You want it to be about 1 cm thick - deep enough to hold the shells firmly but not so thick that it will be difficult to dry thoroughly. Place your circles on a clean baking tray, and you can start to decorate.

Salt dough recipe

First make a hole in the top of the circle if you want to be able to hang them. The easiest way is to use a drinking straw to press out the hole, and wiggle it around a little bit to make the hole nice and large so it won't close up as the salt dough dries. Then press the shells firmly into the dough. This should be enough to make sure that they won't fall out. Think about the placement - you can make patterns, a picture, or just stick them in randomly.

Child playing with salt dough

Harry came up with the idea of using the pattern from a larger shell to press into the salt dough to leave an imprint - similar to the salt dough dinosaur fossils that we made a few years back. This worked really well, and I used the technique myself to make a border for my mosaic.

Salt dough shells ready to bake

You shouldn't need to grease the tray in any way, but it's worth moving the salt dough around from time to time while it is baking, especially if you are using an older baking tray, to make sure that it doesn't stick.

Salt dough shell mosaic close up

Bake the salt dough in the oven on the lowest setting. I've managed to burn salt dough in the past so I'm very careful now and don't cook it for more than 45 minutes in total, checking it every 5 minutes and moving it slightly so it doesn't stick to the tray. Because the circles are quite thick they will need longer than that to dry completely, so I usually finish off drying my salt dough by leaving it on top of a hot radiator for a couple of days, turning it over from time to time. In the summer you can leave them outside in the sun to dry, or on a sunny windowsill. 

Salt dough drying on the radiator

When dry, do a quick check to make sure that all the shells are still firmly in place, and if necessary secure with a dollop of glue. Then when the circles are completely dry you can varnish them. Varnishing adds a layer of protection, and also really brings out the colours and texture of the shells and other bits and pieces. I applied a couple of coats, layering it generously and making sure that it seeped into all the gaps where the shells are embedded, to make sure that they were firmly held in place. Then I took advantage of the sunshine to dry them outside.

Varnished salt dough drying in the sun

The salt dough mosaics were finished off with some ribbon for hanging. They are quite heavy but a nail in the wall should be enough to hold them, and I think they will look lovely on display!

Salt dough and shell mosaics

The salt dough mosaics aren't suitable for outside use, so I might have a think about ways I can use the shells for some outdoor decorations, maybe using them in some stepping stones for the garden.

Salt dough and shell mosaic display
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