Friday 30 December 2011

Ending the year in upheaval

So, 2011 is drawing to a close, and as I am unlikely to have time for blogging tomorrow here is my end-of-the-year post.

At the beginning of 2011 I was just starting to make my pregnancy public. Although planned, it happened a lot quicker than we expected, so it was really starting to sink in how much our little family was going to change. We spent the last few months before Mia was born fitting in all the things that we would find it difficult to do with a baby - we went on our first family holiday abroad to Lanzarote and we spent a long weekend in Disneyland Paris. We also took Harry on a couple of overnight trips to London, with the last one just a couple of weeks before I gave birth (I spent a lovely few hours sitting in the bath in the hotel reading while Ram and Harry trekked round the Natural History Museum.)

I carried on working up until a few days before Mia was born, so I didn't really get any maternity leave. Then she came along and the real work started. It wasn't such a shock to the system as it was when Harry was born, and we coped pretty well. A huge event that happened around this time was the purchase of a sleep training clock, with the incredible result that Harry started sleeping beyond 5am in the morning, and I cannot describe the difference that this has made to our lives.

I started blogging in July. Having started a couple of short-lived blogs in the past I didn't really expect it to last, and I've amazed myself that I've managed to not only keep going, but to keep going at the rate of nearly a post a day! This will be post 160. I've also watched my stats increase from none, then to very immediate family, then to people that I've never met, which is amazing! I'm really enjoying being a part of the new community that I have found, and hope that I can continue.

So the summer was a bit of a blur while we sorted ourselves out, although I don't remember much sunshine. In September we went on our first family holiday which was a massive success. We finished the year with a stay at Center Parcs before spending a quiet Christmas at home, just the four of us.

It was around the end of August that we put the house on the market. We've been living here for four years now, and although it is a lovely house we fancied a change of area. It was a rather sudden decision, and when we received an offer just over a week later after just one viewing we were lucky enough to find a perfect house in a large village just down the road. Very few house sales go through without any problems, and after a few delays we finally exchanged just before Christmas. All being well we are due to complete next week.

So we end the year in a house which we have been very happy in, and which has seen us through two very important life changing events. We are surrounded by mess, boxes and empty cupboards, and feeling rather stressed and anxious. But the move doesn't mean any big changes for us other than location, and we are very much looking forward to an exciting new start for the New Year.

Happy New Year everybody!

Two children at Christmas

Thursday 29 December 2011

A tale of two baby journals

Harry has a baby book. It is a detailed journal, stuffed with photographs, mementoes, drawings, observations, locks of hair, hand and footprints and so on. His milestones are described in loving and intricate detail down to the very day that they were passed, days out are chronicled, everyday life and routines are commented on. The main journal we bought only covered his first year, so I started for him a second book which is an A5 sketchbook, where I got him to draw 'pictures' and I wrote about some of the things that we got up to.

Mia has a baby book too. It isn't the same one, as I did have enough foresight to realise that I probably wouldn't be spending quite as much time on it. A lot of the things that I wrote down for Harry I was writing to help me remember when it came to the second (for example, my dismay that the babies I produce do not like to sleep).

In Mia's book you will find a birth story and some brief comments on some of the early milestones. I'm pretty sure that it's not that up to date, and some of them are very vague ("well, she is certainly smiling now but I can't remember for sure when she started"). I haven't even printed out any photos yet.

To a certain extent, this blog has taken over from the baby books. It is much easier to click here to add a photo, rather than get a selection together (because it's cheaper to print out lots at once), get them printed and then stick them in. I've written quite a lot about my thoughts and feelings. One thing that I always wanted to do when I started blogging was to get it printed out (I believe that there are places that can do this) so that I would have a physical record of what I had written.

But I do need to make more of an effort with Mia's book. I hope that the children will treasure their own books one day, as I remember how much I loved looking through mine even when still I was still a child. So I hereby commit myself to making Mia's book of the baby years at least as complete as Harry's, if not quite as detailed!

Baby books and journals

If you are looking for a good baby or child journal I would fully recommend the ones in the series that we have (there are also other journals in this series available for Grandparents, pregnancy, mother and toddler and others). Harry has "My Baby's Journal" and Mia has "Baby to Five - An Early Years Journal" published by Ryland, Peters & Small.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Rolobox wheel kit for boxes

Harry got some great presents for Christmas this year! Another hit was this Rolobox wheel kit, purchased from Amazon. It's a really simple idea - a set of plastic wheels and a pull cord which you can attach to any cardboard box to turn it into...whatever you like!

Rolobox wheel kit for cardboard boxes

We just stuck with making a basic box "train" for the time being. It was easy to put together, and really sturdy. Harry loaded all the toys up into the box for a ride while Mia looked on anxiously...

Rolobox wheel kit

...with good reason as it turned out!

Cardboard box wheel set

When we're moved and settled I'll try and come up with some more adventurous ideas. I've also got my eye on the Makedo connector kits for building models out of things from the recycling bin. I've not actually seen them in person though, has anyone tried them out?

The great thing about this type of activity is that you can make really large, bulky toys, and then when you feel you are running out of space you can just squash them and recycle them! And there is never a shortage of cardboard boxes in this house!

Unfortunately the Rolobox wheel kits look as though they are currently a little difficult to get hold of which is a real shame, hopefully they will be available to purchase again soon.

Update - I have two further crafts to share using these fab wheels!

Monday 26 December 2011

Boxing Day

When I was little, Boxing Day was an extension of Christmas Day, for staying at home, playing with new toys and eating up the chocolates. The January sales completely passed me by until I met my husband and discovered a new way of spending the days just after Christmas.

Before children we used to get up at the (at that time) hideously early time of 5am and head over to Southampton, stopping at Marks and Spencers on the way then heading on to Next before ending up in the city centre. We never bought a huge amount, but we usually came back with some bargains. When Harry was born we had a year off, but last year, as he was getting up at that time anyway, we bundled him into the car and set out with the pushchair. We managed a limited trip, but he got stroppy very quickly so we weren't really rating our chances when this year we decided to attempt sales shopping with both baby and toddler.

We usually get on quite well with the Marks and Spencer's sale, and as this year the store just down the road in Shoreham has been extended we didn't have to travel too far. We each took a trolley and a child and sped round. We didn't get a lot but were pleased with what we did get. I always get slippers as I wear them out so quickly, and I needed new pajamas. I also bought some festive silicone cup cake cases and chocolate moulds for next year.

On the same retail park, the old Homebase was recently changed into a Next store, so we pushed our luck and pushed over a pushchair. We couldn't believe just how big the store was, and also how empty of people it was. I don't think it was just because of the size, but it was well after the early opening, and there was plenty of stock left. Perhaps the large areas marked out for queuing had been full earlier in the morning, but when we went there were no queues whatsoever and plenty of space to walk around and have a good luck round.

Now we will be continuing our sales shopping from home through the computer!

Sunday 25 December 2011

Our little family Christmas

So this year is probably one of the few that we will spend at home with just the four of us. Mia's first Christmas, and our last Christmas in this house. I really tried to keep things simple this year, as things are hard enough with a baby and a toddler already! In previous years I have gone a bit mad with Harry's stocking presents and he has still been opening gifts days later. This year they each had a small stocking with just five or six small gifts inside, and the family presents will be spread out over a few days as we get round to visiting everyone.

For Harry's main present, we scooped a massive bargain on eBay. He loves his wooden train track, and for just £10 we won an enormous amount of more wooden track, along with trains, tunnels, bridges, stations and accessories. It also included some wooden roadway with cars, trucks, emergency vehicles and an overpass. We emptied the dining room on Christmas Eve once Harry was in bed, and spent the evening putting together a huge layout before papering up the door. Harry spotted the door first thing, but we let him open his stocking first, and then we all had breakfast before we let him go in.

Well, to say he was thrilled was an understatement. He has so far spent most of the day playing with it. His particular favourite is the electronic level crossing, which lowers automatically when a train passes.

Celebrating Christmas with a baby and a toddler

We managed to tear him away briefly to open a few family presents.

Celebrating Christmas with a baby and a toddler

 No-one noticed that some of Mia's presents were Harry's old rattles wrapped up.

Celebrating Christmas with a baby and a toddler

She sat happily in her play ring with her new toys while Harry helped her with the unwrapping.

Celebrating Christmas with a baby and a toddler

Our Christmas lunch was also very simple and far from traditional, but took hardly any time to prepare, suited us and was very toddler friendly!

Celebrating Christmas with a baby and a toddler

Happy Christmas everyone!

Saturday 24 December 2011

Christmas Eve thoughts

For the first few years that we were together, my husband and I spent Christmas apart, at our respective parents' houses. The first year we spent together was in 2008, when I was heavily pregnant with Harry and didn't want to be too far away from home. Since then, Harry's first two Christmases have been spent at Ram's parents.

This year, and for Mia's first Christmas, we have chosen to spent it just the four of us at home. A little selfish perhaps, but I think it's important that we are able to develop our traditions as a family, and of course we will see the other relatives over the Christmas period. Because it's likely that future Christmases will be spent in various places, I've been trying to develop family traditions which can take place wherever we are.

Ram is vegetarian and I don't really eat much meat, so there won't be a turkey tomorrow. Instead we have stocked up on 'party food' and we will probably just graze throughout the day with perhaps a homemade pizza for dinner. Because we don't intend to be driving we can open a bottle of wine. It would be nice if it's dry enough to get out for a walk, otherwise the little ones will have plenty of new toys to occupy themselves with, and of course there will be plenty of festive television to watch!

Tonight we'll sprinkle reindeer food on the grass and leave out a mince pie and a drink for Father Christmas. We'll hang up the stockings by the fireplace, and tuck up the little ones in bed, knowing that they won't sleep any worse than usual, as Harry is still (just!) too little to be up all night with excitement! Then Ram and I have a bit of work to do in order to get Harry's main Christmas present ready for him tomorrow morning!

Reindeer food

Friday 23 December 2011

Sitting up

Mia is finally starting to sit up! Albeit with a bit of a wobble and a tendency to slump forwards. I say finally, because I see this as a big milestone. I suppose because it also comes at a time when the baby is starting to get a bit more interesting, grabbing for toys and rolling about a bit more to reach them. It also means that when you take them out places you don't need to worry about lying them down on the floor, and they prefer being in a pushchair when they can see what is going on.

Baby starting to sit up

Harry has never really been jealous of Mia, he smothers her with affection. But now that she has moved on from just lying on the floor and is starting to express an interest in his toys, I'm wondering if things will start to change. She has starting pulling up his train track and grabbing his cars, and while at the moment we can laugh it off together ("silly Mia, she's putting the train in her mouth, that's not where it goes!") there is going to come a point where he begins to get cross with her interrupting his play and messing up his things. There is also the safety aspect to consider, as most of his current toys are not designed to go in a baby's mouth.

One wonderful thing is that whatever Harry is doing does entertain Mia. It must have been so boring for him as a baby when it was just me in the house. Mia has so much going on, so much noise, chatter and things to look at!

Thursday 22 December 2011

All the things you need to do when moving house

We're moving house! So it's a busy time at the moment with lots of things to sort out. There are so many things to do - organise a removal company, cancel television and phone subscriptions, sort out council tax, arrange redirection of post, not to mention changing our address everywhere. Luckily my husband is very good at sorting these things out and we've already made a good start.

Our last move was from a flat to this house, before children. We used a removal company, but we packed everything ourselves, and although it was hard work it wasn't too bad and I assumed that we'd do the same this time. But then we looked around and saw just how much more stuff we have now. We got a quote for the company to pack for us, and it wasn't as bad as we thought. So we've decided to pay a little bit more to have it done for us, and this has taken some of the stress out of the move.

Even with the packing being taken care of, and the admin tasks being sorted, there are still so many other things to do. They include:

  • Eating up everything in the freezer. We can keep things from the fridge in a coolbag or just in the garage at this time of year, but the freezer will have to be turned off a day or two before the move. So the little ones will have to make do with shop bought food for a while rather than the healthy nutritious homemade food that they usually eat (!) because I can't batch cook any more. It's a good opportunity to get rid of all the out of date and mysterious items at the bottom, and give it all a good clean!

  • Likewise I will be going through the food cupboards in the kitchen to make sure that we're not going to the effort of moving expired food. I think that I'll be doing a lot of baking the next couple of weeks to try and use up some of my flour and sugar.

  • I will be sorting through all the paperwork to find the things relevant to the house that need to stay with it e.g. instruction leaflets for the burglar alarm and boiler. I also need to put aside spare parts and extras for things being left behind e.g. spare tiles for the bathroom, so that they don't end up at the new house.

  • The main thing is that we will be trying to declutter so that we don't end up opening boxes at the other end full of things that we don't need anymore. I'm also going around collecting small things into boxes so that they don't get lost and muddled up.

It's great that we're going to be starting the New Year in a new house and I'm getting really excited about the move. We'll have plenty of time to get ourselves sorted before I go back to work in the summer. I'm a little bit sad though too. We wouldn't have decorated Mia's bedroom if we thought we were moving, and I love Harry's little bedroom which we've decorated with painted hills and a sky with clouds and a sun in it. With a bit of luck this should be our last move though (until we move into our retirement bungalow!)

All the things you need to do when moving house

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Adventures under the sofa...

Yep, that's a piece of tin foil.

Things that I found underneath the sofa

I've been looking for the lost yellow ball from the golf set for a while now, so I'm pleased that I found it, it upsets me when sets of toys are incomplete. Harry has been trying to rescue Lightning McQueen for a few days, and he did wonder where the Bob the Builder phone had got to. The rubber ball lives permanently under the sofa, generally emerging for a brief period of bouncing before disappearing until the next time I go fishing underneath.

I decided not to photograph the crumbs and bits of pizza.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Playing with the Shopping List game

As I mentioned earlier, we've already started celebrating Christmas with relatives that live further away, and so Harry already has some of his presents. I was so impressed with this one that I had to write about it - the Shopping List game from Orchard Toys. We suggested this game as a present for him, because it had good reviews on Amazon and was a bestseller, but I have only recently heard of Orchard Toys. Harry is nearly 3 now, and I thought that he probably had the understanding to pick up how to play simple games.

Shopping List game from Orchard Toys

I was really pleased with the game, and Harry loved it. It has a simple premise - each player (of up to four players) has a shopping list with eight different items. Each of these 32 items is represented on a smaller card. The small cards are turned face down in the middle, and players take it in turns to turn over a card. If it is on their shopping list they add it to their trolley, if not they turn it back over and play passes to the next person.

Shopping List game from Orchard Toys

The game involves matching the items to the shopping list, and also memory skills, as you can remember where other items from your list are if other players have previously turned them over. Harry picked up the rules very quickly and was quite happy to play the game properly. He was absolutely delighted when he matched something from his list.

But what I particularly liked about this game was how Harry developed it. When he had filled up his trolley he drove it over to me so that I could 'scan' the items. Then he loaded them onto his truck, took them 'home', then he 'ate' them for lunch. I could see that he could amuse himself with the game even by himself, and there are lots of other games that you could play with the pieces. You could make up a number of variations on matching and memory games. It could be played as a single player game, or else two people could play with two shopping lists each. It also works really well for players of different ages and abilities.

Shopping List game from Orchard Toys

It's too late for us to be coming up with more Christmas presents for Harry now, but I'm definitely going to have a good browse of the website. 

Early Christmas and Father Christmas #5

We spent the weekend at Ram's parents in Warwick to celebrate an early Christmas, as we are staying at home for Christmas this year. Grandad took Harry into town to see Father Christmas. Unfortunately Harry clung tightly to me and refused to even look at him. He did ask beforehand where the reindeer were though (in the coffee shop apparently) so he was interested, just terrified.

Child opening Christmas presents

Harry's favourite present was a doctor's kit which was a big hit, we've been playing with it constantly since with various bits of plastic stuck in our ears and mouth.

Baby opening Christmas presents

Mia got lots of gorgeous clothes and some sparkly hairclips. We finished the day with a bottle of champage (to celebrate our upcoming house move) and a lovely dinner.

Monday 19 December 2011

Listography - Top 5 things that make Christmas Christmas

This week the theme for the Listography hosted by Kate Takes 5 is the top 5 things that make Christmas Christmas. Here's what makes it Christmas for me:

1 - Opening a big box of chocolates

Boxes of chocolates are usually the first sign of Christmas in the supermarkets. Not branded with anything Christmassy, and not even displayed in a special Christmas section, but everyone knows that their appearance means it's time to start thinking about Christmas. It was always a special moment when I was little and the tin of Roses was opened on Christmas Eve. It's not quite the same these days now that I can just go and buy a box of chocolates whenever I want, but it wouldn't be Christmas without a big tin of chocolates somewhere in the room.

2 - Stockpiling (and eating!) yummy food and drink

We are having a tiny family Christmas this year, no entertaining and no guests. We are also moving house just after Christmas so we are trying to keep purchases to a minimum. Yet we still have a massive pile of chocolates, biscuits, crisps, wine, beer, mince pies, sweets, chocolate bars, crackers...with more party food still to be purchased! It will all get eaten though!

3 - Listening to Christmas songs

We have a collection of Christmas music in various places - the car, the computer, to play through the television, through the iPod dock. Not to mention on the television, radio and in shops. I love listening to Christmas songs, and because you only listen to them at this time of year and not through the rest of the year, they really do evoke Christmas.

4 - Watching television

I remember the excitement surrounding the Christmas Radio Times, and checking to see which new films would be shown and which classics would be repeated. Along with the cold weather and shorter days, Christmas is about sitting in front of the television, watching Christmas specials of your favourite shows, re-watching the classics over again, and sharing them with the next generation.

5 - Dressing up

Dressing a bit more smartly and maybe even putting on some make-up for the work Christmas do, dressing the babies and children in silly outfits and Santa hats, wearing Christmas tree earrings and musical ties, and spending Christmas Day itself wearing a poorly fitting hat from a cracker. And lots of sparkles!

Sunday 18 December 2011

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree Blog Party

It's party season, I'm sharing my Christmas tree. I've posted before about how our tree is a bit of a "chuck it all at the tree and hope it doesn't fall off" sort of tree. Sometimes I envy those lovely colour co-ordinated trees that you see in garden centres, but the trouble is that I would get bored with the same colours year after year, and I can't imagine starting again each Christmas. Our tree has decorations that we've made and collected over the years, and it's full of memories.

Messy Christmas tree

The gold ornaments were an Ikea sales bargain, I think that they were something like 5p for a box of 50 ornaments. The tinsel dates back to Ram's very first Christmas tree when he moved out of home. I made the felt stockings (which are not quite as stuffed with chocolates as they were a week ago...). The cardboard bauble at the bottom was made by Harry last year. The tree has coloured flashing lights on it and underneath are a collection of small Christmas stuffed toys. I think that the star on top was from Sainsbury's a couple of years ago, it replaced a hideous plastic angel that came from one of those cheap Christmas shops that pops up in town.

Moving house - it's on the market!

We have had an exciting week this week:

House with a For Sale sign outside

We have exchanged contracts and will be moving house at the beginning of January. We've started getting some quotes for removal firms, and although we like to save money wherever possible we are seriously considering paying them to pack for us this time. Since our last move we have accumulated a lot more stuff, in particular in the toy and childrenswear departments. It's a good opportunity for a bit of a clear out too. If you know me in real life keep an eye on your in-boxes as we try to offload our clutter!

Any tips on making the move with a toddler and a baby as easy and pain free as possible, please let me know!

Friday 16 December 2011

The everlasting Santa outfit

Surely one of the great pleasures of having children has to be the opportunity to dress them up in silly costumes. When we bought Harry this Father Christmas outfit back in 2009 for his very first Christmas, we had no idea what a bargain it would be. Here it is in 2009:

Small child in a Santa outfit

And again at Christmas 2010:

Small child in a Santa outfit

Christmas 2011 and the outfit is still going strong! Will he still fit it next year, or will it be Mia's turn?

Small child in a Santa outfit

Children and books

I'm still thinking about an article that I read last week on the BBC News website - Third of children "without books". According to a new report by the National Literacy Trust, 3.8 million children in the UK do not own a book.

I find this absolutely staggering. I wouldn't want to dispute the research, but I simply cannot believe that there are this many children in the UK without a single book of their own. For a start, babies and toddlers in this country are (currently) given free books through the excellent Bookstart scheme. However this report does concern older children. The majority of the 18,141 children questioned were aged 11-13 years old.

I do remember when I was about 10 our teacher asked us to bring in the books that we had received for Christmas to show to the rest of the class. I had had a bumper year, and I lugged in a huge bag of both fiction and non-fiction books (some of which  I still have today). But I remember that I was the exception, and I was surpised to see that there were children in the class that had received no books, and this was not a school in a deprived area.

I still have a lot of books, although my stash and number of purchases have reduced somewhat since I received a Kindle. I tend to take a fairly fluid approach to books anyway and pass them on when I've finished with them. But even if I don't tend to buy new books for myself any more, I can't resist buying them for the children, and they are constantly being taken out and read.

The lack of books owned by children can't possibly be due to the cost of buying books. Although new books can be expensive, we have bought second hand books in our local library and charity shops for as little as 10p. We've also received books as gifts and are regular visitors to the library for borrowing. So it must be down to the attitude of their parents. I do definitely see a correlation between the number of books that parents have in their houses and the number that the children have. It's understandable that parents that are readers will raise children that are readers, because the children see reading as an enjoyable pastime.

Of course these days much reading is done electronically, and there is still a value for children in reading magazines, newspapers and articles online.  But I must admit that this report has given me lots to think about, and even upset me a little.

I think that books are so important, not just for teaching children to read, but for teaching children about the world, about history, about how other people can have different views, opinions and traditions. They are entertainment, an escape, a source of relaxation. I love nosing at the bookshelves in other peoples' homes to see what they are interested in and what we might have in common. I just can't imagine a home without books, and I find it very sad.

Old books on a bookshelf

Thursday 15 December 2011

Father Christmas #4

I concentrated a little more on the build up to Father Christmas for this baby group Christmas party, with the result that Harry was asking constantly through the morning whether Father Christmas was here yet and whether he was coming on his sleigh or walking. There was a slightly sticky moment when I heard that Father Christmas might be ill and not able to make it, but luckily he rallied round and appeared on cue. Harry predictably retreated behind the nearest chair, so I took Mia up by myself.

Baby meeting Father Christmas

They got some lovely little presents and sweets from Father Christmas. They also put on a puppet show for the little ones, Harry had a blue monster puppet to dance along with.

Child at Christmas party

We had a lovely morning, the helpers really put in so much effort to make it special for the little ones.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

A reply from Father Christmas!

A reply from Father Christmas via Royal Mail

A reply from Father Christmas from Royal Mail, and in good time too! Harry was thrilled. He has been role-playing Father Christmas all day, with a sack of presents which he gives out to me and Mia. He also made me "talk" to Father Christmas on the phone to thank him for the present that he received earlier today when he was too shy to actually talk to Father Christmas himself.

Father Christmas #3

Eagle eyed readers will note the absence of Father Christmas #2. This was a charity visit in the town centre at the weekend, accompanied by Ram.

Today was the first baby group Christmas party, with lots of fun activities (make reindeer food, scatter glitter about, ice gingerbread men). At the end Father Christmas made his appearance, and Harry retreated behind a row of chairs at the back of the room. He told me that he couldn't move because he had broken down and his wheels were stuck. So I had to go over to Father Christmas and ask him if I could possibly have a present for Harry. There was a glimmer of excitement as Harry unwrapped something pink, but it turned out to be a bottle of bubble mixture which Harry promptly upended on the laminate flooring, sending toddlers skidding and sliding off in all directions.

We have another chance for Harry to meet Father Christmas tomorrow at the next baby group party.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Writing the Christmas cards

I know, I'm really late with writing my cards this year. Especially as in the interest of being frugal I prefer to send them second class. I tried to make a bit of a stand this year, as in the past I feel that I have spent a lot of time effectively exchanging cards with the wives of my husband's friends. This year I told my husband "I've got the Christmas cards out for you so that you can write them to your friends". Of course I know that I'll end up writing them out anyway as I'll feel bad when they don't get done. 

Not being at work does mean that my list has reduced this year. I do like to send them to my mummy friends at baby groups, which means I have to try and remember the names of their husbands to put on the card, to avoid writing "Dear X and family" when they have managed to remember mine.

At Harry's nursery, they distribute a list of the names of all the children in his room to make sure that you don't miss anyone. As he only attends for a day and a half a week, I'm sure that he never meets most of these little ones. Today he was delighted to come home with two cards (especially the one that contained a chocolate coin), but when I asked him who the two little girls were that had sent them whose mother had sent them he didn't know! 

I used to make a special effort with each card and include an extra handwritten greeting, or even enclose an individual letter with our news. But then I discovered that most people just sign their names. Especially with everyone being so connected on Facebook and the like I tend to know what everyone else has been up to anyway. 

I wouldn't want to stop sending cards altogether though, it's always nice to have a reminder of a friend pop through the letter box and I appreciate every one that I receive. I just need to get together the motivation to get on and write them!

Christmas cards and stamps

The absolute best toy for babies and toddlers

Now that Mia is 6 months old and becoming a bit more interested in toys and such I've been getting out some of the baby toys that we had packed away. This included Harry's sets of stacking cups, and I was reminded once again what a truly fantastic toy they are. They are so great that I decided to write a blog post in case anyone was looking for a simple, classic Christmas present for a baby or toddler.

Stacking cups

Our main set was from Early Learning Centre, a snip at £6 (although I'm not sure about the colours of their current set, I think that ours are nicer). We also have a set from Ikea which were a true bargain, although don't currently seem to be available. The Ikea cups are good because each one has holes in a different place, brilliant for in the bath. I've seen them in lots of other places too, you can gets one in different shapes, wooden ones, ones with different numbers, different pictures - there are lots of variations!

Although I had packed them away as Harry moved on to other toys, he jumped on them when he saw them and has hardly stopped playing with them since they resurfaced. Now he is able to build them up into a tall tower by himself (he insists it is a lighthouse) and we had a fab time playing "Harry monster" where I built a tower and he marched over roaring and destroyed it.

In their time they have been in the sandpit, the bath, the activity table and chased about the floor. They have been filled with rice, pasta, sand, cars and sponges. I even used to carry the smallest two about with me in the change bag for a toy on the go.

It doesn't even matter if you buy a set for someone that already has them, as you can have lots of sets and they will still be played with! Buy a value pack of dried pasta to go with them and you are sorted.

Stacking cups

Monday 12 December 2011

Tapestry Christmas stockings

I made these two tapestry Christmas stockings for the little ones using a kit purchased from Jolly Red. I made Harry's using the original kit, and then as there was quite a bit of yarn left over I bought some extra yarn and canvas, and reused the pattern to make a second one for Mia.

Tapestry Christmas stockings from Jolly Red kit

It was the first time that I had tried tapestry, and I'm really pleased with how they turned out. I don't have a frame for stitching on, which perhaps would have made it easier, but I managed fine without one. The kit only includes the materials to make the tapestry front of the stocking. Luckily my Mum was kind enough to make up the stockings for me, as I would have found it quite difficult (but that's just me, I'm sure most crafters could manage easily!). Jolly Red do offer a making up service too, but combined with the cost of the kit it would have worked out rather expensive. I think that the design is lovely, and there are some other gorgeous patterns available too for all sorts of things.

Tapestry Christmas stocking from Jolly Red

We will leave them downstairs by the fireplace for Father Christmas to fill on Christmas Eve. 

Saturday 10 December 2011

Things to do for free at Center Parcs, Elveden Forest

We love visiting Center Parcs, but we do find that the activities on offer can be rather expensive. So I've put together a selection of the things that we have found to do for free in Center Parcs, Elveden Forest. These activities are particularly suitable for toddlers and young children.

The largest attraction included in the cost of the holiday is the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. There are plenty of areas to sit and plenty of different swimming areas, waterslides, jacuzzis and so on. There is a small, shallow pool for babies and toddlers, with sand to play in and some gentle slides. Twice a week there is a free Baby Dolphins session in the pool with singing for under 3s, check the details when you arrive. There is enough here to keep people of all ages amused.

Another great thing is just the enjoyment of being outdoors in the forest. You can take along your own bikes, scooters, trikes, rollerskates, skateboards and so on, and make the most of some safe paths to ride along away from the traffic. You can cycle around the village itself, or else there are some short tracks away from the village out into the forest.

While out you can spot wildlife and take some bread to feed the ducks and other wildlife. You can also watch other people taking part in the activities - for example it can be entertaining to watch people on the High Ropes or out on the water.

The beach area by the lake has sand to play in and paddling when the weather is nice. Cross over the bridge to the Adventure Golf island - you don't need to be playing to explore the island and there is a range of play equipment to climb on.

Center Parcs Elveden Forest

Other outdoor play areas can be found outside the Sports Plaza, with equipment suitable for a range of ages from toddlers to older children. If the weather isn't good enough to play outside, there are indoor play areas in some of the restaurants. Although the ones in Bella Italia and Huck's are intended for customers, there is an indoor soft play area in the Sports Cafe which you can use without eating or drinking. Likewise at Foresters' Inn in the Country Club there is a large indoor play area (and small outside area) which you can use without feeling obliged to make a purchase. There is also a fenced off soft play area for very little ones. If you are eating or drinking in these places then you can sit within sight of the play areas.

Center Parcs Elveden Forest

Sometimes in the Sports Plaza area there are Playmobil displays and occasionally Playmobil which you can play with. Also keep an eye out here for special notices. On one of our visits there was a problem which required the Subtropical Swimming Paradise to close for a brief period. To make up for this, Adventure Golf was free for the rest of the break and childrens' soft play equipment was set out for free to use.

On some evenings there are free childrens' and adults' discos upstairs in the Sports Plaza. Check the sign by the entrance.

Seasonally there are various different activities running, in particular during the Winter Wonderland which runs from the middle of November until just before Christmas. As well as the village being beautifully decorated for Christmas there are also a range of other activities, many of which are free. On our visit at Christmas 2011 there were the following:

  • Festive Fireworks display twice a week
  • Two real reindeer to visit, and when we visited also an owl
  • Singing reindeer (see picture below, not to be missed)
  • Bjorn the Polar Bear
  • Daily opening of the Advent Calendar in the Piazza
  • Santa's Stocking Adventure - a treasure hunt to find letters hidden around the village
  • Christmas Market (on the night of the fireworks)
  • Santa's Woodland Workshop - even if you aren't paying to visit Santa you can still admire the lighted pathway to his house and illuminated snowmen, sometimes there is even snow!

And of course it's also important to remember that you don't need to stay in the park, you can easily jump in the car, or get out on your bikes and explore the local area. My Dad has some tips for fellow off-road cyclists:

"When you have done with hurtling round the Center Parcs perimeter track, scattering joggers and dog walkers alike, then it's time to cross the A11 to The King's Forest and beyond. Landranger OS map 144 will be your guide. As you might expect the land is flat but not without the occasional opportunity to slide into sand filled tracks or go with the undulations left by the four wheel drive drivers."

I hope that these tips are helpful!

Nursery Christmas Fair and Father Christmas #1

Today was the nursery Christmas Fair. They always put on a good show and it's also a good opportunity to take a look in Harry's "Record of Success" (key observations this month - Harry is a picky eater and enjoys playing with his train set. At least he behaves the same there as at home). We won a couple of prizes in the tombola, Harry ate half a mini yule log and he won some sweets throwing mince pies into (cardboard) Santa's mouth.

The highlight of the morning was the visit to Father Christmas. Unfortunately, for the second year running, the money which I had sent along to pay for his present (£2 in a neatly labelled envelope) had gone missing on its way to the North Pole, so we were made to feel like scroungers when he was presented with a gift marked "spare". Harry was terrified of Father Christmas so I had to do the talking. He did manage to muster up a "thank you" though when he was given his present. I told Father Christmas that he would like a pink train and Father Christmas promised a nice big one, so we had to clarify afterwards that of course it will only be a little one that fits on his train track.

Next scheduled visit to Father Christmas will be at his baby group next week.

Center Parcs Elveden Forest for Christmas

This December marked Harry's fifth trip to Center Parcs Elveden Forest, and our first trip with Mia, as well as being the third time that we've visited just before Christmas. We are lucky because we can visit in term time, which means that the cost of the holiday is fairly reasonable. This time, because of the new addition to our group we upgraded to a three bedroom villa - a new style executive three bedroom lodge. This Christmas we were visiting with an almost three year old and a six month old.

Among other benefits, executive lodges have free wi-fi, a daily maid service, whirlpool bath and sauna. The fully equipped kitchen was provided with a small amount of washing up liquid (you'll probably need more), dishwasher tablets, sponge scourer, cloth and tea towel. The bedrooms had televisions and hairdryers and there was a DVD player in the living room. Although towels are provided, you'll want separate ones for the pool.

Center Parcs Elveden Forest

The lodge came with a sturdy and clean highchair and cot (you need to supply your own cot bedding). Unfortunately we have yet to find a satisfactory location for the cot in any of the lodges we have stayed in - it will only fit in the largest bedroom, and you need to either rearrange the furniture to squeeze it in beside the bed, or push it into a corner where it blocks the entrance to the bathroom. In our lodge one of the bathrooms had a toddler step which was very useful, and Harry was also particularly taken with a large chalkboard on the wall and coloured chalk.

Center Parcs Elveden Forest

There is a well-stocked grocery shop on site, and the prices are pretty reasonable, certainly comparable to one of the big supermarkets (although they don't carry the special offers that we tend to base our weekly shop around). If you are looking for more choice there is a good sized Sainsbury's on a retail park minutes up the road in Thetford.

You can enter the village on the morning of your holiday from 10am, but you can't take your car onto the site or enter your accommodation until 3pm. You can use the Subtropical Swimming Paradise from 2pm. Try not to arrive at 3pm on the dot as you will get stuck in a queue to get into the park - arriving just half an hour later can make a big difference.

We've found Center Parcs to be a fantastic place for a holiday with our young family. The lodges are comfortable and well equipped. It's great to be able to spend so much time out in the fresh air, and we've always found plenty to keep us busy. Center Parcs is also a really good place to holiday with extended family or friends, as everyone can have their own space yet still spend plenty of time together.

Center Parcs Elveden Forest

Harry loved the Subtropical Swimming Paradise this holiday, especially the childrens' pool with two slides and an area for splashing around and playing with sand. The changing areas however can get quite busy. Visiting during term time means that there are lots of babies and very young children, resulting in queues for the family changing cubicles which include a baby change table. You need to leave your pushchair in a large communal area outside, not a problem for us with our scruffy thing but might be a concern for some.

One criticism we have of Center Parcs is that additional activities can be very expensive compared to equivalent activities outside the park, although this doesn't seem to deter people. The prices are clearly displayed around the village and on the website, and they can be booked online before your visit or during your stay (subject to availability). We've managed to holiday here a number of times without paying for any extra activities (well, apart from the Aqua Sana - but that's a special treat!) so look out for my other post listing of some of the things that you can do around the village for free.

In addition, don't necessarily expect a peaceful and quiet woodland holiday here - the military airbase nearby means that there can be quite a lot of aircraft noise, including first thing in the morning and sometimes also into the early evening.

I'm not complaining though, visiting at Christmas in particular is a really magical experience, and you can take advantage of a few extra free seasonal attractions, such as the singing reindeer and a firework display. For an additional cost, to get into the Christmas spirit you can visit Father Christmas in his grotto, go ice-skating or take part in a variety of festive themed activities and crafts.

I'm sure that we'll be back!

Thursday 8 December 2011

Pre-Christmas break at Center Parcs, Elveden Forest

We're currently coming to the end of a short break at Center Parcs in Elveden Forest. We like it here very much, and this will be the third year running that we've visited just before Christmas. It's a great time of year to visit with pre-schoolers, because being term time it means that the prices are very reasonable, and they really do go to a lot of effort for Christmas. We're always reluctant to spend any more money than necessary, and Center Parcs is not known for cheap activities.

Play area at Center Parcs, Elveden Forest

Harry has had a great time, he has especially enjoyed the swimming pool this year (sorry...Subtropical Swimming Paradise). Mia has enjoyed a brief swim, and many walks through the forest. We have upgraded our accommodation choice to give us a bit more space, and the weather has not been too bad.

Christmas is a great time to visit Center Parcs because there are lots of extra activities and entertainment included in the price of your holiday. I've written in more detail about Elveden Forest at Christmas time here.

I've also written about some of the things that you can do for free at Center Parcs if you have discovered like us that the activities can be quite pricy. I hope that you find some useful tips!

Finally, since writing this post a few years ago, we have discovered that a great deal of money can be saved by visiting the Center Parc locations on the continent. You can find my posts about our trip to Erperheide in Belgium here:

Center Parcs, Erperheide in Belgium
Our second visit to Center Parcs, Erperheide

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Christmas Memories - Christmas build up in Australia

I mentioned before that we were lucky enough one year to spend the build up to Christmas on a trip around the world, and we happened to be in Sydney for the occasion of the turning on of the Christmas lights. It was fascinating to experience the sights and sounds of Christmas in the bright, warm sunshine. There was a huge gathering to watch the lights being turned on, and it was full of families, everyone was so friendly. We spotted lots of people with big red shopping bags and found out that they were available for a small donation to charity. We bought one to share, and then quickly went back for another once we discovered some great things inside - including a Happy Christmas sun hat! I even met Father Christmas!

Experiencing the build up to Christmas in Australia

There were the usual trees and lights, but I did particularly like the Christmas lamp post decorations, which were festooned with cockatoos rather than snowflakes.

Experiencing the build up to Christmas in Australia

I love how Christmas can evoke so many memories!

Tuesday 6 December 2011


I studied German at University, and I also spent a year living in Germany as part of my degree. I'm really lucky to have had this opportunity, and the chance to experience life in a different culture. Although I didn't spent Christmas Day itself in Germany, I experienced the build-up, and I loved seeing the similarities and differences in how it is celebrated.

A German (and elsewhere) tradition which I've not really seen celebrated here is the celebration of Nikolaus. It is based upon St Nicholas, who became the inspiration for Father Christmas due to his reputation for the secret giving of gifts. His feast day is the 6th December.

In Germany, Nikolaus is different to Father Christmas, who is known as the Weihnachtsmann. Traditionally, children put a shoe outside their door on the night of 5th December (making sure that they have cleaned them first!). If they have been good, in the middle of the night, Nikolaus will come and fill them with small presents - like chocolate, coins, sweets or small toys.

I want to make this a part of our Christmas tradition, so we did this for the first time today. I'm not sure that Harry really understood what was going on, although he certainly appreciated his chocolate Father Christmas and coins!

Sunday 4 December 2011

Our Christmas decorations - Surfing Santa

Yesterday we put up our Christmas decorations. My approach to Christmas decorating is to collect things that I like and then throw them at the tree. No nicely co-ordinated, matching displays here. We are fairly discriminating when it comes to purchasing decorations though. That way, the ones that we do have hold memories for us which we can relive every year.

In late 2007, the year that we were married, we were lucky enough to take a delayed Honeymoon on a round the world trip. We arrived in Hawaii at the beginning of December, although of course you wouldn't have known it by the weather.

Drinking from a coconut on the beach in Hawaii
This didn't mean of course that the preparations for Christmas weren't in full swing - there was a local radio station devoted to Christmas music, we saw a Christmas parade through the streets and the local Walmart was full of Christmas decorations. We didn't have much space left in the suitcase at this point, but how could we resist Surfing Santa?

Surfing Santa Christmas decoration

Have fun decorating!

Saturday 3 December 2011

Adventures in imaginary play - shopping

Like most toddlers, Harry likes to base his play around the things that he experiences in daily life. I've already blogged about knocking down baby group (he's still playing it). Another activity which features heavily in our day to day lives is going to the supermarket. A few months back, I started collecting miniature bottles and so on for Harry to play shops with.

As Harry gets older and more vocal (if that were possible) I'm getting used to being bossed around. I've learned that as long as I do what I'm told and sit where I'm supposed to then everything will be fine.

So to play shops, I set up all the packets at one end of the room. Then I go and sit at the other end. Sometimes I close my eyes briefly and dream of a proper nap, while Harry loads up his shopping basket (it's just a cardboard box, we're not that sophisticated). He brings it all over to me and demands that I "float" it. I had to ask him to explain that one - when he said that I had to "make the beep noise" I realised that he meant pretend to scan it. A few quick beeps later, and I have another few seconds to rest my eyelids while he takes the shopping home to another corner of the room.

This game can then be repeated until the baby wakes up.

Empty packaging for playing toy shops

Friday 2 December 2011

On to the bottles

So my breastfeeding is slowly coming to an end. I've managed six months, with some purees for the last few weeks. I'll still be feeding at night for a bit though I expect, and I'll find it difficult to give up the 4.30/5am feed, when Mia comes into bed with me and I get a couple of hours extra sleep.

This means that we are now formula feeding, or as I prefer to call it "tipping formula down the sink". Mia seems to be taking after her big brother and not being too keen on her milk, whichever form it comes in. I suppose it's also a bit of an adjustment from lots of little feeds throughout the day to a smaller number of bottles. With Harry I used to get very stressed and anxious when he would only drink 1oz at a time, but having been there before I am hoping that Mia will pick up like Harry did in the end. In the meantime, now that she is six months old I can top her up with yoghurt and cheesy sauces.

Something that I did differently this time was starting to express milk daily very early on, and building up a stock of milk in the freezer. We could then we gave Mia a bottle every few days so that she was used to it. We learned this after a traumatic time trying to get Harry to take a bottle.

I knew that I'd never be an extended breastfeeder, and so I'm really proud that I managed to get this far.

Felt name picture - Mia

Felt name in frame - Mia

Most of the things that I make seem to be for Harry at the moment, so I wanted to make something pretty and girly for Mia. I'm also a bit stuck for little Christmas presents for her. I'm still really enjoying crafting with felt at the moment, so I decided to frame her name in felt. I thought that we could put it up in her room or maybe on her door.

Mia name framed in felt

I bought a cheap pack of frames from Ikea, just £1.69 for three. They have thick plastic instead of glass, but that's probably safer for childrens' rooms anyway.

Cheap picture frame from Ikea

Whenever I imagine my felt creations they are always in delicate pastel shades, but most of my felt is bright colours and to be honest I prefer a more vivid look anyway. So I chose purple and pink for the letters. I cut out the smaller letter and sewed it onto a square of the contrasting colour before cutting around the edges. This was easier than cutting out two fiddly shapes. For a template for the letters I chose a font in Word (emboldened Bookman Old Style), enlarged it and then traced it off the screen.

Letters cut from felt

I painted the frame with acrylic paint which covered it nicely in one coat. I am not afraid to mix brights and pastels!

Picture frame painted pink

For the background I used some plain white linen fabric, and I just glued on the letters. I intended them to be in line with each other, but they came out a little larger than I expected. I like how they look misaligned anyway. I was going to embellish it further with buttons, ribbon, sequins, felt flowers etc., but in the end I felt that simple was better. It would be easy enough to add to it if I thought it needed a little extra something.

I liked it so much that I went on to make one for Harry - Felt name picture - Harry. At least both my children have short names so can be easily fitted into the frame!

You might also like my other felt crafts which you can find on my felt crafts page.