Boxing Day Sales! Stock up your present cupboard

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With a lot of sales starting today, it’s a good time to start thinking about next year’s birthday presents and parties and stocking up your supplies. This means you won’t end up spending more than you need to on a last minute present in a panic. Here are some gifts for under-fives that hopefully won’t duplicate existing toys and which only cost a couple of quid. Remember to stock up on wrapping paper and cheap cards at the same time!

One-year-olds – Card books, posting and stacking toys, balls, simple bucket and spade set for the local sandpit.

Two-year-olds – Colourful sports drinking bottles, fizzy bath tablets, character bubble bath or bath foam, flap books.

Three-year-olds – Small models of knights, princesses or animals, Lego minifigures, toy cars, bubble blowers.

Four-year-olds – Simple card games, stickers, colouring books and crayons, craft kits.

Five-year-olds – Novelty swimming goggles, fancy dress accessories, character mugs and socks.

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Morning has broken

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The ‘habit of schooling’ our society has developed over the last 150 years means that we send nearly all our children to school for 190 days a year. This brings with it a degree of domestic mayhem every morning, and this post is designed to help you conquer this disorder. In terms of time management, allow yourself about at the very least 30-60 minutes in total for all the jobs listed below, depending on family size, age of children, and how well everyone is trained to assist. So just to reiterate, if you work outside the home, you will need to plan for at least an hour in total of bustling activity to get everybody up, dressed and out, on condition that school bags, uniforms, briefcases and packed lunches have been prepared the night before. Therefore for most people, if they get up around 7-7.30am, that will fit in with most day to day commitments during the week, whilst allowing time for a well planned start to the day. Therefore that may be something to aim for in the first instance, while you are getting used to an organised regime. (I’d be interested to know how long you spend getting out the house in the mornings – look in the Polls category on the right hand side of the screen to vote on how much time you spend on this).

  • Make sure family members open their bedroom windows when they get up, and throw back the bedclothes to air. (10 seconds)
  • Once you are washed and dressed, go straight downstairs to set the table very simply and make breakfast (porridge and toast is best if you are on a budget, along with juice or milk for the children and tea/coffee for adults). This job could also be done the night before. Bread rolls and spreadable butter are probably the laziest option if you really aren’t a morning person. (5-10 minutes plus eating time)
  • After breakfast, clear the dishes (use a tray to speed this process up, and also at the same time send someone around the house to collect waif and stray mugs and so on from the previous evening ), stack dishes ready for loading into dishwasher, wipe table and sweep under table if necessary. (5-10 minutes)
  • Next load or unload dishwasher as necessary, or do washing up and put away most or all dishes (if you are going to be out at work all day and only coming back just before supper, you might want to recycle some of the clean dishes immediately so you can leave the table set ready for the next meal, as they do in hotels and restaurants). (5-10 minutes)
  • Wipe kitchen sink or kitchen worktop as necessary. (1 minute)
  • Next empty kitchen bin if necessary, and put in new bin bag, wipe bin if it needs it. (3-5 minutes depending on the state of bin, but probably not every day)
  • Make children’s beds (preferably with their help). (5-10 minutes if it’s just duvets)
  • Make own bed and hang up errant clothes. (5-10 minutes)
  • Clean and tidy bathroom as necessary (eg hang up towels, check there is enough toilet roll and soap). (2 minutes)
  • Close bedroom windows, finally remember to lock up everything if you are going out – OK, I know I’m sounding like a mother of four now. (5 minutes)

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Hiking with the family

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For cheap or free outings during the summer, there’s nothing to beat hiking through the countryside with the kids. So what do you need to think about when planning a trip? Well, first of all you have to plan a route that would be worthy of Goldilocks – not too long, not too short, and with plenty to see and do on the way. Surprisingly, most children can manage an hour’s hiking from the age of about 3, which should involve about 2 miles if it is flat. If you train them up well, then they can easily manage half day hikes from about the age of 7 or 8, and full day hikes by secondary school age, hitting these targets even younger if you take them very regularly. For beginners, planning ambitious peak bagging excursions in the Lake District is probably not the best place to start, so you need to think of something a bit more modest. In such cases, riverside hikes can be particularly good, with birds and canal boats to look at, as can hikes around stately homes and reservoirs with tea and cakes afterwards in the cafe. Tuck away a carrier bag or two and towards the end of August, you can even collect some blackberries while you are out.

One of the secrets to success is making sure kids have the right gear on, especially if the ground is uneven or the weather changeable. Proper hiking boots and breathable, waterproof jackets bought second hand off Ebay are a great start, but it that’s too expensive, try making sure they have decent, well-fitting wellingtons with a supportive insole and couple of pairs of socks on, as well as lots of layers that can be stripped off or added to, depending on the weather. Also take a small first aid kit with blister plasters, insect cream, suncream and high energy Lucozade tablets (a great placebo), and pack a small picnic for en route. The ideal picnic includes lots of liquid, for example watered-down fruit juice, wholemeal bread sandwiches for slow energy release, fruit, muesli bars and biscuits. My grandfather used to tuck away a small toblerone for me to eat when we got to the top of a mountain, which was very motivating, and you might like to think about doing something like this as well. Finally, it can be good to give each child their own little backpack for special treasures – favourite fluffy toy, dolls, penknife, binoculars, torch, camera and so on.  Then onwards and maybe even upwards!

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Jam, Jerusalem and school fetes

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I spent a lot of time wondering over the years why schools ask parents to provide cakes and so on for fetes, considering that they often sell them for less than the cost of the ingredients.  My reasoning went like this. If the onus falls on women to bake things, even though many of them are in full time work, is it not more sensible just to ask for donations from busy people and cut out the extra workload? I then realised that an alternative model of accountancy was at work here, a kind of social accountancy rather than financial. By getting parents involved in making things and thinking about the school, and coming along to the fete to join in with the communal side of things, it builds a better sense of co-operation and community amongst the families and teachers involved. Here are some standard recipes and ideas for packaging so that you can join in as well.

Sponge cake

  • 8 oz butter or vegetable spread
  • 8 oz caster sugar
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 8 oz self-raising flour
  • 2 spoons jam (preferably home made)

Experienced sponge makers will realise this is twice the usual quantity of ingredients. This is because a lot of us find it hard to get sponger cakes to rise, and if you use double the quantity it gives the impression of success!  The technique goes like this. Line two 7” (18cm) non-stick sponge tins with baking parchments to give a perfect result.  (You can also use a deeper tin and cut the cake horizontally later on). Cream together the butter/spread and sugar, beating it with a wooden spoon until it is light and fluffy.  Now you need to be extremely patient for the next stage. Add the beaten egg little by little, mixing it in carefully between pourings, so the egg is incorporated into the mixture. If you rush this process, it will curdle, but do not fear, because adding a tablespoon full of flour will put that right. You will lose some of the lightness in the process though, which is the trade-off.  When you’ve managed to incorporate all the egg, fold in the flour very carefully using a metal spoon, until you’ve got a proper cake mixture. Now pour into your baking tin(s) and cook for  25-30 minutes at about 160C until the sponge is risen and golden brown. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR TO CHECK THEM HALF WAY THROUGH OR IT WILL SINK IN THE MIDDLE! When it’s ready, the top of the cake should spring back when you press it. (If it has risen up like the peak of the Matterhorn with a crack in it, your oven was too hot, by the way). It should also have shrunk away from the edges of the tin ever so slightly. Take it out and allow it to cool for a few minutes before turning it out on a baking rack. When it’s cool, you can do any of the following exciting things to it.

  • Sandwich the two halves together with some jam, preferably home made.
  • To make it even more indulgent, make buttercream icing from beating together equal parts of butter and caster sugar, and spread that in the middle as well to complement the jam. Or you could use whipped cream instead of buttercream.
  • Sprinkle with icing sugar. Do this through a paper doily for an artistic effect.
  • Tie a colourful ribbon around it.
  • You can turn it into a birthday cake by rolling out a slab of ready made white icing, cutting out a circle slightly smaller than the circumference of the top, securing it with jam, and writing on it with special writing icing tubes. You’ll need candles as well, of course.

This mix will also make a couple of dozen fairy cakes in paper cases. Vary the mixture by:

  • Replacing  1-2 oz of the flour with cocoa or a few spoons of melted chocolate for a chocolate sponge cake
  • Adding 4 oz glace cherries tossed in flour (so they don’t sink to the bottom) for a cherry cake
  • Adding 4 oz sultanas tossed in flour for a sultana cake
  • Pouring the sponge mixture over sliced apples for apple cake. You can also add some cinnamon to the mixture to complement the fruit.

Pack little cakes, biscuits and scones in clear cellophane bags with seasonal ribbon around the top for a good effect – red or tartan for Christmas, yellow for Easter and green or raffia for summer.  Children also like buying mixed bags of little fairy cakes, biscuits and sweets for 50p, as I found out recently at a cub scout fete.

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Do you want to ride your bicycle?

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Here’s a simple check list for getting your bike up and running now it’s the better weather.

You will need

A pump that actually fits your tyres. This might have a little tube thing that comes out of the end and screws onto both  the wheel and the pump, in which case it’s designed for a Schrader valve. If you need to screw the pump straight onto the wheel, and there’s no removable tube thing,  it’s called a Presta valve. Some pumps will have an adaptor so they can be used for both types of valve. Keep it handy in your hallway or garage.

Some WD40 spray oil in a can, or cycle oil.

Batteries for your lights.

A cycle tool or set of hex keys and spanners to fit your bike.

A bucket of warm water, a cleaning cloth, non stick pan scrub and some Cif.

How to do it

1. Wipe down the main areas of your bike with the Cif to remove any mud. Avoid cleaning the chain. Rinse, and polish dry.

2. Tighten up anything that appears to be rattling, reposition anything that seems to be rubbing on things that it shouldn’t. For example, if your brakes are squeaky, it may be that they have got knocked and just easing them to a central position will solve the problem, adjusting the brake pads carefully so they don’t touch the rim of the wheel when in motion, but are near enough to do so if you decide to brake. If your mud guards are rattling, again, ease them into a central position or tighten up any nuts. If your seat or handlebars don’t feel completely secure, a couple of twists with a spanner should do it.

3. Pump up your tyres so you can only just press your thumb into the top where the tread is once they are fully inflated. Don’t overfill them, otherwise the inner tube will burst. If you underinflate them, you will wear the inner tube out.  Get into the habit of pumping them up at least two to three times a week for optimum performance. Carry a small pump with you when cycling for emergencies.

4. Replace the batteries in your lights so they are ready for use and don’t run out unexpectedly.

5. Give the chain a couple of drops of oil, or a spray or two of WD40. You might also do this for your bicycle lock.

Organising family cycling – top tips

Make sure everyone has a parcel carrier and/or a basket so they can carry their own gear, however young they are. Even our smallest child has a basket on the front of his Postman Pat tricycle for his cagoule and teddy.

Teach children independence by getting them to lock up their bikes safely and securely (so they don’t fall over or get knocked) whenever they park them, and attaching the locks to holders on their bikes when they are riding them. Combination locks can be a little unreliable but are easy for children to use, and can be complemented with an adult D-lock on family trips, when you can lock several bikes together.

Have a box with spare pumps, light, batteries and basic repair kit readily to hand, so you can easily repair things if you are in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than embarking on the school run only to realise someone has a flat tyre, but that another family member has lost the only pump.

Make friends with your local bike repair person so they are more willing to mend a flat tyre for you in a hurry.

Children always need to wear helmets, even on bike paths, as they come off more often and hit their heads, and their skulls are soft. Adults need to wear helmets in traffic, or when doing sports cycling, or if unsteady, but statistically are more likely to break an arm or a leg in other cycling accidents, so strictly speaking have more of a choice in whether a helmet is truly necessary for them, depending on a risk assessment of the cycling conditions. Keep your family cycle helmets on a shelf in a row or hanging from a row of hooks, so they are easily accessible.

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Gaming, the old fashioned way

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Yesterday I posted about how to organise a home-based children’s party for younger kids. Here are some well-loved games that might help entertain everyone. If there are other games your family plays, I’d be very interested to hear about them, so please make a comment.


  • Pass the parcel – wrap a small toy in alternate layers of contrasting colours of tissue paper, sticking a small sweet on the outside of each layer. Play some party music while the children pass the parcel around the circle. Stop the CD from time to time, and invite the child who is holding the parcel when the music stops to take off a layer of paper. The winner is the child who opens the last layer of paper and finds the prize.
  • Pin the tail on the donkey – have a picture of a donkey up on an easel or the wall, with a picture of the tail cut out with Blu-tack on the back for children to attach. Get the children to stand in a line and take turns in being blindfolded, coming forward one at a time to try to get the tail in the correct place. The winner is the child who gets the tail nearest to the correct place, with a lollipop or a plastic medal being a good prize (as it is for all the party games mentioned here).
  • Musical bumps – Play some party music and turn it off from time to time. When the music stops, children have to sit down as quickly as they can. The last one left standing is out and has to sit by the side.  The winner is the last child left.
  • Musical statues – As for Musical bumps but the children have to stand as still as possible when the music stops. Anyone moving or smiling is out. The adults can go around checking and ever so slightly teasing if necessary.
  • Islands – Scatter cushions or pieces of A4 paper around the room. Get the children dancing to some party music, and then when the music stops, they have to sit on one of the islands. Then take one island away and repeat, so the last child to find an island is out. Continue until there is only one child left.
  • Passing balloons – Get into two teams. Give each team a balloon. Get the teams to pass the balloon via their knees along the line and back, rather like the television programme It’s a Knockout in the 1970s. The winning team is the first to get the balloon back to the front. Prizes for the winning team could be small packets of Smarties.
  • Egyptian mummies (the most popular game at our parties) – Get into pairs. Give each pair a (cheap) toilet roll. The challenge is for each pair to wrap one of the members up as a mummy, to best effect. An adult then judges on the basis of completeness of wrapping, and style. The winning pairs get a small prize.
  • Chocolate game – You will need hat, scarf, gloves, knife and fork, and a whole bar of chocolate on a plate. The children sit in a circle and take turns in throwing a dice. When somebody gets a six, he/she has to put on the hat/scarf/gloves and attempt to eat the chocolate with a big knife and fork until the next person throws a six. Continue until all the chocolate has gone.


  • Simon says – The adult at the front gives the children instructions like “Put your hands in their air”, “Hop on one leg”; “Do an impression of a chicken”, “Turn round and round”. If the instruction begins with “Simon says”, then it counts and the children are supposed to do it. If the instruction does not begin with “Simon Says”, and a child carries it out, then he/she is out of the game and has to sit at the side. The winner is the last child left.
  • Sleeping lions – This one is simple. All the children lie motionless on the floor, as if they are sleeping. Any child who moves is immediately out. Towards the end, the adults and any children who are out might try encouraging the sleeping children to move or laugh. The winner is the child who manages to survive the longest.

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Happier Birthdays

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The children’s birthday party is another area that can cause a great deal of stress to 21st century parents. All too often I have seen echoey church halls filled with the entire class screaming their heads off, with a bouncy castle, entertainer, and disco all thrown in. The parents of the birthday boy or girl are left to try to handle 30 overexcited children whilst trying to duck the inevitable food fight that takes place about half way through. At the end there are expensive party bags and helium balloons, and having spent hundreds of pounds, the hosts can’t wait for everyone to leave.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Children do not need multiple expensive forms of entertainment to have a good time. They do not need church halls, clowns and inflatable equipment. If you have reasonable child handling skills, it is possible to scale the whole thing back without your child becoming a social pariah. More importantly, it’s possible to have children’s birthday parties in a family context so children can play with each other while parents also share a cup of tea and a bun, and get to know each other properly. This offers huge benefits in terms of socialising children and teaching them about being good hosts and guests. But like anything worthwhile, it does take a great deal of forward planning.

Here is a schedule for a home based party. Depending on the size of your home, this should be for 6-12 children and some associated parents who feel like staying as well. It is not necessary to invite every child your son or daughter knows, even if everyone else does. If other parents are tempted to stay for a cup of tea and a natter, then you are not abandoned alone with a tribe of children to care for, so this is to be encouraged. For older children, consider a cinema trip on a Saturday morning to a Kids’ Club, when it only usually costs £1 or thereabouts. Take your own microwave popcorn with you.

Before the party

Send out invitations designed on a computer with the date, time, address, phone number, map, and an indication that parents are welcome to stay, along with a request for guests to RSVP by a certain date.

On the day

Stick a few paper streamers up on the ceiling with white Blu-tack, and decorate the walls using balloons and any Happy Birthday banners you might have. The children could also make a paper chain and that could be pinned up as well. Tape three balloons to your front door so everyone knows which house to go to, and so it all looks festive.


Children arrive, put cards and presents on side table for opening later. Host child greets everyone. Any accompanying parents offered a drink. Party music on hifi and depending on children’s ages, a simple activity laid out in case the children need something to do before the party proper starts (eg decorating party hats).


Play a selection of party games lasting about five minutes each. You’ll get a list of these in a future post, along with instructions.


Have the birthday tea.  Assuming you don’t have a dining table big enough to seat all the children, to minimise mess, sit them on a big picnic rug on the floor (or in the garden) and hand each child a little cardboard picnic box or little paper carrier bag with the following:

  • A drink in a carton or sports-type bottle (the latter is less messy). If funds are tight, you can serve squash in paper cups but expect there to be many spillages, so light coloured squashes are probably best. (Similarly you can use paper plates for food but again more will get dropped).
  • A small packet of crisps or hula hoops
  • A fairy cake (see recipe)
  • A shortbread person (see recipe)
  • A bridge roll filled with grated cheese or cheese spread
  • 2 little sausages

Naturally the children will eat the sweet things first and the adults will try to eat the little sausages. That’s the way parties work. If you include healthy things like cherry tomatoes, grapes and carrot sticks in the party teas, this will pretty much all be rejected, unless it’s a very unusual group of children.


Clear up the food by getting the children to put waste into a big black bin bag. Fold up the blanket. Time for two more calmer games, to slow everyone down before the end.


Home time. Each child gets a paper party bag (this can be home made from glossy children’s magazine pages twirled into a cone, stuck with tape, and given a ribbon handle). Contents should include various bargains from the pound shop, such as coloured pencils and novelty rubbers or sharpeners from a multipack, balloons, bubbles, little toys and a packet of Smarties or similar.

After the party

As part of the socialisation process, it’s very important that any child old enough to sign his or her name sends out little thank you notes for any presents received.

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