A Busy Weekend of Budget Activities

This weekend, I decided to try a spending freeze. I managed to find a few things to do with the kids that weren’t costly. After I picked them up from school, we went to the Gruffalo trail at Colin Glen Forest Park. It was a grey afternoon that felt like it was bordering on twilight at three pm, so apart from a few lone dog walkers we were the only ones there. The girls enjoyed searching for all the characters from the Gruffalo and that was the first time we’d been there together.

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When we go for a walk in the cold, I tend to bring coffee and snacks with us, so we had a biscuits picnic on a bench we found. It was a strange outing. My kids loved uncovering all the hidden creatures and playing Pooh sticks at the riverside with twigs we had no hope of spotting further downstream. It had a spooky kind of feel to the place that reminded me of the opening scene of Rebecca with the drive to Manderley. But gladly, the rain stayed off until the moment we got into the car. There was a memorial for someone that had died there and that prompted a discussion about death with my kids. I don’t shy away from such conversations with them but it all turned a bit moody and morbid 🙂 But everyone cheered up when we found the Gruffalo at the end of the trail and some painted rocks that someone had hidden there. The girls took them so they could hide them elsewhere for someone else to find 🙂 When we were leaving, my daughter discovered a nut and decided to make a shelter for it to keep it safe for a squirrel we had spotted 🙂

I took the girls to a screening of Paddington 2 at a local cinema. It was free as it is part of the kids’ club. I brought some snacks and got to enjoy warm coffee, seated 🙂 Afterwards, I had hoped to take the girls to the park, but the weather was against that idea, so we went to a board game cafe instead.

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They have a good range of adults’ and children‘s games. The kids’ food is reasonably priced and the girls had sandwiches while I had tea and got to eat a traybake without having it snatched from my hand 🙂 We tried to work out a few games with complex rules and my kids aren’t fans of patiently waiting while I read the instructions, so we settled on one with penguins you balance on a rocking pirate ship and a fish-eating shark game 🙂 It was a good way to spend a dreary afternoon and my kids were begging me to go back.

Today, we set out to Rowallane. I think getting to scan National Trust cards at the machine is one of my kids’ favourite things to do in life. They had some crafts indoors, so my daughter set to work colouring a robin, before cutting it out and making wings. My other daughter followed the paw print trail on the floor and roamed after doing a couple of squiggles on a page. I have one crafter and one wanderer and sometimes it’s hard to contain them in the one space 🙂

We walked through the Walled Garden and my kids looked for an appropriate place to hide the rocks they had found on Friday. The weather was cool and sunny, with a low, blinding sun hanging like a bare lightbulb 🙂 But I was glad of the brightness and fresh air after a number of hours indoors with my kids dismantling the furniture. We walked to the stile they love to climb over and the spring ground. They enjoy running down the hill and climbing on the rocks. I grew up near Rowallane and showed them the trees I used to make dens under. They found some especially muddy puddles to jump in and were using giant leaves to clean their wellies off afterwards. I love seeing their creativity coming out and how much they enjoy the simple things we do. We had some snacks and I got to sneak into the secondhand bookshop before we left. I never come out empty-handed, so I have some more books to add to my ever-increasing to-read pile.


We didn’t spend much money this weekend but got to have rich experiences. I’ve realised that my kids need to be allowed to run freely in open spaces or their excess energy is directed towards our living environment instead. But the fresh air and space does my head as much good as it does their limbs. One of the biggest struggles I have with parenting is being mentally present all the time. I can be emotionally present, but mentally, in a daydream, thinking of all the other creative things I want to cram into my day. Stopping to look at nature with them definitely helps to root me in the present.

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Finding Quiet Moments in a Busy World

Now that the madness of Christmas has been replaced by the madness of the school run, I find it just as necessary to find moments of tranquility around us. It feels like the world is always hurrying along, and I want to intentionally take time outside the rush to observe things and stop us missing what is important.

Based on my  mum’s recommendation, on my daughter’s last day off preschool, I took her to an asian supermarket. It has a cafe upstairs that serves bubble tea. This is a drink I search far and wide for, and every time I finally locate a premises that sells it, it closes down. I must be one of the few people for whom tapioca floating in tea sounds appetising (or other people haven’t discovered how much fun it is to drink – it’s like tea and chewing gum in one.) I had one of these while my daughter was adventurous and tried guava juice (before loudly expressing her distaste for it, but at least she tried it :)) We also tried a green scone that was coated in coconut. I always like to try new foods and purposely choose whatever sounds the weirdest to see if I like it. It was a drizzly and depressing Monday that epitomised the January feeling for me, and finding the cafe with all its interesting decor and wall hangings brightened the day up. We sat at the window, overlooking what was likely-a queue of enraged road users, chatting and enjoying our last Christmas holiday moments together. Afterwards, we looked around the supermarket to see what unusual items we could find. I didn’t know how to cook half of them, but my daughter enjoyed trying to identify them all and making me aware of where the sweets were, in case I had failed to notice.

I’ve been trying to spend plenty of time outdoors with the girls, even in lower temperatures. We went to a local park and followed it with a walk on a woodland trail they have there. They have little wooden animals hidden in the woods for children to find, fairy houses, wishing trees and wood carvings. I got an intro to the joys of the teenage years when my daughter complained about us having to go for a walk for the first time, but sitting on a throne and riding on the back of a pretend badger soon cured that. I like the message on the throne – it reads “when it rains, look for rainbows, when it’s dark, looks for stars.”

 

There is a library near our house that I make a point of visiting every week with my kids. It has a whole downstairs dedicated to children’s books, a miniature soft play-type area and a colouring table. It seems to be underused, but the staff are so friendly and the librarian often has coffee, juice and biscuits for the adults and kids. I like the fact that we don’t feel any pressure to hurry up and get out and that there is such a warm welcome every time we go in. My kids also enjoy their bedtime story event, they hold lego mornings and other craft activities. I love finding hidden and underpopulated events that are creative and cheap to attend 🙂

Apart from that, I have been making a point of finding writing time, lighting candles, listening to music and allowing creativity to come at its own pace.

A Peaceful Start to the New Year

Today, we had a slow start to the day. I lit my candles and put on Ella Fitzgerald while the kids played with their reusable sticker books they got for Christmas. I did some batch cooking and used my slow cooker for dinner. I’d decided even though it was just the three of us, I’d make a New Years dinner. My granny used to always make a big dinner for our family on New Years Day and I miss that celebration, so I want to recreate it on a smaller scale with my kids. I kept the girls busy with making breadcrumbs for the stuffing. They really enjoyed doing it and it is simple enough they can do it without interference (plus, it is time-consuming – my favourite kind of kids’ activity :)) I made pork in the slow cooker and homemade apple sauce (which is so easy to make.) it’s a good way to use up apples when they are past their best. I just cooked apples I had peeled and diced with some brown sugar and water on a low heat for a long time until they were caramelised.
In the afternoon, once my kids started pulling the furniture apart and play fighting, I was in desperate need of some fresh air and an open space, so I took them to a nearby park at the seafront. It was bitterly cold, but the girls didn’t seem to notice and played with some friends/made some new ones and I got some time to reflect while I watched the sea.

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The hotel is at the top of a drive and overlooks the water. We chose a good day to go there because there was a harpist playing all afternoon. The girls were fascinated by it and the music really calmed them down (which was needed.) We sat near the open fire and had some coffee and shortbread (and pineapple juice for the girls.) It wasn’t any more expensive than if we had gone to a coffee shop and was something a bit different and felt special. It almost felt like a civilised outing with children until the girls started fishing for ice cubes in their glasses with their fingers and eating them 🙂

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When we got home, the girls watched a film while I prepared the rest of the dinner. I like any excuse to adorn the table with festive candles and to use my wine glass charms, so the girls had Schloer in matching glasses and got to be grown up 🙂 We finished the Christmas pudding, played Pick Up Sticks and Snakes and Ladders and ate chocolates. I even had the “pleasure” of listening to my kids’ keyboard playing jingle bells on repeat as background music while we ate…
I like taking parts of old traditions and adding them to our own ideas to make new oneswith the girls and this was a simple but memorable start to the new year 🙂 

A Week of Simple Holiday Activities

This week I’ve been trying to tailor our activities to match our post-Christmas budget. I want to save some money for a trip we are going on in February. It has proven more difficult this year to find local events without high entrance fees. Even calling into the Christmas market and getting some food and a drink can quickly add up. So, I’ve been trying to centre our activities around what we have at home, memberships we have, nature and places that are free to visit.

At the weekend, I took the girls to the Ulster museum. We parked on the other side of Botanic Gardens so we could walk through the park while it was dry. I think walks in cold weather refresh your mind much more than summer day ones. Inside the museum, we went to the art room. There is a lady who works there whose style I always admire and she is so welcoming and has so much patience for the kids. They usually have a drawing-based activity at the table but at the moment, paper snowflakes have taken over. The girls enjoyed making them and I realised that is a craft we have never done at home. It is so simple and requires no trip to the shop to stock up on craft supplies. The staff had hundreds of snowflakes suspended from the ceiling, and looking at them made me realise how many creative possibilities there are with them. It would make a good afternoon-long activity for bored kids. They were punching hole patterns in the finished snowflakes with needles and my kids were really focussed on creating regular patterns. In the same room, there is a light box with translucent blocks for kids to build with and a dressing up room. My kids ended up making friends with another child and playing in a tent, putting a pretend cat to bed. There were plenty of adults making snowflakes too and the position of the room at the top of the building means you have a good view of the gardens and the neighbouring area.

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Afterwards, we went to the under the sea part, where you walk through a darkened tunnel and look at the underwater creatures. It’s so simple but my kids always find it magical. There is a nature room where kids can use microscopes and touch the displays. Finally, on the bottom floor, we went to the toy room and looked at the old toys and the dolls houses decorated to depict different eras. I always love taking the kids to the museum. In the summer, it is near the rose garden and there is the tropical ravine and palm house right beside it.I have very energetic children so I’m a proponent of any activity that tires out their legs and their minds, and this does both in one visit 🙂

Days at home are a good time for getting out any unopened craft presents your kids might have got for Christmas. Today, they opened a kit to make a clay family. It took a long time but kept them well entertained, especially with all the laughter at how our people turned out. The kit came with little bead eyeballs to add to the dolls and they made a big difference to the appearance of them. It reminded me that you can use different materials combined with play doh to draw out the activity and hold your kids’ interest. I used to give my kids objects to decorate play doh with and they always loved doing that 🙂

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We also had a colouring/coffee/magazines session at the table. I put on some jazz and the girls coloured in and had a drink out of their Christmas cups while I filled my system with caffeine and used an adults’ colouring book 🙂 There were plenty of interruptions, but I find that if I do something in some way creative or using my hands while spending time with my kids, they are much more interested in what I’m doing and it inspires them to do something similar, or to start something else of their own. My older daughter has an adults’ colouring book she has started doing now. I find it holds her attention for longer because it’s more challenging and detailed, and she feels more grown up using it 🙂

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This week, we also finally got round to making salt dough decorations. They aren’t just specific to Christmas and you could used themed cookie cutters to make them for different times of the year. I find if you do anything involving rolling and cutting at the kitchen table it’s easier to manage and kids can do it more independently than standing at a counter. After baking them in the oven, my kids painted the salt dough and then used ridiculously big glitter shakers to decorate them. After letting them dry, I threaded them onto gift ribbons so they could hang them on the tree. You could also package them up to make cute presents for relatives.

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My daughter wanted to paint the pictures that you fold in half to create a full picture. Lots of butterflies were made, and then they progressed to flowers and Santa’s. The mess of craft time with my kids is worth it to me for the enjoyment they get out of it, even if it does sometimes result in my shouting 🙂

I always dread January a little. It feels like a bleak month once all the Christmas lights have been taken down and everyone is on a tighter budget or dieting to make up for feasting at Christmas time. I think it’s important to introduce new ideas and things to look forward to, no matter how simple they are. So, I am going to compile a list of ideas of things to do with my kids, new dishes to make and places of natural beauty to visit. I don’t make New Years resolutions, but this year, I might just aim to come up with inspiring ideas to take the icy edge off January.

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Gingerbread Decorating and Wintery Walks

Today I took my kids to Rowallane Gardens. They had a gingerbread decorating event on for kids in the cafe (which is on again tomorrow from 11am until 2pm for anyone that is interested.)
Before we went to the cafe, we walked around the grounds and made some Christmas decorations out of twigs and wool. There are a lot of natural displays around Rowallane (most of the Christmas decorations are handmade or made from found objects.) I found it therapeutic tying twigs together, and it made me think maybe we should try making more of our own decorations next year. The girls enjoyed copying the “how to draw a Christmas tree” picture that was there. They often change the indoor and outdoor activities for kids to match the seasons.

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We went for a walk around the walled garden, which was stripped back and bare looking with the loss of flowers. But it still makes a good hide and seek spot for kids. I was surprised by how tranquil it was there. Maybe the key is to arrive earlier than anyone else can be bothered going out at Christmas time 🙂 We were (almost) the only ones walking in the gardens and it was crisp and refreshing in the quiet winter air.

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At the barn, there is a big Connect Four and giant Jenga. It is conveniently located next door to a second hand bookshop I like to slip into 🙂 They have a good selection of different genres of books and there is an honesty box for payment. They have added a few children’s books too. The shop was dressed up with Christmas puddings painted onto chopped wood and crocheted snowflakes.

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There is a stile my kids like to repeatedly climb over and a little car made out of a tree trunk that they pretend to drive. There is also a natural playground, but we didn’t make it that far today. I noticed the bright red berries on the holly, the sun hanging low in the sky, and the carpet of acorn casings, and it all did my mind good.

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When complaints of tired legs started, we went inside to the warmth so the girls could decorate their gingerbread while I had a quiet coffee, a mince pie and a half-read 🙂 I had thought about venturing into soft play today as a quick way to tire my kids out, but I was glad we went to somewhere natural instead. Fresh air, the contrast of coffee steam and cold fingers and watching my kids cram as many smarties as they could fit onto one baked good was better for my soul today.

 

An Old Fashioned Christmas Outing

Today, I took the girls on an impromptu day out, planning on just having a walk around the Folk Park. It turned out to be the best Christmas event I’ve ever been to. We are members of the Ulster Folk Museum, so the day out was free. We arrived at the park and were greeted by an old fashioned Santa with a bell and a green suit. He had a long chat with my kids about Christmas time and what he “remembered” from last year. We had been given a page with a Christmas hunt and had to find the hidden clues to win a prize. As we started walking into the little town part of the folk park, I thought it had started snowing and the girls got really excited. It turned out there were bubble machines placed around the town that produced realistic snow. It was a misty day and the whole scene reminded me of a Dickensian Christmas.

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Usually when we go to the folk park, it isn’t in full operation. There usually seem to be parts closed off or unoccupied, but everything was open today and staffed, and there was hardly anyone there 🙂 that’s my favourite kind of Christmas outing – one without hoards of people 🙂

I think they mentioned that there had been a candlelight carol service on the previous night, and maybe more people had attended that, so it was the best time to go 🙂

The pub was open and there was live Irish music being played and a choice between alcoholic and non alcoholic mulled wine. My kids had some of the punch and loved it. We sat at an old wobbly table and listened to the music and chatted. I’ve been becoming increasingly bothered by the consumerism of Christmas time. I don’t know if it’s because it starts earlier now and the build-up is heightens it, but I’ve just noticed the madness and poor manners have been worse this year than any I remember. (Maybe I’ve just blotted it out.) I loved the fact that today ran counter to that and I didn’t have to subscribe to the suffering for a little celebration. 

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We went a cottage where a lady had made vegetable soup on the stove and served some to us. I was surprised how quickly it vanished from the girls’ cups. Maybe I need to get a stranger to cook for us to get them to eat 🙂 It was already dark inside and the fire and candlelight were cosy.
Afterwards, we went to the old schoolhouse where the girls got to write Santa letters. A man in costume who worked there helped them stamp the letters to be posted at the post office later on our walk.

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There is a thatched cottage with gardens that are beautiful in the summer. We heard music coming from inside and when we went in there was a group of musicians playing. They played Jingle Bells just for the kids and were making a wooden toy dance. The guitarist had a willow, woven star hanging from her guitar and they were dressed in fancy clothes. A lady had been cooking in a pot over the fire and we got to try a steamed Christmas cake filled with currants. It reminded me of a boiled cake my granny used to make.

In the printers, a man showed us the process of printing Christmas cards with a printing press. He also made bookmarks and pictures. He talked to us about the differences between now and then and said that Christmas cards used to be made of paper and folded twice to make them stand upright. He let the girls make simple cards of their own with traditional stampers.

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We walked to the post office and the girls posted their Santa letters in the post box. Next door, in the house adjoining the bank, there was a lady making chutney and she offered some crackers and apple chutney to the girls. She told us about the two kinds of ovens they had, to bake and to roast in and talked me through how to make your own Christmas pudding. She had made her own pudding and cakes, decorated with holly.

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The girls danced in the pretend snow again and then we passed some people roasting chestnuts. My daughter loved pulling the outer shell off and trying them. We called into the picture house where they were showing silent movie clips about preparations for Christmas. It made me realise how much calmer things seemed then and today gave me a glimpse of it. I think modern society has ruined the traditions of Christmas by going overboard and it just makes people feel rushed and angry. When I looked around the streets, none of the houses had elaborate decorations. The smaller houses had handmade wreaths and pillar candles and the wealthier homes had simple Christmas trees with a few decorations on them. As I was noticing the small signals of Christmas, I also noticed how much simpler life was with fewer possessions. We have so many and I get overwhelmed by the clutter everywhere. The experience has put me in the mood to further simplify life and made me realise how excessive it all is. Happiness has nothing to do with things; in fact I think the presence of too many things and the pressure to buy them makes us a bit miserable.

The day ended with the girls getting a few chocolate coins for their efforts in the Christmas tree hunt and I’ve never seen them happier.

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A Christmassy Day without the Chaos

Today I was talking to my mum about cutting out all of the Christmas chaos. There are so many Christmas events you could be signing up and paying out for, and parental guilt struck me when I realised I hadn’t booked anything for the girls over Christmas. Then I arrived at the conclusion that there are few of them I have actually enjoyed. Unless it is off the beaten track and not overly populated, most Christmas events are overwhelming, so I might stick to making salt dough at home and going for Wintery walks in the countryside instead.

I’ve been trying to walk my kids to school every morning. It’s about a mile from our house and it just feels calmer than fighting our way through traffic to struggle to find a parking space. Along the way, you notice more than you would in a car, like the cheerful lollipop man, the window displays, the fruit shop hanging out wreaths and mistletoe and the Christmas lights. There is a house my kids love to stop at every day because they have a festive display along with lots of toys in the front yard. They call it “our favourite garden.” I noticed a holly tree while we were walking and I think the icy air clears your head before you start your day too. I actually talk to my kids properly on the walk too, which rarely happens when I’m stressed behind the wheel.

Today, I decided to bypass my writing and coffee date with myself and stay in instead. I turned the Christmas lights on along with the National Lampoons and made some costa coffee at home with mini mince pies. (I had to have two because they were small :)) I tackled some of the present wrapping I had left to do and enjoyed it with the absence of demands and interruptions while my kids were at school.

When my younger daughter got home, we made some chocolate fudge with crushed candy canes in it. I’m hoping it sets properly because fudge always confuses my brain, but my daughter enjoyed making it. She had the job of bashing the candy canes with a rolling pin and she’s an expert on tray greasing 🙂

Tonight, once my kids were in their pyjamas, I surprised them with our drive to see the Christmas lights. They brought milk and gingerbread men in the car, listened to Christmas songs and enjoyed driving all over the city and looking for the most over-the-top light displays 🙂 If I knew how to climb ladders and hang lights properly, ours would probably look like a Christmas grotto too 🙂 I always loved multicoloured fairy lights and tacky Santa’s and some things don’t change with age 🙂