Trams, Snow Cones & Salt Painting

If the weather continues to be as wild as it is tonight, I foresee another blog post of activities for children tomorrow 🙂
My daughter finished school early yesterday, so went went to the Ulster Transport museum. It was the quietest I’ve seen it and my kids enjoyed having free rein to climb on the trains, run down the slopes and lust after all the clutter in the gift shop (which we managed not to get.)
We have membership of the Folk and Transport Museum, which costs £60 for the year. I didn’t think that was bad, considering the fact that you could easily spend that on a couple of visits. The girls love seeing the buses and trams and pretending to drive the trains. My favourite part is looking at the 1960’s living room and then hearing the girls liken it to our decor 😀 It was a free visit for us and we had a snack outdoors at the picnic tables. It was blustery, but it’s a good-sized green space for kids to run around and play hide and seek in 🙂 Tea and creme eggs were more satisfying than anything we could have bought in the cafe anyway. I think some exposure to the elements, even in Winter, does your mind good. Returning to the museum reminds me of being a kid and having no phone access. It feels like a reminder of simpler times and a place to switch off from the demands of living a life half-online.

Today, I took the girls to a free screening of Annie at the cinema. I had never seen it before. One of my kids was enthralled by it, the other one fell asleep 😀 For a kids’ musical, it could have been worse 🙂

Afterwards, I took the girls to Morelli’s to have their first snow cones 🙂 I had promised my daughter one a while ago. They loved picking their own syrup and drinking the liquid through a straw. They ended up being incredibly messy, but everything my kids do is messy anyway 😀  I had coffee and tried their warm apple pie. It came with ice-cream and was adorned with lots of chocolate extras that the girls pinched 🙂 It might be my new favourite ice-cream/coffee shop. The atmosphere is really relaxed, it is good value and the staff are so welcoming.

When we got home, I decided to try salt painting with the girls. We had never done it before, so it was a bit of an experiment. You just get some paper and drizzle PVA glue on it in whatever pattern you like. Then, you sprinkle salt over the glue. The girls loved that part and were very thorough about making sure every bit of glue was covered 😀 Then they just painted over it with poster paints. You just gently dab the paint onto the salty glue 🙂 The salt makes it spread out and creates a cool effect. It’s more of an enjoy-the-process type of painting than one to frame. Once it dries out, the effect wears off. But it kept the girls entertained for an hour, which is rare for them 🙂 Afterwards, we did some of what they call “Splat Paintings.“ To avoid getting it all over the walls, you can get kids to dip the brush in paint, hold it horizontally over the page and tap the brush handle to splash paint on the paper rather than shaking it all over the house 🙂 If you layer different colours and keep separate brushes for each one, it looks really pretty when you’re finished.

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i don’t know what we will do tomorrow yet, but I’m mentally preparing myself for some creative projects indoors to minimise the house wrecking/shouting if this storm decides to stick around 🙂

A Holiday Weekend without the Expense

I felt the urge to get out of Belfast last week, so I decided to book a nearby trip for myself and the kids to the countryside. Sometimes I just need to remove myself from my current environment, even if it’s only twenty miles away. I felt like everything was becoming too frantic and we needed some time in nature. So, I booked a little cottage in the middle of nowhere and we went there on Friday.

The drive there was along one of those windy roads that gives you the best views over the hills. We passed the Mournes and they looked blue against the misty sky. I love the evershifting skies in that area. They look like they’re painted in watercolours and even when they’re grey they aren’t just bleak, heavy grey; they are swirled with every shade of it. I think fields in south Down have a special shade of green too, and looking at them calms my mind.

When we got to the cottage, it was already growing dark and the hosts had lit the fire in the wood burning stove for us. One benefit to being a single parent is being able to rent tiny one bedroom places to stay and space not being an issue 🙂 (apart from when hyperactivity takes hold of my kids.)

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There were fields surrounding the cottage and the only sound outside was the bleating of sheep. My kids went to befriend the sheep and lambs and ran around in the grass. Afterwards, they watched a film and I had brought pizza so they could have their pizza and a movie Friday tradition 🙂 When they went to sleep, I had some wine and wrote for hours in pure peace. A fire is on my wish list now; I think it was my favourite thing about the whole trip 🙂

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The next day, we went into Newcastle and the kids collected rocks to paint at home. I want to start rock painting with them and hiding them for people to find 🙂 They played in the playground and had ice cream. It was strangely quiet for a Saturday. Maybe the cold weather put people off, or we just get up earlier than sensible people do, but it was the best time of the year for a holiday there.

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Afterwards, we went to Tollymore forest park. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and the girls enjoyed doing the trail and “map reading.” 🙂 We brought a picnic so we didn’t have to buy food. The kids were building their own dens with branches, climbing on fallen trees and making “wishes” by throwing pine cones into the river 🙂 The stepping stones arrived at just the right moment, when everyone was starting to complain. Climbing across them was interesting since I had to carry one child whilst helping the other one across 😀 Surprisingly, we didn’t fall in, which is something that typically happens to me in such situations.

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I love how tranquil it is there and how you can just get lost in the woods. Those tall, lean trees really remind me of Northern Michigan too 🙂 The girls went to the adventure playground and played with their new friends, climbed trees and chatted about their lives. The day felt the same as it did the last time I was there in the nineties 🙂

When it was getting dark, I took the girls back into Newcastle and we went to a chip shop. When we eat out, I try not to order more than I know the kids will eat. You can always order more if you need to and it cuts back on the expense of eating out. Afterwards, we went to the old fashioned sweet shop where they measure out sweets in paper bags. The girls discovered their love for midget gems and slept the soundest that night that they had in a long time. I think the miles we walked and the sea air cured their insomniac tendencies 🙂

On Sunday, we to Castlewellan Forest Park. They charge five pounds to park in the car park, but you could spend the whole day there if you wanted to. They have lots of outdoor activities you can do if you are that way inclined. We went to the peace maze and got lost in it. (I have a terrible sense of direction even on non-mazelike trails.) The kids enjoyed trying to find their way out. Apparently if you make it to the centre of it, there is a bell to ring, but we were in it for half an hour and ended up back at the entrance 😀 There is a wooden playground next to it where the girls climbed and burned off some energy. The grounds seem to be very expansive. There are mountain bike trails and different long walks you can follow. We walked part of the way around the lake, before we surrendered to the cold and had our picnic back at the car 🙂

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On the way home, we stopped for a Brennan’s ice cream. I’m not even a fan of vanilla ice-cream, but it might be my favourite ice-cream in Northern Ireland. They sell it in a couple of service stations near Newcastle and it is better value than most ice-cream shops in the town. We used to go there when I was a kid so the nostalgia probably makes it taste better too 🙂

It’s strange how a couple of days in a different place can reset your brain and make everything at home look fresh again. I’m almost not even dreading tackling the laundry.

A Weekend of Watching the World

This post is a bit of a latecomer, but I’ve been editing a book this week and it’s taking up most of my time. I spent most of last weekend absorbing what was happening around us, in a bit of a daze. Sometimes I just need a break from running around and being busy to give new ideas a chance to grow.

My daughter is really interested in making clay creatures at the minute. We found some air-drying clay in the pound shop and she’s been creating things with it. I also got some plasticine without giving her any instruction and she cut it into thin strips and made a rainbow and mermaid using that technique. I like seeing what ideas kids come up with without adult interference. I also picked up a kids’ book from the library about growing things and learning to cook. The gardening basics are suitable for me, considering my lack of luck with keeping plants alive 🙂 I’ve also been planning on teaching my kids some basic recipes. We have always baked together but I like the idea of them learning how to cook simple things without much help.

My older daughter had an event at her school one evening. so I used it as an opportunity to take my younger one on an ice cream date. She ordered a Peppa pig milkshake and we sat at the window, watching the activity in the street. It made me realise we don’t go out together much after dinner time because she was intrigued by people out and about after dark 🙂 I think it’s important teaching kids how to sit in contemplation and wonder about things. They don’t get enough down time anymore, and observing the world or sitting with nothing to fill the void teaches them how to handle boredom and to come up with creative ideas of their own. We sat for a long time and I had some ice cream mixed with white chocolate 🙂 The shop has recently come under new management and they have snow cones, which I don’t think I’ve seen before in Northern Ireland.

On Sunday, we went to the Chinese New Year celebrations at the Ulster Hall. The hall was decorated with parasols and lanterns and bunting. The event only cost £2 per person and it lasted for two hours and was composed of dances from all different cultures. As well as Chinese dragons, drumming, martial arts, gentle traditional dance with parasols and ethereal costumes with sleeves longer than wedding dress trains, there was break dancing, a man who juggled hats and caught them with his head and Irish and Ulster Scots dancing (I didn’t know that was a thing.) I was surprised how long the girls sat still for, rapt. I think the live music and dancing held their attention far longer than a film or dialogue-based show would. I found that it helped me switch off and forced us to be in the moment, which was needed after the hectic week we’d had. The girls think everything is an adventure when we take the Glider to get there anyway.

Afterwards, I just made fakeaway pizza for our family. I’ve noticed that if I’m preoccupied or my mind is too much elsewhere, kneading dough helps to slow everything down. My kids always want to help too. I guess it’s like play doh on a grand scale. This weekend I’m considering planning some nature-related outings, to allow us some headspace and time to absorb more ideas from the world around us, and just to get some mental rest since physical rest with kids is never an option 🙂

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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