This tag is associated with 9 posts

Play Dough a Go Go!

Play dough is brilliant.  Practically free and endless possibilities.  Plus it lets kids do the whole messy play thing without actually making that much mess, which is always a good thing.Plus if you use the cheap home made version you don’t need to worry about mixing the colours.  I start off with a variety of basic colours (usually based on whatever colourings I have to hand) and then let the kids make further colours by mixing.

Child playing with multicoloured playdough made by an easy homemade recipe

There are a few recipes knocking about the internet, with various no cook options or ingredients, but this is the best one that I have used.  Where I say cup, use any cup, as long as you use the same one each time.  I use a little plastic beaker.Use your common sense and don’t play with playdough on your best tablecloth or tread it into your expensive persian rug, but then if you have that kind of thing in a house with small children then you are a braver (and possibly quite a bit richer) person than me…

Home Made Play Dough

  • 2 cups flour (any will do)
  • Half a cup of salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • A big spoon (or small glug) of oil – any will do
  • Two big spoons of cream of tartar (you can leave this out if you like, but it makes the dough more springy and stretchy and only costs a few pence)
  • Food colouring, smelly oil (use food safe versions in case it gets nibbled…), glitter or whatever else you want to use to make it pretty and/or smelly

Chuck everything in a pan and put over a low heat.  Keep stirring until it looks like…dough.  Allow to cool before giving to children (obviously…)

You can also just add boiling water to the ingredients in a bowl and stir, to avoid having to put it on the hob.

I tend to leave out the colourings and flavourings, cook plain dough and then knead in the colours/flavours/glitter.  That way I only have to cook once but can make loads of colours.  Beware though that colourings can stain, and are much more likely to stain your worktop (and hands, and clothes, and children) before they are mixed in.

This recipe isn’t toxic, but isn’t exactly edible either, given that it will taste horrible and has loads of salt.  Hopefully inquisitive toddlers will just have one taste and then be put off.  Hopefully.

Keep your playdough in an air tight container and it should last at least six weeks.  Enjoy, and let me know if you come up with any cool ideas!

Disney Princesses – Not All Bad…

Confession: sometimes I quite like Disney.

I am totally on board with the “Pink Stinks” campaign. As the mother of a son and a daughter I have tried to select toys that are gender neutral. It hasn’t stopped my son from being car/train/plane mad and hating pink and dolls. However he loves baking and cleaning so I think I am doing a pretty good job. Besides, my nieces were all car/train/plane mad when they were my son’s age! I have been known to dress my son in pink (until he decided pink was for girls – I blame his nursery friends!) and rarely buy clothes in that colour for my daughter.

Belle from Beauty and the Beast with a bookBut I must confess I rather like Disney. Not all Disney. I hate the Princessy stuff that implies you have to be beautiful and get a man to be happy – yes Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I am talking about you! However I am not ready to dismiss them all. I love Belle(Beauty and the Beast), her love of books and her ability to look beyond the surface to see a man she could connect to on both an intellectual and emotional level.  I am also a big fan of kick-ass Princess Fiona from the Shrek movies and that she chose to remain fat and ugly because to her beauty did not equate to happiness.

There are other good female role models to be found if you squint. Mulan was pretty brave going off instead of her father into war. I have recently introduced my son to Sinbad as well, Eris maybe a bad guy but she is female, strong and articulate. She also knows when to make a tactical withdrawal without losing face. Marina isn’t even a princess – she is an ambassador, presumably on her own merits. She consistently demonstrates strength, ingenuity, compassion and wit, all admirable traits in any person. She follows her heart in the end, leaving her fiance the noble prince (who Princess Fiona from Shrektakes it in good stride) to go with Sinbad – but she does it on her own terms and her need to pursue a different path to what was laid out for her. The only time she needed rescuing was because she had been distracted by the need to rescue someone one else!

These are the sort of Disney Princesses I want to capture the imagination of  both my son and my daughter. I want them both to appreciate that although men and women are different, they are equal and have their own strengths and weaknesses

My New Book Buying Policy

After the whole “perfect princess” thing (see my previous post) I have decided to draw a line in the sand.  It is all very well having a case by case judgement on each thing and all, but sometimes you need to send a clear message to retailers, suppliers, manufacturers and everyone else who is putting these things in front of your children.

I would love it if you could join me.  It is a pretty basic rule.

I will no longer buy any books for my child that are labelled by gender.

That is it.  We’re not talking about colours or subjects, we are not talking about in depth analysis of the message.  Just that simple rule.Child reading a book

Unless it is “how to maintain your genitals”, (which is unlikely to be in a mainstream bookshop children’s section anyway…) there is no need for a children’s book to be gender specific.

So, no more “Boys Book of Football”, no more “Animal Stories for Girls”.  Animal stories and football stories are fine, but why are we automatically excluding half of all children in the title?  Even books with titles like “Girls Can Do Science Too!” are setting themselves up as being somehow unusual.  Boys and girls don’t want or need to be shoehorned into marketing sectors.  Especially not when it comes to learning and books.

I realise this rule misses a lot of books (it would even have missed out our old friend Princess Twinkle) and it may well include the odd book that has good contents, but, you know what, I’m tired of all this.  Publishers need to stop telling my children what is and isn’t for their gender.  If your book is so good, why can’t all children read it?

If enough of us do it, publishers might start noticing.  For now, they can still put a load of pink frilly stuff on the animal book, and a load of muddy boys on the football book, but lets not make it so blatant.

It might be a small, flawed step, but it is something.

Incidentally, a brilliant campaign against the “pinkification” of girls’ toys, clothes and books can be found at – go and have a look at the excellent work they are doing.

“Say Cheese, Honey!”

Many people struggle to take photographs of their children, ending up with blurry, too dark or simply badly taken pictures.  There is still hope – simply follow these tips and you will find that you will get much better photos.

As a mum, I know all too well how fast and non co-operative kids can be when it comes to having their photo taken – all these photos are of my daughter and are natural photos taken in a natural environment, not a photo session.


Some of you may already know that photography is all about light, so switch all possible lights on, open all the curtains or simply choose the brightest room you have.

If the weather is fine, go out to the garden.  If it’s the bathroom that’s the brightest in your house, go there. For the photo below we took potato peeling out to the garden and used the natural light.

Child outside, peeling potatoes and laughing


If you want to shoot your child’s portrait, move them over to the window. Sit them facing or next to the window, position yourself next to your child and start shooting. The light coming from the window will brighten your child’s face giving a warm light and will reduce shadows.

Taking photos of your own children - child next to window


If you want to get those happy, exciting and full of laughter photos that you see in magazines, you need to  have fun with the camera. Remember that when you sit opposite your child with your camera, the only thing they see is that big piece of equipment you’re pointing at them, and so your kids will act out and get very impatient.

But if they see mum/dad behind the lens, having fun with them, you are that bit nearer to catching those amazing family moments. Talk to them, ask questions, make a fool out of yourself, simply be alive! For example, try saying “I bet you cannot jump up high enough to reach the ceiling!”  Be ready, and keep on pressing the button. I guarantee some natural laughter will follow seconds after.

While taking the photo below I simply said to her: “I bet you can’t drink your juice and look at mummy at the same time…”

Take good photos of your children - child drinking juice


You want your kids to be calmer and in one place? Give them a prop.

Apple, lollipop, piece of chocolate, teddy, your jewellery, kids magazine, even Ikea product long tags. Once you have them occupied with something, you have a perfect model, but be quick, props don’t work forever!

Child taking photo with toy camera


When you stand further back and let your kids just be, doing what they love doing, you can get their real personality. It doesn’t always have to be pictures of them staring at the camera. Back up, give them space and capture those moments of your kids being kids.

By being an “invisible photographer” you won’t have pouting, acting out and boredom on their face. Instead, you may be lucky in catching their true nature.

How to take a good photo of your child


Yes, it is! Don’t delete those awkward photos. You caught a pre-sneeze face? Great, keep it. A photo of your 2 year old crying his head off? Even better, you will have something to show to your future son/daughter-in-low;) Aim for those in-between moments as well.

Different photos look good too - grumpy child


If your kids don’t want to have their photo taken at this time, don’t push it. You will have everyone hitting the roof with no decent photos on your memory card. Taking photos should be fun – if it isn’t it will cause unnecessary tension, so sometimes you will have to put the camera down.  Simply enjoy the time with your loved ones and try again soon.

I know from my own experience, as a mum and as a photographer, that sometimes it’s those 5 minutes without the serious equipment covering your face that will make a huge difference. Treat your little ones as children in front of the camera and not as professional models on a contract.

Child in swing, having fun

I hope that helps, and I wish you all great family photos you will cherish forever!

Have you got any tricks you use on your kids? Share them in the comments below.

If you are interested in joining my photography workshops for parents starting early spring, please contact me via email to get more details and book a space.

David Cameron is a Poo Head

“David Cameron is a bad man.  He is on the blue team and they are nasty and don’t like sharing or looking after poorly people or people who don’t have jobs.  He wants to shut down the surestart and the library because he is rich and doesn’t like them.  He is a poo head.”

OK, so it isn’t exactly Polly Toynbee, but that is my four year old daughter’s take on politics.  She knows a little bit about political parties (or the red, blue and yellow teams, as she calls them), and a little bit about unions and strikes.  She p4yo and her Dad on the N30 march carrying a david cameron stop it homemade placardlays at being a suffragette and she loved going to the Durham Big Meeting earlier this year.   She is, most probably, more politically aware than many adults.

Yet it is unavoidable that she is getting a biased view – both me and my husband are left wing, the newspaper in the house is the Guardian and she has been taken on marches against cuts and met the local Labour MP and councillors.  While she is pottering about the house doing four year old things, she will have overheard left wing conversations, and recently she asked to decorate her biscuits with hammers and sickles, because she liked her Daddy’s t shirt.  Even her school has a banner that they bring out for local events to march with the old mining union banners.

Occasionally, this troubles me.  Am I being a bad parent by encouraging this at such a very young age?  Am I simply storing up trouble for the future, when she will rebel and become some kind of massive Tory?

With a politically aware family, though, I’m not even sure how we could avoid explaining things, at least on a very basic level.  We have always said that we will try our best to answer questions from our children, and that we will encourage curiosity, and she is constantly learning, like all small children.  Short of hiding the newspapers and books, turning off the radio and TV and sending her to a babysitter for every march and event, she is going to notice politics, and it is going to be a biased view.  Even the least political families will have to explain things like the teachers being on strike and the concept of voting, we have just gone a little further.

Just as religious families bring their children up in their value system, so we do the same.  Of course, we tell her that there are other ways of thinking, and that people have reasons for thinking like that and they might not just be bad, but she puts her own spin on things.  We have the luxury at the moment of not being totally immersed in immediate political issues, unlike the people who lived in our town during the miner’s strike, but I do think it is vitally important that children grow up to understand how politics affects our lives.

Plus, David Cameron IS a poo head.

Why are non paying parents not given a rougher ride?

It was announced yesterday that the government plan to scrap the (toothless) Child Support Agency and replace it with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission will bring with it new powers to deduct child maintenance directly from non resident payers’ pay packets.

Now, before we all get too excited (and by “we” I’m talking about the many thousands of lone parents who receive little or no child maintenance) a quick delve into the proposals and remit of this new agency reveal some worrying changes. More about that later.

I have a very personal interest in the way our society deals with parents who do not provide financial support for their children, mainly because I am one of the majority. Yes. Stop and read that last line again. It is estimated that three out of five resident parents receive no financial support from the non resident parent.

I have two children and I divorced my husband, due to unreasonable behaviour, back in 2005. I have never received a single, solitary penny in support. For years I decided that this was OK, and I didn’t want to “rock the boat”. The reasons that I didn’t turn to the CSA years ago are many and after speaking to other people, I find that my experience is not unusual.


Much better to be poor but safe

The fear of reprisals – either physical (Parents who have fled abusive relationships are often terrified of any contact with an abusive partner) or emotional (Refusal to maintain contact with the children after a claim has been lodged).

I don’t want disagreements over everything from haircuts to holidays

Fear of Control – There are many women (because, come on, let’s be honest, 90% of lone parents with residency are women) who suffer financial control within their relationships. Women are more likely to be primary care givers and therefore not working. During my conversations with other people in my situation the number of people who are relieved that they do not have to account for every pound they spend on their children to the non resident parent was shocking.


What’s the point? All that hassle for £2.50 per week?”

The endless battle to force a non payer to actually face up to their responsibilities can drive many claimants to distraction. On a personal level I find it infuriating that the father of my children has refused to answer any of the letters sent out by the CSA and has, as usual, buried his head in the sand as far as this whole matter is concerned. I’m tired of phoning the agency, only to be told that he has not responded and that another letter will be sent. I am only 3 months into the process and I cannot imagine how it feels to be 3 years in and still without any financial benefit.


“They’re the ones missing out and Karma is a bitch”

This is the constant, heartbreaking, cry of many of us. We tell ourselves and one another, that there is a divine force at work, one that will settle our scores and make things equitable in the end. Of course, it’s a lie. A necessary one, a lie that helps us to cope with the day to day struggles, but is it a damaging one? I believe so – this belief weakens us and encourages passivity. Karma won’t pay that electricity bill this month will it?

The Children Will Know

One day the children will know all that you did for them and all that he didn’t

Well, no, actually. Thank you very much. I don’t want my children to hate their father – how damaging is that to their psyche? I want their father to be forced to pay. It is, after all, the very least he could do.

I finally batted away these fears and “reasons” in August of this year. Six years after my divorce and 8 years since my final separation.

I have now been awarded a payment of £40 per week for my two children. This works out at £2.85 per day, per child. Just about enough to provide them with an evening meal every day, however I am one of the lucky ones. The majority of awards are in the region of £5 per week. That’s a whole 71 pence per day. Of course, he hasn’t paid anything and is now £440.00 in arrears. When I contacted the CSA to find out the status of my claim, I was informed that they are unable to start further proceedings until the arrears total £500.00 or 13 weeks of non payment. That’s just great for those who are truly impoverished and are relying on child support just to pay for food.

There’s something very wrong here, and I’m starting to wonder why our society puts more effort and vigour in chasing parking fines than it does for non payment of child support. I’m starting to wonder why there is a blanket acceptance that this is “just the way it is”. I’m starting to wonder why there are high profile campaigns for fathers who want to fight to see their children (Fathers For Justice for example) but nothing for those women who are on their uppers trying to provide for their children.

I’m starting to wonder about it all.

Remember at the start of this post I mentioned that there are changes afoot?

One of the changes proposed is that, apart from survivors of domestic violence, the use of the CSA to set maintenance and chase the parent for payment will be chargeable. That’s right, going forward if the non resident parent refuses to pay child maintenance, the parent who is not receiving financial support, will be charged by the agency to force the issue.

You can read more here

So what can we do?

You can start by reading about the campaign by Gingerbread, the wonderful charity which campaigns and gives practical help to single parents and getting involved in anyway you can.

Why I’m a Feminist

I was a student in 1980s Manchester, hotbed of student activism. And at West Berlin’s Free University, incubator of student radicalism. Feminism was a cool lifestyle choice, though of course there was far more behind it. A rapist terrorised female students in my first year at Manchester. Women refugees spoke of their persecution in their home countries. But we marched together to reclaim the night, I volunteered on student helplines, and there was a palpable shared sense of injustice and of community acting to redress wrongs.

Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first timFeminism is the radical notion that women are people Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.

And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.

These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.

Philosophy for the Masses

Today is World Philosophy Day, yet most people in the UK have never studied the subject in any way. A movement to change this is gathering speed, with top philosophers and educators campaigning for philosophy and wider reasoning skills to become a central part of the curriculum.

Philosophy is a respected subject in many European schools, with all children in France, Portugal, Spain and Italy studying the subject for at least one year.  Philosophy is also popular in private schools and with home educators in the UK, with many independent schools offering afterschool clubs based on the subject for children as young as seven.   So why is it so absent from most of our education system?

The Philosophy Foundation, an organisation created to promote the teaching and study of philosophy in the UK, has released a set of resources aimed at schools, to help them to introduce the subject into lessons.  Peter Worley, co-founder of the foundation,set out his beliefs in a statement earlier today;

“We need to make Philosophy a regular feature of school life. It’s a shame that young people don’t get the opportunity to engage with some of the great ideas of the past. They still have relevance today and children have their minds stretched by exposure to big ideas, and pick up invaluable thinking skills that can be used in any context.

“The stimulation and intellectual excitement schoolchildren get from Philosophy only underlines the critical gap in our education system we continue to suffer from.”

The joy and satisfaction of considering the “big questions” is something that is being lost, which schools focusing too hard on subjects that can produce measurable results, yet it is notable that you have much better chances of seeing philosophy being taught at a private school, where statistically, the pupils are much more likely to end up in positions of power.  Should it not be a priority for those of us committed to increasing working class representation and social mobility to make sure that our children are given the tools of reasoning and debate that the rich kids get?

I am not advocating an abandonment of the creative and effective parts of the current curriculum – I’m no Gove.  I am however adding my voice to the many that are asking for our children to be given the chance to access the world of skills and knowledge that is currently being kept only for the elite.

We need to teach our children to question and to think about the way our society is structured, and what better way than through philosophy?

Princess Poppy and the Patriarchy

By Alicia Duffy

As a proud feminist mother of two small girls, I try to strike a balance between letting my daughters join in with the culture they live in and protecting them from the more harmful parts.  This has been pretty easy up to now, but this September brought a whole new set of challenges when my eldest started school…

Every week, along with the usual reading practise, numeracy tasks and games, the children bring home a school library book to share with their family.  This choice is left to the children, from a selection, and so often some pretty odd books can be sent home, but it is all there to foster a love of reading, so fair enough.  A lot of four year olds will unfortunately not had very much exposure to books and reading before school, and so simply holding and enjoying a book is an important first step to literacy.  As I have worked both in public libraries and book sales, I know how hard it can be to find books that are acceptable to the reasonably aware adult, but usually the most horrifyingly un PC can be weeded out.Princess Twinkle children's book

So, when my daughter showed me her latest school library book – “Princess Twinkle and Other Princess Stories” – I cringed a bit, but settled down to read it with her.  She had chosen it herself, and while most of the book was far from what I would want my daughter to read, I trusted that it couldn’t get too bad.

The book is a collection of stories and poems, featuring princesses in various adventures and situations, all well within the stereotype of helpless pretty girl, but nothing jaw dropping.  As I read it, I substituted a lot of my own words, but more for my own amusement than anything else – badly written children’s books can be very boring.  Then I found the story entitled “The Perfect Princess”

“The Perfect Princess” features Princess Poppy.  She is introduced as a very messy little girl, and pictured climbing a tree in jeans and a t shirt.  She does have long loose hair, a crown and appears to be wearing lipstick, but is overall dressed like a normal little girl.  Wonderful, I thought – this must be the story where all the stereotypes that have made up the rest of the book are challenged.  Poppy is then pictured at the breakfast table, as her parents tell her there is to be a garden party.  Poppy asks to be able to wear her jeans, but her mother refuses, saying she has to look like a “proper princess” and be “pretty”.

Princess Poppy looking at herself in a mirror, thumbs up.So, up to now I am thinking this is the story where the princess shows everyone that is more important to have fun than dress up.  Maybe there will be an amusing incident where a “pretty” princess rips her dress, but doesn’t care, because Poppy has shown her how to have fun climbing trees or whatever.

Poppy is then shown getting ready for the party, putting on her t shirt, jeans and trainers, then giving herself the thumbs up in her mirror, saying she doesn’t care what people think, because being a messy princess is more fun.  As she stands in front of the mirror, her posture is strong, she is smiling at herself and she is surrounded by her sports equipment.  She looks confident and happy.  This story could go well.

Here is where the story gets worrying.  As Poppy leaves the palace to go to the garden party, she spots Prince Harry.  As soon as she sees Harry, she decides that she doesn’t want to be a messy princess any more, and runs back inside.  So now my four year old is being told that a confident, beautiful girl, in clothes that make her comfortable and allow her to play football and go skateboarding, is not suitable to be at a party with a boy.

Polly goes back to her room, and changes into a frilly dress and high heeled shoes.  When she returns, Harry is enchanted, calls her beautiful, kisses her hand and invites her for a game of croquet.  The children are pictured surrounded by love hearts.  So, here is the reward for changing how she dresses- she gets the guy.  We don’t know if she changes how she behaves, beyond a picture of her playing croquet nicely on a lawn instead of climbing a tree.  The most important thing about Poppy is how she dresses.

Prince Harry kisses Poppy on the handThe last picture features Polly’s parents looking on approvingly.  “At last, Poppy had become a proper princess!”

The rest of the book was bad enough, but this story was so blatant it shocked me.  Children of this age are highly impressionable -they are learning so fast that everything becomes a learning experience.  They are discovering where they fit in the world, what is expected of them, what to aim for.  Poppy was there to show my daughter that she should forget about playing active sports, having fun, being her own person, and should focus on getting herself a nice man.  Worse still, the way to get this man is to change everything about yourself, and that is a good thing.  Messy is bad.  Fun is bad.  Pretty and sweet is good.

It worries me to think that this book was published in 2003, and nobody anywhere in the publishing and purchasing process thought to change it.  I’m hoping that it has found it’s way into the school library by accident, because otherwise I despair.  Sadly, I suspect that the school is simply too short on funds to be able to pick and choose what books are availiable.

There are so many good children’s books out there, many of which challenge the princess stereotype without being boring or preachy.  For example, the excellent Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, or Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole.  These books are a pleasure to hold and to read, with gorgeous illustrations and entertaining text – why submit children to rubbish, especially when they are at such a vital age?


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