Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Fizzy Art

Now that it's so hot, I'm breaking out my indoor activities again.  One of my son's favourite things to do just lately is what we call Fizzy Art: i.e. adding food colouring to the kitchen science of vinegar and baking soda for a quick creative blitz.  I can't recall where I first heard about this, but here's my take on the activity.

What You Will Need
  • A large amount of Baking Soda (i.e. think in terms of cups, not teaspoons)
  • Vinegar
  • Food colouring
  • A dish, tray, tub... (I use a disposable roasting dish, but it cleans off perfectly every time with just a quick rinse)
  • Small cups/pots to minimise clean-up from spills (I use plastic shot-glasses; mini play-doh pots would be ideal since they are hard to tip over)
  • Eye droppers
  • Paper towels
  • Instructions on how to get food colouring out of clothes (I can vouch for this method with inexact measurements used two hours after the initial stain--it probably helps that vinegar is involved from the start)

So here is our set-up.  The first time I ever did this, I just put a thin layer of baking soda down and it was swamped by the amount of vinegar the children deluged it with.  These days, I buy my baking soda from a wholesaler and I pour it approx 1cm thick.

I have two children, aged two and four, so they each have their own dropper and their favoured colours on their side. When I refill the cups, they may swap colours.  If possible, it would probably be more effective to provide one eye-dropper per colour, since they can be a little careless about emptying the dropper before going to the next colour.

Obvious enough...
  • Step 1: Fill dropper with coloured vinegar.
  • Step 2: Squeeze vinegar over baking soda.
  • Step 3: Admire the result.
  • Step 4: Repeat until supplies/attention span exhausted.

This really is fantastic to watch.  The baking soda looks and feels beautiful to start with anyway, it's so soft and white.  The fizzing of the chemical reaction (green in the above photo) is always fun, but when the bubbles subside, we're left with cratered patches of colour (the blue and orange above).

Your child will need to know how to use a dropper--though this is a good way to teach them. (I also recommend giving them a dropper or turkey baster in the water table / bath.) If they've not mastered that skill, expect some confusion and 'misplaced' vinegar.

If you want to get into the science of it, (or even if you don't, but want to be prepared for the inevitable day when your kids ask), there are 'simple' explanations of the baking soda / vinegar reaction here and here. The simplest I can reduce it to for mine is that it's a chemical reaction, which means the baking soda and vinegar are turning each other into other things.  One of those things is a gas, and that's what makes the bubbles.  That still goes over my four year old's head.

The End Result
I am fairly sure that older, more aesthetically conscious children, could produce a fantastic abstract piece of art with this, a surreal rainbow cratered landscape... What mine generally do is pile all their colours onto one spot making a mushy brown patch, with some squabbling over territory.

Please note that this took about five minutes, and included me refilling the cups once.  This isn't really something that's worth the effort of set-up if you're looking to occupy them while you get on with something else.  I have debated giving my son a small jug of vinegar and the food colouring so that he can refill their cups as needed (and experiment with mixing colours, if he so desires), but I am wary that my daughter will take matters into her own hands--a staining disaster waiting to happen.

I have managed to extend the game a little though....

Extension Activities
Given the chance, your child might well continue until all the baking soda is a saturated mish-mash of colour.  If it's too swampy, this is the time to clean everything up, but otherwise, you've got something rather akin to rainbow sand.  New sensory activity ahoy!

It really isn't the best medium, but you can mould it to an extent.  My daughter lost interest, but my son spent about ten minutes using the now empty cups to make sandcastles.  This does get messy, since once their hands go into the tray, the 'sand' will start coming out of it, and it might be better done out of doors--but I've never had a problem cleaning everything up again.  It's baking soda and vinegar after all.

Thanks to the inherent cleansing attributes of the medium, even the smallest tots should be able to help clean up the mess afterwards.  My children are expected to carry cups and droppers to the kitchen counter and use the paper towel to wipe up spills. I supply more towels as needed, empty the dish out and rinse everything off again.

Really, I should make the children do the washing up, but I am taking a break from cleaning up the puddles my daughter leaves on the floor.

For further art adventures in the baking soda / vinegar genre, check out this (probably best done outdoors) alternative: Exploding Paint Bags. This sounds amazing, but right now, I am far too much of a coward to actually try it out.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Time-Ins for Tantrums

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any
Other stair
Quite like
 - A. A. Milne Halfway Down

My tantrum education is going swimmingly, thanks mostly to my temperamental daughter. I hate to add my voice to the generalisation, but this is why people say girls are harder than boys. While it's in no way fun, it's given me ample motivation to analyse my relationship with the children and how that's reflected by my reactions to their temper loss.

Back in January I posted about dealing with tantrums, with the main conclusion being to stay calm and focus on getting them to calm down rather than on what caused the tantrum. Since then, both children have improved in their meltdowns, which is likely as much due to age as it is to my incredible parenting skills. However, I've adapted too. I became uncomfortably aware of just how much I was distancing myself from my children because they were losing their tempers.  I didn't want to reward their inappropriate behaviour, but equally, I wasn't giving them the support they needed to find the correct response to the situation.

A First Step in Conflict Resolution

I pulled out an idea I'd mentally filed away back when my son was a baby/toddler: the concept of a time-in instead of a time-out.  Instead of leaving your child on their own for a specified length of time, the parent sits with them and they talk through it together. (NB there are times when the time out is required so the parent can calm down; this obviously is not a viable alternative for those!)

I've never really gone in for time-outs anyway since I find them exhausting to enforce, but I used to send my son to his room when he was in his terrible twos, with the instruction that he could come out when he calmed down.  He used to come out immediately, but the muscle-routine of going up and down the stairs was enough to work him out of his temper.  That was all the calming he needed.

These days, he needs something more than a physical soothing; he wants to understand and to be understood.  As for my daughter, going upstairs and back down again has never worked.

A few months back, I posted about how a loss of my temper as well as my daughter's ended with us both on the top step of the stairs, sitting calmly until my daughter was ready to go bed.  This became our solution to bedtime protests for a month or so until gradually phased out.  But the top step of the stairs (or the bottom, depending which floor we were on) was such a good neutral spot that I started using it for other things.  I believe it was Supernanny who used the 'naughty step' for time-outs.  The same principle of convenience works for time-ins, but now the step is acting more like a Montessori Peace Table.

My new favourite Parenting Tool

A Time Out for Two (or Three)

Initially, I fell into using it for my son when he was acting up and I would have to remind him of the rules, or if he started protesting the rules.  I would call him over to the step and my daughter would invariably follow, so the three of us would sit there while I tried to put the reasoning behind the rules into four-year-old logic (and, if necessary, toddler logic as well). It puts me on their level, hugs can be freely given, my lap is available and--perhaps most important of all--we are away from temptation / the scene of the crime.

The downside is that the step encourages fidgeting, shifting from step to step, and general squirming of embarrassment.  I try and get my son to sit still and make eye contact, but I don't want to distract from the real issue--perhaps I should keep some fidget-soothers close by!

In general though, this has been very effective.  I don't always remember to use it--and there are certainly times when I am just too wound up myself for a time-in (as is familiar to any stay-at-home parent, the children are not likely to grant me a time-out).  Still, overall, this has worked well for us and we're having fewer genuine upsets.

What I should do in due course is to direct the children to go the steps when they are arguing with each other and talk through their dispute.  I'm not sure my daughter's quite ready for that yet.

A Comfort Zone

My daughter, not quite two and a half, cannot be talked through her meltdowns in the way my son can.  There are times when she gets completely hysterical and will scream and hit and kick and there's absolutely nothing we can do for her. Waiting it out doesn't work, as she generally goes until something distracts her--and that something won't necessarily work the next time. When she gets into that state, we generally spend about an hour trying to deal with it.

By far the most reliable method of soothing her is for my husband to take her while I disappear.  She won't calm down for him, but when I return after a couple of minutes, I will be able to cuddle her and get her back in control of herself.

But when it's just me on my own?  I have had limited success with holding her in front of a mirror, so she can watch herself as she cries which seems to give her some validation for her emotions. (Public restrooms, with their added soother of running water, are my refuge of choice when we are out and about during tantrumming). Walking away from her is useless since she will run after me and throw herself down again.

This was a huge concern for me for a few months. In worrying through the problem, I felt certain that consistency was going to be key in resolving this issue and that I had to use a soothing mechanism that we were in the habit of doing outside of tantrums--something familiar. So I started sitting down on the step.

I should make it clear that this does not have a 100% success rate, but it is a clearly established habit now.  My daughter throws herself on the floor, and I go to the step and ask her if she wants to sit with me.  She has the choice of sitting on the step next to me or on my lap, but she must sit herself down--I explain that it is not safe for me to pick her up when she isn't in control of her body. I also explain that if she kicks/hits me, then I will have to leave. (I generally move to the other end of the stairs if needed.)

I don't scold her for the tantrum, not even for the hitting.  I don't spent a lot of time talking to or looking at her.  I am just there.  If she quietly presses up against me for comfort, I'll rub her back and help her sit down.  Generally, once the storm has passed, we'll sit in silence, with her in my arms and her face resting against my shoulder. Increasingly often, she'll never build up a full head of steam but will sit down next to me quietly until she's ready to get on with whatever she was protesting. By this point, I can spot very quickly if this is a time when it's not going to work (though that's not much use without a plan B).

I'm such a scatterbrain that it's easy for me to be impatient with the children when I'm trying to focus on something else. Nevertheless, for the past few months I've been trying very hard to stop what I'm doing and make time to deal with angry children. It's not always possible, but I've come to the conclusion that that's the relationship I want to have going forward--talking through their moods with them rather than scolding them for their loss of control. (Why yes, my paranoia about teenager years is starting early!)

If nothing else, it's a big relief just to have a plan in the event of a meltdown.  Not even the most hysterical of screaming children is worse than the helpless feeling when you have no idea what to do.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Daily Routines

Three weeks into the summer holiday and barely a post.  Obviously, I've lost a good chunk of my free time, but I've also just been enjoying having fun with the kids, doing outings and activities. A change is as good as a rest, they say. (Actually, Ma Ingalls says it... Most of my life-platitudes seem to come from Little House on the Prairie.)

Still, this week it started getting to me a little bit--writing is a form of therapy to me, and I need the outlet, so I'm back to the blog.  Un-coincidentally, the heat's also set in this week, making summer considerably less fun, and my daughter's been having nap struggles which have left her in a major sleep deficit.

One of the things that's been important to me this summer was an evaluation of our daily routine, since I wanted to keep it as much as possible through the summer.  I've also never got round to doing a daily routine post, so let's write it out.  Because our summer routine is a bit more flexible, I'm using the routine we followed during the past school term.

6:15am - I get up, give the cats their breakfast and make a pot of tea. The children are almost always awake by this point, but the rule is that they can't get up until they hear somebody go downstairs, and they have to be quiet! Once the tea is made, we take the mugs upstairs (the children share a quarter-full one) and have it in our bed.
6:45am - this is when the alarm-light in the children's room goes green, which means it's officially time to get up and dressed.  I dress my daughter, and my son dresses himself, and once they're dressed they can go downstairs and watch one show on television. While they do this, I get dressed, put the laundry on and check my email/social media/news what-have-you. I'm trying to get more in the habit of showering at this time, now that the children won't hassle me, but I'm not a fast showerer and it tends to throw me off-schedule.
7:15am - Breakfast time. After breakfast, I do kitchen-based housework (dishwasher, counters, shopping list, etc). The children have a vitamin and are free to play.
7:50am - We wave goodbye to Daddy from the window on the stairs, and then we brush teeth and hair, wash faces etc. Afterwards, I hang out the laundry while the children play.
8:30 - 9am - Dropping the children off at school.  They're usually there pretty promptly, but this very much depends on the day.  If I have any errands to run, I will do them immediately after drop off.

Aside: This is very reflective of what a morning person I am.  On a good day, I can have got the children up and to school, dishwasher emptied, laundry out to dry, and be home from doing the week's shopping by 9:30am, leaving me with two hours to do what I want before picking the children up.  I have got this morning routine down to a fine art, because I know that, motivation-wise, the rest of the day is all downhill for me! The downside is that I tend to get stressed about keeping the pace going through these first three hours of the morning. That leads to impatience with the children, which never works out well.

9am - I do whatever the hell I want to do for the morning.  I usually try to make the most of my high energy levels.  I know that from around 11am, they'll start dropping.
11:45am - Pick the kids up from school. Lunch and play when we get home.
12:45am - My daughter's nap. My son joins us for her song before bed, but then he goes downstairs and watches two shows on television. Often, I will also have a lie-down at this point. My energy levels crash around 2pm, and I usually find that a ten-minute power nap works wonders, provided I make myself get up as soon as I wake. If I'm more alert, I may start dinner preparations or spend time on the computer. Once my son is done watching television, we do something together, an activity that we can't easily do when my daughter is up.
2pm-ish - Wake up my daughter.  She can be tricky to get to sleep in the evenings, so we've resorted to waking her up more promptly from her naps. I regret to say that we've got into the habit of letting her watch television on wake-up, a hangover from when we went through those sick months.
3pm-ish - get our act together and go out. We go out most afternoons in term time, if only for fresh air and exercise (as much for me as for the children). We have gym one day a week and we have a standing playdate with another family, but otherwise, it's up to us. I find it easier to keep going when I'm out of the house too. At home, the temptation of lethargy and distraction is too present; if we do stay in, I usually have to have a specific activity to run with.
5pm-ish - Home again.  Sometime after 4pm, I hit my second wind and become productive again, so usually this time of day I encourage the children to play by themselves while I clean up (hopefully remembering to bring in the laundry!) and get dinner ready.
6pm - dinner time. My husband occasionally is late back for dinner, but we are usually able to eat dinner as a family.
6:20pm - Clean up and another pot of tea.  The living room rug, the usual toy repository, should be cleared before the television goes on (this rule is not always strictly enforced, but it's too useful for us to let it slide). It's 'Daddy's turn to choose' what goes on TV, but we generally watch something in the Edu-tainment category. Mythbusters, David Attenborough and How It's Made are all typical fare.
7pm - Children's bedtime. My husband and I alternate on putting the children to bed: brush teeth, change into pyjamas and one story before lights out.
10:30pm - Bedtime for grown-ups.  Generally, I shut down the computer at 10 and then do a scout around for things to go in the dishwasher, and light tidying.

And that's it.  Weekends are less routine heavy since we factor in a lie in for my husband or myself (I have Saturday and he has Sunday) until 8am.  Since my son learned how to operate the Apple TV remote, the children get themselves up and watch television, so we both get a bit of extra sleep until they get hungry and demand breakfast.  Then whoever's turn it is gets up and attends to them, though they're allowed to have breakfast in front of the television instead of at the table, because we are totally degenerate at weekends.

Vacation routine

Much as I enjoy a couple of lazy mornings, it is very clear to me that without that scheduled burst of productiveness, the whole day tends to get thrown off, so I did not want to treat the vacation as one long weekend for the children and me.  The only alteration I've made to the morning is that they are permitted to watch television as soon as they wake up and before getting dressed--mostly because they've been waking up at 5:45, and the last couple of weeks of school had been immensely frustrating when it came to putting them back to bed at that hour.  They do have to switch the television off and get dressed at 6:45, but they can switch it back on for one final show afterwards.

Of course, with no school to go to, we're going out for our fresh air and exercise in the morning, giving me less impulse to go out in the afternoon.  Logically, I should do housework then, but housework in the afternoon never works out for me.  So I've been practicing being 'at home with the children', trying to use my low energy time to get down on the floor and play with them and their toys. (Reading books unfortunately isn't an option, because reading aloud makes me incredibly tired for some reason--I had to make a rule that Mummy can only read one book in the afternoons.)

This worked admirably for two and a half weeks and then the heat and the humidity hit and I have been drained of anything resembling motivation. I have just over three weeks until we do our UK trip and my goal is to keep going with the routine and not devolve into sitting in front of the television for six hours a day. This is not going to be easy.