Life Game: Doing School

photo 1 (2)‘Sup gamers?

Hope you’re all enjoying Life Game. I’ve been very busy exploring and only just remembered that I owe you all a walk-through for the:

Great Pre-school Coup

When the Brother was only on Level 3 he somehow gained access to a mysterious cult known as Pre-School. They meet in a building full of toys every morning and share high level skills, forgotten lore and nursery rhymes. They also have access to privileged gear like climbing frames, bouncy castles and plastic sea creatures. For a long time I was only able to get into the building, but I couldn’t work out how you got into the cult itself. There are these five Guardians who are tall enough to bolt and unbolt the doors and it seemed they were the key to getting to stay for the whole morning.

My first breakthrough was when I discovered that there was some kind of feeder group for the cult, called a Toddler Group. You had to turn up at a specific date and time every week, but then you got to play with some of the toys in a separate room. Not quite there, but at least you could get into conversations with one of the guardians to try and win their favour.

Finally, I discovered how to get in for good.

They have passwords.

(I would warn you for spoilers at this point, but let’s face it, you’re not going to Google a walk-through unless you want to know spoilers, right?)

If you want to get in with the Rookies (which I recommend to start off with), the password is ‘Acorn’ and if you want to join the Veterans it’s ‘Chestnut’. Simple really. You just approach one of the guardians, say the password, and the next time you go up to the door there will be a little acorn/chestnut on the board with your name on it. Hey presto! You’re in Pre-School!

Some things you should know about Pre-School:


* It comes with a backpack, which increases your inventory. Often you will find scrolls in there with useful information about hats and healthy snacks and concerts and sports days, and any drawings or projects you do will appear in the backpack at the end of the day as well;

* Pre-School also means you get a snack box, which gives your energy levels a boost. Plus having your own box with your name on it is cool.

* There are wonderful new people to meet at Pre-School. I’ve already got my eye on a few classmates that I plan to befriend by blasting them with my Charisma.


* There seems to be a bit of a bug in Pre-School. Once you have signed up and you are a part of the cult, you then can’t get out of it anymore. There is no way to switch off this automatic re-location to Pre-school every morning. Some days I just want to watch TV or I’ve planned a raid on the Brother’s cuddly toys, so I just don’t have the time to go to Pre-School, but I still keep ending up there. I tried Protest Loudly and Cry and Sulk but the Mummy just puts you in the car anyway and once you are there – dammit – you get distracted by the guardians and their cool toys and you forget to carry on with the crying.

* The only other bad thing about Pre-School is that it limits your wardrobe options. Hats are compulsory in sunny weather, and however much I try to click on the Party Dress option, it is greyed out on pre-school days and your only options are Sensible Clothes and Sensible Shoes. And yes, I tried Cry and Sulk here too but once again, the Mummy seems to have an override.

Well, I’m in now, and working hard to replace the Brother in his position in the cult. I am using a combination of Charm, Wit, Imagination and Hugs to ingratiate myself with the Guardians and make friends with all the other children. I think it must be working, because more and more often now there is talk of the Brother leaving Pre-School and going somewhere else called Big School after the summer. Clearly he has noticed that this is my place now and it ain’t big enough for the both of us.


Now that he is half out of the door I am a little sad.

Who will protect me from scooters that are about to bump into me now? Who will get my coat and my bag for me? Who will tell me what to play?

Will I have to do all that for myself?

And what is this Big School and how do I get into it?

Let me know if you have any ideas.

Yours with some concern,

The Girl

photo 2 (2)


And then what?

The Boy is 4 and a half.

“Mummy, what happens if you leave your car in the car park?”

“Eventually someone will call the police and they will take it away. Then it will cost you a lot of money to get it back.”

“But what if the police don’t come and take it away?”

“Well, then it will just stay there.”

“And then what?”

“It will just stay there.”

“And then what?”

“Well, eventually, after a very long time, everything falls apart. The car will start to rust and fall to pieces.”

“And then what, Mummy?”

“And then what what?”

“After the car has fallen to pieces, what will happen then? Can they fix it?”

This is the Boy’s new hobby. Anything interesting that comes up, he wants to follow the process through to its ultimate conclusion. What are the eventual consequences? My husband and I promised each other that we would take our children’s questions seriously, and give them a real answer – as long as it was age appropriate of course. So we do this: we answer his “and then”s ad infinitum.

Sometimes, the questions come from scientific curiosity.

Sometimes, from worries. He has recently discovered that there is such a thing as death, and it seems sometimes that he is checking whether a decision could lead to something disappearing from this world, either through death or by breaking beyond repair and Mummy throwing it away. If I warn him not to do or touch something, he wants to know what the consequences might be: if he did step in dog poo, what would happen? Would the shoe need to be thrown away? Would he get sick? How sick? If he dropped his Paw Patrol playset on the floor, would it break? Would Daddy still be able to fix it?

Sometimes you can see that he is assessing the risks and benefits of being naughty. So eating something off the floor might give you a poorly tummy. And then what? You might have a very sore stomach and throw up. And then what? Do you have to go to hospital? No? Do you have to go to the doctor? Not always? You can see the cogs whirring: this doesn’t sound too bad, perhaps a risk I could take if it is a very tasty bit of cake that has dropped on the floor.

Something I always liked about the Numberjacks was how they seemed to exemplify their age. Numberjack 2 is very two: everything is “mine!” This where our Girl is at. 3 wants to do everything herself and 4 likes rules. Numberjack 5 is the one who asks “What if…?” It would seem our four and a half year old has levelled up ahead of time.

While writing this, the Boy has turned up next to me, his head on one side, a proud grin on his face. I notice that he has tucked a small Lego piece into his ear and is balancing it there, waiting for me to notice his clever trick.

“No!” I shout. “Don’t put stuff in your ear! It might get stuck!”

I’m sure you can guess his answer.


Team Kingston does Stamptastic

label Stamptastic

Sunday night. I pull three only-slightly-damp pairs of trousers off the drying rack: one for the Boy to wear to pre-school tomorrow and two to pack in his bag for the inevitable accidents. I quickly check the labels and realise that two out of the three pairs are rogue – they have somehow escaped The Great Name Marking ceremony. Do you WEARILY PICK UP A BIRO? Go to page 2. Or do you TRY YOUR NEW STAMPS? Go to page 45.

Perhaps you will remember my wistful musings on the eve of my 3 year old’s first day at pre-school. Many of you commented on your own feelings at seeing your first-born head off into a new independence, or having to wave goodbye to your littlest child. Others commented on my struggles to mark every wretched item of clothing the Boy owned with his name, armed only with a biro. Overwhelmingly, you recommended a company called Stamptastic, saying how they had taken the pain out of labelling.

It sounded promising and I would probably have gone to check them out anyway, when they beat me to it and offered to send me a set of stamps to try out and review. As I watched my son’s name fade from his far-too-frequently-washed wee-soaked trousers day by day, I felt there was no time to lose and I wrote back saying yes please.

While I eagerly awaited the arrival of the stamps, the Boy started puzzling out what I had written in shaky writing on his lunch box and in his clothes. He recognised his first name, but pointed at the second word: “What you writing this one, Mama?”

“Kingston,” I explained. “That’s your name. And Mummy’s name, and Daddy’s name, and your sister’s name. It’s our special family name.”

“S. Kingston.” He tasted it. He decided he liked it. For the next few weeks he kept randomly announcing his full name, with great pride. Then he would explain to me, as if I wasn’t already aware, that his sister was A. Kingston, that I was “Mummy Kingston” and the Husband was “Daddy Kingston”.

Then he became curious about his friends. He had clearly grasped the principle of a family name pretty well, because he knew they would not be called Kingston. We had to run through everyone he could think of, and he tried and tasted their names and rehearsed them for me. The concept was not only instantly clear to him, but also instantly useful. Now, we could be a team. We adapted the Team Umizoomi song for all our errands: “Who’s going to take baby clothes to M? We are! Team Kingston!” (I know, it doesn’t scan, quit bugging me.) On the phone to Gran, he told her about his new discovery as well, and not only was she suitably impressed, but she managed to astound the Boy afresh by revealing that she was a Kingston herself: Gran Kingston (of course).

Then, amidst all the last name excitement, a padded envelope dropped on the mat one afternoon. I knew instantly what it was and saved it up until the kids had gone to bed. I got their new coats and laid them out on the floor, ready to give my Stamptastic stamps a trial run.

Of course, when given amazing ink that works on plastic, fabric and wood and that doesn’t wash off, the first thing I manage to do is this:



I was kicking myself, but then thought that perhaps it was a good thing, as someone looking for a review online might be desperate to know how to get Stamptastic ink off their finger, so I felt it was my duty to try various cleaning methods and report on the result. Turned out serial hand-washing, including scrubbing with a washing up brush, combined with the good ole’ passage of time got it off just fine. I also imagine that if you had white spirit around it would come off in seconds.

That done, I could get down to business. I am far too impatient to read instructions, but thankfully it was all quite straightforward and definitely easier to work out than breastfeeding. These were the tools provided:

the gear Stamptastic


I simply put ink onto the stamp with my son’s name, placed the stamp onto the label Sainsbury’s had thoughtfully provided in the coat (see first picture) and pressed down. The stamps are see through, so you can look through the top to make sure you have positioned it correctly. Not really needed for the coat, but once I had labelled that so beautifully I went round the house in excitement to see what else I could put the Boy’s name on, and found that you really need to be able to look through your stamp for the tiny labels in pairs of underpants and woolly hats.

In addition to handling indelible ink with care and reading instructions, I am also not so great at tidying up after myself, so the next morning the Boy found the stamps on the dining table.

“What you got there, Mummy?” he wanted to know and without waiting for an answer set about investigating for himself. “Oh! My name!” He watched in amazement as I demonstrated what I could do with the ink and his name.

“I try it, Mummy?” was of course what came next.

But Mummy said no.

He was desperately sad that I wouldn’t let him stamp his full name all over every piece of paper in the house. Although I am sure that for every person Googling ‘get ink off my finger’ there are probably 10 people looking for ways to ‘get Stamptastic ink off my pre-schooler’s fingers’, I felt that was taking my service to society a bridge too far. He would have to make do with staring proudly at his name stamped lovingly into his slightly damp trousers by his mother. And again later in the day when changing into a clean pair. And probably again just before home time when the long suffering teachers hoist him into his very final clean – and clearly labelled – pair of trousers.

I received two free name stamps and an ink pad from the wonderful Stamptastic to review on the understanding that I would give my honest opinion, which I have. Sainsbury’s sadly didn’t give me a free coat, I just magnanimously threw their name in of my own free will. You’re welcome, Sainsbury’s.


I had an Assertiveness Fail the other day (Forgot to take the skill back at Level 15, I think). I took the Boy to have a very necessary hair cut at a Salon-Which-Shall-Be-Nameless near Gran’s house. We were asked on the phone whether we had a favourite hairdresser, but as we’d only taken him there once before and had neglected to commit the name of the lady to memory we just said we’d be happy with anyone.

So that is who we got.

The hairdresser in question was very lovely but did not seem very confident or competent. She would ask me questions about my wishes, and when I explained them (very apologetically of course – like I said, assertiveness is not my top skill), she would tell me why she couldn’t do that.

Cutting his hair short around his ear? “When they’re this little you don’t want to cut too close to their head, or you might hurt them.”

Inner-Judith said: “Oh really? Then why has every other hairdresser who has cut his hair before managed it??

In reality I said: “Hm.”

When I wasn’t sure if I wanted his fringe “straight” (it sounded a bit severe), the only other option she suggested was cutting it at a fashionable slant to one side.

Inner-Judith said: “That sounds ridiculous. I am sure there must be more options than just those two.”

In reality I said: “Erm, cut it straight then.”

I was right. It did look a bit severe.

new haircut

When she thought she was done, the fringe still skimmed his eyebrows. I asked if she could take a bit more off, just to give me more time between hair cuts. “I’ll cut it a little bit shorter, but you don’t want to take too much off, or you might accidentally cut the child” she warned once more.

Inner-Judith said: “What the hell kind of incompetent hairdresser are you??”

In reality I said: “Okay.”

I think she could hear faint echoes of Inner-Judith’s raging, because she asked me about five more times if I was sure I was happy. To be honest, I had no faith that she could do a better job than she had done, so I just paid the money and got the hell out. But not before asking her name and committing it to memory, so that I could specify that I wanted someone else next time.

And The Girl? She won’t be having a haircut for quite some time. I am far too delighted with her new little girl hair, which seems to grow an extra centimetre every night.

Here is a little overview of her lovely hair and the hair styles I have been trying out on her – most of which last about five minutes until she has worked out how to undo/remove them.

Unadorned, it seems to grow naturally in quite a charming bob

Unadorned, it seems to grow naturally in quite a charming bob

Her first ever hair clip was almost too cute to be allowed

Her first ever hair clip was almost too cute to be allowed

She usually keeps them in for about five minutes before pulling them out and starting to chew on them (DANGER!)

She usually keeps them in for about five minutes before pulling them out and starting to chew on them (DANGER!)

First bunches. These lasted about ten minutes.

First bunches. These lasted about ten minutes.

Exclamation mark hair. This one took her about an hour to undo.

Exclamation mark hair. This one took her about an hour to undo.

But her favourite so far has been this hairband, which she stole/borrowed from her best friend

But her favourite so far has been this hairband, which she stole/borrowed from her best friend. This one I had to remove myself because she was going to wear it FOREVER


Putting clips and things in the Girl’s hair has made me face up to the fact that she is a proper toddler now and no longer a baby. You look at her with her hair in bunches and there she is: vivacious, mischievous, full of life and joy and determination. There is something about these new hair styles that makes them real little people. I have always loved the new Boy after he has had his hair cut, because cutting away the excess always reveals how much he has grown up. Suddenly, he looks more serious and wise. Possibly a little like a tiny accountant.

He loves it too – although he may be slightly confused about both the purpose and the potential end result of the exercise:

“I have my hair cut!” he kept telling me proudly on the way to the salon. “I have new curly hair.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have put it past the hairdresser. Maybe next time.

Dawn of a New Era: Pre-School

20140106-223756.jpgSunday evening, five to midnight, found me learning a new skill. I was attempting to write my son’s name in biro on tiny white spaces on the washing/brand labels in his clothing. I discovered:

* labels don’t stay put while you are writing on them
* trying to keep them in one place means your fingers are taking up 2/3 of the available space to write on
* most labels somehow magically prevent loops and up-strokes, allowing only a kind of katakana-capital-letter-hieroglyphic writing

I also put his name on a tired tupperware pot filled with three (3) mini rice cakes (apple flavour), one (1) dried apricot, a little pack of raisins and a broken Jacobs Water cracker. I learned another lesson when I examined the pot again in the morning: you don’t put dried fruit and crumbly crackers in the same pot as they amalgamate into a new and unappetising species overnight.

I filled in all the forms, and discovered – too late – that I should have photocopied his birth certificate. Which also meant finding his birth certificate. I decided this would just have to wait a few more days.

Then, I did the washing up.

Then I had run out of busy work and had to stop and realise: my son was going to start pre-school in the morning. Every morning. From now on until eternity.

I suddenly understood why I had been feeling so sad all day. Optimist that I am, up to that point I had only been looking at the advantages and benefits of having mornings free of increasingly articulate demands for snacks, Team Umizoomi and general undivided attention; free of trying to tactfully break up tiny-toddler-crushing hugs that are meant well but could cause serious injury, possibly death; free of constant denial for the need of a toilet trip, followed by yet another clean pair of trousers and another load of washing to put on; free of sudden rage, tears, remorse, saying sorry, then juice and hugs (and that is just me). In short, mornings when my confident, independent little girl can play and then (blissfully) nap, while I do freelance work, lesson prep and writing. It had all sounded so good up until then. But suddenly it hit me that these would also be mornings without sudden sneak attacks of affection, without puzzles and games with a little boy that gets these things now, without a window into his hilarious imagination, without a little voice at my elbow, offering to help me with the chores.

I smoothed his labelled clothes once more, added another few pairs of clean underpants to his George Pig backpack and went to bed. All night I had anxiety dreams in which I just could not leave the pre-school, or had said I would look after a friend’s child at the same school but lost him, and most importantly, in which I had forgotten to label an essential item of clothing.

At 6.45, the Boy woke up full of excitement, untroubled by visions of disaster. He was looking forward to school. Once we arrived he headed straight for the sand table and barely looked up when I said goodbye.

Happy feet, dancing in Happyland

Happy feet, dancing in Happyland

At home, time passed quickly. The Girl kicked off her “zhuzh” with a little cry of glee and ran from toy to toy, unable to decide which one to play with first now that no one was about to snatch them off her. In fact, she did an adorable little dance in the centre of the room, which I freely interpreted as her Happy Dance, to celebrate a brother-free morning. After a little play and a snack, I put her down for a (very) early nap and did a good hour of work. Before I knew it, it was time to collect the Boy again.

He was touchingly delighted to see us. He ran into my arms, then hugged and hugged his sister and gave her kisses. He had had a wonderful time but was pleased that we were back.

Tomorrow, we do the whole thing again. And the day after and the day after that.

The whole thing feels strange, like I have forgotten something – left my wallet at home, or my shoes in the car. The house is eerily quiet. The Numberjacks lie on the sofa, lifeless, just toys now. The TV is off.

So I sit at my laptop, doing work, sipping a hot cup of tea, and grieving. It’s only the morning, only a few hours that pass in a flash. And yet, I feel like I have lost my shadow.

The Nativity – in Duplo

The Husband & the Fairy Godmother recently made a stop-motion animation of the nativity with our kids’ Duplo, using fishing wire and kitchen roll to create flying angels. This was for work. I’m going to leave that thought hanging there while I carry on with my story, but suffice it to say, the project proved that we had in our Duplo collection all the most important pieces to create a nativity scene.

As they had finished, I had bagged up all the figures ready to return to the Duplo box. Then suddenly I had a thought. Here in my hand was an honest to God, ready made “story sack” with which I could tell my tiny people the Christmas story.

The next morning, I prised the Boy and the Girl away from Team Umi-Zoomi (the new craze) and sat them down near the Christmas tree.

“I’m going to tell you a story,” I announced.

The Boy’s eyes wandered longingly back to the living room where the TV is.

I took his Numberjacks from his arms and placed them by the tree. “There, number 3 is all ready to hear the story, and so is number 4, and 5 and number 6 [= the artist formerly known as Teddy]). Are you ready too?”

He was ready.

Numberjack 5, listening attentively to the Christmas story

Numberjack 5, listening attentively to the Christmas story

I took items out of the bag one by one and told the story, building it up as I built up the scene. First I introduced the stable and its inhabitants. The Boy provided the noise for each animal as we placed it in the stable, then he put them around their manger to eat. That evening, Mary and Joseph arrived on their donkey, looking for a place to sleep.

“They asked the animals: can we sleep in your house tonight? We can’t find a bed anywhere! What do you think the animals said?” I foolishly asked the Boy.

“They said no!” he supplied merrily.

“They said yes, actually,” I corrected tersely. “They were very friendly animals.”

Then there was drama in the night, and the baby was born. But oh dear, where could the baby sleep? The manger was invitingly placed front and centre. I gave the Boy the Duplo baby and asked him to find a place for it.

“I know!” he said, and evicted all the animals from the main stable building, ready to put baby Jesus there.

“Or how about this?” I hastily put in, holding up the manger, “This could be a good place for a baby to sleep. Shall we put some hay in to make baby Jesus comfortable?”

The Boy and the Girl industriously collected fallen pine needles from under the tree and placed them in the tiny manger with tiny fingers (which saved me some hoovering later in the day, bonus!). Baby Jesus went on top, and his proud parents stood to either side.

Baby Jesus in his manger, cow and pig in the stable, chickens on the roof. All is right with the world.

Baby Jesus in his manger, cow and pig in the stable, chickens on the roof. All is right with the world.

“Jesus was no ordinary baby,” I explained, “He was God’s son. So God put a beautiful bright star in the sky, just above the stable, to show where Jesus was so people could find him and visit him.” I took out the one Christmas decoration we hadn’t put up yet (as it had been in use for the stop-motion animation), the star. I hung it above the tree and our little scene.

“Wow!” said the Boy in awe. “Is a velly big star.”

The shepherds (one of them in a zoo keeper’s outfit, but neither of them can read so I figured it would be okay) followed the star and arrived with their one sheep, followed swiftly by the wise men with their presents for Jesus. They all gathered round and said thank you to God for the baby.

I had to get creative with the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Bonus points if you guess which random item is meant to be which gift...

I had to get creative with the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Bonus points if you guess which random item is meant to be which gift…

To my utter surprise, the kids were actually engaged and paid attention throughout the whole thing. We then found that lots of our usual activities could link in to the story:

Beautiful sticker advent calendar

Beautiful sticker advent calendar

The Boy’s advent calendar – he could identify the stable, the animals, the shepherds and the wise men.

It's not spelled wrong, okay, it's Dutch.

It’s not spelled wrong, okay, it’s Dutch.

We had to use a magnetic letter to supplement.

We had to use a magnetic letter to supplement.

The Boy suggested using the alphabet puzzle to spell some key words. He chose ‘Jesus’ and ‘Baby’, both of which had repeating letters, so I had to be a little creative (see above).

The Girl carried the story on for herself, and spent most of the rest of the day trying to get a wise man, the baby Jesus, Mary, a shepherd, ANYBODY, to sit. on. the. donkey. She managed it once and was very proud.

photo (14)

That evening, Daddy had finished editing the stop motion animation and came down to show us all.  We gathered round the laptop and my husband pressed play. The Boy’s eyes grew wide with wonder. There it was! The story from the morning, but the characters were moving, and there were flying angels! The Girl also bounced up and down in excitement. When the story reached its conclusion, the Boy pointed at the baby in the manger and exclaimed: “Baby Jesus!”

I wiped a proud little tear from my eye. Learning had taken place. 

You can see the animations here (Shepherd’s Hear the News) and here (Wise Men Visit Herod).

Literacy and Numeracy with Poo

How can something so innocuous be the source of so much pain and suffering?

How can something so innocuous be the source of so much pain and suffering?

Well, despite all my misgivings (see posts one and two on potty training), the Boy has had a breakthrough with the potty and seems to be as sorted as you can be when you’re three.

So, of course you will now want to know: what was the secret? What made him decide to abandon the easy life of weeing and pooing where you stand, to having to go and take your trousers off and sit on an uncomfortable receptacle, followed by wiping and hand washing and all sorts of things that take you away from doing what you want for absolutely AGES?

Two things: chocolate and numbers.

This should not have been a surprise, really. From when he was tiny, the Boy has always been easily pacified and distracted by food, and, well, you all know about his obsession with numbers. We have yet to find anything that isn’t made better by adding numbers into the mix.

This is what we did:


1. Bribery: All the left over chocolate coins in the Boy’s birthday treasure chest were pressed into service as a reward for doing wees in the potty – TWO for a poo, as this was proving to be more of a challenge, just as Pirate Pete had said it would. The Boy soon cottoned on, and would come running in from a trip to the potty shouting: “One gold coin, Mummy!” He did struggle, however, to understand that it wasn’t so much the presence of a deposit in the potty that earned the coin as where it had originally been deposited. All too often he would poo in his pants, tip the poo into the potty and come and demand double rewards. (My apologies if you are eating while reading this, but then it’s your own fault, the word ‘poo’ in the title should have tipped you off)

DSCF45862. Reward chart with numbers: When the gold coins ran out, I switched to a sticker chart. This proved surprisingly popular. I thought he’d like it less as it drastically reduced the treat-frequency, but as it turned out numbers were more exciting even than chocolate. I drew ten footsteps per row, numbered them and ended each row with a star. The first two stars were some kind of edible treat and the third star was a small present (eg. a little wind up ladybird from Mothercare @ £1). He again earned one sticker for a wee and two for a poo. “Number 3, Mummy!” he would shout elatedly while pressing a sticker onto the footstep, “seven footsteps to go!” He was doing subtraction without breaking a sweat. We went through three of these charts before I just quietly didn’t make another and he didn’t ask after it.

3. Poo numbers and letters: By this time, the number of floor puddles had reduced to zero and he had stopped soiling his underwear. Poos were still an issue, though, and every other day we would have almost non-stop potty trips trying to get shy faeces to come out, until in desperation I just left his trousers off. It worked. He came running up to me in triumph, mostly naked, saying: “Come and see Mummy! I made a J for Judith!” In trepidation, I went to have a look. Resting neatly inside the potty, was a massive long poo, with a curve at the bottom. It was, in fact, a J. He hadn’t touched it with his hands, it had just come out like that. This moment marked a turning point for the Boy. Poo was no longer scary. Poo was a new opportunity to spot numbers and letters in every day life. I am now regularly called in to admire a “number 1” or an “opposite 7” (backwards) or a “letter R: down, up, round and FLICK!” (thanks, Squigglet). A slightly unorthodox method of learning to read, I believe, or even to potty train, but it works for The Boy.

So there you have it. The Boy appears to be mostly potty trained. It took about 6 weeks from the Day of Constant Puddles to now. The lessons I have learned from this would be, firstly, that the key to successful potty training is owned by each child themselves and has something to do with their character and special interests (really not rocket science, I guess) and secondly, that the key to successful literacy and numeracy teaching is, of course, poo.

Is my son a foreigner?

photocopierSo I am back in the ESOL* classroom after a three year hiatus and it is all coming back to me. Teaching my pre-intermediate group of immigrants is affecting me a little like looking after The Girl did in the early days. Not that they’re ringing me up in the middle of the night demanding food, but I am having a similar slow dawning of recognition: oh yes, this is what newborns/ESOL students do and need. These were the resources I used to use. This is how I solved this problem before.

One example is the mistakes they make. Each student has his or her own typical grammar errors:

“They have catch him,” says the Polish student.

“They are travel on a road,” says the Tamil speaker.

“Yesterday, I write a list and do shopping,” says my Brazilian student.

“It’s in pront of the college” says my Indonesian student.

Oh yes, I think. Pre-intermediate students may be learning about story telling in the past, but that doesn’t mean they have got all their present tenses sorted. Oh yes, I remember. I should pay attention to each student’s pronunciation difficulties and spend some time on that. I diagnose, I make notes, plan lessons. I think of ways to help them learn to use verb tenses correctly and improve their pronunciation of bilabial fricatives (‘f’ and ‘v’ to you).

But why does this all sound so familiar, even after three years’ break?

“Mummy, I need to go to toilet!” the Boy interrupts my lesson planning. I get up to help him. “NO! Mummy not come too. I go by myself.”

I find myself making a mental note: he is not using auxiliary verbs to form negatives.

A shout reaches me downstairs: “Come and see, Mummy. I did a wee wee!”

He earns a sticker for his sticker chart, and by dinner time the stickers have added up to an ice cream for dessert. The Boy is covered head to toe in sticky vanilla goo – he is in heaven.

“I’m love Megan White,” he tells me. I’ve given up trying to get him to say Magnum. The dark ones he calls: Chocolate Megan Whites. But besides this pronunciation issue I am also diagnosing an issue with present simple/present continuous confusion. I compare it in my head to his announcement to strangers before his birthday: “I going be three!” Definitely a bit of a mix up happening there.

Daddy gets home just before bedtime. There are hugs. Daddy also gets covered in ice cream.

“What did you do today?” Daddy wants to know.

“Going children’s centre. And play with Nebecca.”

Past tense, I think to myself. Understanding, yes. Using, no. Also, pronunciation of alveolar approximant.

Slowly it is beginning to dawn on me: my son is a pre-intermediate ESOL student. He would fit right in to my evening class. Have I just stumbled on a point in time where my son’s experience of Child Language Acquisition just happens to intersect the Second Language Acquisition that my students are going through?

Then there are times like this evening, when we play a game before bedtime. “I’m going to choose this one,” he says, picking up a card. “Your turn, Mummy. I can pass it to you.” He startles me then with his beautiful sentences. There may be similarities, there may be an intersection here, but the Boy is 3, not 33. His brain is designed to refine those grammar points and pronunciation issues in record time. He is soaking up idioms and phrases. He hears them once or twice, then puts them to use in real life. He is fearless. Not afraid to make mistakes, never embarrassed, he jumps right in to have a go. None of the inhibitions of an adult immigrant plague him. Before we know it he’ll be eating Magnums, while we grown ups still fondly refer to them as megan whites, clinging on to that endearing pidgin English of the toddler years.

And my students will probably still be saying “I’m like”.

Is my son a foreigner? In a way, yes he is. A fairly new arrival in the adult world, still working out how the game is played. Also, he is half Dutch.

But I think he’d get bored pretty quickly in my evening class.

ice cream

Who could get excited about an evening that does not include desserts??

*ESOL = English for Speakers of Other Languages

Birthday Joy

The Boy and The Girl’s birthdays are two weeks apart. Believe me, we were in no way able to plan it like that – it just happened. The Boy had already gate-crashed Gran’s birthday (the day after his), at the same time jumping in between our wedding anniversary, Daddy’s birthday and his uncle’s birthday in the same month. The Girl joined another busy month with Oma’s birthday, Opa and Oma’s wedding anniversary and now little Emilie’s birthday. Basically, autumn is a non-stop roller coaster of cake, presents and unusually fun activities. By the time Christmas was over and done with last year, the Boy had begun to assume that cake and chocolate were just part of our staple diet and that presents should be expected at any moment.

This year was a special birthday year.

The Girl turned 1. Inconceivable, still. That tiny little wrinkled thing, now sitting up in her highchair, stuffing her face with cake. Pointing and exclaiming and walking. The Boy was involved in all the preparations: we made cupcakes together and he chose her a present. It was perfect: a pink shape sorter bus with rattly shapes. He also helped pick her a card and wrote his name on it (read: held the pencil while I moved his hand). The Girl seemed very pleased with the attention. The unwrapping was interesting, but she was rather indifferent to her new toys – which was fortunate as the Boy had clearly been waiting for weeks to get his hands on that shape sorter bus and made off with it as soon as it came out of the box. The cake, however, was a definite hit. The look on her face was priceless: her mouth ringed with sugary icing, her birthday dress sprinkled with crumbs, her eyes slightly accusing: “Mummy, you kept this from me for a year!” She set about making up for lost time.

Cupcakes, ready for the big day.

Cupcakes, ready for the big day.

Pretty birthday dress

Pretty birthday dress

Two weeks later, the Boy turned 3. We had kept his first and second birthdays small, on the assumption that he probably wouldn’t remember them (and also because we were new-baby-zombies last year), but for his third birthday we decided it was party time. His excitement about Swashbuckle inspired us to book our church hall and plan a rip-roaring pirate adventure.

This was the first time he could anticipate his birthday. For weeks beforehand he would want to know how many more sleeps until his birthday. He would announce to strangers: “I going be three!” and then inform them how old Mummy and Daddy were for good measure. He would ask me out of the blue: “Is my birthday?” “No,” I’d have to say sadly, “Not yet. But soon.” We talked about  his pirate party and who would be coming – basically all his friends. At one point, I asked him: “And who will be at your party?” “Gran,” he said. “Opa, Oma, Cassie – and the Numberjacks.” For a moment I was worried that perhaps we should have done a Numberjacks themed party instead, and that perhaps he would be disappointed, but I shook that off and carried on looking for shiny jewels on eBay.

When the day arrived, he drank it all in. Gran and Opa and Oma came over to do presents at home, then we dashed off to have a very hurried lunch and from there to the hall to get things ready for the party. Then, it was Swashbuckle time. Instead of boring you with a blow by blow account, I want to highlight the three top Magic Moments of this magical day – three moments where the look of awe and wonder and joy on our little boy’s face almost brought a tear to Mummy and Daddy’s eyes.

1. The moment he unwrapped Gran’s present and realised that the Numberjacks had come to his party.

Only way to keep him interested in the other presents: show each gift to the Numberjacks

Only way to keep him interested in the other presents: show each gift to the Numberjacks

Although Gran had actually bought him something else for his birthday, as an afterthought she got him three cuddly Numberjacks: 3, 4 and 5. As soon as he saw them, the Boy was in love. They have not left his side since. Every time we go out, he decides which Numberjack is going out on the mission. They are the first to have a wee in the morning before the Boy himself gets on the toilet, they watch him have a bath and they cuddle up with him at night. His joy is complete. Well, almost complete. Teddy has recently been renamed Numberjack 6 – we think it might be a hint for Christmas…

2. The moment he realised that he was in his very own episode of Swashbuckle.

Captain Sinker leads a game of Pin the Eye Patch on the Pirate

Captain Sinker leads a game of Pin the Eye Patch on the Pirate

In my party preparations I had included some Swashbuckle-style games, like dressing up a pirate and having a ‘Shipwreck Rummage’, i.e. a treasure hunt around the hall to find gold coins and jewels. That was where I had stopped, however. I thought that would do quite nicely. But when my theatre/film director husband asked for the details of the running order, he said it would not do. “It needs to be a proper



episode of Swashbuckle. You are Captain Sinker. I’ll be Line. Your Dad can be Cook. You need to tell the children they are going to win S’s jewels back by playing the games. Then they get to put them in the treasure chest. Put a bit of theatre into it!” And so it was done. When I put on the massive pirate captain’s hat and led the children in the Swashbuckle Salute, the look on our Boy’s face was priceless. He really was on Swashbuckle.

3. The moment with the cake.

The Boy loves singing Happy Birthday. At every birthday party it is the bit he looks forward to the most. We even have to sing it for characters in books, like Topsy and Tim. And when he gets to the end, he always blows out an imaginary candle on an imaginary cake. At his party, the lights went out, the pirate candles were lit and the cake was brought in. His little face, by the light of the candles, as the cake approached him, and he knew it was for him, and it was his special day, and the pirate cake was his – that I will not forget in a hurry.

Pirate Cake: blue icing for the sea, foam pirate ship put together by Z

Pirate Cake: blue icing for the sea, foam pirate ship put together by Z

All in all, the kids’ birthdays were a big success. I was a little worried about planning a party for 12 small people, but I think it went well and I am already thinking about what a Number Party might look like next year – with the Numberjacks in attendance, of course, as the guests of honour.



Virtual Birthday and Clip Show

Happy 1st birthday, Secrets of the Sandpit

Happy 1st birthday, Secrets of the Sandpit

I realised today that I missed my blog’s first birthday. It was a few days ago I think. Although I am a little late, I didn’t want to let this milestone gone by unmarked, and so I present you with the dreaded “clip show” episode. You know the one: you sit down with a mug of tea and some biscuits/chocolate/crisps/cake to enjoy your favourite show, and instead of a proper story you get little snippets of episodes gone by to remind you of what has gone before. Annoying, right? Well, buckle up because this is a ‘greatest hits’, if you will – the best, most relevant, most ignored or most read of Secrets of the Sandpit. Celebrate its birthday with me by taking a look around and reminiscing on the first year of my blog’s life. May there be many more!

Sandpit. Best thing ever.

Sandpit. Best thing ever.

So, to start at the very beginning, you can read my very first post here, in which I explain what the “sandpit” is all about. A year ago when I started this blog, the Boy would express his extreme excitement about The Best Things Ever by exclaiming “sandpit!”. In fact, if you look in the side bar you can see my running log of things that elicited this response over the past year. Faithful readers will have noticed that the list stopped growing about six months ago. He has sadly grown out of “sandpit!” and now just tells us “love-a guinea pigs” or “That’s a fun filled fest!” for special occasions. He has grown up so much over the past year, and his language has developed massively. I marvel every day at how long his sentences are getting and how complex, at his awareness of his own bilingual-ness and his ability to express his emotions in words. My Boy is three and is becoming a whole grown up little person.

My blog has changed over the past year as well. Like most people, I started writing with only a vague idea of what the ‘flavour’ would be. It began as a more durable log of funny things the Boy had said and done, not wanting all his best material to get swallowed up by Facebook. In fact, sometimes my posts were actually no more than a slightly longer status update.

Soon themes began to emerge, though:

* The Girl, who is only a month older than Secrets of the Sandpit, inspired me to  share the reality of breastfeeding in the hope of helping other Mums who were having a very tough start but nevertheless wanted to carry on, as well as pregnant women who wanted to be properly prepared.

* I started using my blog to follow my Boy’s language development, especially how he was coping with growing up bilingual.

* I also began a monthly children’s book review, as a way of sharing my love for children’s literature. The first one is here but you can read the others by clicking on ‘Children’s books‘ in the menu at the top. Keep an eye out for the next instalment this coming Monday!

* Then I went a little bit crazy and decided to reinvent education, which I got so excited about that I started a whole separate blog about it called Clean Slate. As The Caterpillar says in Alice in Wonderland, you should start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.

* Thursday became poetry day courtesy of Prose for Thought. It has become one of the highlights of my week, turning my thoughts on family, sleeplessness, changes, identity, God and Weetabix into poetry, experimenting with form, verse and imagery.

* Other voices turned up and wanted to put their two cents in, like the Boy on play, the cats on the rules of the house and the Girl, updating us on the l33t skills she is learning in Life Game.

A year in, how is Secrets of the Sandpit doing in the playground? Well, like her author, she is not the most popular kid in school, but she has a group of faithful, close friends she hangs out with on play dates and sleepovers, that she can turn to for advice and pass notes to in class when the teacher isn’t looking. She also had one amazing day of fame when my Guide to Cbeebies was picked as Mumsnet blog of the day and a gazillion people dropped by to read it.

So happy birthday, Secrets of the Sandpit! I look forward to what the next year will bring.

Thanks for the cake, it was deeeeeeeelicious.

Thanks for the cake, it was deeeeeeeelicious.

Meet all my blog-friends over at Vic Welton’s place for her weekly Post Comment Love.