Playtime

I hear it time and time again when the topic of children arises – how can they have so much stuff?

And at the risk of sounding brutal, the answer is: because we buy it for them.

But do we really need to?

It’s easy to feel judged as a parent – to feel as if by not doing what others around us are doing that we’re somehow failing. But that simply isn’t the case – all our children are different and they all have different interests and passions.

But we don’t need to buy whole new sets of playthings for each of these interests if we invest in good quality, versatile items to begin with. And these might not necessarily be toys. 

The loose parts play movement aims to foster a sense of creativity and inventiveness in children by providing them with tools from which to create the things they want to play with. There is a wealth of information online with ideas all over Pinterest , but there’s also a really comprehensive guide available here, on Play Scotland’s website.

Loose parts might include things like shells, buttons, sticks, empty picture frames, feathers, building blocks, small bean bags, dried peas, cups, and old baking equiptment.

In the picture above we’ve got some corks, stone eggs, chopsticks, wooden fruit, feathers and wooden cutlery.

We also have some beautiful old Danish and German coins we found, whilst clearing out my inlaws’ house.

The dried peas have long been a favourite to play with – they form the basis of many a pretend meal, as well as rubble for diggers and landslides for trains.

Blankets are another wonderful item to add to the mix too – old cot-blankets are ideal as they’re a managable size for small people. These serve as dressing up, dance floors, doll beds, landscapes, i-spy scapes (in the case of one particularly colourful patchwork example) and den-building fodder.

With the above selection of seeminly random objects, we’ve played supermarkets and cafes, built bridges and birdnests, and done no end of collages.

This is the bird my eldest made, following a trip to the local falconry centre.

Over the lockdown period, we used the loose parts to supplement learning – shown here when we modelled parts of the butterfly/caterpillar lifecycle.

The above wooden tray is actually a bread-board I found in a charity shop – the dip where the letters are is intended for butter, whilst the chamber holding the rice originally held a grid for slicing the bread over to stop the escape of bread crumbs.

I used the grid part for threading when the children were younger…
Nowadays, it tends to be used as a musical instrument ‘scraper’. Running a chopstick along the ridges makes an excellent sound.

In the past, it’s also been used for Hama beads – the beads themselves occupying the butter cavity, whilst the plate sit in the bit where the rice currently is. In fact, this single, unobtrusive item has possibly one of the most-used play things in our house. And I can use it for its intended purpose when the kids have finished with it!

There are lots of possible games and activities you can make from loose parts – we’ve enjoyed DIY draughts/checkers, a ring-toss game, mancala, and a whole variety of transient versions of snakes and ladders. You can make counting games, where children place the correct number of buttons or pine cones or blocks onto the relevant digit (i.e. 7 coins on the number 7), or bingo grids where they roll a dice and cover the number they roll using – for example – a shell.

We’ve made matching games, which are great for early literacy – matching shapes is an essential skill for early reading. All I did here was lay keys out on the scanner bed, then press scan.

One of our recent favourites has been float vs sink. You ask the child which items they think will float, and which they think will sink and then you experiment…

The only limits, really, are your imagination… and the size of item you include for younger children.

You can make use of loose parts anywhere – they’re great fun for playing with in the garden and on walks.

Most of the things we use either came from charity shops, the kitchen drawers, or the countryside around us. Conkers and acorns were gathered on woodland walks, wooden spoons and chopsticks were purloined from the kitchen, whilst corks, bobbins and buttons have been diligently saved over the years. Keys were purchased on eBay and things like the wooden fruit and stone eggs were picked up along the way in charity shops.

Obviously we do have purpose-made toys too, but I tend to focus on truly versatile things – Lego, wooden blocks, vehicles, animal figures, dolls, stuffed toys, musical instruments, and STEM sets like Georello gears and Magformer shapes. All of these are readily available second hand (though branded things like Lego can be slightly more costly, even when used).

Loose parts are cheap, easily-accessible and versatile. A few small drawers of them can replace cupboards-worth of conventional toys. The ones I’ve showcased here tend to be made from natural materials, but that’s only because I’ve been trying to reduce the plastics in my house for many years now. Plastic bottle tops, plastic bobbins, single-use neon shot glasses, plastic straws, plastic pipes… these are all useful, valuable resources too. The point is not to elimiate synthetic materials, but to have fewer, more versatile items. This, in turn, will reduce the need for new toys, the storage to keep them, and the production of them – most of the items listed have either been used before (i.e. corks and bobbins), or can be used after they’re grown out of (i.e. the bread board).

One of the single, easiest things we can do to reduce our environmental impact is to consume less. Loose parts are a great way to do this whilst fostering a love of imaginative and educational play.

I would love to hear any ideas for how to use loose parts – I’m always on the lookout for new ideas on how we can use them! You can contact me either here or on Twitter.

Need vs Want

At the start of lockdown, my eldest’s favourite club issued the following challenge.

We were given a list of ‘things’ and had to divide them into categories – things we want and things we need.

In a group setting, this was meant to encourage the children to think about and discuss the idea of actual need – so, things like food, water, clothing etc. over cinema trips, technology, and vehicles (for example). But naturally, we didn’t have a group, so we did the best that we could on our own.

It was interesting to see which items my child though were essential.

The picture above is terrible (because I still can’t find my camera charger and I don’t want to buy a new one), but the ‘needs’ included things I’d never thought about. Education, friends, sewage, clean water, clean food, shelter, medicine,trees and plants… at nine, my child understands so much more than many of the adults I know – myself included.

– What about the car? I agrued.
– What about the car?
– How would you get to school without it? 
I said.
– I wouldn’t. Or I would, but we’d have to get up really early and walk, or bike.
– And books? Education? You don’t 
technically need them.
– But without them, I can’t learn and get better. And if we’re not getting better, what’s the point?

What indeed?

I’m not posting this to brag – to say, ‘look at how wonderful my child is.’** I’m posting this because I’ve never actually sat down, with intention, to look at the things I need. For example, I’ve always thought that living where we do, we need a car. But my child is right – that simply isn’t the case. It would take over an hour to walk to the village, and then a further 20 minutes to get the train to town, and then a further 30 minutes to walk from the station to the supermarket*. But I could do it.

This is the case with so many things – do I need the lovely skein of yarn that will sit in a box until I can think what to do with it? No. Do I need another book to rest on a shelf indefinitely, as I continue to gather more that I’ll read at some point? No.

Do I need the pretty, ‘sustainable’ version of the item I already have? No.

I will definitely try and keep this question in mind far more as I move forward.

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*Interestingly, it would only take ten minutes to walk from the station to the butcher and refillery which is where I do most of my shopping.
** Though I do have very wonderful children.

Think Pink

This is a bit of a controvertial one, so I ask that you’re gentle with me. Views are my own and are only opinion, You do You etc.

But…

Before my youngest child was born, I was faced with something of a dilema – or at least, what passed for a dilema in the pre-Covid world. My older child was one sex, whilst my impending bump would be another.

At the time, there was a lot of talk about ‘gender neutral’ parenting, but the more I read, the more frustrated I became. The whole thing seemed to hinge on one entirely illogical element – the absense of pink.

If colours truly are – as every article I read regarding the subject insisted – “for everyone”, then why was it that pink seemed to be an absolute no-go, and what message was this sending?

There seemed to me to be a hypocricy in this, as though what was actually being said was, “any child can wear any colour, as long as it’s not pink because that’s for girls.” It simultaneously undermined the ‘colours are for everyone’ rhetoric, and devalued femininity.

So I made a choice – I was going to dress my boy in pink, and pass the clothes between children when they were outgrown as I would have if I’d had babies of the same sex.

The first time I dressed my boy in pink, I felt strange. The first time it was commented on, I felt ashamed – I won’t lie. My husband had a wonderful line, though, which he toted out regularly, “I’m not daft enough that I need my kids colour-coding, thanks.”

After a while, the comments stopped – the final one being, “Aren’t you afraid he’ll get into ballet or something?” I replied that I hoped so – it seemed to have been good for Jean Claude Van Damme’s action movie career.

So why am I writing about this on a blog which deals primarily with environmental issues?

The whole concept of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ garments was devised in the early 1900s as a way to sell more clothes*. The division of colour based on the sexes renders many parents ‘in need’ of new items with the arrival of a baby, and this can as much as double the environmental impact a child has.

These days, this divide in colours based on sex extrends far beyond clothes. I remember seeing requests in Facebook groups saying things like; ‘WANTED – paddling pool, suitable for a girl. As if somehow, the paddling pool would be less fun for the child were it not purple, or pink. Other discussions included; ‘I really want to use the pink sling I had for my daughter with my new baby – do you think it’s too girly for my son?’ Invariably, comments would ping back suggesting the same weave in different colours, or saying that of course she could use a pink sling because she was the one using it, not her boy.

We need to reject this idea that pink is a gendered colour. We also need to reject the notion that in order to raise children of different sexes equally, we should delete the colour pink. As soon as we do, we can return to a world where we naturally reuse the baby clothes from our first child for our second, where we see a toy for its play value, rather than its implied affliation with one sex or the other.

I won’t lie – it’s far easier to dress a girl in ‘boy’ clothes than it is to dress a boy in pink, but that’s only because people have worked hard to normalise women in trousers over the last century or so. If we’re brave now, we can ensure that our children don’t think twice about reusing the same items between siblings and cut down on huge amounts of waste.

When I first began thinking about my environmental impact (after reading Lucy Siegel’s ‘To Die For’, some ten years ago) I didn’t honestly expect it to touch so many aspects of my life. I hadn’t realised – to my shame – how huge an influence consumerism has on what we do. In order to truly reduce the harm I cause by over-consuming, I need to look increasingly at other areas of inequality in the world – in this case, feminism and gender issues.

As ever, I can only speak for myself, but I do passionately believe that if we’re dilligent and face these inequalities head-on, we can tackle climate change in the decade we’ve been given to do so. And if we look at all the causes of social inequality as we go, we’ll build a wonderful world.

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*Cordelia Fine’s work goes into great detail on this subject, as does Peggy Orenstein’s – the later being a lighter read.

‘Project Wild Thing’, the film

Project Wild Thing, by David Bond, is a really interesting little film. Released back in 2013, this one has slipped under my radar until now and I’m not entirely sure why… It appeared on my Twitter feed as something free to watch during lockdown and so, excited to see something new, I thought I would give it a go.

Project Wild Thing Screening - Upper Hutt - Eventfinda

I spoke before about how, in order to get children to care about the natural world, we needed to get them out in it, and invested in what was happening there. This film is about doing exactly that.

In the beginning, David appoints himself ‘marketing director for nature’ and from that point on, the narrative just sort of writes itself. He looks at the amount of time his own children spend outside and comes up with a pretty sad pie chart – only 4% of his daughter’s time is spent outside. This is the same proportion of time that she spends in the bathroom.

Speaking to marketing advisors and various creative people, David discovers that whilst parents want their children to go outside and enjoy the natural world, many are too conscious of risk. He touches on our societal fears of abduction and injury and I feel like these points are really important to acknowledge.

The scene in which David interviews a classroom of teenage girls really resonated with my own secondary school experience. In short, the pressure to look a certain way dictated their actions – in this case, they avoided the natural world. They didn’t want to go outside in bad weather because of the clothes they’d be made to wear by parents. It was a stark reminder of the culture amongst secondary children – peer approval really is everything, and unless we normalise the use of appropriate clothing amongst older children/young adults, this isn’t a problem that’s going to go away.

After watching the film, I had a better look at the website for The Wild Network. There are all sorts of things on there which I want to explore more of – specifically the various activity ideas.

At the time of writing, the film was available to watch for free, but even if that’s no longer the case, I would still recommend seeking it out. It’s a properly interesting little documentary.

Have you watched Project Wild Thing? What did you think? Do you have any ideas for other films I should see? As ever, contact me here or on Twitter to let me know.

Working from home – with children – in relation to Covid 19 (and the climate crisis).

Husband has been working from home as a translator since our eldest was a year old. That was 8 years ago, and last year, I joined him as a proof-reader. We originally made the rather terrifying decision for him to go self-employed because – primarily – of the commute. When working in an office, Husband would get up before the baby woke, drive to work, do a day in the office, and arrive back after I finished the bedtime routine. Weekends were spent trying to form a connection with our child which would then feel undone in the following week of absence.

Changing the way we worked to avoid the commute gave us more time as a family, allowed us to cut back to one car, saved us a small fortune on fuel, and reduced our food spending too – an unexpected bonus of not having to worry about lunch away from home. One might also argue that our eating the previous night’s leftovers for lunch also helped reduce food waste, but I feel that would be reaching.

Of course, our decision to begin working this way is very different to those people being forced into remote working due to Covid 19, and it is important to acknowledge that.

I have, however, had multiple requests for advice regarding how we work – with children at home. And going forward, doing away with unnecessary travel is a great way to keep emissions low. If this works for you, and your employer is on board, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t continue working remotely in the aftermath of the pandemic – even if just for a few days a week.

What follows are strategies which have been successful in our family. They may not work in yours. As they’re based on experience, I can’t speak for single-parents, or homes in which earning is shared equally between partners, but if that is your situation, I hope there are at least parts of the following which you find useful. I’m also coming from a household in which there are various additional needs present – these require certain concessions such as extreme continuity, routine, black and white boundaries etc. – so you might find a more fluid, flexible approach easier than the one I detail here.

Again, our choices were made in a different time, for different reasons. Please take whatever good you can from what follows. 

  • It might be helpful, if you’re able, to sit down as a family before remote working is due to begin in order to discuss with the children what’s going to happen. In my experience, it helps to be as clear and concrete as possible. i.e. “Adult A will endeavour to work between X o’clock and Y o’clock with lunch breaks at Z. Adult B will be your immediate responder until after Y o’clock, when Adult A becomes your go-to human and Adult B starts work.”
    If your children are too young for specified times, buzzers can help. i.e. ‘Adult A is only contactable after the buzzer has gone.”
  • It might be useful to explain why you’re working, or if your children are older, to reiterate why it’s important. It seems like an obvious thing to us, but for the longest time, my children thought we just preferred working to other activities! Talk about the things you need in order to live (a home, food, heating etc.) and explain that money is required to buy these things, and that jobs pay money. If applicable, you might want to frame working as an act of love – in my experience, it changes prioritising your job from possibly invoking feelings of mild rejection to being an active act of affection.
  • It is hard, but it will help if the person working can be consistent regarding boundaries. If your children come to you while you’re busy, it can be so difficult to say, ‘No, not right now, go find Adult B’ – every single time. You love your babies, you want to meet their needs, but in our case, doing so fostered the expectation that Husband would drop everything to respond and this isn’t always possible. If you’re working, you’re working. If you’re not, then you’re not. Having these really clear blocks of time and sticking to them can mean the difference between getting interrupted every five minutes and being left to really buckle down for two hours, undisturbed and thus, potentially, finishing work early.
  • Consistency in space might be useful. We never had a dedicated room for an office, but we’ve found it incredibly helpful to carve out a corner of the dining room from which Husband can work. It’s a physical representation of what he’s doing – a very concrete boundary. If he’s in the chair by his desk, leave him be. In contrast, I sit by the fire with the dog and use my laptop on my knee. This is exactly how I sit when I’m playing video games. It’s not fair to expect the children to be able to instantly tell if I’m working or not, whereas it’s really easy for them to see if Husband is. Result: he’s left alone to get on with things and I get interrupted.
  • When you’re present, be present. I spoke above about having unambiguous blocks of time i.e. if you’re working, you’re working. But this goes both ways. You can’t expect children to just leave you alone entirely throughout the day. They still need us.
    Some might need your help with their remote schooling, or they might be frightened and looking for connection. They might be bored without their classmates. Setting aside time specifically for them, in which they get to select an activity to do with you can make all the difference. Obviously, this might not be possible – your job might not be one which allows it, or you might not be used to managing your workload yet (a real issue for freelancers – the temptation is to take whatever work there is when you can get it and worry later about how you’re going to manage to get it done in time). Just do your best. Again, I wrote about consistent workspaces above, but if all you can commit to at the moment is putting a film on and sitting beside your child as they watch it while you work, then that’s all you can manage. Don’t feel bad about it. We’re all just doing the best we can.
  • I find it helps to keep an ace or two up my sleeve when I’m the one not working… By this I mean things my children only generally get to do as a treat. In my house, this includes-but-is-not-limited-to watching the TV, playing a video game, having some sweeties, (at the moment) going for a walk, getting out a huge roll of paper and paints. When my youngest is really struggling with the fact that my eldest child is doing school work and can’t play, the hierarchy of distraction goes;
    1. Use favourite toys – build a track, or draw a picture… something I can fade out of if my child’s invested enough in the activity.
    2. Provide lunch/snack food. Sometimes the pestering is a manifestation of hunger and not boredom.
    3. Pull out one of the special activities.
  • Be kind to yourself in every free minute you have. None of us know what we’re doing. We’re just trying to keep things as usual as we can. Stick to a routine you know works as much as possible, and make sure to include lots of self-care – you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Covid specific advice.
You’re not a teacher (unless you are!), and no one expects you to be. You’re not meant to home-educate your children unless you were doing that already – you’re not duty bound to be setting a curriculum, or introducing new concepts. If your school is sending work home, it’s work they believe your child can do. Teachers are amazing, incredible humans who have managed to reinvent the education system with 48 hours’ notice whilst still working within the confines of the national curriculum. They’re setting tasks designed with your community in mind, and around resources they can either provide digitally, or which they’re relatively certain most families will have. If you are struggling, talk to your child’s teacher and explain the confines of your situation. There is every chance that they’ll be able to either alter the task, provide an alternative, or reassure you that when schools return to normal, they can support any catching up that’s necessary. The main aim of every teacher I’ve spoken to at this time is that the children they work with are as happy as the situation allows.

Additional: I hope this has been useful to you. If there’s anything in particular that you’d like to know, please feel free to comment either below or on Twitter, then if it’s helpful I can do a follow-up post addressing any queries. If you know me in the real world, I’d ask that you make any question that relates to my children as anonymous as possible – I go to great lengths to keep my language around their descriptions as neutral as I can, and I would appreciate your doing the same. They didn’t ask to be included in this, and I endeavour to only mention them in passing if at all possible.

 

RHS Plants from Pips by Holly Farrell

RHS Plants from Pips By Holly Farrell

RHS Plants from Pips by Holly Farrell is a great little book which everyone in this house has greatly enjoyed.

Not technically an ‘eco’ book, but definitely worthy of mention for so many reasons, this little tome is a wealth of information regarding regrowing plants from the seeds in our foods.

My mum originally gifted it to my children with a view to helping them learn where their food comes from, but it’s also a great way to produce food from what is largely considered waste -imagine  homemade compost, growing seeds we would otherwise throw out, planted in recycled containers, all producing delicious things to eat with zero food miles? It doesn’t get much better than that, really. And don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusions that my growing army of house plants are going to somehow tip the carbon scales back in our favour, but they’re definitely not hurting! Imagine if everyone who ate an apple planted the pips – the world would be a vastly different place…

The instructions in here are clear, concise and accurate. So far, 4/5 of avocado pips we’ve planted have resulted in fledgling trees and we’re all delighted. My youngest is so taken with the idea that he’s even started coming home from nursery with carefully gathered kiwi seeds from his afternoon snack…

There’s not a huge amount more to say about the book – in short, if you can get hold of a copy then do. It’s pretty, it’s accurate, the instructions yield results even when undertaken by two under-tens and an adult with a genetic pre-disposition to destroy plants by looking at them… you can’t really ask for more, can you?

Have you tried planting any seeds from your supermarket vegetables? Did you have any success? I’d love to hear about your results – avocado or otherwise!

 

Your local library.

In 2019, I borrowed and returned 146 books from my local library.

Some of these were reference books, some audio books, some travel guides, and most were fiction.

Normally I buy books used, but even if the average second hand book only cost £1, that’s still £146 saved in 12 months.

If I factor my children into the equation, the financial saving roughly triples.

That’s a saving of £438, give or take a few pounds.

Definitely not a saving to be sniffed at. Admittedly, we are a family of avid readers anyway,  but the amount I read definitely took a sharp incline when I deleted my Facebook account, and when I signed up for the Do Nation ‘feed your noodle’ pledge.

Reading is an amazing, low impact hobby, and one of my great joys in life so it’s easy for me to prioritise it. That said, I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone – libraries everywhere are increasingly under pressure to cut costs, so opening times might be erratic. Ours, for example,  only opens for three days a week and the hours aren’t exactly ideal for shift work. I’m lucky in that I can pop in on my way to school pick up,  but this isn’t the case for everyone.

So, how can we utilise this resource if we’re short on time? Most libraries offer an e-book service which can be accessed at home at any time.  If you don’t have a dedicated e-reader, there are loads of apps out there which allow you to use your phone or computer. This is great for cook books,  or other reference books,  but it’s not necessarily great for reading novels just before bed. This is where Freecycle, Gumtree and eBay come in – both my brother and I have sourced free e-readers from these sites and in our area,  they seem to come up relatively frequently.

There are so many amazing environmental books available at this time – to me,  it just seems right to borrow them from the library so that we can better share resources.

Do you know of any other easily accessible resource sharing schemes out there?  I already rent my video games,  but I’m keen to see what else is out there!

DIY Lego Kits

Recently, I posted about ways to utilise the ‘5Rs’ over the festive period.  If you haven’t already, I would absolutely encourage you to go and check out the full post – there are loads of really lovely ideas for a more sustainable Christmas – but today, I wanted to focus on one of the suggestions in particular.

DIY Lego* kits.

My kids are so incredibly lucky – they’ve inherited a Lego stash which dates back to 1956 and which has been added to over the years by various generations of enthusiasts. Needless to say, we have enough Lego in this house.

That said, both children get an awful lot out of building to the instructions – my youngest, for example, learns how to build in sequence which is a vital skill for pre-reading. And for my eldest, it’s an enormous 3D jigsaw puzzle.

Which begs the question – how do I provide the experience of a kit, without actually buying a kit?

Well, the bricks have infinite possible uses, so all I really need in this situation are the instructions. And it just so happens that the Lego website comes with free instructions for their ‘Classic’ kits, and for ‘Minibuilds’.

I opted for the May Minibuild because:
– I’m relatively sure we have all the parts
– The necessary pieces are presented as a list for easy finding
– The instructions are printed on fewer sheets of paper.

After I’d printed the instructions, I went to gather the parts… There was so much Lego in the box, I literally needed to use a head torch…

And completely failed!

Unfortunately, it became apparent after around 45 minutes of searching through our giant Lego box – with a head torch on! – that we didn’t have some of the more recent pieces required. So, back to the drawing board… or rather, the Lego website…

With a better knowledge of what I could/couldn’t easily locate within the stash, I selected… none of the patterns from the website!

Instead, I did an image search on Ecosia (which – if you’re not using yet – you totally should be 😉 ) and came up with…

This!

It’s clearly not going to satisfy the older of my two children, but for my youngest, it’s perfect.

Or would be, if I could find the parts! I did manage to get an alternative for the windscreen though, and as I’ll likely have to hear about every single block my child places, I can be there to talk about how the windscreen needs to be a different piece.

To package it, I made a large envelope out of an old calendar sheet (I posted an image of a tutorial here) and drew a shoddy Lego block on the front. I’ll write my child’s name on the top too, but I don’t really want that all over the internet so will leave it off for now.

So, was it worth the trouble of the research, the searching, half building a model and failing, then frantically trying to find the parts to a second model before Husband arrived home with the children?

Probably. I mean, we have a lot of Lego. I think if I do any more of these prior to Christmas I will:
– refill my printer ink, because the print qualiity doesn’t look amazing,
– invent my own model and photograph each stage
– hoover out our Lego box more often because I found items I’d lost over 20 years ago in that box and even though I’m not hyper vigilant when it comes to dirt, even I am grossed out by this…

In the end, the whole thing took about an hour and a half, and cost me the printer paper and ink. I potentially saved a Lego box, an instruction booklet, an inner plastic bag and the blocks themselves from being dragged into being. I probably saved myself around £5.

Will you be trying to reuse your existing toys in this way? It doesn’t just work for Lego – K’nex, Duplo and other construction kits can be repurposed like this. I’d love to see pictures of any you decide to do – why not get in touch here, or on Twitter?

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* Fun fact – the plural of ‘Lego’ is not ‘Legos’. The term is actually an abreviation of ‘Lego Mursten‘, meaning ‘Lego Bricks’. As this is a compound noun, the pluralisation is added to the second word – i.e. Mursten/Bricks, meaning that ‘Lego’ remains the same, even in the plural.

The term ‘Lego’ is actually a contraction of two Danish words; Lege, which means ‘to play’ and Godt which means ‘good’, or in this case ‘well’.

Look, dad! I used my Danish language degree in real life!

Low waste advent calendar alternatives

It’s nearly time for the countdown to Christmas to begin, so I thought I would take a moment today to speak about advent calendars.

There are loads of really great ways to reduce the waste created by advent calendars. You could opt for a traditional paper-only offering, or buy a toy-themed calendar and reuse this every year – then there’s the refillable option, and books!

Initially, we tried a Lego calendar with the intention of reusing it indefinitely, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to work in our house. Lego seems to inspire such creativity in my kids that they would build that day’s model, then grab blocks from our existing stash and then set about incorporating the calendar bricks into some vast structure that only they could fathom the purpose of… By the time day 2 was over, we realised we weren’t ever going to manage to keep the Christmas blocks seperate.

In the end, I opted for a reusable cloth calendar. It’s beautiful – handmade by the lady who runs House of Wonderland (which you should absolutely take a look at – she has the most beautiful things).

In the pockets, I put a combination of plastic-free sweets and little slips of papers with activities on. Initially, I found it really hard to come up with things to do which didn’t focus on getting, but I think we had a good list last year:

  1. Welcome to DECEMBER! Let’s have some fun! (Chocolate lollies)
  2. Let’s have a walk if the weather is nice and collect some pine cones to decorate the table with.
  3. Write Christmas cards to people we love. You can even draw pictures to put in too!
  4. Take the cards to the post box and send them on their way!
  5. Make some bird feeders from lard and birdseed.
  6. Bake something to give to all the houses on the track.
  7. Here’s £20 – lets see how many yummy things we can get for the food bank.
  8. Write a list of all the things you’re grateful for which happened this year.
  9. Watch the Muppet Christmas Carol.
  10. Sort through our books and give any we don’t want to the library at school.
  11. Make a special card/present for the postie – she’s so busy just now!
  12. Have fun with some sparklers.
  13. Sort through our toys and see if the library wants any for the toy boxes there.
  14. Find out about ‘Sal’s shoes’, ‘Child’s Play’ and ‘The Little Princess Trust’. Choose which one gets £5.
  15. Let’s have a morning dance party before school!
  16. Let’s put up and decorate the Christmas tree!
  17. Watch the Christmas Curious George film.
  18. Let’s read a book by candlelight.
  19. Let’s take your Christmas gifts to your teachers at school & nursery.
  20. Let’s dip some marshmallows in white chocolate to make snowmen!
  21. Write down some of the fun things we did this year – it’s good to remember.
  22. Go to Nannan’s and bake some mince pies!
  23. Not everyone is celebrating Christmas – let’s learn about some other religions.
  24. Watch some Christmas carols on YouTube.

In total, this calendar costs just over £25 – this money covers the food bank donation, the charity donation, and any sundries (like marshmallows) which we don’t already have in the house. Obviously, you could change this amount to suit your own budget, or replace these activities with free things, such as litter picks, or carol services – whatever your wallet and schedule allows for.

All of this was pretty perfect when there was only one child – but then there were two… We did start by taking it in turns to check the calendar, which was fine, but then I read about book calendars so we made one of those too and the kids go turn-about for each.

The book calendar was super easy and very cheap – we just went through our collection and plucked out any stories which were wintery. I stashed them in my room and brought one out a day for the run up to Christmas. Rather than wrapping each one, I made a cloth bag out of some festive fabric from my stash and ploped a new book in each day. At the end of the season, I packed the books away with the decorations so that when the next year rolled around, the stories were both novel and nostalgic – perfect!

What are your advent traditions? I’d love to hear about them! 

 

Super affordable, eco-friendly gift ideas

I’m still in the depths of #NothingNewNovember, but that hasn’t slowed the relentless crawl towards Christmas.

This time of year is full of contradictions – it’s a time of enormous waste, but simultaneously one in which families stretch themselves to their financial limit. And often beyond.

So, what can we do to redress this balance?

There are lots of ways in which you can reduce the amount of waste you create this winter.

To help me do so, I’m going to begin by looking at the ‘5 Rs’ of Zero Waste:

So, how do we REFUSE this Christmas?

My large group of university friends and I have agreed not to buy one another gifts this year, and another friend and I have agreed not to buy for one another’s children. None of the people involved need anything new, so an electronic greeting will be more than enough.

And what if – for whatever reason – you can’t come to this sort of agreement with friends and family? REDUCE.

This could be as simple as starting a Secret Santa, rather than buying individual gifts for everyone in your friendship group/office. With children, we’ve had great success with the following formula for Christmas lists –

Something they WANT
Something they NEED
Something to WEAR
& Something to READ

want need wear read printable tags | Cool for Christmas ...

Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of buying additional ‘bits’ for stockings, on top of the above however having a specific set of perameters to aim for has helped to focus my mind considerably when shopping for gifts for my children.

Using existing toys in new ways is another way to reduce the amount of things entering the house. If you have siblings with an appropriate age gap, having the eldest gift one of thier outgrown toys to the youngest can be a great way of fostering generosity between family members.

I’ve not tried it myself, but I have heard great things about Whirli – a toy-box subscription. This sharing of resources is a great way to reduce unwanted toys in the house – when something is no longer played with, it can be returned for another child to enjoy. This looks a little costly for us, to be honest, but

And while we’re on the idea of libraries, I really love the idea of letting someone else choose my books for a set amount of time.

For adults, it might also be possible to gift a charity donation, or offer to pay a month’s fee for a subscription service they already use. Even something as simple as offering to do someone’s ironing, or bring their lunch to work for a week at a time of their choice, or gifting someone a home-cooked meal could serve as a Christmas present. Not all gifts need to be physical – our time is valuable too.

Finally, consumables are an excellent idea – especially if you know it’s something the recipient loves. These transient items take up no space in the home long-term and prove useful in day-to-day life.

And if this isn’t an option? REUSE.

Most of the gifts I’ve actually purchased this year are used items and certainly for the rest of this month, I only plan to buy used things.

There are loads of ways to get pre-loved objects – car-boot sales, charity shops and online are tried and tested methods, but organising a swap amongst friends is surprisingly easy. When I hosted a swap of children’s items, we agreed to only bring things we’d be happy to recieve as a gift and that anything left at the end would be donated to a specific place (in our case, the donations were split between the local women’s shelter and the local council’s social work department).

This is all well and good, but where does RECYCLE fit into all of this?

Well, it’s possibly to recycle items already in your house. Over the course of the year, you might have been given things that aren’t to your taste, or made purchases you now regret. These can either be traded – as above – or gifted directly.

You can also ‘recycle’ toys already in use. Lego has a variety of free building instructions on their site which you can print off. Then it’s just a matter of raking through your stash to find the relevant blocks. From the looks of things, this would work better for younger builders, but there’s nothing to stop you from building your own huge fortress, photographing it as you go, and then smashing it to form a DIY kit. As we’re swimming in Lego, inherited from my brother, this is something I plan to do for my youngest, so I’ll update you on my progress there…

Possibly the best point to make regarding recycling is that any gift wraps should be carefully considered.

Yes, most paper is recyclable, but wrapping with metalic patterns and any covered in plastic tape isn’t. Perhaps it’s possible to reuse some gift-bags from previous years, or to use cloth to wrap with – wouldn’t a lovely bar of homemade soap, wrapped in a face cloth be a great gift? Or using second-hand silk scarves instead of paper? There are loads of great tutorials online for how to do this – just search ‘Furoshiki’.

Alternatively, reusing old maps, old calendars (pictured below), old books, old magazines and newspaper, with plastic-free tape or plain string can look fantastic. Failing that, buying a new roll of brown packing paper is probably the most eco-friendly gift wrap you can get. All of these can be dressed with ribbon, drawings or evergreen trimmings.

Hopefully, you’ll have no need to ROT anything over this festive season, so instead, if you’re still considering new gifts, try to make things yourself from salvaged materials, or buy ethically and intentionally. Avoiding palm oil, choosing FSC wood products and simply not purchasing more than you need to, all make a positive impact at this time of year. This is also a great opportunity to gift items like tote bags and reusable water bottles as the recipient of these gifts might begin to make small changes in their own life.

I would love to hear your top low-waste, low-cost gifts. Why not come and share them on Twitter?