Frankensnakes – an engineering-inspired Halloween trick

This post is sponsored by The Year of Engineering

You may remember Talitha tried one of the activities developed by the Year of Engineering’s Holiday Makers in the summer. They’re back again with more engineering-inspired activities for children aged 7-16 over the October half term. My kids always light up when they hear anything about engineering because one of their aunts is an engineer but the reality in this country is that only 12% of those working in engineering are women and only 8% come from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Holiday Makers are aiming to help families get making and inventing to discover what engineers do and find out why the field is a really exciting one to get into.

So we were asked to try out one of the Halloween-themed activities that The Holiday Makers have designed for October half term. The one we gave a go was called “Frankensnakes” and the idea was to make gummy snakes “come alive” using a simple chemical reaction like the ones engineers use to protect our environment and generate energy. Check out our three-minute video of the engineering-inspired Halloween trick.

We used baking soda and wine vinegar to make the gummy worms wriggle, which was both mesmerising to watch and raised questions about all of the different things involved in engineering. We found that the first set of worms we used didn’t move that much, despite being cut lengthways to make them lighter so we tried the experiment a second time with a smaller set and found it exciting to see what a difference it made. The chemical reaction forms carbon dioxide gas bubbles which float to the surface, pulling the worms with them and making them wriggle but clearly, factors like the size of the worms can affect the results. You can find out instructions for this activity and more about the science behind it on The Holiday Makers hub.

There’s so much fun stuff on The Holiday Makers website to get kids age 7-16 thinking about engineering and feed their curiosity As a parent of a child who loves to keep track of her progress, I found their Holiday journal a fun touch. You colour in sections to show how many of the activities and events you’ve been to and there’s another page at the back where you can write about your discoveries. The idea is that you can take it back to your class to share what you’ve been up to with them, or, in Talitha’s case, we can store in a folder for our own memories as she’s home educated.

The website also has lots of ideas for events across the country to help kids take a closer look at engineering. We love the look of the Fireworks and Fairgrounds event at Winchester Science Centre. With bonfire night coming up, it’s the perfect time to ask questions like “what gives fireworks their different colours?” and “why do they go whizz and bang?” There’s a lot on over the next couple of weeks so I highly recommend you take a look and find an engineering-inspired event near you.

For now, we’re just focused on working our way through the rest of The Holiday Makers Halloween themed activities like making green slime and causing ghastly ghosts to dance.

Storytime Magazine

About a year ago I reviewed beautiful Storytime magazine and gushed about it because we genuinely loved it. In fact, our whole family has wound up recommending it to loads of friends. We’ve even bought copies as gifts. I was getting ready to buy a subscription before the one I was given for last year’s review ended when the magazine got in touch again and asked if I’d be interested in running a catch up. Since we’ve kept every single copy we received this year? Well, yes, I would.

Stories are at the heart of the way we’ve chosen to home educate. We see our children learn through stories whether through play, observing the natural world, conversation or books. We all learn through stories. So a magazine bringing high quality fiction and poetry through our door every month is totally welcome. We’re as excited to read the latest issue as the kids are, welcoming known authors like J.M. Barrie or Oscar Wilde alongside new stories. Storytime magazine carefully strikes the balance between historical and modern, mythological and relatable, humorous and intriguing, drawing from every part of the globe.

When Talitha was six and Ophelia three, Talitha would read the whole magazine to herself then ask me to read aloud the ones that were more complex. Ophelia needed me to go for the shorter stories. At first, Talitha shunned the poems, insisting that they were boring, though she liked the illustrations. When I began to read those aloud, she was surprised by how much more sense they made. One of the things I love about Storytime magazine is that it brings a wider range of poetry into our home than we’d likely have come across otherwise, accessible because of the wonderful illustrations.

Nowadays, Ophelia wants the whole magazine read to her, from start to finish and then again. Whenever a new issue arrives, that’s bedtime, morning basket and poetry tea time sorted for a good while. And neither Laurence nor I mind. The stories are well curated and genuinely enjoyable to read. Talitha can take on all the stories comfortably now, though she still prefers that I read the poems and will often join us if I’m reading aloud to the younger two. Oh and, yes, Delilah is getting in on the action now at two. The stories are too complex for her but she delights in the pictures – the poems and rhymes are pretty much picture books for her.

Both the older two are now into the activities that run alongside many of the stories and offer a chance to jump deeper at the back of the magazine. The competitions to win prizes such as books have peaked Talitha’s interest. At seven she’s in the zone for that sort of thing. And they’re both likely to go through the back issues on any given day. Since they’re printed on quality paper, we’ve been able (and have wanted) to keep all the issues so far.

Get 10% off the subscription price here.
Read my first review of Storytime Magazine here.

I received a year’s subscription to Storytime magazine for the purposes of this review.

Home education review: Reading Chest

Talitha’s been trying out and thoroughly enjoying a levelled book subscription service called Reading Chest. The idea is that your child receives books in the post and when they finished reading them, they put them in supplied envelopes and pop them in a post box to receive more.

She’s actually a proficient reader now so she doesn’t need levelled readers. She’s just finished reading The Railway Children, borrowed from the library, for instance. However, she’s enjoying the Reading Chest’s “Extended Readers Book Band”. They’re fun, quick reads and I like that they often raise interesting points for conversation, especially if she’s reading aloud, as she likes to do with non-fiction books, generally.

I know a lot of home educators aren’t keen on levelled readers, feeling that they can often be quite dry and that children should practise reading on “real” books. However, when Talitha was learning to read, she really liked having books that she had a good chance of being able to read independently. We struggled to find books that suited her ability at the library so I wound up buying Oxford Reading Tree’s Biff, Chip and Kipper, the levelled reading series that people love to hate. I actually found them pretty dull but she loved them and quickly worked her way through them.

With Reading Chest, you can choose books across many different reading schemes or opt for a random mix, which we’ve been doing. You also have to option of choosing fiction, non-fiction or a mix. Talitha changes this almost every time she returns a set of books then looks forward to the next delivery, which has been consistently prompt, meaning we have a regular flow of new books coming through. I can see that being particularly helpful for those who find it difficult to get to a library or find that their local library has a limited selection. Their schemes span Collins Big Cat, Oxford Reading Tree, Treetops, Bug Club, Project X and more and they stock an up-to-date, extensive collection.

From our point of view, it’s great having lots of new, quality reading material which doesn’t then become more clutter in our home. It’s an opportunity to borrow lots of levelled readers without having to buy them, trying out varied styles and trying books that you or your kids might not normally choose. There are also no return dates or late fees and you can cancel at any time.

There are few different options in terms of how many books you borrow and it’s really easy to swap levels if you need to. For our first delivery, we had a look at the books for one of the younger reading bands online, reading excerpts on the website. When they came, Talitha found the books to easy so we moved her up to the final stage for the next delivery and we’ve stayed there. We also took the option of requesting “no scary books” – pretty important in this house!

Multiple children can be added to the subscription so I have thought that if Ophelia were reading, we might get quite a lot of use out of that option but she’s not there yet. I think we’d probably get the most use out of a subscription like this with a four or five year old who was learning to read, which might be Ophelia later this year as she’s very interested in letters and is starting to pick out the sounds in words, of her own accord.

There are some fun options thrown in like sticker reward charts which we don’t use unless decides she wants to track her reading that way for fun. The books initially came with a bag which is useful for keeping them in one place between delivery and return. She’s also been enjoying reviewing the odd book for the Reading Chest website, which is another fun feature.

Reading Chest gave us a subscription in exchange for an honest review.

“We need to save the rhinos!” – National Geographic Kids iPad edition

A few days ago, while Talitha and I were making supper, she suddenly said: “Mummy, we need to save the rhinos! People are trying to kill them because they want their horns and that is very bad.” I was surprised, to say the least. “Where did you hear about that?” I asked. She sighed with all the exasperation an almost four-year-old can muster. “It was in the iPad game we were playing the other day.”

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The “game” she was talking about was the iPad edition of National Geographic Kids UK magazine. It’s interactive enough that I could see why she called it that. The iPad edition includes videos, sounds and games. Many of the pages include sound effects like animals noises, with touchable features to reveal information.

Honestly, I thought it would be a bit old for Talitha but she was absolutely gripped and insisted we read the whole thing together. She’s not reading independently yet so it wasn’t really something she could get the most out of without me but it made for a lovely time together in our reading nook, while her little sister napped.

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Another time (after the rhino talk), she looked through it on her own and I heard her talking to herself, surprising me with how much she remembered from us looking through it. It’s got us talking about a lot of issues I’d previously assumed she was a bit young to understand. I obviously misjudged because she’s been very interested, asking pretty insightful questions about conservation and recycling. I’ve learned quite a bit from it too!

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I have previously preferred traditional magazines to app versions but I can really see how it works here. The presentation is cleaner and more engaging, she’s able to look at it if we’re on the go and haven’t thought to bring a magazine (on a train journey for example) and she can look at it without much input from us or it’s something we can look at together.

The only downsides are that the iPad edition is not as intuitive as I’d expect it to be so some things didn’t do what we thought they would but this really was a minor point. As a starting point for exploring topics, it’s another useful tool in the box.

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The National Geographic Kids UK app gives a 12-month subscription to the digital edition and is currently available for £20 on the NG Kids website.

Alphablocks Reading Programme – review

Three-year-old Talitha has been loving making her way through the Alphablocks Reading Programme we’ve been sent to review. She loves a magazine and practically begs to do workbooks so this is the perfect activity for her.

I haven’t pushed the reading thing with her. We plan to home educate her partly because we want her to progress at her own pace. She’s been so interested in learning to read, though (I hear “What’s this word, Mummy?” many, many times every day), that it would be strange not to help her explore this fascinating world of learning to read.

Complimented by clips from the CBeebies TV show, the Alphablocks Reading Programme takes a phonics approach to reading and is anchored in the Early Years curriculum. I was a bit unsure about phonics before Talitha started learning to read. I’d read alphabet books referring to letters by their names and following with their sounds.

She took the lead on that, however. She began referring to them by their sounds. So I went with it.

Now that she’s started blending sounds to make words as well as recognising some words by sight, I realise it’s not an “either/or” situation and that children so often get to where they want to go, on their own.

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The programme is divided into three packs sent over ten months. In total, there are fifteen Alphablocks Reading Programme magazines, over 450 stickers, over 100 letter tiles, 50 flashcards, a “Word Magic” game, a pencil case and pencil, a word flip game, finger puppets, 450 gold stars (for sticking when you’ve finished a page) and a certificate.

Alphablocks reading programme

Talitha was so excited when we opened the box and saw all these goodies inside. She’s asked to “do Alphablocks” every day. She loves writing the letters and using the blocks to copy words as well as practising the sounds. And, of course she loves watching the clips on the website.

The introduction to each magazine gives clips to look at before you begin. However, I don’t think this is necessary at all to get value from this programme.

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There are lots of handy hints on each page for the adult helping their child to read. Every activity is very clearly explained and there is lots to look at as well as manipulate.

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We’ve been taking a very relaxed approach to the programme. Some of it is a bit advanced for my three-year-old (it is aimed at children aged four to five) but she wants to have a go at it all.

She is clearly pleased with herself when she manages to sound a word out but if she’s finding it frustrating, I might give her a gentle encouragement or just let her colour the pictures or put the magazine away altogether.

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I will say that there are a lot of “bits” so you may want to get an organisation system in place right away.

I’ve discovered this the hard way with a few cards and blocks getting munched by eight-month-old Ophelia. I’ve had to write the letters back on to a finger puppet or two (paper is acceptable as a food group, right?).

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Speaking of the finger puppets, a couple of them came apart the first time we used them. I hot-glued them back together so it’s fine but it’s worth noting.

Also, the puzzles are really fiddly to do! Talitha is determined, so she manages in the end, but even I struggle a bit to put them together (but I’m usually doing it one-handed, to be fair).

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The course covers all 26 letters, their sounds, blends and combinations as they are taught in school. The idea is to get parents confident with helping their child learn to read.

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Personally I’m finding it useful and we’re both finding it a lot of fun. We’ve only received the first pack so far but I’ll be back to tell you about the other materials as we receive them.

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The Alphablocks Reading Programme costs £39.99 plus postage. You can also find phonics guides and activities on the Alphablocks website.

Five Autumn Printables for Preschoolers

I think every year I stay in the UK, I love Autumn all the more. Now that my three-year-old notices the little changes that herald in a new season, we’re really celebrating it. Here are a few of the Autumn printables we’ve enjoyed recently, courtesy Twinkl.

Numbers 0-20 on Autumn leaves
(pictured above)

autumn printables twinkl
Autumn playdough mats

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Autumn display photos

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EYFS Messy Play Recipe Card Autumn Leaves in Mud

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Bread recipe sheets

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Autumn leaf sequencing worksheet

It amused me that when my mum (who lives in Trinidad) suggested I have a look at Twinkl for preschool ideas I could surprise her by saying that they’d actually given me a year’s subscription to review on this blog. Clearly, such is the reach of Twinkl!

The resources on there seem to just go on and on – they’re so extensive. They are organised by subject, theme and educational stages (early years, Key stages one and two and SEN). There’s also a pretty vibrant forum on there – a great resource in itself.

I’ve been having fun with my laminator and Talitha’s loved just about every activity we’ve tried. I’m so looking forward to using some of their Bonfire night and Christmas resources. It suits my needs as a parent and my mum’s as a teacher.

Anyhoo, do you have any fun plans for this Autumn?

Mathseeds Review – Learning Maths with a 2.5-year-old

I first heard about Reading Eggs when I was stalking home education blogs for reading resources, more out of curiosity than anything else. Talitha was two-and-a-bit at the time and I felt a little weird about teaching her to read but she was clearly interested and it seemed counter intuitive to ignore and redirect that desire.

I wasn’t sure about using a computer game series, though, which Reading Eggs is. We’ve always agreed that we’d like her to have a low-media life in the majority so she could spend these crucial years learning through doing real things rather than attached to a screen.

With the caveat that we’d keep an eye on things and limit her use if necessary, I signed her up for a trial. She loved it and, to my amazement, was able to use the program so I ended up purchasing six months when she was two years and five months in November. We’re in a routine now of doing it a couple of times or so a week, which feels comfortable.

So, having had a positive experience with Reading Eggs so far, I agreed to review its sister program Mathseeds when the Reading Eggs company got in touch.

Mathseeds with a 2.5-year-old

At first I was frustrated that I couldn’t get it to work on any of my browsers! The company helpful with technical support, though, and we were soon up and running. I’m not sure why there was problem other than that the animations are more complex than the Reading Eggs ones and possibly more prone to hiccups. For some reason it seems to work a lot better on the iPad.

It’s all been smooth since then. So far everything seems pitched at a good level for Talitha. She’s currently two years and eight months. She doesn’t always understand the point of the games in the first go but that’s fine because I sit with her and can explain or demonstrate. She loves recognising the numbers and their corresponding words. She’s begun to recognise at a glance when there are four of something in a picture or when there’s an odd object in a group.

She sometimes gets a little carried away and wants to make up her own rules though! So, if she’s asked to put four dinosaurs in a jar and then the lid, she might want to only put one in or put them all in, even though she knows how many “four” means. She wants the game to move on so she’ll usually ask me to explain again what she needs to do.

She just isn’t ready for the “Memory” game where she has to turn over the cards and match them so we do it together and skip on to something else she can do. Some of the “Playroom” which is a section of games outside of the lessons involves mathematics too complex for her, which suits me fine because once she’s done a lesson, we move on to something “real-life” like her shape buttons or baking.

I’m always watching out for frustration or boredom as I’d rather she didn’t play it if it stresses her but it doesn’t seem to at all and she’s surprised me again and again with how much she’s learned from it so far.

Obviously, we’ve started a bit early. The age range for Mathseeds is 3 to 6 years. And I have a code for you! Enter “UKB26MST” for a 4-week extended trial.

Reading Eggs sent me a free, extended trial for the purposes of this post and I’ve reviewed it as honestly as possible.

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