Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We Play - Outside again

Finally, a fine day! Perhaps spring is on its way ...

Two little girls spent the morning enjoying being outside, with sandpit, playhouse, swings and bubbles.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Well, because I don't have enough to do with my copious spare time (!), I've decided that I'm going to give NaNoWriMo a go this year.

For those unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month - is a challenge without prizes, run as a "bootstrapping nonprofit" to use the organisers' words, wherein people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel (or novella, really) in one month, from 1 to 30 November. The idea is to have some fun, complete a personal goal, and hopefully refine your writing skills. I guess some people also hope to get something publishable out of the experience, but I don't have that illusion myself; I have a very specific goal in mind.

I'm going to try to write a younger-readers' (8-10) chapter book - for my girls. We've told and played many a story over the past few years and they are entranced with idea of a narrative that captures some of the flavour of that imagination. If I do get to 50,000 words, I will self-publish a few copies via Cafe Press so my girls will have one each forever. My Dad has offered to draw me a cover in that eventuality (he's an amateur artist).

I have attempted NaNoWriMo once before - in 2004, when my eldest was 15 months old and I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy with my second girl. I didn't meet the target - derailed by illnesses and a badly planned plot, I only made it to 9,000 words (although the story was quite readable as far as it went).

This time, I really, truly, want to get there. I'm aware it's only just September, but being a believer in preparation, I am starting to consolidate my ideas and think about how I'll manage the challenge. One thing is a certainty, and that is - in November, I won't be spending time on the computer reading blogs, tweeting, or even writing blog posts. I'll be either doing my paid work, or writing the book. Instead of regular blog posts, therefore, I thought I would post excerpts from the novel in progress. Who knows, it might even be entertaining ;-)

Is anyone else going to try NaNoWriMo this year? If so, do you want to be writing buddies?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The toddler, the token, and the Great Hunt

(I thought I might post this story today instead of the usual Tuesday We Play, as our play this week has been fairly muted thanks to a combination of sickness, work busyness, and weather. Regular programming to resume next week!)

Yesterday the toddler only had a 45-minute nap. She fell asleep in the pram on the way to kindergarten at 11:50am, and by the time we got home at 12:35, she was just not willing to be transferred. This left me in the unusual position of a Monday afternoon with a wakeful toddler and work to be done. Monday afternoons being one of my golden work zones normally, this was disconcerting.

I decided, perhaps foolishly, to give it go anyway. After having lunch and reading stories, I put on a 40-minute DVD (Wiggly World) for the girl so I could get a head start. She settled into the couch under a blankie, sighed happily, and declared, "WIGS, Mama. Waggy. Cap-en. Do'fy!"
"Yes, baby," I agreed, "all of them. Mama will just be over here on the computer."
Her eyes moved to the screen and she blew me a kiss as I moved off.

So far so, good. I grabbed my SecureId token, which allows me to log in to my work network remotely, logged in, and started scanning email and responding. Time passed.

Twenty minutes into the DVD, which is the toddler's usual amount of viewing in one sitting, she shuffled off the couch and trotted over to me.
"Mama, bubbles?" she suggested, pointing at the bubble wand perched amidst the junk pile on my desk.
"Oh, soon, love..." I murmured, distracted by the email I was halfway through writing.
She made an ambiguous noise, something between a "huh" and "mmmm", and scooted off to a toybox.
Two minutes later she was back at my side, holding a plastic cat in each hand.
"Mama, meow-meow? A'muls?"
I smiled at her and took a plastic cat in one hand. "Hello there Mr Meow," I said, moving the cat up and down on her arm. "I'm sooo pleased to see you!"
The toddler cracked up laughing, as she always does. "More! 'Gen! 'Gen!" she insisted.

Then I made a fatal mistake.

Instead of logging off work, accepting that the toddler needed my attention, and getting on with it, I said, "I just have to finish this email, pet..."

The toddler frowned.

She seemed to consider throwing a tantrum, but, being an equable little girl, and a smart one, decided against that.

Rather, she grabbed my SecureID token from my desk and bolted away with it at the speed of light, laughing delightedly as she did so.

I chased her. "C, honey! Mama needs that!"

She stopped, looked at me, and said, "Mama toy! Hahahahaha!" and raced away again.

When I caught her up, the token had vanished. It was literally nowhere to be found. I sighed, and said, "C, where is Mama's toy? Where did you put it?"

She grinned at me, put her head on one side, and said, "Me cheeky!"

And that was all the information I, and three hours later her sisters when we got home from school and kinder, were able to elicit from her.

So, we searched.

We emptied five deep toyboxes. We cleared out piles of stuff and things from under beds. We scoured the floor and looked under couches. I promised the 7 and 5 year olds $5 apiece if they helped me look until it was found.

With interspersions for snacks, chapters of Trixie Belden, and cuddles, we searched until dinnertime. C, who thought it all tremendous fun, followed us around, pulling toys apart, playing, chatting. At one point her 7-year-old sister turned to her in exasperation and said, "Come ON, C, where is it? Where did you put it?"

C smiled graciously, held her arms wide, and declaimed, "Mama toy, AW GORN." Then she added, thoughtfully, "Me cheeky..."

Finally, as the kids finished their dinner, G arrived home from work.
"Your daughter has kidnapped my SecureID, I've been looking for it for hours, I haven't made anything for our dinner, sorry!" I announced, somewhat frazzled.
G looked a little taken aback (as one does when greeted with such a cavalcade) and said, "Right, well, I'll help..."

He'd been hunting for 5 minutes or so, picking up things, looking underneath, before he said, "I'll just put the musical instruments away in their box, it'll make the floor clearer."

He lifted up my 5 year old's guitar and as he did, we all heard it ...


G's eyes met mine. He turned the guitar upside down and gently thumped it.

Out fell my SecureID.

"HAHAHAHAHA! Me cheeky!" chortled C in excitement, bouncing up and down in her chair.
The big girls and I groaned in unified despair.

G grinned and put my token neatly away on a high shelf.

"Pizza for dinner, then?" he said.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

We Play- Balloons

The littlest girl is still getting a huge amount of fun from the bunches of balloons left over from big sister's birthday party.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We Play - Trampoline

We have had a little winter sun a couple of days this week, which has led to the enthusiastic re-embrace of the trampoline.

Trampolines are for bouncing, for jumping, for doing tricks.

Trampolines are for playing sister-sardines and laughing hilariously with the toddler as she scoots around the mat, giggling.

Trampolines are for lying on our backs and looking at the clouds, making patterns in them.

Trampolines are for sharing and for joy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Recovery Week

Things are settling down to some semblance of "normal" (whatever that may be!) here after surviving a month of one disruption after another: husband travelling for work for one week, family shared gastro, the death and funeral of an elderly relative, and my 7-year-old's big party. This week promises to be calmer, for which I give thanks.

Monday - Red Lentil Dahl & Steamed Greens (adults); Vegetarian egg noodles (kids) (V)
A common, but popular, choice for meatless Mondays.

Tuesday - Beef stroganoff with rice
Nice and warming for this still-cold weather.

Wednesday - Pasta with tomato mushroom sauce (V)
Gymnastics night is pasta night!

Thursday - Sweet potato, capsicum & haloumi salad (adults); Fish fingers, mash and greens (kids) (V - adults)
We haven't had this salad for a while and my husband loves it.

Friday - Pink & orange fish and chips
Steamed marinaded salmon fillets, with cubed roasted sweet potato, carrots and potatoes.

Saturday - Roast chicken with roasted and steamed veggies

Sunday - Beef lasagne
Will make a double portion!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Science Party Part 2: The Party!

Friday evening was my eldest daughter's 7th birthday party - her long-awaited, much-planned-for and very wonderful science party!

As I wrote earlier, my daughter wanted a birthday cake that captured something about either chemistry or astrophysics (her favourite areas of science). After a brief flirtation with the idea of a solar system cake, she settled on a Periodic Table of Cupcakes ... a big job, but one, I'm glad to say, we pulled off. As my husband remarked, it wasn't like each cake was perfect - there were flaws and smudges aplenty - but taken as a combined effect, we think they looked pretty good. My girl was thrilled with them and her friends were seriously taken with them, so it was all good.

Planning this party involved thinking about:
- food that reflected the theme, without being excessively hung up on it
- simple and easily mounted / removed decorations and relevant music
- appropriate experiments and activities to do that demonstrated simple and engaging scientific principles
- games and free time that allowed the kids to run off steam and play (it was an after-school party in winter, always fraught with the potential for overtired and overexcited little meltdowns.)

The food issue we resolved fairly simply. As well as the usual chips, party pies, sausage rolls & frankfurts, we had dinosaur bread instead of fairy bread, I made fruit skewers with the fruit cut into star and moon shapes with cookie cutters, and we had pink jelly made in the mould of a brain (designed for Halloween parties, but just as good for science parties. Very tragically I neglected to get a photo of it before it was enthusiastically lobotomised by hungry children ;-)

Decorations were equally simple - aside from plastic dinosaurs on parade, we mounted eight or nine posters around the room with different scientific principles. As well as the periodic table, we had a large chart detailing Australian flora and fauna, a poster about the exploration of Mars, a solar system chart, an order of life chart, and a couple of posters about the chemistry of life. We mounted them randomly on the walls in the big hall we had the party in. We also had bunches of primary-colour balloons - a red, blue and yellow in each bunch, with purple because it is my daughter's favourite colour - to add brightness and festivity.

As for music, we had They Might Be Giants' Here Comes Science CD playing, interspersed with Tom Lehrer's The Elements and MATheatre's The Electricity Song and Unit Circle Trigonometry. It made amusing and upbeat background sound and several of the adults were entertained trying to follow it.

My husband was in charge of experiments, and he decided to set out a few simple ones on four different tables. We had an optical & magnetism table, with different optical lenses and a set of magnets & compasses;

a puzzle table, with cut-out pieces of the continents to allow the kids to visualise continental drift;

a chemistry table, with lemon juice for invisible ink, a mini-volcano, and a couple of other little things;

and an auditory table, with a string telephone, water-glass xylophone, and bells.

While all the tables were pretty popular, I'd say the magnetism and sound experiments were probably the greatest draws (oh, and the demonstration of the baking soda volcano!) Each of the 24 kids spent at least 10 minutes at each of these tables in concentrated action.

In terms of games, we had only two - the traditional pass the parcel, where the prizes in each layer were small science-related objects purchased from Scienceworks last weekend on a visit there; and musical statues, a game that had the added advantage of letting the kids move their bodies a bit before the hot food was served.

All in all, it was a fantastic party. The two hours was more than amply filled and all the kids seemed to have a great time. It was also not as costly as it probably sounds - because I made the cakes myself and we didn't hire any entertainment, I have costed the entire shebang at $350 for 25 children and 15 adults, including hall hire, balloons, party bags, food, pass the parcel objects, cake ingredients, and experiment consumables (but not the actual tools used in the experiments, as they came from a "50 experiments in a box" kit we'd bought for our kids at Christmas). This puts it on a par with what I paid for her 6th birthday party for 18 kids at a local playcentre, which was fun enough but nothing extraordinary (and did not feature any home-made insanely complex cakes!)

Most importantly, my 7 year old magnificent girl was transported. "This," she said to me as we drove home, tired but pleased with ourselves, "was the best party EVER, Mum. The best party I could ever IMAGINE. Thank you so much for giving me a science party."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Science Party Part 1: The Cake(s)

This is the first of three posts about my eldest girl's 7th birthday party, scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. The theme is Science, as my girl is greatly enamoured of science & maths and dearly wanted a party that reflected her interests.

For her cake, we discussed a number of options. We thought about a dinosaur cake, she considered a solar system cake, and briefly toyed with the idea of a test tube cake. In the end, however, she decided, she wanted a cake based on ...

the periodic table of elements.

All 118 of them.

I'll wait a bit while you absorb that.


After reflection, we decided the best way to go with fulfilling this request was to make 118 cupcakes and ice / decorate them as an element each.

So last weekend and this week, I have been engaged in making cupcakes. Vanilla cupcakes. 144 vanilla cupcakes, to be exact (6 batches of 24). I knew some would turn out to be not as good as others and that built-in redundancy was a must.

This was a good call; instead of the 26 I would have left over if everything had gone perfectly, I have 12 left now, a comfortable barrier and one that can easily be eaten up in lunchbox snacks next week.

The recipe I used was a very straightforward one, and my trusty Kenwood made it dobale - if I had had to hand-mix everything, it would have been utterly excrutiating. (I've included the recipe at the end of the post in case you are interested).

So, by yesterday afternoon, I had all my cupcakes prepared and awaiting decoration. My friend, who has decorated some damn impressive cakes in her day, madly offered to come and help with the elemental production line. Normally I decline offers of help, deprecating that oh no, I'll be fine, I can manage. This time I had the good sense to say YES, PLEASE, ABSOLUTELY! when she offered, and I'm so glad I did.

After discussing methods of proceeding, we decided to slice the tops off the cupcakes to provide a flat working surface, then apply a layer of buttercream icing, then to cut a disc of white icing (the kind you buy pre-made in packets - it's sometimes called fondant icing) to the cupcakes, after first colouring it the desired shades with colouring gels. We then coloured some more buttercream and using my friend's thinnest piping nozzle, we wrote the chemical symbol on each one.

We needed to make 7 different colours of icing to match the coloured sections of the periodic table - red, orange, dark and light green, yellow, blue, purple and grey. Some of the colours were better matches for the chart than others, but that's life. They were all recognisably different, and that's what counts.

Once the buttercream was made (it took 3 bags of icing sugar and 1kg of margarine to make enough), the process began in earnest. My friend kneaded the colours into the white icing and the girls cut discs to apply to the cakes. We all had a go at piping the symbols on - mine and my 7-y-old's efforts being decidedly wonkier than my friend's smooth writing! Once we'd worked out our process, it really was a matter of rinse and repeat x 117.

Easy ;-) Except, not, really, or at least not quick - we began the process at 6:45 last night, and with both of us working flat out and the two big girls helping a lot until 8:30 and 9pm respectively, we still didn't finish until just after 11:30pm. By the time we'd cleaned equipment and surfaces, it was almost midnight and we were both shaking with tiredness. Which makes my friend even more of a champion, as she had to go to work today! (K, I owe you. Big time).

All in all, though, I'd have to say the result was worthwhile. They look pretty awesome (if I do say so) and my big girl was just thrilled to her toes to see them all on the table this morning.

Let's hope the other elements of this party come together as well! (Sorry for the bad pun ;-)

Vanilla cupcakes


* 200g margarine or unsalted butter, softened (I tried both, marg worked better)
* 1 ½ cups caster sugar
* 4 eggs
* 2 ¾ cups plain flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 cup milk
* 1 tablespoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 180°C. Place cupcake papers in two 12-hole muffin trays. (Tip - don't use flexible bakeware, it distorts the shape too much.)

In an electric mixer, beat butter / margarine for 2-3 minutes until pale in colour and creamy. Add sugar one third at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for about a minute between each addition. Add the vanilla essence and beat until combined. Sift flour and baking powder and add half to butter mixture with half the milk, beat until well combined. Repeat with remaining flour and milk.

Spoon into cupcake papers (try to get it even!) and bake for about 18 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean. Transfer to wire racks and allow to cool completely. These freeze well and can be stored in airtight containers too.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

We Play - Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

Winter is not, to be totally honest, my very favourite time of the year. Outside play, such a staple of our lives September - April, is restricted. Parts of my garden, unable to cope with the combined onslaught of dogs and weather, turn into quagmires of mess. We all get colds, naturally.

Winter does have its compensations, of course. Warming hearty food, lots of baking, bookended by birthdays (the middle girl in May, the big girl in August), it tends to be a convivial time for us, with lots of reading and crafting and, yes, catching up on movies and TV (which are barely watched in the warmer months).

The two little girls have also discovered that being outside in the winter has its pleasures ...

when you can play joyously, creatively, and messily with MUD!

This mudcake-creating game kept them happy and busy for an hour one cold but sunny winter morning this week, which followed a very wet night (hence many puddles and much mud!) The 5-year-old narrated the process with many a Masterchef-inspired flourish, while the 17-month-old happily carried spades of dirt over to the puddle to mix up more batter. Even the old dog got into the act ... I'm not sure entirely to his delight, but he was a good sport about it!

Best of all, this muddy play was followed by a late morning bubble bath, an unexpected bonus for them both. The simple things are so much fun for kids, I think.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Menu Plan Monday - Party Prep Week

This Friday afternoon is my eldest girl's 7th birthday party. It's going to be a science themed party, featuring, at her request, a Periodic Table cake - 118 cupcakes iced in the colours of the elements and with chemical symbols written on in piped icing. That's a fair amount of work right there, so cooking this week is to be kept simple!

(I am planning a post next week on Science-Themed Parties for Kids, if you are interested, which will feature photos of the cake).

Monday - Oven-baked pumpkin risotto with not-bacon (V)
Risotto is a family favourite.

Tuesday - Leftover lamb stew & rice
I made a double portion last week and froze it.

Wednesday - Chicken ginger stir-fry with rice; chicken noodles (kids)
My friend is coming over to help us with the massive icing project on Wednesday and we'll give gymnastics a miss this week to facilitate that, so for once, Wednesday night is *not* pasta night!

Thursday - Lentil & vegetable soup with toast (V)
I made a big batch of soup a while ago and this is part of it.

Friday - Party food!
Eldest's party is 4 - 6:30pm.

Saturday - Takeaway of some description, probably Nando's chicken
I will be exhausted and an easy meal is in order.

Sunday - Pasta with tomato-mushroom sauce and garlic bread (V)
This is the eldest's actual 7th birthday and she has chosen pasta as her birthday dinner meal (it's her favorite food).