How much science do you do with your kids?

Posted November 15, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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How different do you think the world will be when the kids grow up? And what sort of skills are you offering your kids to cope with these changes – from technology to climate? Maybe time for a bit of extra science?  For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see

Pumpkin and lentil soup for an outdoor picnic during half term.

Pumpkin and lentil soup for an outdoor picnic during half term. Nell only liked it because she was a bit cold and definitely hungry!

I’m really good at offering any kids I’m entertaining the chance to go outside – because that’s what I like doing.  I’m not so good at exploring science (despite having an MSc!). So it seemed a great opportunity to take Nell, 13, to see a proper 3D printer at the Maker Fair run at the London College of Communication building in Elephant and Castle this weekend.

Using the electric current Nell worked out how to light the LED and then how to make a tune - just by moving playdough.

Using the electric current Nell worked out how to light the LED and then how to make a tune – just by moving playdough.

Every school should have a 3D printer, or organise for someone to come in and talk through the potential of this amazing device. I love the way they can be industrial or suitable for a home office, and I love the way they make you think differently about creativity. But once we’d understood the principle and seen some not very interesting outcomes in frankly horrible material – a vase, some plastic toys – we moved on to the kids’ activities.

Nell did some exploring with currents and playdough (this only works if you put salt in your playdough).

Broken saucepan lids get customised (aka mended) using Sugru.

Broken saucepan lids get customised (aka mended) using Sugru.

I was sidetracked by the Sugru stall. This is an expensive mouldable glue that makes fixing things, or customising them, incredibly simple. Of course the fair had bargain prices so I bought a few packets thinking this is the sort of item that makes an amazing stocking present, and an even better gift for me. I think if I was only ever given Sugru for the rest of my life I’d be happy and at £10 for three small portions (in panther pink) that’s a useful tip for anyone out there who might ever be inclined to buy me a present. Or have a hard to buy for friend…

The fair was brilliant: it was full of families with keen teenage boys looking at the new devices on show. It doesn’t seem fair that boys so often get more time exposed to science  - but after 20 mins at the show Nell’s phone went into buzz overdrive and she soon was lost to text plans about how to meet her friends to go to the cinema. I guess you win some, and lose some. The point is to try. Good luck.

Over to you
What have you done this weekend that has really felt like science?

Can you cope with teenagers?

Posted October 20, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

Tags: , , , , ,

The age most British women give birth keeps getting older. That might make looking after a baby easier, but are older mums then able to cope with all the changes they’ll face in their late 40s onwards whilst also having to deal with teenagers? This is a book review of the parenting part of new book, In Your Prime by India Knight (Penguin, £16.99). See more work by Nicola Baird at

Any xxxx

India Knight: “The great, stupid, insulting lie about parenting is that the first years are tough, and that if you somehow power through those, you’re on the home run: that it all gets easier. This is a load of absolute steaming horseshit…”

In Your Prime: older, wiser, happier has lots of good points – the best being that unembarrassed lifestyle writer India Knight explains the menopause. Written with relentless positivity – and I like her jolly lacrosse sticks tone – you begin to think that the menopause is a slightly exotic signpost flagging up the work you’ll need to do on your body (yoga, heel creams, dental whitening, etc) to keep looking good for the next third of your life. Not the last third of your life.

The downside of In Your Prime is it seems to be written for an urban foxy lady – who might have accidentally moved to the countryside – with seemingly no interest in anything outside her mirror. She certainly doesn’t seem to notice world politics, poverty or climate change, or if she does wants to look her best for the apocalypse… Of course this is a manual and perhaps writer rules mean you need to stick to the point – the “me” in In Your Prime. That said, there are plenty of gems in this book for anyone with kids, or parents.


It’s a fun book if you can cope with sentences that start: “Deep breath – *sticks head between legs* – right, here we go.” Don’t worry this sentence starts the section about family relationships, not, say, how to dye greying pubic hair.

This too will pass
The chapter that fascinates me is about parenting and step-parenting teens. This is written with wisdom, kindness and a certain amount of liberalness: not much is taboo in India Knight’s home. The fears mums have parenting older children is that our boys may be attacked and our girls may be raped (“deal with unwelcome male attention”). Recognising this India prefers that the kids misbehave (with same-aged friends) in earshot – where she hopes they can learn from experience what drinking too many vodka shots does to you. She is extremely forceful in her view that parents must “not give up” on tricky offspring.

Don’t think that if you have a good child you are doing it right either.

She knows why kids are good – because they are people pleasers or desperate to get their rightful share of parental love. Either tendancy will store up such endless long term problems for your child that  you might prefer them to be a painfully annoying teenager for just a few years.

Teens are such a mix of joy, misery and ouchy feelings that it is amazing how few guides there are to living with them successfully.

I have a shelf full of books about baby and toddler care, including the one I wrote, Homemade Kids, but only Stephen Biddulph on getting it right as your family grows. If your how-to-cope-with-a-teen resources are similarly slender then the chapter on family relationships is excellent. India Knight gives you permission to use your wiles to parent and set boundaries. She gives you metaphorical tea and cake when you lose the plot from worry or exasperation and behave badly to your teen, and when you are feeling better explains that you need to talk to these young adults just as you would a colleague.

So if you’ve been rude, or worse a bitch then go and apologise. Instead of grounding a child (preventing them from going out), work out what’s gone wrong and tackle that.  For example if their phone battery went dead before their curfew and they were late home without telling you, sort out a better system for keeping their phone powered up.

There is also an excellent section on dealing with ailing parents – at the same time as worrying about the teenagers.

Who’s it for?
India (she writes in a way where you want to call her by her first name) is a very generous person. She reckons that most problems can be solved by a lovely big meal to which everyone is welcome.

But her sense of what is norm – spending on a super comfy bed, boxtox, eye lasering or a nice weekend in the country – peppered with the suggestion that it’s nice to give yourself treats such as a girls’ lunch with friends or practice a bit of “drunken flirting” really confused me. I absolutely don’t know anyone like this.

My friends always seem to be short of time and money, even while conscious of being some of the lucky ones. For me a girls’ lunch would be sitting on a bench in the park munching from a Tupperware container of sandwiches. I fear India would laugh at this pathetic vision if she swirled past. For this reason I would be cautious about who to give the book to – it’s for a moneyed middle class lady who doesn’t think of herself as middle aged. Readers who enjoy it will need to find the tone fun and not wince at being given a how-to-grow-old book, or take offence that they are – possibly – being told to sort out their teeth and children before it’s too late.

On the plus side those readers will quite probably be the ones who may luck out by unexpectedly learning how to be older, wiser and happier. And have as good teeth as their teens.

Useful: 8/10
A good gift: Possibly.

To buy: In Your Prime by India Knight (Penguin, £16.99)

How do you tackle difficult topics with kids?

Posted October 7, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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If something’s boring, scary – or unthinkable – should we just move the conversation on for the sake of the kids? A look through two new books Naomi Klein’s authoritative This Changes Everything (Penguin, £20) and After Sustainability: denial, hope, retrieval by John Foster (Earthscan/Routledge, £29.99, cheaper on kindle) gets Nicola Baird thinking about children and climate change. More work at


Self-sufficiency practice on a day out in Kent. Here the kids get the bonfire going after three hours spent pruning fruit trees.

My friend Pascal is just about to leave for a job in the US. He’s really excited about this change – and a good thing too as his new job means his wife and their 10 and 12 year old will be also be starting afresh with new schools, friends and country.

We were talking about the climate changing, so when Pascal said he dreamt about building an energy-efficient house with a bit of land another friend joked that he’d need to add a safe room to see out the climate Apocalypse. Turned out Pascal didn’t plan to do that because he’d already imagined it while growing up in Switzerland in a house which came with it’s own nuclear shelter. “What kind of life would you have living in a box room, hiding from everything?”

I’m guessing his point is bigger – it’s not just that we can’t hide; it’s an understanding that we have to engage with what’s going on. And if government – or business – won’t then civil society must. Perhaps this is why so many people have recently been joining the Green Party that membership has increased by 45% during 2014.

downloadBig idea
A crop of new books, including Naomi Klein’s much talked about in business circles, This Changes Everything: capitalism v climate change and philosophy lecturer John Foster’s After Sustainability, make it clear that as the world’s resources dwindle the world’s going to become a more tempestuous place.

Klein anticipates the end of traditional politics as hyper localism grows. She charts the lightning-quick spread of networks of local resistance particularly to new oil drilling, fracking and shale gas extracting. (Also introducing me to the word Blockadia “not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing fequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines…”). Klein points out this is happening because the oil companies are aggressively looking for new supplies and as a result the people who are resisting are no longer single-issue campaigners, they are people that “look like everyone else: the local shop owner, the university professors, the high school students, the grandmothers”.

Here's a rock off Savo, Solomon Islands that tells a story of sea level change.

Here’s a rock off Savo, Solomon Islands that tells a story of sea level change in the South Pacific. That rock underwater used to be in a thriving vegetable garden, used as a boundary marker. Sea level rise means less land can be used for crops on this volcanic island.

Taking this idea several steps further Foster in After Sustainability argues that areas which can support human life need to be ring-fenced. You’re either in or you’re out. But most people would be out as Foster argues that for a handful to survive plenty have to, well, die. He puts it more palatably as “not everyone has an equal right to life” when climate disasters force populations to migrate towards areas that simply cannot support a deluge of people.

In my worst nightmares of what might happen due to sea level rise causing so many people in the Pacific Islands, Bangladesh, Norfolk to be made homeless I’d imagined offering a kind of benign B&B for climate migrants. I thought we’d fill our home with climate refugees. I realise I’ve been kidding myself, it won’t be a happy house party on the borders of the worst affected areas. And rather worse as a thought – there just isn’t a safe place to run.

Klein and Foster have very different approaches but their books made me think about my own planning. Is our house safe from even the most basic societal breakdown? The answer is absolutely not. If the toaster fuses the house’s electrics or the wi-fi hiccups there’s meltdown at home. Homework can’t be finished; deadlines can’t be met; a hunger that cannot be sated by a packet of biscuits causes temper tantrums. I haven’t yet worked out how we could deal with no running water. But I know crossing my fingers isn’t good enough. It’s time to make far more fuss about the future.

To do that we need to skill up, talk honestly about the climate change problem, and start getting off the consumer treadmill.

Which book to buy?
Sometimes my teenage daughter howls melodramatically: “What’s the point? We’re all going to die!” But we always were facing the big D. That’s never stopped people having children. So for those of us already with children we need to think up what would make us more resilient. A good starting point would be another book, Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, £20) which with wit and authority finds ways to get us to do exactly that – think about the unthinkable 4 degree C rise in global temperature.

Definitely read Klein’s book too. The chapter comparing her own struggle to conceive and the decline of our planet’s fertility is amazing – with strong debts to the biologist and writer, Sandra Steingraber. But for the sake of your health avoid John Foster’s book. That way leads despair.

Over to you?
How are you dealing with this challenge? Are we still blog friends?

Book review: What Every Parent needs to Know

Posted September 13, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

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How much do you know about what goes on at school? Every little thing? Or not much? This book review of What Every Parent Needs to Know: how to help your child get the most out of primary school might be useful.  For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see

Read all about it?

Read all about it?

My childless friends are ruthlessly rude about school run mums. “They don’t mean to be boring,” they say with a grimace. “But if they start talking about schools, or to another mum about schools you wonder what happened to the woman you used to know.” School chat and humour are a long way apart as is all too obvious when you read one-time enfant terrible Toby Young’s new book about primary school learning. Young’s finest hour was the funny memoir of life at Vanity Fair in New York, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which even became a film. Since then he’s set up the controversial West London Free School, raised four children and most recently written with Miranda Thomas What Every Parent Needs to Know: how to help your child get the most out of primary school (Penguin, £14.99).

What Every Parent Needs to Know by Toby Young & Miranda Thomas (Penguin, £14.99)

What Every Parent Needs to Know by Toby Young & Miranda Thomas (Penguin, £14.99)

What’s the book about?
This is a guide for UK primary school families. It attempts to nail down the new national curriculum – something tinkered about with, and occasionally butchered, while Michael Gove was Minister of Education – broken down into what the child might learn in each year group.

My own children have passed through primary school and the obsession to talk about their lack of homework or spectacular creativity with cardboard loo roll middles in D&T (design and technology) has definitely passed. That said I am certain that those parents going through the primary school years will find this book useful for topping up learning sessions at home– so long as their child is a sweet, clever, biddable beast willing to sit still and focus for 40 minute slots. Although there is a short section on special educational needs, this book is written for the anxious/smug mum and competitive dad who have a child in the top 25 per cent (OK, 7 per cent) and if they get the chance would like to make sure everyone knows it.

Although schools will tell parents what children are to be taught each term, this book makes clear what form teachers are trying to instil in their pupils. And that can be helpful given that kids in Year 2 and Year 6 will be tested to ensure progress is being made. It’s also got great web resources peppered throughout the chapters to help you do school work at home – some llinnks were so good I might even cancel my Netflix account.

But the tone of the book – positive cheerleading with a London focus (I’m not sure how my radar picked that up) and a fear of creativity – grates. I’m not that keen on Toby Young’s politics (seemingly moving from left to right as the years pass) but kept being surprised by the strange inclusion of the canny parents’ rhymes such as, eg, “on your knees to pay the fees”, though I suppose us non Church going readers should be grateful this wasn’t in Latin.

The authors tell us when to hand our darling a mobile, but there is absolutely no help with what every working parent really needs to know which is do I have to get embroiled in the PTA? And how do I get my child registered on the breakfast and after school club?

Kids get lost in a game. Grown ups clock watch because it's nearly time to eat...

Kids get lost in a game. Readers of What Every Parent Needs to Know might be tempted to turn this into a science experiment. It’s not. It’s a game. this is what creativity looks like…

Helping with homework
Besides reading to my children when they were younger (and I have to admit that I’d be happy to keep doing this until they’re, say, 36 when they should switch to Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime) I have never done their homework. If you are the kind of mum who needs, or wants, to do this, What Every Parent Needs to Know is going to be a godsend and may see you your child clock Year 6 SATS with a Level 5 in English and Level 6 in Maths.

What it won’t give you any help on is teaching your child to think, or be kind, or instil in them the emotional resilience needed to cope with the toxic mix of school work, friendship ups and downs, failing exams, families under stress, hideous world disasters broadcast live on TV combined with growing up and hormonal changes.

So the book is great for the pushy mums… and if read carefully you’ll learn the curriculum maps and every educational acronym, not just G&T (gifted and talented). You may also benefit from a top up on old-school memory rhymes (eg, American states, Kings & Queens of England) – the sort of info a pub team quiz member who takes a pride in collecting facts probably already knows. Maybe that could be Young and Thomas’ next enterprise?

Buy it? Borrow it? Bin it?
I’m glad I’ve read this book but if I was giving it to a friend I’d suggest they tried to forget the competitive edge it could give their child and instead focus on what each Year teacher is trying to give to a whole class of children. Maybe if you go and look at that Florence Nightingale statue in Waterloo Place, Westminser or the Fire of London Monument (as recommended during Year 2/history) bring along a couple of your child’s friends so more people get the benefit of Young and Thomas’ curriculum research and your out-of-hours dedication.

What Every Parent Needs to Know is by Toby Young and Miranda Thomas (Penguin, £14.99). Nicola Baird is author of Homemade Kids: thrifty, creative and eco friendly ways to raise your children. She is also a secondary school governor.

Over to you?
What do you think? Do you have books about how to help your child at school? Do they help? Do share in the comments. I’m especially interested in feedback from families who opt out of the system and do homeschooling. How do you guys teach collective responsibility, creativity and the importance of an individual decision?

Ideas for back-to-school art and craft

Posted August 29, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

Tags: , , , ,

Do you have a box of junk you use for art materials or creative projects? Congratulations if the answer is yes. Here are some thoughts about how to make use of broken china – and end up getting it displayed in the Tate.  For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see

Broken crockery transformed - though not by me. This was an exhibit at the British Folk art exhibition at Tate Britain.

Broken crockery transformed – though not by me. This was an exhibit at the British Folk art exhibition at Tate Britain (summer 2014). The doll in the centre gives it a strange 3D feel. Can you recognise any of the china?

In the 1880s dialect researcher, Oliver Heslop, noted that Durham children had a word for the broken bits of pot and earthenware they used to decorate their play homes and toys – “boudy”. I have a pile of broken china bowls and plates under my hedge, just in case I think of a use for it, ideas include making a mural.

Chaos before the washing up is done sometimes leads to breakages. Sorry I mean, art materials.

Chaos before the washing up is done sometimes leads to breakages. Sorry I mean, art materials.

The growing pile of breakages – blame the fact that we wash up by hand – is so colourful and has so much potential… even if I haven’t got around to using it yet.

Junk art
In the just-about-to close exhibition at Tate Britain of British Folk Art, lots of scraps – material, straw, old bones – are used to create significant objects. Some have practical use, like the quilts, others are just time-killers, such as the cockerel made from bones salvaged from the kitchen by a Napoleonic Prisoner of War. There’s a review of the show, here.

But what I liked best was a 19th century tray covered in bits of broken china with a china doll’s head in the centre. It is completely impractical but such a lovely piece of creativity. Making those bits of china fit must have been taxing. I’m not sure if it was done by a child, but I can imagine it would have been fun to do.

And I name this... trudy.

And I name this… trudy (inspired by an art show).

And for a modern child it’s a fascinating history lesson in slow-changing sideplate fashion. Nell, 13, was able to recognise the black and white Napoleon china she’d last seen in a market in Belgium as well as the ever-popular blue-and-white Willow pattern. Amused by the way broken bits had their own name back in the 1800s, she decided to call our own pile ‘Trudy’.

My husband still calls it rubbish though.

Creativity with items on their way out

Utter junk becomes an arty dalek cage.

Utter junk becomes an arty dalek cage.

My house is filled with worn out things that I’ve repaired to make them useable again (eg, cushion covers, curtains, rugs and sofa throws). How much more exciting for a child/teen to find broken treasures and use them to make something unique and new. I helped my kids do a lot of junk art when they were very little – it’s fun helping a toddler make a robot using a cereal box and the paper cores from a toilet roll. It’s even more fun making something a bit more edgy.

Assuming you have some bits and bobs around your home maybe you’ll be inspired to do a last bit of art before the schools go back, using items that are either destined for the bin, recycling or the charity shop. You never know what masterpiece you or the kids may create.

Over to you
Do share some ideas or pix of cool things you’ve done with junk items. Thank you.

Midsummer reminder: reuse, repair, recycle, refuse

Posted June 20, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

Tags: , , ,

Are you consistent most of the time? So when you buck your home rule book how do you explain it to your children? For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see

This huge TV was bought by my husband for World Cup 1998. It's not broken - but it doesn't earn the space it takes up, so here it is on it's way to a secondhand shop that takes electrical goods.

Bag lady with warrior trolley: This huge TV was bought by my husband for World Cup 1998. It’s not broken – but it takes up so much space, so here it is on it’s way to a secondhand shop that takes electrical goods.

Last week I realised what a hypocrite I can be. Basically I don’t use supermarkets to shop . The idea is to support local shops and alternative ways of food shopping (eg, buying a regular organic vegetable bag) instead. However on Monday this week I realised I’d been into different branches of Waitrose twice in one day – hunting out their fair trade coffee bargains and some less right-on products…

The previous week I was dragging our perfectly functioning, but way too large, TV down to a charity shop. It would have gone sooner if it had been a bit easier to transport (we don’t have a car, but I managed this journey thanks to the aid of a piano teacher’s vehicle). Clearly I don’t always understand the concept of “perfectly functioning”?

In my defence during the same 7-day period I’ve mended the kitchen curtains, taken some boots to the repair shop and used up most of the food stored at the very back of the cupboard… I’m still reducing, reusing, repairing, recycling, refusing etc, but interspersed with consumerism. Like most busy parents I guess.

Inconsistency is frowned on when you’re trying to bring up children. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told to have firm boundaries. And yet most of us adults are a bag of inconsistency. We tell half truths (no there aren’t any biscuits in the house say, or yes it is time for bed…) – then get upset if we catch our kids lying.

Juggling practical solutions with quick wins on a budget is a good life lesson for kids to watch, even if Pepa Pig or YouTube is rather more fun. Besides if you were perfect what would your child be able to say to their therapist? Now I’m just out to check the discount shelves at the nearest supermarket… anyone want to babysit?

Over to you
Have you ever caught yourself saying one thing and doing another? Do share…


What did you do this half term?

Posted June 2, 2014 by nicola baird blogs
Categories: parenting

Tags: , , , , ,

Do you dare stay put at half term? Are there things on the doorstep you could enjoy doing more of? For more ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children follow this blog or get my book Homemade Kids, out of the library. This post is by Nicola Baird, also see

I love to travel – but half term always seems too short (actually so do the two week holidays of Easter and Christmas) to take enough time to enjoy a place. For me the only holiday which has enough time to travel to a place and properly explore it seems to be the long summer holidays… which is the reason my family hardly ever go away at half term.

Of course I get a frisson of jealously hearing where my neighbours are going – or have been. But that shouldn’t stop the pleasure of doing things on the doorstep. This half term we hardly saw my 15 year old as she was studying for GCSEs, so the trips made with Nell (13) had to also be seemingly low key to ensure revision seemed like a better option.


Larking around despite a day of rain, pavements and then the graveyard on a meet the ancestors tour.

1 Find out more about your relations (a walk)
We spent five hours stomping around East London on an ancestors’ tour. Pete had done all the work and took us from put to workhouse to ironmongery (sites of). If you want to avoid this experience never let your significant other ever join AncestryUK.

Explore a park can turn into a name that fish (or tree or flower) challenge.

Explore a park and find something unexpected (toddler sized fish?).

2 Explore a park you don’t know well (get lost)
London has a huge number of vast parks. Nell and I spent a long afternoon in Holland Park, just off High Street Ken trying to orientate ourselves, or find an ice cream. We failed these tasks but were happily distracted by the massive koi carp at the Kyoto meditation garden. Unfortunately I still can’t tell you how to get there…


The man on the left of the foreground is the Pea Eating champion. The man sitting focusing at the table is trying to eat as many peas as possible using a toothpick. Behind him are the amazing dancers who kept passers-by at the Holloway Festival’s opening event in Hornsey Street happily entertained. Not quite sure who won the competition but it was fun to watch.

3 Enjoy a local festival or street party (see and be seen)
Even in central London it’s easy to find private gardens open to the public most weekends… Not only do you get the chance to buy locally-raised plants (ie, slug proof) you may also be able to buy cake and a cuppa, and then go on to a street festival. There are so many in London now it’s like being on a European feast day tour. Going might even inspire you to organise your own!

Over to you
What sort of things do you enjoy doing in your neighbourhood?


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