Sunday, 26 February 2017

Come ride with me - well with East Park RDA actually.

Having fun during a riding lesson

It's not a matter of public record, but I am a big fan of the Archers. It was while discussing this shared interest that the topic of the RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) came about. You see while the Archers storylines often feature horses and stables there is no mention of any riding by or for disabled people. It was this in mind that I was delighted to be invited by Comic Relief to visit a project they fund, East Park Riding for the Disabled Group in Surrey.

I met Sally who runs the riding school with her husband and daughter and the invaluable help of 80 volunteers. The riding school is a registered charity and they fundraise in order to provide the lessons at a subsidised cost for the children. Parents make a contribution towards the lessons and the school offers extraordinary support. The instructors and volunteers have expectations of the children and their abilities. This is not a case of putting a child on a pony and walking them round a bit. They work towards assessments and take part in competitions. Some children are able to concentrate here where they struggle at school and the teacher has noticed that one child who often needs time out in the classroom has been a lot calmer when attending East Park.

The hat and boot room 

As the children put on their riding hats and boots the ponies are led in and walked around. Then each child goes up one in turn to check the bridle and show they know how to take care of their pony. On the morning I went it was Michael's first riding lesson and his pony came up to say hello before the lesson started. Michael chatters incessantly, he is a twin and has a range of special needs. He was very excited about riding for the first time. I also met a girl who a year ago was fully sighted and has now lost almost all of her sight. It has been a life changing experience that has taken away her confidence. Another child has been in and out of school having chemotherapy treatment. It is hoped that riding will help all these children overcome their fears and anxieties as well as being great fun.

Michael meets one of the ponies before his first lesson

There were two lessons while I was there both with children from the same mainstream school. The children who attend have a wide range of different abilities including special needs and visual impairment and they all look forward to their weekly riding lesson. I observed how calm they were, the attention they paid to instructions and how they undertook specific exercises to encourage movement and co-ordination. One of the moves across the body supports physiotherapeutic work to help children with balance.

Practising a figure eight for competition

Comic Relief fund a great many projects in the UK and I'm so pleased that I got to see this one. I've been aware of riding for the disabled for many years, but haven't seen it. The children I met and talked to have benefited in so many ways and the ponies are lovely and so patient.

The stars of the riding school 

Once again I'll be taking part in a creative fundraising attempt as part of Team Honk. We're a group of bloggers from all over the country who have previously passed a baton from Lands End to John O'Groats (well the other way round actually) and danced for six hours at Wembley Arena. Last year three of us visited as many museums as we could in London in one day - we managed 27 of them. This year we are taking part in 'Come Honk With Me,' and I'll be travelling round parks in London with fellow London Honkers dressed for dinner and preparing meals as we go. I have no idea how yet - we never do before we begin - but I guarantee it's going to be fun and we hope to raise a lot of money to enable Comic Relief to continue funding fantastic projects like the one I visited.  

A carriage that has been donated to East Park RDA 

Thanks to Dara at Comic Relief, Sally at East Park RDA and Mrs Penny from St Stephen's School. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

It takes a village - and a cat - to raise a child.

I watched the movie Mommie Dearest the other day for the first time. I have heard of it, but had never seen it. If you don't know it, the book was written by Christine Crawford about her adoptive mother Joan Crawford and the cruelty she inflicted on her children. I watched Faye Dunaway screaming at her kids for having wire coathangers and witnessed them cowering in fear. There was a clutching feeling in my chest as I thought, oh god I hope my kids they don't think I'm like that when I shout at them. Brown Bear was staying at my Mum and Dad's house and while I was pondering how terrible a parent I am, I got a message from my sister. It said he was telling her he had 'the best day of his life' with me last week when we went to the Lego store and BBC Radio London. Phew, I'm not Joan Crawford. On the scale of parenting it goes from Joan Crawford at one end to ... Oh I dunno probably Mary Poppins and she's not even a parent.

My boy the radio presenter

One of the things that worries me most is that I'm not a great parent. That I shout too much. I don't cook enough. I tell them off when they are just being kids. That I indulge them and they will become spoiled. Basically everything. So when they offer any form of praise or suggest I've got it right I'm proper chuffed. It doesn't happen that often. I have accepted that being a parent means I'll get it wrong at times and the kids will notice. What they also do, however, is forgive me.

Brown Bear goes to stay with my parents sometimes and Blue Bear has stayed with Hubbie's parents in the past. The kids know what they can get away with - a lot - and push their luck by doing the cute baby faces and big eyes to get what they want. In Brown Bear's case that means chocolate spread for breakfast, McDonalds for lunch and so many new toys and clothes that his trunki barely closes when he has to return home. Blue Bear has simpler expectations. He likes to play with all the toys and drags Grandpa around to build railway tracks and play with him. He often just plonks himself on Grandpa's lap and waits for sweets to appear. It doesn't take long.

I asked my Mum what it was like to be a grandparent and she told me that it was like the reward for parenting. That you invest in your kids and the return is the grandkids that you spoil and fuss over. All in the knowledge that the parents have all the stress of raising kids that they already went through. Of course filling the kids with sugar before sending them home is just a bonus.

We also have a secret weapon in our parenting armoury - the cat. Neo has been teaching my kids to be good cats for years. He is expert at it now. Years ago he trained Brown Bear to open the tin of cat biscuits in secret so when I said no he would still get treats. The two of them cuddle up together and snuggle and Blue Bear has been jealous of this closeness for a while. Then a few days ago - while Brown Bear was away - Neo decided it was time to train Blue Bear as well. I watched as my son crawled around behind the cat copying him washing his paw and face and then observed as Neo stopped and waited for him to catch up when he walked off. It was adorable.

He showed Blue Bear how to eat and drink like a cat:

He likes to sit under the clothes airer and meditate - looks like Blue Bear does too.

After an afternoon of cat training they both needed to relax.

I am still going to worry about how inadequate my parenting is, but at least I have some great helpers.

Friday, 17 February 2017

TLC and treats... the best cure there is

My boys love being outdoors so stopping them from going outside when it's cold just isn't possible and I have to find ways to deal with the inevitable coughs, sneezes and snotty noses that result from their adventures in the park or at football with Daddy. I send them out in layers, a vest, a hoodie over a t shirt and a thick coat and try as I might I can't get them to keep on a scarf or a pair of gloves, but sometimes they will wear a hat. Brown Bear likes his Yoda hat, but often won't wear it because it will spoil his hairstyle. Blue Bear still likes to wear hats so at least I can keep his head warm. Prevention is - of course - better than cure, but it's not always possible to stop the colds and viruses that prevail at school and nursery.

When I notice the tell tale screwed up tissues around the house I know it's time to get on the case as a cold is on its way. My boys are pretty good at blowing their noses, but not so much at throwing away the tissue afterwards. These first signs of impending illness give me time to prepare. I get plenty of treats in for them like strawberries, popcorn, little sweets like chocolate buttons. Anything that they might be tempted to nibble while they rest up if they are off school. We have a few favourite movies to watch when we're home and Firehouse Dog is a firm favourite with Brown Bear. Paw Patrol on a loop will do fine for Blue Bear. We make a den in the front room either on the floor with big cushions or I bring the pop up circus tent in so that we can sit under cover and either read books or watch TV. Piling big fluffy blankets onto the sofa and wrapping up underneath them is another source of comfort on sick days. The additional advantage to this is that the cat also loves to join us. Neo is a really good nurse maid when anyone is ill and he will come and sit purring with whoever is poorly.

The other reason for getting an unwell child to lie down or sit is to tempt them into taking a daytime nap. Something that they only do if they are ill. I had Blue Bear off school at the start of the year and he didn't want me to leave his side all day. I sat with him cuddling and kissing his head to help him feel better. It was only when he finally nodded off that I was able to get up and make a cup of tea or wash up. Still, it's the most I've sat down since I became a parent. As they are often off their food when ill I keep offering milk and snacks to top them up. Toast is a favourite as are breadsticks or indeed any finger foods. Apple fingers (invented by Hubbie), carrot battons and cucumber sticks are all offered, even if they are rejected. So long as they take in plenty of water I try not to worry too much.

Bedtime is a whole other kettle of fish though. My boys will take medicine and when they have sniffles I am liberal with the Vicks Vaporub on the lapels of their pyjamas to help clear their noses. I remember my parents keeping Vaporub in the bathroom during my childhood and the smell of it still reminds me of bedtime. Oh and the time I was getting out of the bath and a pot of it fell on my toe - that was pretty memorable for the wrong reasons ! Anyway, the boys have stories as usual and often toys will get involved in the story telling. Puppets are a great way to do this as are bears employed as characters. We try to keep the children amused, but often if they are very ill it's difficult to raise a smile. I think this trick would help achieve two things - getting them to smile and also maybe to eat some fruit !

If you'd like to learn a few more #VicksTricks pop over to the Vicks Tricks youtube channel

Vicks have found that  36% of parents believe that TLC is a powerful took in dealing with cold and flu season. It's good to know I'm not alone in thinking that spending time taking care of my children is the key to helping them feel better and to aid their recovery. Family Psychologist Corinne Sweet points out that “one of the most powerful antidotes to sickness developing further is parental care and concern.”  and advises that “listening to a story or watching a film is a good idea, as it is soothing and promotes laughter (an immune booster). But don’t let them play video games, watch scary films or spend hours on screens. This will keep their minds over-stimulated, when their immune systems need gentler stimulation and rest.”

No one wants their children to be unwell, but when they are it's good to have a bag of Vicks Tricks to use to help them get well again. I love the sliced banana trick in particular.

This post is an entry for the #VicksTricks campaign.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

This half term is awesome.

This evening as me, the boys and Neo all slumped on the sofa under a big fluffy blanket I looked at the cat sprawled across us all and the boys staring at the TV. It's halfway through half term and we're all tired, well exhausted actually, but also really happy. Blue Bear has been going to a playscheme every day that he loves where he plays sports and today he did streetdance and had fun on the bouncy castle. He's never been a fan of bouncy castles, but this week something has just clicked for him and he's loving it. It's a relief really as it means I can book one for his next birthday knowing he's going to go on it.

Brown Bear has been going to tennis lessons with his friends. He did this last holiday and really had fun so I thought we'd book for him to go again. Today, however, we did something extra special. I contacted the BBC about the listening project a while back.  I suggested a conversation between me and Brown Bear about how his brother came to join our family and how he felt about it all. We've been talking about it for a while and today was the day we went to record it. I wanted to make it a special day just for us so first I surprised him with a visit to the new Lego store in London.

We took the bus from Victoria to Picadilly Circus and walked through Chinatown. I didn't tell him there even was a lego store so it was a complete surprise when we arrived there. Apparently people have queued for hours to get in, but we timed it pretty well and didn't have too long to wait to get in. The numbers are managed quite well so it's not too busy when you go in and there is plenty for the children to play with as well as some stunning lego models to admire too.

There are some iconic London models and Brown Bear tried to make a phone call and to post a letter - I was impressed he even knows what a phonebox is for !

This Pick and Build wall is amazing and while I can't see how you could reach the top storage units it is a great idea. There are some model ideas to get you started and there's also a build your own minifigure bar that was very popular.

There are tables with a lot of lego and some models started already. This Big Ben model caught Brown Bear's eye.

As you queue to get in you see the model of an underground carriage - complete with the queen waving from inside. It was a nice compromise as I had told him we'd be going to the Transport Musuem to put him off what I really wanted to do.

The best part of it was that I told him he could buy a set with his Christmas money and he chose one that he's already built. Hubbie told me that when he was putting Brown Bear to bed tonight he said it had been the best day of his life. Well I'd call that mission accomplished then.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Mind, Body and School: children's mental health week.

For Children's Mental Health week my son's school is focusing on kindness. They usually focus on kindness, caring and safety so this is really an extension of that. I wanted to consider some of the other areas that aren't really covered in a 'health week' like this though.

Do we acknowledge that children have complex emotions ? I know we talk to them about being sad or happy and even frustrated. What about disappointed or overwhelmed ? I know that my children feel all of these at times. In fact with all of the adoption training we undertook I have a tendency to overthink pretty much everything. The other day Brown Bear wore multiple underpants to school and while my first thought was, 'man is that dude odd.' The second was, 'why did he do that ? Is it a sign that he is protecting himself from unwelcome attention from someone ? ' Ok, so that is an extreme, but it did cross my mind.

All this week I've been listening to interviews on the radio that have covered the topics of bullying, bereavement and similar topics. Next week me and Brown Bear will be having a recorded conversation as part of the listening project and I hope to talk to him about the emotional impact that having an adopted sibling had on him. It's not something we've spoken about really so it would be interesting to see what he says now that things appear to be less stressful than they were at first.

We don't usually talk about children's feelings in terms of stress, but it's something I've become acutely aware of. When Blue Bear came to live with us he showed signs of distress at being moved from his foster carers - as you would expect. In adoption there is a lot of talk about attachment and bonding. We talk about children experiencing loss - in his case the loss of a birth family then of a foster family. Far less is said about stress and depression. I honestly believe that children can feel depression just as much as adults do. I'm sure I did from an early age and it didn't have an explanation, much less any support for me to deal with it.

Children who face difficulties in childhood can grow adept at dealing with complex emotions. Young carers often cope with adult responsibilities and may miss out on carefree time as children. If a child has grow up with stress - either from seeing it or feeling it - they are more likely to have poor health later in life. It's not something we ask children about though is it ? When a child has an unexplained outburst the usual response is, "he's tired," "she's hungry," or "oh it's the terrible twos." We give little credance to actual emotional causes. I think this is changing, but slowly.

It's a long established idea that a healthy mind lives in a healthy body - that's why we still have PE in schools. It is just as important to maintain mental health and while there are schools that have introduced mindfulness I'm not sure it's going to take root. I hope it does. I practise stress reduction with my children and have encouraged them to do yoga since they were very young. Not for long, maybe a few minutes when we remember. They enjoy it, we make a game of it and they have no idea I'm getting them to de-stress or de-escalating their anger.

After all helping children identify how to take care of their mental well being at a young age can only be for the good can't it ?

Saturday, 4 February 2017

For the love of cats

It's been a while since I posted a gratuitous cat love post - I know if I'm not careful I'll get thrown off the internet ! In honour of my first four days of sugar free February (and no fatalities so far) here's a round up of feline fun:

Neo fell asleep on the sofa this evening so Brown Bear wrapped him up in a fluffy blanket, "like a baby."

Oh how Neo loves the animal bundle game (erm... no he doesn't actually):

Arty shot of the cat - can never have too many of these:

I asked Neo to help me tidy up the toy room - here's his contribution:

Then he stopped for a rest:

I have no idea why he's grooming Brown Bear, but this may explain why they are such great pals:

Moody atmospheric shot during the 'golden hour':

And lest we forget: 

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Sugar Free Me - no really

For reasons I don't quite understand I have signed up for Sugar Free February. It's to raise money for charity so there is a purpose besides punishing myself. You see I have a ridiculously sweet tooth. When people say they don't really like chocolate I'm not entirely sure what that means. It's like when someone describes themselves as 'not really a dessert person." Who are these people exactly ? 

We're drawn to sweet tastes as children and when I was weaning Brown Bear I was told that he would naturally eat sweet foods so to encourage a broader palate I should offer savoury foods and strong flavours such as spinach and olives. He loved both. I also offered him a variety of textures like homemade houmous and roughly mashed banana with weetabix. Despite my best efforts he still prefers sweet foods, loves chocolate and will pretty much jump through hoops for Haribo. Which funnily enough is also what he does after he's eaten them too. 

So the point of this post is to explain quite how much of a challenge it is for me to give up sugar. I pretty much dream about sugary foods. I think about them when I'm not eating them. As I sat in the theatre last night I was contemplating whether to have a blueberry muffin or a cherry one when I got home as a last sugary treat* Yes that's right. As TV hunk Clive Mantle was acting his 6 foot something self in front of my very eyes I was thinking about cake. I'm not even sorry. Ok, I'm a bit sorry. I'm not entirely sure that's even normal. 

When I'm swimming I'm thinking about what I will eat when I finish. I sometimes have a sense memory of a creme caramel that I particularly loved. I don't actually eat those things afterwards, but it's what goes through my mind when I exercise. In face I really only keep fit so that I can eat without guilt. If I didn't exercise at all I'd pretty much live on cardboard. 

Ok, I can live without dessert and I rarely order it when we eat out as I don't often see something that appeals to me enough. However, knowing that I can't order it means that I will suddenly find everything on a dessert menu sounds delicious - even if it has custard in it. Honestly whoever created custard has a lot to answer for. All my boys love it so I have to buy it, but I can't even bear the smell. Years ago I watched a Paul McKenna show where he suggested visualising something you loathe covering the thing you want to stop eating. For me that would be custard poured on chocolate. It's not for nothing that the title of this blog has the word chocolate in it. 

Anyway, I think I have convinced you of how hard this month will be for me. Not least as I will be following it with a month without chocolate for the British Heart Foundation. Either I will kick my sugar addiction completely or I will have keeled over into a mountain of sweet stuff before then. I  hope it's the former. 

If you would like to sponsor me at Sugar Free Swazi that would be absolutely amazing. Wish me luck !! 

*I had half of each and shared the other halves with Hubbie