Monday, May 19, 2008

Learning in the Garden

The garden is one of my favourite places.

The positive aspects of gardening include therapeutic benefits (to body, mind and spirit), the learning of many lessons, the cultivation of a zen-like philosophy, the conception and growth of ideas.

I often come across my Muse in the garden. I've been busy out there every day for more than a week, making the most of the gorgeous weather (we need a little rain now, please!) I've got a post for the Freelance Writing Learning Curve wriggling in my head, about how the lessons learned in a garden translate to writing.

The garden is also a place where Youngest Daughter and I connect. It's not at all Eldest Daughter's thing, she hates creepy crawlies. And mud. Though she's very encouraging and supportive from the sidelines!

But Youngest Daughter and I love spending time together in the garden. We share a love of the outdoors and of creating things. When we're working in the garden we communicate on a different level; more relaxed, somehow. We learn a lot together in the garden, about ourselves and each other, about Nature, about life in general. Although I no longer homeschool, I still think of the garden as a classroom, full of exciting lessons.

For me, the garden is linked to education and creativity in lots of ways. I have inherited my love of gardening and also my perspective of the garden as a place of excitment and learning from my wonderful Mum and her wonderful Dad, both amazingly talented gardeners, highly creative people and great philosophers.

But it was while writing my BA dissertation about the Mother/Daughter relationship in the beautiful work of Alice Walker, that I was really bitten by the gardening bug. Walker often links creativity and gardening in her work. Although reading and writing were punishable crimes, black women kept that fragile, necessary spark of creativity alive in their songs and their stories. Or in the case of some (like Walker's mother), in the Revolutionary Petunias they grew.

Recent reminders of how wonderful gardening is, particularly how useful an educational resource it is, include the Children's Society Garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show and Dave Riddell's wonderful Outdoor Classroom projects. What a fantastic idea, with wide-ranging benefits; individual schoolchildren, parents and family, the school and local community, and the environment can all benefit hugely from an outdoor classroom. Check out Dave's post and spread the word!

For more ideas on how to use your garden as a place of learning, have a look at The Learning Garden website.

Or check out the Homeschooling list of garden projects for ideas to try with your own kids.

Beverley Hernandez also has some cool ideas for homeschooling in the garden.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Positive parenting with positive perceptions

I came across a title on Helium which I just had to write something for. It was 'Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World' and this is my response:

There's not much point in trying to raise positive kids in a negative world. We need to see it as a positive world; a beautiful place, full of incredible possibilities. That's not to say we shouldn't teach them about the dangers (though we should keep them in perspective) or the struggle, but we should help them to understand that the struggle in life is a positive thing in itself.

Life is not perfect, if it was we would all be thoroughly miserable. But it is exciting and challenging. And full of wonder. We learn new things every day, but life is more of a playground than a classroom. I'm always inspired by this beautiful quote from Patricia, a character in Joe Versus the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990):

"My father says that almost the whole world is asleep - everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant, total amazement".

There are ways to nurture this sense of amazement. We can teach our children to cherish the small things (there is always something to feel good about, even if we have to look a little harder sometimes.) We can point out the beauty in the world around us; Nature consistently provides us with amazing stuff. From a spectacular sunset to a bird feeding her young, there is always something to stop and wonder at, for a moment.

We can encourage our children to read positive things. Positive things might include some of the endless, awesome scientific facts the world provides. Uplifting or thought-provoking fiction, or true-life success stories can foster a positive outlook on life in general.

We can encourage them to spend time with positive people. A positive outlook on life is contageous; being around positive people is uplifting, just as spending time with negative people can make us feel drained.

We can introduce them to heroes.

We can ensure that they feel positive about themselves. If we give them the resources and the support to do the things they love, or the things they are good at, they will see both themselves and the world in a more positive light.

Encouraging children to keep a journal (perhaps a "Gratitude Journal"), helps them to recognize and cherish the positive things in their own worlds.

We can teach them to put a positive spin on things; to change mistakes into lessons, to face difficulties as challenges, or to see a 'negative' character trait as a positive one, or a weakness as a strength. Nurturing their sense of humour will help them too.

But perhaps the most important thing we can do to raise positive kids is to role model how to be happy and successful, how to thrive in a world that is both positive and negative.

I just don't do negative ...

Wishing you a positive week filled with beautiful moments!


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Parenting Confidence: Nurturing Your Confidence as a Parent

When the word "parenting" is in the same sentence as a word like "confidence" (or perhaps "self-esteem") it is usually a sentence about building the confidence of a child. A parent's confidence is rarely mentioned, yet is paramount to that of a child; confidence in yourself, as a parent and as a person, will naturally rub off on your children.

But it's not easy to be consistently confident doing a job for which we have received no proper training and for which most of us have little ongoing support or guidance; a job in which mistakes can be very costly indeed.

A natural human inclination to compare ourselves to others is something which can damage even a relatively healthy confidence, so try and avoid it by reassuring yourself that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Parenthood is a sharp learning curve. We can all learn a thing or two from other parents, but remember that even those who seem to be flying when we are crumbling would no doubt tell you they've made mistakes along the way.

The media expectations of today are an immense social pressure; in the same way that women are under incredible pressure to look and behave in certain ways, parents are under pressure to be Supermums (or Superdads), usually at the same time as being Superfriends, Superlovers, Supercolleagues and Supereverything-else.

Don't set yourself up for a fall; make your goals as a parent achievable. I used to have a (regularly stated) goal that my daughters would attend university, which I have since realized was setting myself up for failure. Or at least feeling like a failure, when my eldest daughter was permanently excluded from school. Now I have a more general goal to work towards: I will consider myself a successful parent if I raise my girls to be well-balanced, healthy individuals who thrive in the world, with tolerance and compassion for others, and respect for themselves. So far so good. And because it's such a general, long-term goal, the wobbles along the way are OK too.

Use the 'small' things to nurture your own confidence. Recognize your success in always being able to put a meal on the table, in finding time for a story and a cuddle in a busy schedule, or in the fact that you have managed to send your children to school in freshly-washed and ironed uniform (even matching socks) every day for a whole week. Celebrate your triumphs, reward yourself.

Don't blame yourself for the mistakes you will inevitably make as a parent. Try to learn from them and make them lessons instead of mistakes, but be gentle with yourself. My confidence as a mum was seriously shaken a couple of years ago. Having raised two daughters while studying at university and working part-time, without too many problems, my eldest daughter hit fourteen and almost overnight went from a lovely, spirited but biddable girl to a raging, uncontrollable feral child. There were plenty of people who agreed I was a rotten Mum (which was extremely unhelpful!) but I was fortunate to meet a Parental Advisor who was wonderfully supportive and gave me some excellent advice, without ever making me feel that it was entirely my fault.

Never be afraid to ask for help when you're struggling. The PA made me realize I shouldn't accept all the blame for the situation (in the same way as I don't accept all the credit now my wonderful daughter has changed her life around.) She boosted my flagging confidence by reminding me of all the positive things I had done, was still doing. Keeping a balanced view is important to your confidence as a parent. There will always be successes as well as difficulties.

Try making a list of the things you do well and the things you struggle with: I am very disorganized and not always reliable (I have a rotten sense of time and am easily distracted from one job to another), I am not very consistent, and I often make impulsive decisions which later cause problems. But I am warm and affectionate, encouraging and supportive, I provide a stimulating environment, and I am always willing to go into battle for the girls (about things like health and education, not with their friends!)

Focus on the positive stuff (but work on the negative) to encourage your confidence. We all do somethings really well - give yourself a big pat on the back for them. Help your child discover their own strengths or develop their own interests, encourage them and support them in this and it will turbo-boost your confidence alongside their own.

Your confidence as a parent is part of a much wider sense of self-esteem. We are never just parents. When things are difficult from time to time as a parent, draw your confidence from another area of your life for a while. Aim to be a confident person, not simply a confident parent. The knocks you receive will then be more manageable.

Write down a few good reasons to feel confident as a parent and leave them where you will be able to read them and remind yourself often. I think my own greatest confidence as a parent (which has helped me through some rotten times), is that my girls feels secure and adored. It's important to me that they find me approachable and trust me enough to be able to come and tell me anything, because I think most problems can be solved by simply keeping lines of communication open.

When I doubt my abilities to parent successfully, I remind myself of this and feel so much better.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How to Feed Your Family Well on Less

Just a few simple strategies will help you feed your family well on less, whether this means less food, less money or less time.

Feeding a family well is not just about preparing, cooking and serving food. It begins with deciding what to eat and collecting the ingredients. And the eating is as important as the cooking. Feeding a family is not just about food. The effects of the way in which we feed our families have physical, psychological, spiritual, ethical and moral implications.

Feeding a family is done best by a family. Involve even the youngest members of your family in all aspects. They will feel they are appreciated and valued, and they will be learning valuable life skills at the same time. The phrase, "A family who play together stay together," can be related to cooking and eating. Cooking a meal together can be great fun and eating together, especially in the evening, allows us all a chance to share our day, our thoughts, our ideas or our plans.


Make a written plan of your weekly menu and write a complete shopping list. Planning ahead avoids buying unnecessary things when shopping. (Plan to shop at a time when you're not hungry or stressed, to avoid impulse buying.)

Planning also saves time and makes feeding the family a less daunting thing to do, when you arrive home from work, frazzled and uninspired.

It allows the family to compromise on meal choices so everyone gets their favourite and so that younger members can cook simpler meals.

It means we get a good idea of how balanced our diet is.

Planning means we are less likely to buy more than we need, which avoids wasted food being thrown out.

Plan for healthy snacks too. Make flapjack or muesli bars. Keep a selection of fresh and dried fruit, and vegetables that are lovely to eat raw, like carrots and red peppers.


Try to avoid "convenience" shopping. Convenience stores tend to be more expensive and convenience food tends to be less healthy. Planning your weekly menu and shopping list will help avoid the need for last minute convenience shopping.

Buy fresh, local, seasonal food. This will mean the food is healthier, cheaper and kinder to the planet, minimising food miles.

Shop around for bargains, or shop at local markets where you will be able to haggle prices. Make friends with your local butcher, fishmonger, perhaps even a local farmer. They will all have the best year-round choice of fresh food at excellent prices and will be glad to help you.


Store food to lengthen its life. Fruit and vegetables should be stored in a cool, dark place, with ventilation, preferably individually. Fruit and veg can be stored for almost an entire winter in this way. Use any fruit and veg past its best to make juices, puddings or sauces.

Store bread in a cool, dark, dry place too. Use up older bread for toast, croutons or bread and butter pudding.

Dairy products and meat should be stored in a fridge at the correct temperature. (Don't store fresh meat or frozen meat with cooked meat.) Ensuring the fridge or freezer has an intact seal will not only ensure your food is kept at the optimum temperature but will use less electricity and so save you money on fuel bills while helping the environment too.

Keep your store-cupboard essentials topped up. There are some basic ingredients from which you will always be able to cook a meal from scratch. Check your cupboards when you make your weekly menu plan and shopping list. If you keep a good supply of these ingredients, you will survive a week with less money than usual, if you have extra bills to pay, for example, or a school uniform to buy.

Preparing and Cooking

Planning your menu allows you to provide quick and easy meals when you will be pushed for time or energy, or to plan more time preparing meals together as a family when possible. This not only encourages conversation but develops necessary skills.

Healthy food is food that is prepared taking health and hygiene aspects into consideration; keeping hands and surfaces clean, and ensuring food is cooked properly, for example.

The way you cook can affect your fuel consumption; convection ovens are the most fuel-efficient. Try to avoid opening the oven door while you're cooking and use lids for pans on the hob.

Cook extra and freeze; cooking two of something in the oven, perhaps a lasagne, uses the same amount of fuel as cooking only one. Making double the amount of stew or soup on the hob means you will only have to defrost and heat it through thoroughly another day, rather than start from scratch (saving you time as well.)

Make use of seasonal gluts by making preserves.

Don't overcook food. This destroys vital nutrients. Eating raw food whenever possible (salads, fruit salads, vegetable dips) will save money and provide a boost of essential vitamins and minerals.

Encourage your family to eat regular meals, rather than grazing all day, or going all day with nothing to eat and bingeing in the evening.

Make pack-ups for lunch. Encourage the kids to make their own.


Starting every morning with a healthy breakfast is important to both the physical and intellectual work we will be doing throughout the day.

Eating at the table as a family is important when trying to feed a family well on less. It makes an occasion of eating, making a meal last longer. This helps us digest our food better, meaning we get the best out of it. It also means we appreciate the food more. It means you are always aware of what they are eating and can be sure they are getting a balanced diet.

But perhaps most importantly, it means you get the chance to spend some quality time together as a family which feeds the soul.

Growing Your Own Food

This is food for a whole post on its own! I'll try and do a post soon about gardening as a family. Kids love getting mucky in the garden and even adults get excited by growing things. Growing food to eat is easy, costs very little and keeps you healthy in so many ways.

Bon App├ętit!

A well-fed family is not just fed the right things, but is fed the right way. It doesn't take much food, or money, or time and effort to feed a family well. It just takes a little thought and planning, a lot of teamwork and love. Feeding a family well means feeding more than their tummies, it is about the way we feed them as well as what we feed them.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Easy Ways Your Family Can "Go Green"

There are lots of easy ways your family can go green. Going green is not about huge sacrifices or expensive products and technology. It's about conservation (of energy, natural resources, water, paper, the environment, the flora and fauna we share it with) and small changes will often make a big difference, benefiting your family as well as the planet.

Regardless of all the controversy and debate about global warming, it makes sense to treat our home (the planet we live on, the only inhabitable planet in the Universe as far as we know) with respect and consideration.

It's a good idea to calculate your carbon footprint (the measure of your impact on the environment) to understand your current impact on the environment.

Then you can try implementing some of the following simple tips.

Don't overwhelm yourself, just choose one or two of your favourites and start there.

1. Turn Down the Volume

Making small changes will reduce your CO2 emissions as well as your household bills.

Standby: Appliances on standby account for 6-10% of household energy use. Turn off and unplug appliances when not in use.

Kettles: Only boil the amount of water you need.

Batteries: Use rechargeable batteries. While they use electrical power, they prevent the necessity for disposing of toxic material, which may leak into the ground and have a detrimental effects on wildlife and ecosystems.

Washing Machines: Turn down the temperature and always put a full load of washing in.

Dishwashers: Wash pots by hand wherever possible. Lots of pots means lots of people have been using them. Lots of people = lots of dishwashers!

Energy Providers: Switch to an energy provider that uses renewable energy sources.

Thermostats: Turning the thermostat down just 1 degree can save 10% of your heating bills and reduce your carbon emissions by over 5%.

Light Bulbs: Use energy efficient light bulbs.

Insulation: Half of the heat lost in a home escapes through the windows and walls. Invest in cavity wall insulation, double glazing and loft insulation. (It's worth investigating whether you are entitled to various grants available to help people with insulation.)

Power Gadgets: There are a number of gadgets on the market that will show you how much energy you are using. Some will even display your carbon emissions.

2. Eat Well

You can help your family go green and also improve their health in the ways you purchase, prepare and cook food.

Buying Local Produce: Buy fresh, local, organic food in season. Buying local produce minimizes CO2 emissions from food miles, means the food will be fresher and probably cheaper, plus it supports the local economy.

Buying Organic: Organic food means you will be eating food free from chemical pesticides.

Honey: Choosing local honey not only supports local bee colonies (many of which have been struggling recently) and beekeepers, but is the healthiest option too. Eating local honey reduces hayfever, for example.

Fish: Be aware of where your fish has been caught and under what circumstances.

Preparing Food: Only prepare and cook the amount of food you need to avoid waste. Recycle leftovers into another meal rather than throw them out. Leave the skins on vegetables rather than throwing them away, or recycle them by putting them on a compost heap, or feeding a pet rabbit.

Cooking: Convection ovens use less energy. Try not to open the oven door when you are cooking something. Save energy by cooking twice the amount you need and freezing. This will save you time as well as money on fuel bills, as you will only have to (thoroughly) re-heat the food rather than cooking a meal from scratch. Use lids on your pans and turn down the heat or use a smaller ring to fit the size of pans on the hob.

3. Travel Lightly

Thinking carefully about the ways in which you travel and whether you can adapt them, will help your family go green by cutting down CO2 emissions.

Local Travel: Walk, use public transport or car-share.

National Travel: Use public transport or car-share for unavoidable journeys. Only travel when it's necessary. Perhaps a business meeting could be conducted by video conference. Perhaps information or materials could be sent technologically or by post rather than delivered in person.

International or Interstate Travel: Holiday at home rather than abroad. We spend so much time escaping to far-flung places when there are treasures on the doorstep. When you do travel abroad, travel by sea, an adventure in itself. Use the train or bus rather than the driving/flying when traveling overland

4. Make a Splash

Water consumption is as important as energy consumption when going green.

Bath/Shower: Taking a shower rather than a bath generally uses less water (and energy) but be aware that using a power shower for five minutes can use as much water as a bath, and that old shower heads will use more water. The average bath uses 30-50 gallons of water, the average shower (4 minutes with an old shower head) uses about 20 gallons, and a low flow shower head uses about 10 gallons.

Water-Saving Appliances: Low flow showers will use less water but are designed not to have a negative effect on performance. The cistern of a toilet can flush effectively with half the water. Take up some space in your cistern by filling a large bottle with water and placing it inside the cistern.

Washing Machines: Always wash a full load and use an economy programme wherever possible.

Taps: A leaking tap can lose up to 15 litres of water a day. Fixing leaky taps will save water and might even save you money: feng shui belief is that water is the element of money and that leaking taps mean financial energy is also lost.

5. Re-use, Repair or Recycle

Most things can be either repaired, re-used by someone else or recycled into another product, saving the energy needed to make new products.

Household Refuse: Most household refuse can be recycled. Glass, paper, plastic and metal can all be recycled through local schemes. Much of what is left can be recycled by putting it on a compost heap.

Clothes: Take clothes to a charity or second hand shop, sell at car boot or garage sales or pass on to friends and family.

White Goods: Various organizations including charities and local community schemes will recycle white goods. When you buy a new item, ask the supplier if they have a recycling scheme for your old items. Fixing a fridge seal will prevent the necessity of disposal.

Electrical Equipment: Upgrade electrical equipment like computers, if possible. Local community exchange schemes or charities, including ActionAid and Oxfam will recycle or redistribute things like mobile phones, hoovers, computers, stereo and television equipment.

6. Plant a Tree

Trees are essential to human life, the great forests are the lungs of our planet. They are also essential to local biodiversity, providing excellent habitats for a great variety of species.

Choose Carefully: Always plant a native species of tree as it will be more likely to thrive and will support the local biodiversity. Sourcing seeds or saplings locally will cut down any CO2 emissions involved in transportation as well as supporting local economy.

Woodland: Get involved in maintaining a local woodland.

Local Conservation: Explore other local conservation projects.

7. Make Friends with Nature

Working with natural rhythms and powers is essential to being green in the garden.

Food: Growing your own food means it will be organic and incredibly fresh, plus it will save you money.

Water: Use a water butt to collect rainwater and use this to water your garden, or recycle household water from baths and washing pots. Consider drought tolerance when choosing plants.

Wildlife: Encourage wildlife into your garden by building a pond or placing bird boxes and a bird bath in your garden, or build a hedgehog home from a pile of old logs. Keep a messy spot in your garden, perhaps a patch of unruly nettles.

Organic Pest Control: Wildlife will help with pest control, but you can also use organic products.

Ask for advice at your local nursery or garden centre.

8. Go Paperless

The world is increasingly becoming paperless with the development of new technology.

Paper v. Power: Consider the balance of using less paper but increased energy.

Communication: There are many ways to communicate today without paper - emails, texts, instant messenger services, video phone calls, etc.

Bills: Pay as many bills as possible online.

Books: Read ebooks, use the library or buy second hand.

Junk Mail: Sign up to a Mailing Preference Service to opt out of junk mail. If you do get junk mail, recycle it through a local scheme or at home, by using envelopes to make notes, or by making your own beautiful hand-made paper (there are plenty of books about this or online recipes.)

9. Use Your Consumer Choice Wisely

As a consumer, you have a great deal of power and can use it to benefit the environment and local economy.

Bulk Buying: But store-cupboard essentials like rice and flour in bulk.

Packaging: Almost 20% of household rubbish is packaging. Avoid this by choosing concentrated or unwrapped products. Take your own bag when shopping to avoid using plastic carrier bags.

Energy Efficiency: When buying a new electrical item, ensure it is energy-efficient.

Local, Sustainable Sources: Choose green companies that use local, sustainable materials. This will limit CO2 emissions from transporting goods and will support the local economy.

Recycled Products: Buy recycled products whenever possible, toilet paper for example.

Clothing: Choose clothing from ethical companies, using natural materials and environmentally sound processes. Consider also how far clothes have traveled between the place they are made and the place they are sold.

10. Detox Your Life

We use many products and materials that are harmful to us and to the environment. Helping your family go green means disposing of these safely and replacing them with more natural products.

Disposal: VOCs in paint and preservatives are harmful to people and to the environment. Never dispose of them down the drain or in the bin. Contact your local council for safe disposal. Likewise, take medicines to your local pharmacy to be disposed of carefully.

Natural Cleaning Products: Use natural cleaning products either purchased from an ethical company or make your own. White vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, lemons and olive oil will clean most surfaces in your home.

Natural Materials: Use natural materials like wood, cotton and wool in your home.

Useful Websites:

Smart Planet

The Consumer Energy Center

Energy Watch

Top Tips to save energy and money from Friends of the Earth

One small, simple step to helping your family go green, a step you can take right now, is to sign up to the Nag, an environmental site that will send you one small thing to try every month in your effort to go green.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Celebrating Spring: Making a Nature Journal, Freelance Writing and New Women's Blog

Busy Bee: Freelance Writing

I've just realised I've only posted once on here in almost 6 weeks!

Been a very busy bee elsewhere, though. I've written a lot, including a number of articles for Helium. Am working on my first article to submit for publishing in a local newpaper and have started a new blog to chart the journey into freelance writing.

International Women's Day: Towards 2011

I write for five blogs, now. Although the fifth blog isn't mine ... it's ours! Towards 2011, started with aliqot, in response to the lack of information we could find about International Women's Day, which was started in 1911.

We hope Towards 2011 will become a collection (perhaps a 'conversation') of widely-varying perpectives from all kinds of women, at the same time as promoting IWD and looking forward to centenary celebrations.

It's feminist blog (I'm not scared to call myself a feminist!) It's a blog by women, about women and for women, but men are very welcome too. As human beings, individually and as a society, we can all benefit from feminism.

Student Mum: Blogging Goals

Anyway, more about this blog, my poor neglected Student Mum! I've spent some time spring cleaning and organising (the house, my workspace, my writing routine, my mind, my life ...) recently. I've learned that setting specific goals and writing them on my blog helps me to attain them. So, my goal for Student Mum is to post once a week (on Saturdays to be even more specific.)

I'm still going to post on Write Here! Mondays will be 'Moondays'; Wednesdays will be about Creativity and Productivity; Fridays will be Feelgoods and Wellbeing. The Freelance Writing Learning Curve/Life is a Learning Curve will have one post a day, Mondays to Fridays. And I'll write at least once a week on Towards 2011.

Plus working on articles and an ebook (craft-based, for the wonderful Dabbling Mum) so sometimes, I will have to cheat. Like here, another article from Helium!

Celebrating Spring

I've been thinking of ways to celebrate Spring (am feeling full of Spring Fever!) and I think starting a Nature Journal would be perfect, there's so much going on at this time of year and it's a lovely thing to do on your own or as a family.

What is a nature journal?

A nature journal is like any other journal, but is grounded in observations of nature. Making a nature journal is a very personal thing; each journal will be (should be) unique. Some may take the form of brief field notes, others will lean towards the literary, or be a combination of the two. Some will be mostly words, others mostly pictures.

Why keep a nature journal?

Spending time in nature reconnects us to natural rhythms as well as to our inner selves. Keeping a nature journal develops skills (making observations, for example) and involves all five senses. It encourages us to live in the moment. It helps to alleviate stress and supports the creative flow. Keeping records of the nature around us has other benefits too, providing information to refer back to (very useful when a nature journal is about a garden for example, to see what worked and what didn't in a previous year), but also providing a record for future generations.

How to make a nature journal?

Choose a hard-backed book with quality paper because it will prove more hard-wearing, but it's a good idea to keep it in a plastic wallet to protect it from the elements. Blank pages are better than lined, as you will likely make sketches too. Choose a size small enough to put in your pocket.
Or try keeping a nature journal online in the form of a blog. You will still need a small notebook or sketchbook when you are out though, to record things you want to write about later, but the quality won't matter so much.

Write through your senses. Record sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. But also include moods and feelings invoked by the nature you experience.

Try visiting the same spot once a week to build up a picture of seasonal changes, or visit the same spot at different times of day to observe smaller changes.

A dictaphone (or other sound recorder) and a camera are very useful tools when you're making a nature journal. A flexible ruler or tape measure will also come in handy. For an interesting approach, use a square wooden frame to put over an area of ground and record the life you discover within it. Try moving the square to another area, or repeating it at another time of day (or year.)

What to put in a nature journal?

For each entry, note the date, time, location, weather, plant-life, birds/animals/insects (behaviour, movements, food, sounds), minerals, geological aspects, sky (clouds, stars, moon, sun). You could also note the tides, dawn/sunset times and things like the equinox.

When you are making a nature journal, use the questions, "What, when, where and how?"

Indulge your senses. Ask yourself, "What can I hear, see, smell, feel, taste?"

Observe changes in local species and habitat.

Make top ten lists, perhaps noting ten trees in leaf, or ten insects, or your ten favourite flowers, or ten reasons you love nature.

Your entries can be in the form of observations, notes, thoughts, essays, poems or stories. Use words, tables and graphs, sketches and photographs. Include pressed flowers or leaves, feathers, bark rubbings, nature printings.

Tips for making a nature journal:

Don't feel you have to write every day, but do try and journal as regularly as you can. You will benefit more from being able to see the changes around you.

Remember, it's your journal. No one else has to see it, so don't worry about making it perfect. (Nature journals are supposed to look rustic!)

Take care of the environment. Always follow countryside codes, be respectful of land, animals and people you come across. Make sure you remove all your litter when you leave an area.

Be safe. If you are going out into the wilds, make sure you are well-prepared. If you are going alone, make sure someone knows exactly where you're going, and exactly when to expect you back.

But you don't have to trek out into the wilderness. You can keep a nature journal in your garden or allotment, in a city park or local woods, or at the seaside. Your nature journal doesn't have to be about a vast open space. A stream is as good as a river, a pond as good as a lake. A hedgerow is an excellent place to nature journal, the smallest corner of a garden can give you plenty of material.

Read the works of other nature writers to get ideas. Read magazines like the National Geographic, or journals like Nature. Watch nature documentaries. Join an online forum.

Do some further research to learn more about the things you discover while making a nature journal. (But don't let this take over from the journaling itself!)

Take time to decorate your journal. Use coloured inks or watercolours to fill in sketches. Use stamps, transfers and stickers to further illustrate your findings. Add borders, experiment with various ways of writing - try a different style of writing or write text in blocks, perhaps in different directions. Add arrows and stars or smiley faces. Play with it, have fun with it. Make it yours.

Websites about making a nature journal: l (equipment, ideas, prompts, checklists) (books, websites, activities) .html (tips, resources) .asp (everything you need to know about making a nature journal) on_plans/journals/index.html (history, ideas, lesson plans)

Books about making a nature journal:

'Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You' by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth

'The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady' by Edith Holden

'A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place' by Hannah Hinchman

'The Sierra Club Guide to Sketching in Nature' by Cathy Johnson

Articles about making a nature journal:

More articles on nature journals at Helium.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Strategies for Parenting Spirited Children

As a Mum blessed with two highly-spirited teenage daughters, I have spent almost two decades being challenged and stretched as a person, meaning I have learnt much about life and myself. Along the way, I have discovered some useful strategies.

Perhaps the most effective strategy my girls have taught me, is to celebrate spirited children; to see parenting them as both an amazing adventure and an awesome privilege. That's not to say it hasn't been incredibly difficult at times. At one point, my advice to anyone with a fourteen year-old quite as 'spirited' as my eldest daughter, would have been, "Grit your teeth and hang on for dear life!"

My daughters are very spirited in very different ways. My youngest is full of physical energy. Even as a baby, she was always wriggling to get down and be off exploring the world. She is the child who comes home with wild hair, muddy clothes and scraped knees. She helps out on a farm at weekends and with the beach ponies in the Summer Holidays, which allows her the space to cherish her spirit in a safe environment. She is a very independent thinker and has a unique sense of style. Where she is non-conforming, her elder sister is outright rebellious.

I raised them both with the belief that they are unique and wonderful individuals. I have actively encouraged them to be adventurous, to question everything, to speak their minds (to make their own minds up), and to be true to themselves, even if I don't always like what they say or do, or think. I did doubt that this was the best policy when my eldest daughter turned fourteen and went totally off the rails. I wondered if I had inadvertently created a monster - rude, aggressive, anarchic, with no respect for others or for herself. But she has matured into a young woman I really respect and admire, and I overheard her telling a friend recently that we have an "excellent relationship."

The rough times were difficult, frustrating, even scary, but along the way we have developed certain strategies which work for us. I think trust, communication and respect are fundamental to the relationships I have with my daughters, and to the relationship they have with each other. I have learned to trust their judgement and they have absolute trust in the fact that I will always have their best interests at heart, and will always support them.

This effects the way we communicate. Both girls have always told me what's happening in their lives; they come to me with problems and with mistakes. We have always been open and honest with each other; I am happy to admit when I am wrong or when I don't know something, and happy to accept that sometimes, they might actually know better than me.

I have also learned how to listen. Properly. I have realized that trying to guide my eldest daughter down a traditional academic path (the choice I truly thought best for her), while she was trying to tell me she would prefer a more vocational pathway, was one of a number of things that sent her into a spin, resulting in exclusion from school and no education at all. Exclusion from school, in a house where there was only one parent to bring in an income, was disastrous in all sorts of ways.

So, when my youngest daughter recently chose her GCSE options, I expressed my opinion when asked, but encouraged her to make her own decision. She was very proud of herself when she returned the form to school. And so she should be. She took time to consider what would be best for herself, she asked for advice and listened carefully, then balancing all she knew, she chose very wisely I think. We are always most successful when we do the things we love doing, so I think she will have a very positive two years at school.

Most of the strategies that help with parenting spirited children are strategies that are useful in life generally. Maintaining a sense of humour is necessary to my sanity. Postive thinking of any kind makes everything easier. I always try and see weaknesses as strengths, problems as challenges, and mistakes as lessons.

I put a positive light on my youngest daughter's first large-scale artistic creation, an amazing mural in coloured crayon, on the kitchen door. I went out and bought some blackboard paint and lots of chalk, and made half her bedroom into a blackboard, explaining that was her studio; her very own place to be creative.

Spirited children are often labelled as "problem" children of some kind, but if we think of certain "negative" characteristics in a different way, we can put a positive spin on them. A child who is "demanding, wilful, defiant, stubborn, impulsive and unruly" becomes one who is "assertive and determined, an independent thinker, full of energy, who understands value and expects the best of life and of themselves, and will never be easily manipulated." These are all important traits to have in order to thrive in the big wide world.

Another strategy that I find works, is not to take things too personally. Whether a teen or a toddler, your child's frustration/anger/resentment will often be directed towards you, but may be nothing to do with you. I find not taking it personally prevents me from fuelling their anger and causing an argument that could easily be avoided.

I try and follow my Mum's advice: "Choose your battles carefully." Some things are worth waging war over, some are most definitely not. I have always had only a few, important rules in the house, which has meant fewer things for the girls to rebel against. I stand my ground on the big stuff and let the small stuff go.

Remind yourself it's just a phase when you hit a bump in the road. Everything changes. Things pass. What seems awful today may well seem very funny when you look back on it.
Maintain your own spirit. This is the foundation upon which I have raised spirited children. I try to be a role model of how to be spirited while also being respectful, considerate, tolerant of other opinions and compassionate. Nurture your spirit and that of your children.

If you're lucky enough to have spirited children, celebrate them. For the first few years of my daughters' lives, we lived next door to a boy with cerebral palsy. He was a beautiful boy with a quick smile, but he was severely disabled, spent his life strapped in a chair, and would never be able to feed himself or get dressed, to walk or talk, to hold a crayon, or an argument.
I tried to remind myself, as one daughter or another ran me ragged, frustrated me, or made me thoroughly cross, that I was lucky to have children who were such bundles of energy, who were able to get into trouble.