Saturday, 28 January 2012

Birthday Cakes

Three times a year I get the opportunity to indulge my creative side in baking and decorating birthday cakes for my sons. One of those times is at the end of January and, this time around, the request was for a Lego Ninja. After all the birthdays we have celebrated, the boys' expectations run high, and I wait with some trepidation to see what the request will be, then enjoy rising to the challenge of creating what has been asked for. At the request of a friend, I have posted a slideshow of our cakes on this blog.

In the case of this monster cake, my son drew what he envisaged and then asked me to make a cake just like his drawing:

Mr Men and Little Miss cakes are always fun, and reasonably simple to create. I used to make them for friends at University depending on their personality:

Number are also very simple - and an effective centre to a birthday celebration at any age:

For first birthdays, you can make a cake connected to a baby's first words. For my eldest, one such word was 'Cat', for my middle son, 'ROAR' for a lion:

Favourite characters from books, films and TV also make great cakes:

Other ideas can be seen in the slideshow "Our Birthday Cakes" in the side-bar to the right.

The basic recipe I use is very simple:
1 egg
2 oz margarine
3 oz sugar
4 oz self-raising flour

This basic recipe can be doubled / tripled / quadrupled depending on how many cake trays you need to fill. It can be flavoured with vanilla essence or cocoa powder, and the mix can be loosened with a drop of milk if necessary. 20 mins at about 180 degrees, or until a tester comes out clean, and you will find a cake which, once cool is easy to cut, mould and work with.

For added WOW factor, I separate the basic mix into several bowls and colour each bowl with different food colours. I then spoon mixture from each bowl into the cake tin creating a marbled effect which children love!

I use a simple butter or water icing (marg or water mixed with icing sugar to a smooth consistency), to which you can add flavour and colour. Writing icing (available in supermarkets) is invaluable for detail, and then you can let your imagination run wild, using various sweets and biscuits to complete your creation.

Cupcakes, using the same recipe, can be made to supplement the main cake. This time around, the boys helped me bake, and they enjoyed taking responsibility for the ninja cupcakes, moulding small ninjas for the tops from malleable icing (which is rather like edible plasticine!)

Here is today's Lego Ninja, which was well received by the assembly of small ninjas gathered to celebrate my youngest son's 6th birthday ....

Monday, 23 January 2012

Chinese New Year

Following the success of our recent 'tasty' Chinese lesson (when the boys, along with their Chinese teacher, cooked spring rolls), we leapt at the teacher's suggestion to spend this week's lesson preparing Chinese dumplings to celebrate Chinese New Year.


It was something of a surprise to me to find myself leading a session on anything technological for our home education group, but I was happy to share my enthusiasm for blogging with the group of parents and children aged 5 to 12. I have taught myself to blog, build basic websites and transfer video tape to DVD in recent years - all very much to my surprise. I guess this goes to show that we will learn what we want to learn when it is useful to us, and that if we put our minds to something, we can figure it out, seeking help from relevant sources and teaching ourselves. For the blogging session, I started by pointing out that if I can do this, truly anyone can!

I showed the group this blog, and talked about a project I have come across called 'Project 365' where you take a photo every day through a year and build up a photo diary. Not only is this a record of a year in your life, but a discipline encouraging you to pay more attention to the small moments in each day which can otherwise slip by unnoticed. Inspired by a friend of mine to give this a go, it is a project I am undertaking this year, but it is not proving easy. I seem to forget my camera and lack the required discipline to capture the moment. Still, it was an idea for a photographic project for the children and parents in our group, and I was surprised at the enthusiasm for blogging with which my talk was met.

I had thought the session might be rather over my youngest son's head, but to my surprise he was the most enthusiastic of my three boys about getting started on his own blog as soon as we got home. The great thing about blogging, is that you can blog about whatever is of interest to you. All three boys did, in the following days, proceed to start their own blogs - with a common theme, Lego! I received phone calls the next day from others in the group requiring technical advice which led to the successful launch of their own blog, and emails from others who had also been inspired and got started.

I look forward to following our group's blogs in the coming months, and was pleased to have been able to so inspire!

Science Education

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Signs of Progress

The new timetable is so far proving useful and, this week particularly, we have got back into a much better routine. I have been pleased to see the boys (all 3 of them) working independently at their Kumon in the morning. Something seems to have clicked for our youngest son with his reading, and he is enjoying figuring out what words say. He is also enjoying writing (Christmas thank you letters today) and he is trying to put sounds together to write words for himself. He will be six at the end of this month, so I am aware that I need to do more with him, and include him in more formal learning activities. I have started some of the Ambleside Year 1 readings with him this week - "The Just So Stories" and "Our Island Story" (history of Britain) which he has enjoyed. There are a number of trips coming up in the next few months which I have prioritised sending him on with his dad and Grandpa.

Our eldest (now 10) is also making good progress with his Kumon. He has moved on to long multiplication, and has literally wrestled with some of the recent pages. He will groan and complain and declare it can't be done - especially when, to his frustration, about half his answers prove to be incorrect. "You can do it," I say, "because the other half are correct" and he will work through his corrections demonstrating increasing perseverance. My husband offered to sit beside him to offer some support at one point when he was very frustrated. "No!" he declared, "I will do it myself!" And he did. When the sheet he has struggled with is finally 100% correct, he is so pleased with himself. It is great to see. His ability to figure out these problems in his head already exceeds my mathematical competence.

Our middle son struggles more with maths, so we have been working a lot on his number bonds and on addition without finger counting, which my husband says is important. I realise I still finger count, and after considerable repetition, my middle son can add up quicker than I can. He is now beginning to apply the simpler addition to more complex sums. He is increasing in competence and confidence.

Yesterday, we picked up our Marco Polo project, which we haven't done for some time. the reading was about the Mongols and, at the end, I told the boys to pick any aspect of what we had read and to present it in their scrapbooks as they chose. They could use the book, or do further research. I remember six months ago a similar exercise meant pulling out the facts together, me listing them on our board for the boys to copy down, and this was rather laborious. They lacked the skills and confidence in their writing to work more independently. But yesterday, they took the task on straight away and just got on with it, writing far more easily, speedily and confidently, my middle boy researching "Facts about Yaks" (topic of his own choosing) on the Internet with some interesting findings!

We followed up on this work on Mongolia today by attempting to make yoghurt. We shall see how that turns out!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Back to Routine

After a holiday, it can be a challenge to get back into routines. With me increasingly heavy due to pregnancy, and with far too much time being spent on the Wii and computer games over the past few weeks, I had a discussion with the boys about what might help us focus our time and achieve our objectives. The two eldest both said a timetable is helpful to them, and it is helpful to me too as it gives a sense of taking control over our time together. Some children do seem to thrive on routine and like to know what happens when. At the same time, I know that trying to plan our time too rigidly leads to failure as we are then unable to enjoy the flexibility home education allows us.

I therefore spent this morning putting together a timetable for the coming term. It includes a structured morning, with some blocks of time more loosely defined - for example, project work allows the boys to work on whatever they are busy with, or interested in, at a particular time. There is time for their Chinese lesson, our Ambleside readings, the fortnightly meetings of our Home Education group at our local library, time for each boy to be at their Grandparents' individually, Science and swimming with their Dad, nature study, art and music appreciation and the various clubs the boys enjoy. There is plenty of free time for unstructured play, Lego, computer games etc.

We'll start tomorrow, and see how it goes ....