The Art of Pasta

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In a whizz-bang-flash the latest school year came to a close here yesterday.

WhereDidThatGo?!!

The year in which my girl started formal school, and my boy eased gently into full-time nursery. The year in which I remembered what ‘me’ time feels like. But all that was put on hold when the school herded the kids out for the last time yesterday, and Ella bounded into the room at 7am this morning with the curious early-energy that is so mysteriously lacking on school days. The summer holidays have well and truly landed.

I need a large, strong, hot, black coffee.

There. Much better.

Now. How to fill this expanse of time ahead of us? When I’m around I tend to indulge the children on the first few days of holidays. They are endlessly enthusiastic and in dire need of adjusting their stimulation radar to accommodate the slower pace of non-school life. I like to ease them in gently. An arty activity felt right, but I couldn’t face the paints, not on Day One.

Flushed with the success of replenishing my pasta stocks the other day, I had an different idea to satisfy their creative appetites. Pasta Art.

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I couldn’t quite cope with bursting open multiple tubs, so we applied the KISS principle and worked only with Torti (little spiral pasta shapes that are short and versatile enough to be collectively arranged into a variety of easy shapes). I filled a bowl with Torti and arranged us around it, strategically placing myself between the children to minimise any risk of competitive conflict erupting (it happens).

Let the Pasta Art fest begin!

We started with a face, a tree and a star. Nice neutral shapes that are simple to create. Then the inevitable stereotypes that I’ve tried Oh-So-Hard to prevent in my kids crept in:

Ella – ‘Let’s make a girl!’

Joe – ‘No, a car!’

So we made both …

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The opportunities with this activity are endless. When you consider the diversity of pasta shapes available it’s possible for even young kids to be quite intricately creative. If the mood is upon them.

We fiddled and made pictures, shapes and words for about half an hour before crunching alerted me to the fact that Joe was getting bored and had started eating the uncooked shapes. The clean-up is quick and easy, especially if you give each child a tray to work on. You can even create a guessing game where one child starts a pasta-make, and the others have to try to imagine what it will be. Like Pictionary without the cards and pens.

I love the holidays. Juggling work and childcare is always a challenge, but taking the school-run-rush out of the mix somehow seems to bring an air of calm to the house that is the perfect environment for wild imaginations to thrive.

Once the Pasta Art session was complete the children were dispatched for free play while I made lunch. My Mummy ears remained vigilant for sounds of trouble about the house, but were instead assaulted only with the sounds of collaborative industry. Together the children made a pirate boat from the living room chairs, and amused themselves with walking the plank and fighting sea monsters. I smiled to myself – it so often seems to me that creative endeavours stimulate the imagination in more ways than one. The Pasta Art session was half an hour well spent.

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Girls can’t play with cars …

© TheBusyBrain (Stopped by Curiosity), via Wikimedia Commons

© TheBusyBrain (Stopped by Curiosity), via Wikimedia Commons

 

… in the same way as boys do. I have decided that this is one of life’s Universal Truths.

 

Here’s how a car-play session goes between Joe and Daddy:

Joe: Brrrrrrrmmm. BrrrrrRRRRMMMMM!!

Daddy: Brrrrrmmm. Rrrrmmmmm. BRRRRRUUUUMMMM!

Joe: ‘Again, again!’

Beams and nods. And repeat. Many times.

 

Now.  Here’s how a car-play session goes between Joe and Me:

Joe: Brrrrrrrmmm. BrrrrrRRRRMMMMM!!

Me: Brrrrrmmm. Rrrrmmmmm. BRRRRRUUUUMMMM!

Joe: ‘Not like THAT Mummy!’

Smashes cars together in frustration. Stomps off in a huff. (Joe, not me. Most of the time.)

 

Eh?

 

As a relatively self-aware Mum I know that I find it easier to relate to what are traditionally considered to be ‘Girl’ games. In the early days I used to try and encourage Joe to make a garage for his cars, and tuck them into bed. Naivety doesn’t even come close. In my simplistic mind it had worked for Ella so surely it was worth a try, right?

At some point it registered that Joe is a BOY. So I watched him playing with Daddy. And I made mental notes. And I tried very very hard to man-up my car-play:

  • I practiced my ‘BBRRRRRUUUUMMM’ in the shower. To amused looks from my other half.
  • I Googled ‘playing with toy cars’. Have you ever done this? Fascinating. And in some cases a bit, well, weird!
  • I watched Toy Story. Again.
  • I even crept into my boy’s room during school-time to have a play on my own in a desperate attempt to jettison any remaining awkwardness around all things mechanical.
  • I made myself available for motor-mania at every opportunity.

Things have improved without a doubt, but there is no getting away from it – Daddy-car-play is still preferable to Mummy-car-massacre in his eyes. Sigh. If Daddy’s not around then my pathetic attempts will generally suffice. Under sufferance, and amid much eye-rolling and fist-clenching from my boy. He’s very patient.

I used to think it was just me, but this weekend an impromptu session of Mum-therapy showed me I’m far from alone.

Dropping Joe off at a friend’s house for a birthday party I was corralled into joining the other Mums in their garden for a glass of the red stuff. Imagine. Relaxing on a Saturday afternoon instead of chipping ice off the freezer or getting tooled-up to do battle with the oven-spray. You know, they really had to twist my arm.

The party was in honour of a little pal of Joe’s who has just turned three (my boy is three-and-a-half). In a perfect reflection of text-book-preschoolers the group, which numbered four, spent a happy time largely ignoring each other. Until one decided it was time to play on the ride-on tractor. At which point cherry-picking, caterpillar-hunting, and random digging were simultaneously abandoned and the little men swarmed around the vehicular honey-pot in a mass of grubby knees and pointy-elbows.

We Mummy-guests offered objective support from a distance in our bubble of relief while the resident Mum exercised her parental muscles to resolve the conflict with a lesson in sharing and a fair degree of small-boy-lifting and re-siting (who needs kettlebells?). Re-filling her wine glass we did the empathy thing and then collectively reflected on boys and their toys.

To a woman we have all experienced the car-play scenario above. Many many many times. And it seems impossible to resolve, despite our best creative attempts.

I’m sure there are Mums out there whose car-play is to the satisfaction of their young male offspring. but now I know I’m not entirely alone I don’t feel so bad. I do my best. In car-play with my boy, in character-play with my girl. And every single time I do anything remotely child-related. That’s what being a parent is about after all. No instructions, no rule book. Just a terrifying fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ride where the only thing you can do with any certainty is – your best. The odd cry of ‘Vive la différence!’ works too.

And so does the odd glass of red.

 

Beware of the Tut-Tut

© Jacqueline Godany – Via WikiCommons

A gaggle of Mums hovered at the gates of my children’s school this morning, as they do every morning. I’m not your average ‘part-of-the-clique’ Mum but I break into the buzz from time-to-time to show willing and because I know it’s important for my kids that I engage in at least some parental networking. Part of my struggle is the fact that, despite my admirable grasp of the French language after ten years here, I do still struggle with the quick-fire-partial-slang conversations that define the communications of a casual group setting such as this. Mostly I listen, and nod, and say ‘Oui!’ a lot. It seems to work. The hum today was focused on one little girl, let’s call her Jane. She’s six, and every morning and evening arrives and departs with her parent/granny/guardian with a dummy in her mouth.

That’s right, a dummy.

Not uncommon in preschoolers hereabouts in fact, but six is at the upper limit of what I’ve seen. The Mummy-hum this misty morning was erring towards disapproval. The tut-tutting was audible. Even as I nodded to fit in I hated myself for bowing to peer pressure and partaking in this judgmental exchange. And I despised myself more when the thought crossed my mind that they may have a point. Surely six is too old for a dummy?

Well hell, who am I to decide that? Or anyone else? Society and parental peer pressure have a lot to answer for.

Kids have so much to cope with as they grow up. If they can derive small comfort from something like a dummy then why berate them for it? I totally get the development position on this – excess use can damage tooth growth, speech patterns, and so on. But for all we know this little girl’s dummy is only used on the school-run and at no other time. And even if it’s not, what business is it of ours?

The whole comforter issue is fresh in my mind this week, as at six-and-a-half years old my girl has entered the last stages of separation from her Teds. These two once-pink-now-grubby-grey-and-chewed cuties have been with her since birth, and have soothed her through every single childhood trauma so far. She went to bed twice in the last week WITHOUT THEM and didn’t care. Not long ago such an event would have unleashed a tsunami of distraught emotion that would have rendered all other activities invalid until Teds were located and installed in her arms. I know of other children who reached this happy-to-separate stage ages ago, at four or even three years old. Was I worried? Not a jot. I encourage my girl to be independent but if she wants and needs her Teds then she has them. And will continue to have them for as long as SHE wants them.

Childhood peer pressure seems to start at around eight years old. Little Jane will doubtless drop the dummy habit before then, and if she doesn’t, well all power to her single-mindedness. It’s hard not to judge others. I try not to – I don’t always succeed, but I’m mindful of it, and how little we can really know of anyone’s whole story. If I hear my kids making comments about someone that have an air of judgement about them, I instigate a conversation about the difference between opinion and judgement, and how damaging and hurtful the latter can be.

They may not really get it yet, but if I can help them to beware of the tut-tut as they grow I hope it will contribute to the development of their self-respect, and respect for those around them.

 

Living in Mid-Air

Mid-Air People

 

My daughter has quite an abstract approach to art. Her selections of shapes and colours are bold, and spill across the page in a confident mass. The balance in her drawings is quite startling for one so young and I suspect reflects her (sometimes over-) developed sense of fairness. Which itself becomes particularly apparent in circumstances where she perceives favour to be weighed against her!

Gluing a tiny selection of her prolific productions into a scrapbook for posterity, I was taken by one that depicted her and little brother either side of a house. The space around them was festooned with love hearts, and colours for each figure carefully chosen to represent their favourites of the moment (pink for Ella, blue for Joe).

What struck me particularly was the way both figures were suspended in the air. Despite there being a careful line for grass, an equally horizontal bar of blue above, and the house being firmly rooted on the ground, the children were shown suspended in the No Man’s Land of white horizon, as if at the top of a bounce on a trampoline. Grinning madly.

It’s a happy picture – most of her drawings are. Thankfully. I always remember that scene in Sixth Sense where the little boy says he draws rainbows instead of the images of horrific violence that were haunting him, in order to satisfy the school therapists – ‘They don’t have meetings about rainbows’. Guess we’re doing something right then.

Anyway, I digress. Suspended people. What’s that all about? I began to fester …

Does she feel ungrounded? Without a firm base in life? Is she watching too many Fairy movies and genuinely thinks people can fly?

Or did she just start drawing the heads too high up on the page and not want to make the legs look stupidly long? I suspect this last is true. Or maybe I’m kidding myself and she is less secure that I’d care to imagine. Guess I’ll never know for sure so should quit worrying and get a life!

On reflection I think this picture is a perfect example of how our kids are not yet bound by the constraints of knowledge that dogs us as adults. It’s a freedom I’m keen for her to retain in her arsenal of art techniques. And I hope she can grow to apply this freedom of thought to her life.

Imagine the impossible.

Dare to dream.

Convention is creeping in as her depictions of grass and sky squeeze ever closer together. But for now, mid-air people are very okay in her world. Long may that last.

Do the Strop

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Creatista | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Do you ever feel like smiling when your kids are acting out?  I know that might sound like a weird reaction, but if yours are anything like mine, you may relate to this.  From time to time their attempts at throwing the mother of all strops result in me catching a fit of the giggles.  I could laugh until my sides split at some of the oh so serious faces they pull.  I appreciate that this is not the response of a sensitive and nurturing parent.  But I’m only human.  And their expressions are to die for.  And on some days I feel I am touching hysteria myself.

Admittedly I restrain myself if I sense their outburst is coming from a place of deep upset.  And this can be in relation to the simplest of things.  My daughter erupted the other day because little brother had disrupted the precision-made fairy bed she had set up on the coffee table, complete with acorn cups.  She was seriously affronted and close to acute internal devastation.  Clearly, a light chuckle from me was not appropriate at this juncture.

Yet sometimes … well, frankly they are just faking.

And they know it, and I know it.

And they know that I know it.

A gentle upturn of the corner of my mouth is enough to reveal the true nature of their actions, as they invariably redouble their efforts to gain my attention, with a challenging look in their eyes that dares me to proceed.  So I do.  For these instances I have developed an effective arsenal of responses:

  • A skeptical look and a grin – is often enough to diffuse the situation and send them happily away to seek out mischief elsewhere
  • Pulling their face back at them and then laughing out loud – shows them how ridiculous they look, and can lead to a fun gurning session
  • A declaration of war – in the form of a challenging “You are SO faking right now!” can often set them giggling too.  When swiftly followed by tickling and a little play-fight this settles things down nicely
  • I do the Strop – depending on the severity and nature of the fake, the kids have a great line in hopping from foot to foot, or stamping their feet.  Copying this can infuriate or delight them in equal measure, but usually makes them laugh in the end.  One time my girl actually went on to make a little dance routine out of it.  This, of course, was a very serious business.  No chuckling allowed.

Some days life can feel a little heavy.  I like to lighten the mood when I can, and most of the time the children appreciate this.  At least, I think they do!  I’m sure they’ll let me know when they have therapy later in life.  By which time I’ll be so old I won’t care, and will have perfected my own version of the geriatric strop.  Funny how life goes full circle!

A Mint Idea

© Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons

© Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons

Last night I cooked curry.  We had an aromatic prawn and tomato dish, vibrant red and pulsating.  A white basmati rice barrier kept the sharp sauce apart from the relative sweetness of the chicken dish that beamed yellow across the plate.  The whole delicious combination was delicately contrasted with a light, green scattering of fresh coriander.  Mm mm mm mmmmmm!

I’m an organised cook, and had extracted the necessary spices in advance from the depths of the shelf where they live in harmony alongside the herbs.  These brightly coloured jars were like a magnet to my little boy.  He found a stool and clambered up next to me, all busy and full of excitement.

“Mummy, me taste this?” he asked, proffering a jar of shockingly extra-hot chilli powder.

“Erm, no sweetie, not that one.  How about this?”  I offered the jar of cloves as an alternative.

Intrigued, he scattered them across the worktop (and the floor, and the stove, and down his jumper).  Then he tasted one.

“Bleurrrgh!”  he said.  “I not like that.”

“Well,” I explained, “these are flavours.  We add them in little bits to the food, and together they mix with all the other stuff in the pan and make it yummy.”

We spent the next 20 minutes opening jars of aromatic coriander and cumin, blinding yellow turmeric, woody cinnamon sticks and nutty cardamon pods.  We worked our way along the line of 20-30 spice jars, sniffing, dipping fingers, and rolling shapes and textures between our fingers.  We had a ball.  When at last we’d finished I got on with cooking, Joe keeping a watchful eye on me from his car in the corner.

“Can me have for tea?” asked my lad when I’d finished.  He is game to try anything edible.

So today we had what I call “Little Boy Curry” for lunch.  A mild chicken korma, packed with flavour, but light on spicy heat.  He loved it.

It got me thinking about flavours.

I’m pretty passionate about food, and love to cook.  I’m not always great at it, but can turn out a decent meal.  For me, getting the kids involved in food, and in the process of cooking, is really important.  I want them to learn about how to make healthy food choices.  It’s important they know that chips are made from potatoes.  But most of all I want to give them options.  If they choose later in life to stuff themselves with unhealthy processed gunk that’s their choice.  At least they will understand what they are doing, and know how to make a change if they want to.  So I encourage my kids to experiment, and take them shopping whenever I can.  When I have time, we grow our own veggies too.

Here is a great game to get pre-teens thinking about the food they eat:

  1. Decide on a flavour that can be found in many different forms.  Mint, Orange, Chocolate and Strawberry all work well
  2. Select 5-10 edible things that contain that flavour and create little samples on a plate – keep this hidden from the kids
  3. Sit your child down and blindfold them – working in a small group works best, as they get all giggly and really have fun
  4. Give them a little sniff, and then a taste of each food, and invite them first to guess the flavour, and then the food itself
  5. NEVER force a wary child to sample something if they are afraid – you can do it without the blindfold if necessary

This game is a great way to encourage children to engage with food, and to really think about the flavours they experience every day, but may never even consider.  You can talk about where the flavour comes from, how it is added, and other foods that might taste good as a complement.  It works best with the more adventurous child, but in a gentle form with only 3 different variations that you know will be a hit, it can also be used to encourage cautious kids to try new things.

Here are a few suggestions for sample foods for the flavour MINT:

  • A leaf from the herb itself
  • Toothpaste (just a little, we’re not going for fluoride overload here!)
  • A mint sweet – tic tac, polo, mentoes, humbug, any of these will do
  • A peppermint cream
  • Minty chocolate, such as an After Eight or Matchmaker
  • Mint sauce/jelly
  • Mint tea
  • Cucumber and Mint raita – a refreshing accompaniment to curry, made by mixing plain yoghurt with chopped cucumber, dried or fresh mint, and salt
  • Minted peas – cook the peas and toss with a little butter and fresh or dried mint
  • Minty chewing gum

What’s In the Box?

© Husky, via Wikimedia Commons

Pebbles make a certain sound when they are rattled in a cardboard box.  It’s different from the sound rice makes.  And pasta spirals make a pleasant but light clatter when they are shaken.  Would you know the difference relying only on your ears?

This is a great game for young kids of all ages, and once again is inspired by my resourceful little girl.

Take a cardboard box.  Any box will do, as long as you can close it.  Smaller is better so the children can hold it in their hands and manipulate it easily.

Then take it in turns to put different things in the box.  The one who chooses the contents gently shakes it and the other person has to guess what’s inside.  So simple, but an incredibly addictive and fun game.

Things we found to put in and bamboozle each other with included:

  • A walnut – one that the squirrels had missed!
  • Blades of grass – dry produces a subtly different sound from wet
  • Small stones
  • Twigs – one, or several
  • Pasta
  • Dried rice
  • Cotton wool – this was particularly sneaky of my girl, who was delighted by my failure to guess!
  • A sock
  • Scrunched up pieces of paper
  • A lego brick

The sensory aspect of this game really tests the brain’s ability to associate sounds with shapes, and different materials.  The children loved it.  We will play again.  I have to find a new box first though …. Ella’s experiment with water produced a great splishy-splashy sound when shaken, but reduced the box to a grey mush in minutes.  Nice!