Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The importance of creativity

On our recent trip Backpacking around Asia we saw a lot of local handicrafts - on markets and in the streets. The girls bought lots of small purses, keyrings and other knick knacks, but there were endless things we looked at that they wanted to try making for themselves when we got home. I sew a lot - especially things for them, and this probably made them realise that they could make a lot of these things for themselves rather than having to buy them. We took lots of photos of things for inspiration and made notes and drawings of things we saw.
Now we're home, it's trying to find time to make these things that is the challenge. Now that school has started up, with all the homework, clubs and after school sports they want to do, not much time is left to spare.

The importance of creativity
The more I have thought about it though, the more I want to find that time to follow through on things our girls wanted to do and make after the holiday, but overall to encourage that spark of creativity, which is a skill I believe will help them immensely in their future lives.

When we think of how to help our kids grow up to be the best they can be, we think about them getting good grades at school, or being physically good at something, but encouraging their creative side isn't always focussed on.

Creativity is an important skill to nurture for anyone.  There are endless articles and research that shows that creative people are happier, healthier and generally more positive than those who do not explore their creative side.

So what is Creativity?
Sometimes we think of creativity as being artistic, but creativity has so many and varied forms. It is not about being good at what you create but it is the act of creating itself that is important. 

From cooking, sewing, painting and knitting to woodwork, jewellery making, pottery and so much more.
  Lego building is a excellent creative pursuit for kids of all ages. There are endless kits and projects in the toy aisles of stores, but you don't need to buy anything to be creative. Any household is full of items that can be used to make and build, create and imagine.  

Outside in nature - building dams, huts and fairy gardens; drawing in chalk on pavements and driveways can provide endless hours of creative fun.

Music is also a creative pastime - singing, playing instruments and even forming your own band! I remember doing this as a kid with friends. We worked out our hairstyles and outfits and all sorts of details like that, but never actually played or sung any music! Still we had fun making it all up.

Creativity as a form of expression
There are an increasing number of 'creative therapies' where people are encouraged to find alternate ways to express themselves or alternate ways to channel negative energies.

Sometimes kids find it hard to express themselves and their feelings, particularly when hormones start to kick in.  They are still learning how to control their emotions. Creative pursuits can be a great way for kids to channel those feelings and emotions they are struggling with.

So what can we do to help?

Creativity for future job prospects
In a world where job opportunities are changing so dramatically, how can we best prepare our kids for the future?  So many jobs are now outsourced to other countries, or the need for staff is replaced by computers.  Things are changing so rapidly that who knows what the world will be like when our kids graduate from school and make their way into the workplace.

The ability to adapt and think outside the box are skills that are going to stand our kids in good stead for a constantly changing future.  Good grades and studying hard may still be important, but encouraging creativity is more important than ever in preparing our kids for the future.

An interesting book to read on this topic is "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink.  He believes that what is happening now is that it is not the people who do well at studying and learning facts, figures, academic subjects etc who are headed for the top jobs; it is those who are good at being creative. It is those who can offer something different, new and innovative that are headed for success now.

Ways to encourage creativity

If you yourself have a creative hobby, perhaps you can share this with your kids. I sew a lot and over the years have helped my girls make a few things. 
For example they've made pencil cases, bags and place mats. However, proud as they are of the things they've made, the most fun they've had has been when I've just given them a pile of scrap fabrics, and buttons etc and let them loose with needle and thread and my sewing machine. 

Don't limit 

It is important to allow kids imagination full reign. I remember when our daughters were at kindergarten, talking to their teacher about a planned new playground. There was a fancy set up that had the play equipment in the shape of a train. Exciting as this looked, the teacher was strongly against this as she felt it would limit the children's imaginative play as they would only ever see it as a train, whereas play equipment with no theme could turn into anything at all - a train, a fairy house, a pirate ship, a hospital - the possibilities are endless.

I think this was a valuable lesson in allowing our kids to express themselves and find their own meaning. 

Switch them off!
By far the best way to encourage creativity is to switch off the television, take away the tablets and electronic games and let the kids create their own entertainment. 

 I've seen this effect clearly with our girls. They both have tablets and like to play games on them. I remember one time in particular (I'm sure there have been more) when I told our youngest it was time to switch her tablet off and do something else. She turned it off and put it away, then sat down looking fed up and said, "But I don't know what to do!".  
When she was sitting at her tablet playing the game, there were set moves she had to make - goals to achieve and clear instructions of how to play the game. Now that had been taken away she had to think for herself again.

On the other hand, sometimes we'll take the girls to a nearby creek to play. They find endless games to play and things to do, making dams, racing sticks, arranging stones to make pretty areas and just endless imaginary games with no instructions or anyone telling them what to do. They are never bored there!

This is the kind of play kids need to foster their creativity and encourage free thinking and independence.

How about you?
Whether it's creative play or making things, do your kids find enough time for creativity? 
How do you encourage your kids to be creative?  
Do you agree about the importance of fostering creativity in your kids?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

How to improve your kids' spelling and why it's so important.

There are plenty of spelling tests at school to study for. For example, this year our girls both have Naplan tests (standardised national testing here in Australia) which has a spelling component.  However, spelling is not just something that needs to be practised and learned for tests it is a core skill that I believe is important for all kids to work on and become proficient in.

Why is good spelling so important?

Even though a lot of school work and indeed writing in daily life is on some form of computer or tablet where a spell check is readily available, this should not be relied upon. 
  • Spell checks are not always accurate. Some words may not be known to the computer's dictionary - names for example. Or some words can be erroneously corrected to another word with a completely different meaning.
  •  Poor spelling really stands out in written work. Writing reports, essays and stories is something that students have to do more and more as they progress through school and indeed on to University then job applications. Not every situation allows for writing to be done on a computer. I believe good spelling is a necessity.
A good foundation in spelling will stand kids in good stead for future years through their schooling and on to job applications and working life.

How to improve spelling skills

Spelling is a part of reading and writing, and both of those skills should be practised by kids on a daily basis which will in turn help their spelling thanks to the repetition of words they read and write.

Focused spelling practice doesn't have to be boring repetition. Games and puzzles are a great way to practice and improve spelling skills. Wordsearches, Crossword puzzles and Hangman are easy examples.
There are also plenty of great on-line spelling games for kids. One site we've used lots and our girl's school also used for homework is spellingcity.com which has plenty of fun ways for kids to practice their spelling. You can create a free account and put in their school spelling lists too so the games are played using specific words they need to practice.

Ability builds confidence and enjoyment

Kids enjoy doing things they are good at. We have always done a lot of reading and word games with our girls as we value the importance of a good set of language skills. As a result they are both good spellers and enjoy the challenge of spelling new and bigger and bigger words.

If your child struggles with spelling or doesn't enjoy it, I would suggest lots of games first, then as their skill and confidence improves add in oral and written spelling 'challenges'.

Which words to practice with?

Any words can be used for games and spelling practice. Words that you find in books or whatever your kids are reading, or words used in conversations.

You can also get ready made spelling lists for your kids.
Each year we now print out spelling lists for their age/grade from the internet. We keep these on the fridge and use them now and again to 'challenge' the girls (not test) them in spelling words both orally and in writing, both of which are important to be able to do.
Any words that they struggle with or constantly misspell we do get them to write out several times to help the correct spelling 'stick'. They don't resent this, but happily write them out as they want to get the whole 'challenge' right the next time!
I also found a printable list of 102 commonly missspelled words which I've printed out to use too!


With the Naplan tests this year in mind, we will be making sure we continue with our spelling games and challenges with the girls - and maybe write them some notes like these ones we did in the lead up to their last Naplan tests - kids love finding mistakes made by adults!

How about you?

Do you give your kids any extra help with their spelling?
Do you agree on the importance of learning to spell well despite the ubiquitous availability of spell checks?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Backpacking with kids

We've just returned from a one month holiday backpacking in Asia with our two daughters aged 9 and 11.  Although initially apprehensive about the trip, it went so well and smoothly - all my worries disappeared as we travelled. The kids coped so well and thoroughly enjoyed the trip - seeing everything as an adventure and exciting rather than daunting or worrying.

Both Euan and I went backpacking in Asia, Europe, Australasia and the Americas around 20 years ago. We wanted to be able to share the experience of backpacking with our kids, but waited until they were old enough to be able to remember the trip and also to make it physically easier for us with them old enough to carry their own packs, and generally be quite independent rather than dependent travellers.

So did we really 'backpack'?  What is backpacking anyway? Well wikipedia defines it as:

" a form of low-cost, independent international travel. It includes the use of a backpack that is easily carried for long distances or long periods of time; the use of public transport; inexpensive lodging such as youth hostels; a longer duration of the trip when compared with conventional vacations; and an interest in meeting the locals as well as seeing the sights. It is typically associated with young adults who generally have fewer obligations and thus more time to travel. "

We did travel on a budget with backpacks as our luggage, used some public transport, stayed in cheaper guesthouses, backpacker and budget hotels and it was longer than our average one or two week family holiday. We met plenty of locals and tried to speak bits and pieces of the languages of each country. 

So yes, I'd say we were backpacking on this trip, but we also found that backpacking has changed somewhat since we travelled 20 years ago with the internet making things so much more open and able to be organised and booked in advance!

Organising the trip
Backpacking in the past for us was getting a flight to the destination we were starting in, then going from there.  Nothing much was organised in advance at all. However, I wasn't comfortable being this carefree with the kids, especially since we only had 4 weeks and planned to visit 5 countries.

We spent a lot of time researching our trip using the internet, in particular trip advisor for recommendations and advice from other travellers who had been to the places we wanted to visit. 

With a bit of internet research we found that if we booked our internal flights between countries well in advance, it would cost us the same as overnight bus or train journeys and would get us to our destination in just one or two hours instead of several. For comfort with kids, and saving time on a limited backpacking trip, we did this - booking flights with Air Asia, Vietnam Airlines and Silk Air. We booked everything online several months in advance and only had a couple of minor time schedule changes.  We could check our flight details using my smart phone and also check-in that way too. So easy and low cost too, with each flight only costing about $40 each!

Smart Phone Backpackers
Twenty years ago we travelled with no mobile phones, and emails were only just starting to spring up, and even if you had one and swapped addresses with other travellers, you had to find an internet cafe to actually send and receive messages. A travel agent shop was where you went to book flights, buses or other international transport and accommodation. There was no convenient way to check out all the accommodation options before arrival - or how much the airport taxi or tuk tuk should cost. Now, every backpacker seems to have a smart phone or tablet, and uses them to phone or message ahead to book accommodation, flights etc.  

We had most of our accomodation booked before the trip, largely via Booking.com. For those nights we hadn't booked in advance, (for family rooms) we actually still found it cheaper to book via booking.com rather than direct with the hotels! We did ask at the hotels and they matched the booking.com prices, but it showed us again just how backpacking has changed in the last 20 years!

As a family of four we wanted to all be in the same room together. Family rooms are more expensive than simple dorm beds for four people and not so common, but we still found plenty of options.  
(This was our homestay guesthouse in Hoi An, Vietnam)

We stayed in small hotels, guesthouses and also one place where we had a dorm room to ourselves - 3 bunk beds which made the kids happy as they got a top bunk each!  Every new place we stayed was exciting for the kids. Checking out our room each time was fun - seeing what beds we had, what the bathroom was like - in one place we had no hot water, just cold; another the shower was directly over the toilet so everything in the bathroom got soaked! 

and in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand there is a separate bin for your toilet paper as their sewage system can't cope with paper in the water!  
All of these things could have been a problem or discomfort but instead were just different and exciting to the girls. It was more likely us who noticed the lack of the everyday comforts we are used to.

(tuk tuk in Kratie, Cambodia)

As I mentioned earlier, we had internal flights booked in advance so didn't have much transport to organise when we were actually in Asia other than daily tuk tuk rides or taxis to the airports. 

 We did however have one side trip in Cambodia that we organised when we arrived in the country. We wanted to travel from Siem Reap - the main tourist destination where the famous Angkor Wat temple is to Kratie where we hoped to see the extremely rare and critically endangered Irawaddy dolphins. 
Kratie was an 8 hour bus ride from Kratie. The trip was easy enough to organise - we were advised to take the mini van rather than the bus as it was 5 hours quicker and was 'like a private transfer' as fewer people meant not so many stops. $50 for 4 of us for an 8 hour journey was quite a reasonable price too!

  The reality of the bus ride was, we were crammed into a small minivan which did make lots of stops to collect and drop off various passengers and parcels. There were people crammed in every available space - even on the roof!  It was a cramped, hot and uncomfortable ride - but a true backpacker experience! We were the only locals on the bus - bought deep fried tarantula to taste at one of the stops and saw plenty of the Cambodian countryside, houses and roads.  And yes, it was worth the 8 hour journey there and back again two days later as we saw lots of the dolphins, a small non-touristy out of the way town and experienced a little more of Cambodia than tourists generally do! Again I think the kids coped with the bus ride and whole side trip brilliantly, taking everything in their stride and soaking up all the new experiences.

Food and drinks
(Bun Cha in Hanoi, Vietnam)

Our girls are generally very good with food. They will try new things and both eat well. This trip was no exception. 
(Fish wrapped in banana leave, Hoi An, Vietnam)

They loved eating in the small local noodle houses and cafes, tasting local foods and unusual delicacies like snake and of course as I mentioned earlier tarantula!
(Tarantulas, bugs and quails? - tasty snacks for our bus journey to Kratie, Cambodia)

 Our youngest took a liking to Vietnamese coffee and we even bought special mini coffee percolators from the market there which she's now using at home.

We were all very careful with the water on our travels. We only drank bottled water and didn't have ice in our drinks.  Over one month of travel only our eldest daughter was sick - just once, then the next morning was absolutely fine. Euan was also sick but only for one day.  Not bad for a month of travel, 5 different countries and every day new foods and drinks!

Medical issues
Before we travelled with did get some recommended vaccinations and stocked up a small medical kit to take with us. We didn't end up needing it really at all!  My biggest worry was malaria. We were going to be in 'risk' areas but chose not to take anti-malaria tablets due to the side effects most people seem to experience when taking them.
 Nowhere we were visiting was a high risk area or anywhere where there had been any recent outbreaks. We used plenty of insect repellent, wore long sleeves and trousers a lot of the time, but actually saw very few mozzies and never got bitten.  Travelling with our kids made me more concerned about things like this than I would otherwise have been travelling independently. However, I'm happy with the precautions we took and our girls were aware of the risks and were really good about remembering to mozzie spray before we went out, cleaning their teeth with bottled water and refusing ice in their drinks.  They just accepted the 'rules' of wherever we were.

Perhaps living in Cairns, Australia, where there are often Dengue outbreaks (another serious mosquito borne disease), has accustomed us to dealing with this risk every day and we understand that the risk, as with many travel illnesses and sicknesses, is very low and highly preventable.

We waited until our kids were this age (9 and 11) to take on a backpacking trip - wanting them to remember it, but also for it to be physically easier for us. With two girls, I remember holidays when they were younger in Thailand and Bali where I had to accompany them everywhere including of course several times a day to the toilet. I know this is par for the course with young kids, but it seemed all the more tiring on holiday!

 I realised how far we've come when on our first night in Thailand we were at a small local restaurant and our youngest daughter needed the toilet, so off she went to find it herself. Later when I went, I found the toilet was out the back of the restaurant, down an alleyway and past a few more buildings on the right! Our daughter hadn't mentioned this - just accepted it as the way it was!

Seeing how much our girls have grown up and become more independent on this trip has also made me happier about letting them out and about with friends back home. They are more capable than I had realised or accepted.

Kids make the best backpackers
Overall I don't know why I was at all concerned about taking our kids on this trip. Kids love freedom and exploration and are the first to spot something that grabs their attention and ask to see it,  go there or try it out.  Although our transport and accommodation was largely pre-booked, our daily outings and explorations weren't.  We walked endlessly, exploring streets, markets, shops, temples and beaches; we ate in different places for every meal and met the locals as we tried out our newly learned phrases in Vietnamese, Cambodian or Thai.  

Our girls have grown in confidence and maturity over the course of the month long holiday. 
(Kratie, Cambodia)

We have watched them learn about different ways of life, and embrace new cultures. 
(Hoi An, Vietnam)

Our girls are quite shy but after several weeks of international travel and speaking to new people in different languages, coming back to Australia and doing the same in English seems a lot less daunting for them now.

I would highly recommend this kind of trip to families. The internet has changed 'backpacking' hugely over the past 20 years, opening up the experiences to be shared even more than before. We had wifi in every tiny little place we visited and used it lots - not least to be able to share our adventures with friends back home via Facebook and emails. 

If you enjoyed backpacking when you were younger then remember you can still travel and see countries like this with kids. Moving from place to place and experiencing cultures and different ways of life, sights, sounds, tastes and smells. 

Our kids loved every minute of it and we'd do it all again in a heartbeat!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Back to School

Today our girls went back to school for the new year 2015. After a two month summer break it's a big change in routine - especially since we've just returned from a month's family backpacking holiday in Asia.

Just now the girls are full of the excitement of the new school year. Our eldest is starting high school (grade 7 here in Australia), which means new subjects, moving around classrooms for each lesson, getting a locker, and generally feeling much more grown up.  Our youngest is starting grade 5, and this is her first year of wearing the skirt and shirt uniform rather than a dress. She will also get her school laptop in a couple of weeks time, which is another source of excitement and anticipation.

Both girls have Naplan tests this year (government standardized school testing) which is something we will be looking at over the coming weeks and months.

After school sports and activities will start to begin over the next few weeks, and afternoons will begin to fill up with swimming, hockey, chess and who knows what new things this year!

The beginning of a school year is always full of promise and excitement. We're all hoping to make the most of the opportunities it presents to our girls and to us as a family.

Let's see what the school year of 2015 will bring!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Teaching your kids to be an individual

The ALS ice-bucket challenge

Yesterday, I watched a snippet of video of an Australian newsreader, nominated for the ALS ice-bucket challenge, politely declining to do it.  He did so by explaining his reasoning behind his decision. You can watch that video here.  This video provoked a huge reaction in the comments - both positive and negative.  Personally, I think he explained his reasoning very well. The ice-bucket challenge has raised awareness of the disease ALS and has also raised a large amount of money. Celebrities, friends, acquaintances, everyone seems to be getting involved but I admire this newsreader for his courage to stand up and be an individual; not just follow along, even though the movement in favour of the challenge is huge. Everyone has the right to their own opinions and choices.

This video, together with a couple of other things I read and saw recently, made me think about peer pressure, and how to teach our kids to stand up for what they believe in, no matter what everyone else around them is doing.

"The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

Have you heard this expression, also known as "the tall poppy syndrome"? These expressions show the importance of 'fitting in'. Which let's admit, most of us want to do.

We learn what is and isn't acceptable within society or a group and we conform to a large extent in order to be accepted.

When peer pressure and conforming is good

Sometimes, peer pressure can be a good thing. It can help us overcome fears, perhaps try new things that we wouldn't otherwise try.  It can give us the courage to do things that may be difficult. 

For example, at my girls' school assembly this week, they showed a video of an actor pretending to be injured in the street. The video showed just how many people ignored the man, despite his calls for help. Individuals were reluctant to help. However, once one person decided to see if the man was ok, more people joined in, trying to be of assistance.  The idea was to show that it's often easier to do things when we work together - safety in numbers so to speak. Everyone likes to be part of the group. Most people don't want to be the one to stand out and do something different.

But - what if we didn't have those few people who make the first move, initiate the movements?

How do we teach our kids when it's important to stand out and be different?

To put it simply, I think we need to instil values and beliefs in our children at a young age, and the importance of staying true to these values.

How do you know when it's OK to succumb to peer pressure?  and when to resist?  You have to follow your own values and beliefs. If they are clear and strong enough in your child's mind, then you have to hope they have the courage to stand by them, regardless of what people around them may say or think.

It's also important to lead by example, show them that you take the initiative at times and start movements rather than just follow the crowd. 
Encourage your children to follow through with ideas they have for things to do. To start clubs, or try new sports and activities that aren't just ones their friends do already.

By encouraging our kids to be individuals, we are showing them how to be leaders not just followers.

There is nothing wrong with following a movement and getting involved with a group or activity that you enjoy and want to join and become a part of.  But I believe it is vital to teach our kids the importance of having their own opinions and ideas, and not being afraid to act upon them and stick to them, even when it means going against the majority.

Are you someone who is happy to stand out from the crowd for your own beliefs and values?  Do you agree that we should teach our children to stand out, not just fit in?


Monday, July 21, 2014

Zero Waste

Recently we've been trying to reduce the waste we send to landfill each week from our household. We've been looking at ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Our girls are really enjoying getting involved with this and together they made this video to show what and why we're doing it!

I'm impressed at how they made this video by themselves - learning to use Windows Movie Maker. They had lots of fun and I'm sure will be making more movies in the future!

Meanwhile - this one they're hoping to get shown at school to encourage their classmates to reduce, reuse and recycle more!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Colouring competitions

Do your kids ever enter colouring in competitions? Did you when you were a kid? Ever win anything?
When I was a kid I won third prize in the local supermarket colouring competition and my brother won second. He got a big cuddly Gnu (yes a Gnu!) and I won a big cuddly panda.  I was always very proud of that win, but when I was older, my mum told me that only 3 people entered the competition, which I have to say crushed my colouring in pride significantly!

However, now that I am a parent myself, I can see that it was probably true!

Our local library hosts colouring in competitions each school holidays to win cinema tickets. My girls both like colouring in, and have been entering these competitions for a few years now. Most of the time they win tickets!  This time my youngest won the grand prize too which was a swingball set!

Both girls also won a double cinema pass to see Rio 2, so we had a family trip to the movies too.

I don't think there are many kids enter these competitions. Maybe kids prefer playing on their computers and tablets to colouring in.

It just goes to show it's always worth giving things a try. You've got to be in it to win it!

What competitions have your kids entered? Have they won anything?

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