Friday, 14 August 2015

Summer break

We have been so lucky with the weather for the past two weeks that I have to admit that our days have focused far more on cheap outings than work. Charlie logs onto MyMaths when I remind him and we have had some more lessons on division, but other than that we have been enjoying our freedom from structured work.

Popcorn division with me
Lego division with Dad
Apart from being fun for all of us, these outings are an essential part of Tom's therapy, enabling him to maintain his confidence at going outside so that he is able to cope with school in September. He and Charlie are getting along really well at the moment and very much enjoy each other's company.

One day last week, we took the boys to a fete in Glynde and I was really impressed by how well Tom coped with the crowds. He distracted himself by playing with Charlie in the playground at first.

Then we all sat down to watch a traditional Punch and Judy show.

After lunch in a nearby tea shop, we went back to the fete to listen to live music from a local band. Both boys loved the music.

On another day, we walked to a local beauty spot on the South Downs and enjoyed a picnic on the grass.

Charlie loved exploring the hills and woods nearby.

One morning, my husband drove us to a 'surprise' venue, having challenged us with a riddle to solve on the way. He said the place we were going to was somewhere we had been over, but never through. We came up with all kinds of answers on the drive there, but none were right. Finally, we the Ouse Valley viaduct in Balcombe.

This was another free trip which the boys loved. Both were enthusiastic about the structure and impressed by how much work and time it must have taken the Victorians to build it.

Our most exciting outing has to be our trip to see the Perseid meteor shower earlier this week. We left after dinner, having packed picnic rugs, bottles of water and torches, and drove to Ashdown Forest, where we could be assured of proper darkness. Lying on our rugs, watching the sky darkening and the stars come out, was impressive enough in itself, but when the first meteor flashed briefly across the sky we were all awe-struck. After that first one, we were treated to a display of about one every five minutes, some of them long and bright enough to leave trails across the sky. It was a wonderful experience. We drove home sometime after 11 and I made the boys hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows on before they went to bed. 

So we may not be practising Times Tables or handwriting much at the moment, but I think the boys are learning something even more important: how to enjoy life and relationships. And, hopefully, they are also building happy memories.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Getting outdoors


I am probably more aware than most parents of the importance of getting children outside. Having struggled for so long to get my older son out of the front door, I really appreciate the fact that he is now able to go out again. However, being indoors so much has undoubtedly taken its toll on his health and it's going to take time for him to rebuild his stamina and his stores of vitamin D.

This summer, my focus is on making sure the children have plenty of opportunities for outdoor play. It is important that Tom continues to go out regularly, so that he keeps practising overcoming his anxieties and for the general benefits of getting outside, including exercise and reduced stress. It's hard work, but I have been able to get the boys out most days, either on walks to our local playground or park, or further afield if my husband is around to take us in the car. We are mostly meeting the guidelines that children get at least one hour a day of physical exercise.

Our local playground is invaluable. I enjoy seeing how well Tom and Charlie get on together when they are messing around on the equipment or chasing each other.

There are lots of opportunities there for different kinds of exercise, such as climbing...


... balancing...

...and, of course, playing chase. Together, these provide aerobic and strength-building exercises, as well as improving flexibility. Children need this exercise to build strong muscles and bones.

The playground is also a sociable place:

Chatting with a friend on the swings

At least once a week, when the weather allows, we go on a trip further afield. So far, we have been on a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington and on to Alfriston for a pub lunch and also to the beach at Tidemills near Newhaven.

Skimming stones at the beach
Today, we went to Ashdown Forest, the place that inspired the tales of 'Winnie the Pooh' by A.A. Milne. We parked the car at Gill's Place and followed the walk that took us past Pooh's Enchanted Place. Charlie insisted on carrying a large stick with him for the entire walk. Perhaps it was Pooh's North Pole.

We ended up at the memorial stone commemorating A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard.

We had a lovely walk, with lots of opportunities to wander off the beaten track and explore the woods. Charlie was especially struck by the beautiful landscapes and stood for ages, admiring the view. He reminded me of Gandalf with his staff.

As the weather promises to be good for the next few days, we are looking forward to many more of these trips.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The Roald Dahl Museum

Charlie loves the books of Roald Dahl and has read and re-read several of them, so last week we went on a round trip of about 180 miles so that we could visit the Roald Dahl Museum, based in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.

Roald Dahl moved to this small village in 1954 and lived there until his death in 1990. His second wife, Felicity "Liccy" Crosland, was the driving force behind the establishment of the museum, which took nine years to set up in an old coaching inn and yard. It houses Dahl's collection of manuscripts, photographs, 'Ideas Books' and letters. Two galleries (titled 'Boy' and 'Solo') tell Dahl's life story and a third gallery, called the 'Story Centre', provides inspiration for children to have a go at making up their own stories.

The museum was being painted when we arrived, but the ladders didn't detract from the entertaining exterior: the words, 'It is truly swizzfigglingly flushbunkingly gloriumptious' were painted in large letters along the front of the building and the BFG peered into an upstair's window.

One of Quentin Blake's monkeys held a sign directing us to 'Cafe Twit':

And Mr Willy Wonka struck a familiar flamboyant pose in the shop window:

Once inside, we noticed Dahl's words everywhere. This sign was next to the front desk:

After buying our tickets and being handed a Dahl-inspired notebook and a quiz to fill in, we went first into the gallery about Dahl's boyhood, entering through two giant 'chocolate' doors.

This gallery houses many photos of Dahl's childhood:

Dahl's old letters were fascinating and entertaining to read. Many included humorous tales of pranks that Dahl played as a boy, including the time he put a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers at the local sweet shop because the owner, Mrs Pratchett, was so mean. There were also old school reports, one of which was not very flattering. Placing him 19th out of 20 pupils, it said, 'He started the term badly with some fits of sulks, but has improved a great deal the last three weeks.'  A second teacher added, begrudgingly, 'He has shown some slight improvement but could doubtless do a good deal better.' It just goes to show that our performance at school doesn't necessarily predict our success in life.

The second gallery focuses on Dahl's working life, including his time as a fighter pilot and his writing career. The gallery features his writing hut, which was transported from his house and displays the many mementoes and odd objects Dahl collected over the years (such as the 'ball joint' from the top of his femur, removed during a hip operation and given to him by his surgeon).

There were lots of hands-on exhibits for children to enjoy, such as drawers to pull out containing various items from Dahl's life (even his false teeth!). Charlie enjoyed having a go on the quiz machine, which tested him on his knowledge of Dahl's works.

The third main room housed the Story Centre, which was full of creative ideas to inspire children. It also included a detailed model taken from the film of 'The Fantastic Mr Fox'. Charlie noticed that the designers had even included a replica of the ball of foil that Dahl kept on the table in his writing hut (made up from a collection of chocolate wrappers).

Film set from Wes Anderson's 'Fantastic Mr Fox'

Charlie had a go at inventing his own words, just as Dahl had done:


Then he constructed a short narrative film:

And he had a go at writing a nonsense poem, using magnetic words:

Before we left, we paid a visit to the Twit Cafe for some lunch. We were relieved to find a spread of delicious cakes and sandwiches, rather than the disgusting left-over sardines, cheese and cornflakes found in Mr Twit's beard.

Charlie filled in his quiz (carefully writing in neat joined-up handwriting - the product of hours of handwriting practice), then handed it in at the desk. The winner will win a token to spend in the gift shop.

To be honest, I was surprised at how small the museum was, but this was more than made up for by the content. It's obvious from its excellent website that the museum also has a busy programme of visits from children's authors, as well as other literary events. It also holds workshops for schools.

We enjoyed browsing in the gift shop before walking through the town to the local church to visit Dahl's grave.

The grave is on the left-hand side as you approach the church, near a tree with a bench underneath. Two giant's footprints lead from the bench to the grave - a lovely touch.

We came home from our museum trip with a cache of leaflets, worksheets and the Dahl story book:

And Charlie had also bought a cardboard 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' kit to build, as well as a Dahl cookery set, complete with cookbook.

I brought just one thing home with me: Dahl's reminder to parents everywhere.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Seaside holiday

It has been three years since we had a family holiday. Our last one ended badly, as Tom couldn't cope with his anxiety at being away from home. It was so stressful for all of us that we decided not to do it again until he could handle it. 

Recently, Tom astonished us by saying, "I think I'd like to go on holiday again." We were cautious in our response and gave him time to think about it. He remained resolute, his confidence boosted by his recent success at school. We decided that we should go as soon as possible to make the most of the quiet time before mainstream schools broke up for the holidays.

At first, Michael thought of driving us all up to the Lake District, but this was too far away for Tom to consider. He said three hours' drive was the most he could manage. We looked at the map and saw that Dorset, an old favourite of ours, was almost exactly three hours away. The weather forecast was good for the next few days, so I booked a family room in a hotel and we started packing.

We arrived at our hotel in Beaminster late afternoon last Wednesday. Charlie was especially excited as he said he's never stayed in a hotel before. That's not exactly true, but he couldn't really remember the previous time.

Both boys were delighted to discover that the family room we'd booked provided them with a separate bedroom each, leading off from the main bedroom. Charlie was also very excited by the drinks provided.

Once we'd unpacked and settled in, we drove to Lyme Regis. Memories flooded back for Tom, who'd last visited the town when he was six and I was pregnant with Charlie. My most vivid memory is of sitting at the hotel table at breakfast, eating bowls of cereal, full English and slice after slice of toast because I was so hungry. I was only a few months' pregnant, so the guests and staff must have thought I was just incredibly greedy.

On this occasion, we walked along the seafront, looking for somewhere to eat fish and chips and enjoying the view. Tom was so happy to be outside and insisted on walking right to the end of the Cobb.

Baby seagull

Charlie trying his luck in the games arcade

After eating our meal outside at a pub overlooking the sea, we returned to our hotel for an early night.

As usual, Charlie read before he fell asleep. He loved the fact that he had a little bookshelf besides his bed, complete with a Beatrix Potter library, to which he was able to add his 'Dr Who' novels.

The next morning, we were up early to enjoy the hotel breakfast, then we drove to Seatown for some fossilling on the beach. We walked for ages before finding a suitable spot to set up camp and get out the hammer and chisel.

Charlie had never been fossilling before, but Tom remembered doing it with his Dad several years ago. He had been passionately interested in fossils and gems at the time. Both boys worked together, chiselling bits of rock and marvelling at the number of fossils and imprints of fossils that they found.

That evening we ate out again at the same pub in Lyme Regis, then went home to an early bed, exhausted by all our walking and the time spent in the sun.

On Friday morning, we drove home, breaking up the journey by stopping off at the New Forest.

The boys marvelled at the sight of the ponies standing freely in the car parks and walking along the roads.

We would have gone for a walk in the forest, but the break from routine had taken its toll on Tom, who was tired and stressed. Instead, we suggested the boys sit outside in the sunshine for a little, whilst we took some photographs.

We arrived home on Friday evening, slightly stunned by the fact that we'd managed a holiday. It's such a normal, pleasurable thing for most families, but for those on the autism spectrum a holiday can be a source of great stress, not pleasure. However, Tom had obviously enjoyed it because a few hours after arriving home, he announced, "I think I'd like to go abroad next."

Now we just have to start saving.