Author Archives: hattie

Free online activities for younger kids


Okay, so there is a lot of free content out on the internet that is available for both kids and adults, but much of it isn’t as ‘free’ as it might appear. Many apps are great fun for a few minutes worth of distraction but soon require in-app purchases in order to continue. Even some well-respected sites are full of advertising that can lead younger ones off in the wrong direction, unless they are being supervised. Good online activities should be fun, engaging and even promote education and you don’t have to pay for them, if you know where to look. Here’s some examples of the sort of thing kids will like and that parents can be confident in.

Marvellous Marvel

Much-loved by younger children, Marvel’s characters include Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Fortunately, Marvel Kids produce age appropriate content for free on their website. This includes the sort of platform and ladder type games that younger children seem to pick up so instinctively and which can be played on a tablet or a PC. And if you don’t fancy your kids spending too much time in front of the screen, there are mazes, word searches and even sodokus that children can complete, helping to promote more educational activities whilst still inhabiting the make-believe world of super-heroes.

Jump to Jumpstart is a good resource for finding activities for kids according to their age. An American site, it lists some of these according to the US grade system, but parents can also easily navigate by looking for activities suited to four-year-olds, for example. As well as games, the site features holiday activities and worksheets. The worksheets range from simple colouring in type activities to science and maths ones. You can even find worksheets that encourage critical thinking and social studies, covering subjects like Polar exploration and ecology in depth.

Learning to Read

Younger children who are learning to read can find many opportunities to access stories and non-fiction online, but not all sites are specifically geared towards phonics learning. In many cases, those site that are genuine phonics resources only offer temporary access to their content during a free trial period. Fortunately, Starfall, a registered charity, offers free reading material that is phonics-based, mirroring the sort of reading done at school, and which can be accessed in a helpful way for a variety of reading skills. There is some content that parents need to pay for, primarily aimed at home educators, but there are plenty of online books kids can browse through and read without needing any expenditure at all. Another good site to head to for phonics material is which allows parents to download PDFs. It also has a handy instructional guide to help adults get the best results from the activities, when they are assisting children with their learning.

If Free our Kids made libraries…

They would probably look like this:


Actually, we do, and it does. As of Saturday, we have a little box attached to our front garden wall, with a perspex window and a clasp to one side, so passing strangers can stop, open it, browse the books inside and take them home for free if they fancy.

My father in law built it, after we were inspired by the Little Free Library movement. They were swamped by requests for libraries, so we decided to make our own.

We have so many books in this house. Lots, we’re over-sentimentally attached to and couldn’t part with. But others, especially kids books, we should really declutter. And we thought, too, that it would be kind of nice to teach Johnny that there’s a thrill attached to passing nice things on, as well as receiving mountains of lurid, superhero branded plastic.


So we did. We put the library up in the morning, chose some books that J doesn’t read anymore, dropped them into the library and then waited for our first customers. I’ll admit I had my doubts. On the urban thoroughfare on which we live, I could see it being used as a deposit box for fried chicken boxes and beer cans, or worse: a public urinal.

It didn’t take long to find out. Within two hours, our supply of books was gone and there were, as yet, no take-aways or tins. But the best was still to come.

On the front of our library, we’d invited people to take a book for free, but also to replace the stock with their own unwanted books if possible. And the next day,  a mystery pile of books appeared inside. Those were gone by the end of Sunday but on Monday, a new pile arrived. It’s been going on like that for a few days.

We don’t know who are mystery users are, and neither do we know our undercover donors. But there’s something really exciting about people giving anonymously like that, without any personal glory or recognition. Plus, four days in and all our donations have been of the literary rather than litter-y kind.

AND, my kids now watch the window for potential customers instead of the TV. So, everyone is winning.

Oh and, yes, the library is a former wine box. Champagne socialist, moi?


The ultimate parenting hack: let’s play housework

I think I may be a little late to this party. But it’s transformed my life to the extent that I can’t NOT write about it, even at the risk of it being yawnably obvious to you all.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the ultimate, free activity for kids: doing the housework.

In fact, it’s better than free. For the hideously lucky among you who actually employ a cleaner it may be money saving.

I’m going to file this in my ‘so simple it’s genius’ folder, alongside my ‘how to go birdwatching’ post and ‘how to have a simple birthday party’ post. Because basically what you do is this:

1)   Assemble your kit: dustpan and brush, big brush, window cleaning spray, sponge (Mr Muscle and cloth if you’re confident your infant prodigy will not spray himself in the eyes, necessitating a trip to A&E that would be even more loathsome than the original chore)

2)   Tell your child they have an IMMENSELY GROWN UP responsibility, but they have only ONE CHANCE to get this right and show how mature they are otherwise they will lose this FANTASTIC PRIVELEGE altogether

3)   Let them clean the house while you sit. Somewhere. Anywhere.

I don’t know why I didn’t attempt this sooner. I’m constantly reading blog posts in which parents extol the virtues of their little darlings being involved in household chores, detailing just how much Petunia adores laying the table and little Cinderella loves darning the household’s socks etc etc.

It never occurred to me that it was doable in my house, where there is literally nothing, not a square centimetre, to which I could attach the phrase ‘sparkling clean’; the kids’ don’t own vintage pinnies in which they could look simultaneously cute and contributive; and mess seems to mount counterattacks if you are ever foolish enough to challenge it and therefore generally is in the ascendant.

Also, more generally: if I feel murderous when presented with a mop, why would the kids feel any differently? AND YET THEY DO!

Because a couple of weeks ago, J asked me  – ASKED ME – if he could sweep the baby’s sticky, smeared lunch from under the high chair. It was like being hit across the head with a meteor. I mutely handed over the dustpan and brush and watched him sweep, meticulously, before walking over to the bin, tipping the contents in, and hanging up the brush.

Since then, I have offered to let him:

Sweep the kitchen floor: tick.

Clean the windows: tick

Do a bit of dusting: tick

Lay the table: tick

Ok, he doesn’t always make a perfect job of it, but hell, neither do I. It keeps him happily and relatively quietly occupied. I’m certain a little dose of gender-equality-medicine is good for him, since up to now he’s stubbornly referred to Mummy’s kitchen while the lawnmower remains Daddy’s. He likes a real task, seeming to find genuine satisfaction in something that’s not a game manufactured for children and I haven’t had to give him any incentives other than my visible amazement, the odd digestive biscuit and a bit of positive reinforcement.

So until I get a Karcher Steam Cleaner, I am officially signing myself off from cleaning duties. (Does anyone have one of these contraptions? They look like so space age, like something from The Jetsons (tell me you remember The Jetsons?). I’m up for cleaning if all you have to do is wave a wand over the mess in a vague manner and -poof – it’s gone. Also, if I can look like a futuristic magician in the process.)

What other household jobs can four year olds be expected to do and enjoy, do you think?

[This is a collaborative post.]

The budget birthday party (or: how my home transformed into a tacky-tastic Octonaut tribute)


Somebody get me one of those t-shirts, the ones that say: “I had a fourth birthday party IN MY OWN HOME  and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” Or simply: “SURVIVOR” emblazoned over my chest. Because… we did it. And, whisper it, it wasn’t at all difficult. Or scary. Or ruinous.

Sure we were a bit tired after. And the house was a bit of a mess. But it took a couple of hours to clear everything away and after that, there was no sign of it. Nothing to suggest that, a short while ago, twenty four-year-olds had rampaged round the house, inhaling cake, mauling a giant cardboard robot and dancing in a hail of ripped up wrapping paper.

If anything it was a bit cleaner than before, since we’d been forced to have one of our extremely rare ‘proper spring cleans’, leaving me to think that maybe we should commit to having kids parties in the house at regular intervals simply from a health and hygiene perspective.


Here’s how it went down…

The night before, we kicked Johnny out to have a sleep over at his friend’s house. Then, two friends arrived on a promise of wine and food in exchange for help creating an Octonaut-themed paradise out of a few balloons, some old paper plates and tissue paper.

By midnight, and several bottles later, we had pushed the furniture to the edges, carried a lot of the clutter upstairs and created the following:

-       An extremely wonky chocolate cake, covered in blue icing, with a ‘coral reef’ covering of smarties and several plastic Octonauts dug out of the toy box and propped up on top. The wonkiness, we passed off as waves. It worked brilliantly, but only because four year olds don’t know that there aren’t waves at the bottom of the sea.

-       A ‘pin the patch on Kwazi’ game, composed of: a laminated print out of Kwazi’s face stuck to an art easel, several laminated eye patches with blue tac stuck to the back of them, and Tom’s handkerchief to tie round small heads and render them temporarily blind while an eyepatch was put in their hand and they tried to stick it in the right place on Kwazi’s face. This was a real winner. Less so for the hungover parents being spun around rather over-zealously by their offspring…


-       Octonaut ‘treasure’ (laminated printouts of various octonaut symbols), hidden round the garden as a treasure hunt for the kids (and then rehidden and rehidden as they handed them in… Got to make them run off that sugar…), found online for free, here, here, and here

-       An Octonaut birthday banner, found online as a free download, here

-       Octonaut posters and table decorations, found online as a free download, here

-       A kelp forest for the kids to walk through (read, ‘scrunched up, long strands of blue and green tissue paper tied to a piece of string across the sitting room)

-       Jelly fish hanging from the ceiling (read, ‘more blue and green tissue paper hanging from paper plates’)


-       Twenty gingerbread men and twenty little tubes of icing with which the kids could decorate them (bought from Iceland on the extremely cheap)

-       Jam sandwiches, hoola hoops, carrot sticks, cheese sandwiches, sweets (and tea for the adults) Because, really, why get them anything smarter when all they really want is sugar and the opportunity to run it off (see treasure hunt, above)

-       A pass the parcel with some stickers from the pound shop

-       Party bags (paper bags, yet another free downloadable octonaut symbol printed out onto white stickers and slapped on the front… inside: some Octonaut colouring sheets and puzzles – free to print out from here)

And, the piece de resistance, my afor-mentioned friend, Ellie, inside this cardboard robot, made by a friend of mine as a Halloween costume and borrowed for the occasion. We played ‘Simon says’ but using ‘Robot says’ instead. The kids loved it. There was a rugby scrum over who could hug the robot/maul the robot/push the robot over. I think we may have put Ellie off the idea of ever having babies.


In all it cost us £60, a lot of energy and a bit of a hangover (the side effect of bribing friends with wine the night before). We gained: 20 happy kids, one over-the-moon birthday boy and, unexpectedly, a slightly cleaner home full of totally wonderful happy memories. A win, I think.


new year’s resolutions

STOP PRESS. I’ve been doing my tax return. I knew you’d all want to know because, really, if there’s anything more exciting than your own tax return, it’s someone else’s.

Anyway, in the midst of this scintillating exercise, and half way through a year’s worth of bank statements, I suddenly had a horrible realisation: a good third of my transactions, across the year, were either connected to Tesco or petrol.

What kind of a global citizen am I?! I thought I was a good traveller. I thought I took the bus as much as I could, and only used the car sparingly, but clearly I am deluded. I am as much of a petrol head as the next gas guzzler. I can’t afford all this petrol and it’s not good for the planet. But how else to transport two small children? I’ll take the bus when I can, obviously. But for those trips that require two or three changes on the bus, when you’re dragging two, tired and tantruming kids along with you? Not fun. I’d take the bike, but with two children? I don’t trust myself to balance two bike seats on my crappy old machine, and while I’d LOVE one of these, I can’t afford one. The idea of pulling them behind me in a trailer makes me shudder, especially on our traffic-laden roads… Thoughts?

The same goes for shopping. I do most of my vegetable shopping at the local market, and we get our meat delivered monthly from a brilliant farm (this one, as it goes, check it out… it doesn’t look cheap on the face of it, but having a single monthly delivery means we actually limit the amount of meat we eat and ensures its really good quality) But clearly, my assumptions that I was a relatively ethical shopper are just as much of a fantasy.

All those quick nips into the supermarket for pick up a last minute this, or a last minute that… they all add up. Not to a fortune, but to a significant amount. An amount I could really use trimming down on, spent in a place I’d rather not support. I’m no food zealot, but if I can shop elsewhere, support smaller businesses and do my bit for standing up to the Tescopolisation of the British high street, I’d really quite like to.

So what to do? I’ve been digging out and borrowing some thrifty cookbooks, like this one, and this, and I’m also embarking on a new year’s resolution to get a good store cupboard together: all the essential basics so that I have them to hand and don’t end up nipping to the Tesco Metro at short notice to pick things up. Dried goods, like lentils, rice, essential spices, olive oil…. Some friends of mine even have their own ‘buying group’ organised – a group of local friends who put in bulk orders collectively from this ethical supplier, making it cheaper for them all and better for the planet too…

Any ideas for me? What would be in your store cupboard of essentials?