Dragging up the toddler. For free


So after rambling about the challenges of bringing up the baby for free last week, I started thinking about what battles we’re likely to face with Johnny this year.

He’s definitely more obstinate single-minded willful independent than he was last year. Less easily led. Actually, that’s wrong. He’s more independent from ME. Less easily led by ME. But when it comes to his peers? The opposite is true. The kids at nursery have fireman Sam backpacks? WE NEED ONE. And we need to talk about this urgent need all morning, as we eat our toast, while pulling on my sleeve as I feed the baby, while I’m trying to reverse into a parking space that has suddenly shrunk mid-manoeuvre without denting the Porsche that’s worth more than our collective lives, every time I try to pull off the pretence of professionalism on a phone call to every vaguely important person who calls…


This could well drive me crazy had I not come up with A Cunning Plan. I am particularly proud of this particular Cunning Plan because it knocks down several skittles simultaneously, accomplishing, in one move, the following:

1) regularly exhausting him to the point where he is too tired to form the words required to whine about Fireman Sam tatt

2) giving him a big gang of kids, a pack to run in – something he seems to really need at this new stage in his life

3) reminding him, weekly, of the fact that free stuff can be as fun as a Fireman Sam tatt (even if the effect only lasts a couple of hours…)

4) making sure that this new gang are ALL enthusiastic about free stuff, thereby engineering an antidote of sorts to the usual ‘stuff orientated’ peer pressure.

5) providing some kind of regular focused activity without shelling out money we can’t really spare (since ‘focus’ is an area we, erm, need to work on a little)


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: our Woodcraft Folk group.

Ok, stick with me. I know how it sounds. I assure you there is no compulsory veganism involved and only a small amount of whittling.

I can’t speak for other groups, but ours basically works like this: a happy collection of hippies, atheists, those a little squeamish about all the ‘dib dib dibbing’ involved in Scouts and those who just like to get our snotty-nosed, urban kids outdoors relatively regularly. The official description on the website goes like this:


At Woodcraft Folk we believe passionately in equality and co-operation – everyone is welcome to join our groups.

Every week thousands of volunteers and young people meet in school halls, community venues and a host of other places to learn about big ideas through fun activities like singing, playing and debating. 

Our aim is to have great fun, but also to try and develop children’s self-confidence and build their awareness of society around them.

Through our activities, outings and camps we help our members understand important issues like the environment, world debt and global conflict and, in recent years, we have focused on sustainable development.

By encouraging children to think, we hope they will help build a peaceful, fairer world.


So at the end of last year, we got together with about 20 local families to start our own group. Since it’s entirely democratic and there’s no ‘Brown Owl’ calling the shots, home economics badges to tick off or correct uniforms to starch, we set our own guidelines. In the end, they seemed to boil down, basically, to this: let’s get the kids together once a week, outdoors whenever the weather allows, and organise an activity that’s fun and fosters creativity, collaboration and a bit of a sense of how amazing the world is.


So since the beginning of this year we’ve started meeting once a week – on Tuesday evenings three times a month, and on a Sunday afternoon once a month. The parents all take turns to run an activity: a recycling fashion show with egg cartons and old boxes; mud-volcano making; building time capsules.

The sessions cost nothing to attend, we got some basic funding from another local group to set things up, we’re relaxed about the fact that half the kids will run wild and uncooperatively around on the edges of the activity, and we enjoy each others’ company.


It’s really kind of great. As I’m new to this kind of thing, I feel a kind of evangelical gratitude to have found it. Does anyone else belong to a Woodcraft group? Or have other arrangements for entertaining their toddlers for free?

There’s info on how to set your own group up here if not. DO IT. You’ll love it. And I promise you wont have to wear vegetarian shoes.


UPDATE: I’ve just remembered other useful links for setting up this kind of gig. The fantastic Junkaholique blog recently wrote about the outdoor kids activities that the Wildlife Trust runs in their neck of the (literal) woods. And my favourite Seeds and Stitches wrote about the nature play groups that are dotted about the country. Any others I’ve forgotten?

Bringing up baby. Free.


How time flies when you’re having fun/having next to no sleep/having to spend every waking hour tending to the needs of a very sweet, very short and very particular little dictator.

I sat down and did the maths last night (the poor second child doesn’t have her age etched into our hearts and breathlessly recounted in weeks, days and minutes like her older brother did, and I realised I was slightly hazy on the details). FOUR months. FOUR MONTHS OLD. How did that happen?

Boy is she lovely. But also: boy is she growing. In all sorts of ways that are sending me scurrying to Freecyle and Preloved and Facebook and friends, on the hunt for things that might satisfy her voracious needs.



She has now burst – in spectacularly chubby, Michelin tyred fashion –  out of all the clothes we collected for her before the birth. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to start hunting down a whole new wardrobe in 3-6 and 6-9 months.

Things I’ve learnt: I need to move faster. Monster-muncher that he is, Johnny wasn’t growing anything like this fast when I started the project last year. So I haven’t learnt how to update – for free – a wardrobe that changes as fast as Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection. Easy it ain’t. Do-able, I think it probably is.

I just need to anticipate our needs earlier, start hunting for the next size up before she’s literally bursting at the seams. With what we’ve gathered and the few bits and bobs that we saved from Johnny’s babyhood, I think we’re safe for the next few months. And then we’ll breathe a sigh of relief when summer arrives and I can have a happy naked baby for a few months.

Last weekend we hit the jackpot: in an attic in Tom’s parent’s house, a box full of seventies baby clothes – a treasure trove of smocking, knickerbockers and candy-cane stripes. Apparently they tried to sell it all to a second-hand shop recently and they wouldn’t take it, so clearly it’s not to everyone  - or even most people’s – tastes. But I LOVE IT ALL. It’s so much more beautifully made than any of the modern hand-me-downs that Frida has had. Lovely as they are, I can’t see of them lasting several decades and multiple cousins-worth of wear and tear.

Perhaps that’s the trouble with baby clothes these days? Rather than the need to last for future generations, they’re designed with fashion foremost in mind. And fashion’s fleeting, right? So who cares if they last.

A question though: what’s with all the tiny eyelets and fiddly buttons? Did vintage babies not wriggle?



Gone are the days when I could leave her to flirt with a light fitting (any light fitting) for the length of a nice cup of tea and a short magazine piece. Girl needs stuff. Colours, movement, things to squeeze into submission in her iron grip.

So do we finally have to admit that we need some battery operated, singing, dancing and drive-you-crazy-with-my-incessant-jingle toys?

I’m not sure. Upstairs, we still have Johnny’s old cot mobile, which is one of those plastic-fantastic, Mozart playing monstrosities and, dammit, she LOVES it. I don’t for a minute buy into all the claims it made about enhancing development, co-ordination, tap-dancing and Mandarin-mastering skills but it keeps her quiet and happy for up to twenty whole minutes at a time. Frankly, they don’t have to make any other claims to win me over, heart and soul.

But I HATE it. The tunes hammer away into my frontal cortex so that I’m still humming them at ten at night. I hum them in bars. I hum them in meeting with important people. I hum them in my dreams. I am so, SO unwilling to add to this maddening kiddy cacophony, melting my mind. But she needs SOMETHING  to play with downstairs.

We borrowed a friend’s bouncy chair, which is great but doesn’t have toys to entertain her too. So I’m on the hunt. I found a jungle gym for sale on our amazing local facebook page. After I emailed, the seller agreed that I could borrow it for six weeks or so  - in return for some cake (made my me), marmalade (made by my mother in law) and eggs (made by her hens). Then I’ll give it back, nice and clean and hopefully not too badly mauled by the mini-me, and she can relist it for sale. Everyone’s a winner.

I’m also going to give these beautiful DIY mobiles a go, from the always-inspiring Seeds and Stitches blog. Her’s look beautiful. Mine won’t. But maybe they’ll entertain her anyway and I can always tell people that Johnny made them.

As the weather warms up, I’m going to try and spend as much time as possible outside with her – are the swaying branches of a tree as captivating as a mobile?

But what about things to chew on, shake and rattle? Does she need a bloody Sophie the Giraffe?


We’re introducing the odd bottle over here. I have an old manual pump that seems to do the job fine (I don’t want to try a nice, modern electric one, for fear of discovering how much easier it is… On the other hand, it’s not really a job that any amount of money and technology can made glamorous, is it?)

A friend’s neighbour dropped a mountain of used bottles on her (not literally on her, you understand). Anyway, this friend didn’t need all of them so between the ones she let us have and a few swaps that appeared online, we’re covered for the moment.

Frida also gets a prescription for formula because she has problems with cow’s milk (an intolerance! She’s already so much trendier than her parents…) so when the time comes for us to make the switch that’ll actually be free too.

But what do we do when we need the next teat size up? And sterilising. Do we need to get our hands on a proper steriliser? What does it do that a good boil in a large pan wouldn’t do? As ever, answers on a postcard urgently requested please…

How to: upcycle. 1 jumper = 3 baby items


I’m all for recycling and reusing, me. And unisex clothes – that’s my bag [in my bag?]. I don’t want Frida to grow up thinking she needs the latest Disney princess gear in order to be a heroine. Far from it.

And yet… there’s something a bit difficult about passing a beautiful little dress in a shop window and looking down and seeing my little girl in her brother’s old blue dungarees. Again. And so it was that I decided to pay a visit to Kimberley at Mini Magpie. The original upcycling Queen, she was making beautiful, colourful, unisex, brilliantly bizarre kids’ clothes out of old jumpers and charity shop finds before Pininterest and Etsy were even a twinkle in your crafty eye.

I took along an old jumper of mine, a nice green wool one that I accidentally managed to hot wash (the fate of all my best woollens) and became just an infuriatingly tiny bit too small and an infuriatingly tiny bit too felty to wear. And here’s where I get a bit evangelical because: Lo! What miracle did she perform? Three, totally free, absolutely lovely, beautiful soft (the material having had all its bothersome new-item-itchiness pre-worn out of it), unique pieces of kids’ clothes for the baby. Like all the best afternoons spent in the company of inspiring women, I came away determined to do better. I need to dust off my sewing machine again, because really, what’s more empowering than doing it yourself?

There is one down-side. My kid now looks far, far trendier than me. Or any of the rest of us. It now looks a bit like we stole her in Hoxton from some hipsters.


“First choose your jumper,” says Kim. “Hopefully you have one or two past their best already waiting to be re-purposed! Choose one with plenty of natural fibre content, ideally over 80%. Examples are wool, alpaca and cashmere. This will ensure the warmth of the finished garment and it will also be more thermal than synthetic meaning the change from cold to hot will not overheat your baby. Please remember some babies are allergic to some animal furs or wools so check your favourite baby is safe!


The jumper – Kim shows me where to start cutting for the first item – a baby snood.

“Choose as large a jumper as possible for your first one,” says Kim. “Men’s sizes are best as they are less fitted.

“Check the jumper for holes or areas you wouldn’t want to show up on the clothes. Don’t worry too much about holes on your first one though, best to use the scruffy jumpers first in case you make a mistake.”

“You will need thread, scissors and some pins.”


The snood section of the jumper is cut out


a short run of stitches is added to create a space through which the baby’s face will fit


The trim is added, to go around the baby’s face


With the addition of a pompom… TADA! Done and dusted.


“Turn your jumper inside out,” says Kim. “Cut the sleeves off straight across the arm at the top as shown. These are the trouser legs.” 

“Cut down the seams of the trouser legs about 1/3 of the way down. Put them together to make sure they are equal.”


Arms cut off, like so, then…

“Put the trouser legs one onside the other so that the good sides face each other on the inside, says Kim. “Sew the length of the crotch. It looks like a U shape, but as you sew around, it appears to be a straight line.”


“Go back to the body of the jumper, or another jumper if you would like to have a contrasting colour,” says Kim. “Use one side of the flat tummy of the jumper to make a longways or horizontal rectangle. Fold in half and check with your trousers’ waist size then trim the excess. Sew the folded over part with good sides facing in into a tube. Peel out into a doubled-over ring shape, then place facing down on the outside of the trousers. Sew around the ring.”


Let the kids go wild with the scraps…


“Now your trousers have a warm and cosy waistband and should be stretchy enough to fit your child’s tummy without elastic,” says Kim. “Experiment with different weight wools, different length trousers and different sized waistband. Enjoy!”




With the remaining fabric from the body of my old jumper, Kim suggested some harem pants… Largely following the instructions for the trousers above but cutting the pattern from the sides of the main jumper body, rather than its arms, like so…


She runs classes, you know. And she’s on twitter where you should definitely follow her.

She also generously shares patterns for free on her website, so if you fancy giving these a go, you can find more complete instructions than mine on her website. What a woman…

Come up and see me, make me smiiiiiile (no, really)


Normal blogging will resume next week.

Because this week, all week, I’ve taken over the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall and filled it with children and rubbish.  I’m running my Cardboard Kingdom again along with the amazing Sarah from The Bungaloo and the Land of Kids folk. But this time it’s way bigger and has a waaaaay better view.

It’s day three and already, hundreds of kids have helped to create their version of London – how the capital should be in their eyes, building it from the real city’s recycling and against a panoramic view of it.

Hundreds of kids, nine days, a tonne of rubbish, sharp scissors and me and Frida. What could possibly go wrong?! We’ll be there all week – come and see us! Tomorrow, we’re building London Zoo. So pop in and make a tiger or two? And, of course, It’s freeeeeeeeeeeee…


Sarah made this bus out of a cardboard box. She is a GENIUS.


Day one


Day two









How long is too long for a kid to wait?


This, ladies and gentlemen, is The Book of Dreams. J has wanted this book badly for at least six months. He saw it at a friend’s house when we went to play and fell deeply, madly, obsessively in love with it. Since that fateful day, he has mentioned it at least once a week.

“Can Daddy build a firemansambuttonbook out of wood?” “When we go to D’s house, can you make sure he shares his firemansambuttonbook?”  ”Can you make sure the firemansambuttonbook is on my list?” (this is one of the tactics we developed last year, to help J cope with a no-spend year: he has a ‘most wanted’ list, so when we’re out and about and he sees something he wants, he can put it on the list, choose whereabouts it should go – top, middle, or bottom – and be safe in the knowledge that when birthdays, Christmases or other celebrations come along, relatives will know exactly which things he cannot live without)

Anyway, last week, finally, the beloved firemansambuttonbook appeared on a local Swap or Sell site. Its owner agreed to forego the £6 she’d asked for it, and swap it for one of the many bottles of red wine we have hanging around, silently and darkly judging me over Christmas’ excesses. And so the firemansambuttonbook became ours. And J is beyond thrilled. Us less so, since it turns out that the buttons on a firemansambuttonbook are unsurprisingly loud and unsurprisingly grating. Especially when they’re played every day, every hour between dawn and dusk. And sometimes wake you up in the dark of night with a siren blast.

But… but but but… This ecstatic reaction is playing on my mind. It’s even making me a little… guilty. Was it a bit mean of me to make him wait six months for something he so wanted and which is really, comparatively cheap (£12.99 in the shops)? Of course, he’s had other toys and other treats in the meantime. Plenty of them. And he hasn’t lost out in any measurable way by not having it – he’s been warm, well fed, well loved… I even believe that delayed gratification is a good and useful skill for a kid to learn. But… Is it a bit sad that he’s so damned grateful for something so little?