How to not go bonkers during lock down

As I alluded to the other day,its tricky during lock down. The children are gradually driving me up the wall. In many ways they remind me of Boris Johnson in so much as they’re all about the getting and are bored when they’ve got the thing they were after. With Boris it was the premiership, with the kids it’s some item, game, point scoring thing over the other two that soon gets forgotten.

Take the paddling pool*, I’ve spent more time inflating that and filing it in the last four days than the kids have spent in it. They spend ages threatening each other to not play nicely in it, brinkmanship of the highest order. And then, eventually two of them get into it and three minutes later they get the hump with each other because someone splashed someone or someone wouldn’t do what the other demanded at that exact moment, oh and have I forgotten to mention that none of them will have a towel to hand and will demand nine showers during the course of their intermittent use of the pool? Do not get me started.

There is only one way to deal with this behaviour and it’s the cowards way out for me. I go out for a long walk during my lunch break, take my time tidying up after dinner, and then watch something entirely child unfriendly with my wife after dinner. We’re currently on to season 3 of the Strain. It’s not great but it’s unsuitable for the kids which makes it much better than it might be otherwise.

I think part of the problem is the kids have never really got the hang of entertaining themselves. Things were a bit different when we were little; three, then four channels of terrestrial TV, one rich kid in the class who’s parents got a Squarial for British Satellite Broadcasting satellite TV, and a home computer that would only be usable in the front room plugged into the telly, all of which had to be packed away in time for Blue Peter and after dinner you had no chance of stopping your parents from watching Wogan.

Our kids can do one of two things: play video games independently or require full on one to one supervision to do something trivial for five minutes. Drawing a picture? Nope, one of us needs to sit next to them and watch them doing it. It is ridiculous and a conditioning we need to break but at the moment we had situations like Sunday where I turned the 8 year old’s internet off at 2pm because he’d played enough games. He then lay in the middle of the sitting room floor, saying it was only a 5 hour wait until he could go to bed and please don’t disturb him thank you very much. The others are no better, following you around wanting to help but only by doing exactly what you’re doing with the things your using and bursting into tears if you suggest maybe they should do something independent for more than 8 seconds.

Still, I’m okay, I’ve remembered that the kids are bored with difficult and old fashioned video games. Despite helping me create a blog on the subject, Kids Do Retro, even the eldest isn’t interested.

On the one hand this is annoying as it’s nice to share a hobby but on the other hand, it means I can legitimately fire up my Raspberry Pi 4 with Retropie on it and the kids will lose interest and bugger off somewhere else for a while. I should count my blessings really shouldn’t I? When I was little I don’t think I ever really got bored. Aside from that small window on Sunday morning when I wasn’t allowed out because the Sunday roast would be ready at some point but the only thing on the telly was the Waltons (and not any of the spooky supernatural episodes either) and I’d already spent three hours reading my book, I was able to keep myself entertained all the time. Whether it was playing on our Spectrum, re-reading (endlessly) my comics or books, spending hours drawing Dennis the Menace or the Bash St Kids, or being out on my bike playing with my mates, I was never bored.

Oh well. I’m off to fire up Dungeon Master for a bit to keep the kids out of my hair. Stay sane in Covid Times people.

 

*please, take it, dear god, why won’t somebody take it?

Living through Corona Times

As we head towards two months of lockdown (and mercifully the half term break), I thought it would be good to have a look back on how it’s been for our little family. Surprisingly the hardest part hasn’t necessarily been making sure the technology is right for home working and home learning, nor has it been making sure everybody doesn’t kill each other.

The biggest challenge has been teaching the children. Both the primary school and secondary school have been great at setting work and home work but both have fallen short in supporting the learning. Teachers haven’t been available to explain tricky concepts or processes to the kids and that has been left entirely to us, and the majority of the primary school marking has been done by us from answer sheets that cause as many problems as they solve. We’re not alone, I’ve read plenty on twitter that parent assisted SPAG tests have thrown scores of 0/20 or similar but the thing that’s particularly bugged me is the lack of proof reading on both lessons and tests set. More than once I’ve had our 11 year old in tears because she’s done badly on a maths test and when she’s marked it herself can’t understand where she’s gone wrong. When I’ve checked the answers, the answers have been either plain wrong or the answer to an entirely different question.

This is a good example:

34 multiplied by anything over 1 simply has to be more than 34, so both the possible answers are wrong. Of course 3/4 multiplied by 1 1/5 is 9/10, so in this instance the question is wrong and the answers are right but try telling that to an 11 year old doing a timed test.

My rusty old chemistry A Level work needs brushing up but then I did sit chemistry in 1993 and only achieved a D grade for it. Yes, year 8 science is a bit harder than correcting the typos primary teachers are making but it is more rewarding. It’s simply challenging to get either of the boys to concentrate enough to do their work and if either of them are diligent enough to work hard and do it to the best of their ability, it is a rarity.

So schoolwork aside, the other challenges have been rather unique to our rather unique family. The kids have demanded to watch rather too many Adam Sandler movies in the evenings, which has driven me up the wall but since I restricted their access to YouTube they’ve also developed a bizarre obsession with the BBC’s Citizen Khan. Yes, you read that right, a sitcom about a larger than life Pakistani family. The mind boggles.

We initially had some problems with the 13 year old who decided that the new normal was staying up until 3am and getting up around lunch time. He got the hump when there was nobody around to watch movies with at 10pm onwards though so we managed to resolve that after a bit of a fight. Even now I do my best drill instructor impression at about 8 in the morning in an attempt to get him up. His cooking has leveled up inasmuch as he makes himself a really fully toasted wrap or fish finger sandwich for breakfast every morning. He’s now living his official best life and only the prospect of going back to the classroom before the end of the academic year has him worried (he refuses to believe that he won’t be going back, ever the pessimist!)

Personally after an initial wobble caused by the change in routine (I’m definitely a creature of habit), I’ve settled in nicely to working from home. The improvement in the weather has helped an awful lot and now I’m sat in the playroom looking out on the garden, which is a lot lighter than where I was sat initially. The work I do is particularly suited for remote working too, and since we’re using Zoom and MS Teams for communicating, it’s all working well now I’ve adapted to the change.

I’m even enjoying seeing more of my family, which I know for a lot of families isn’t necessarily a given!

 

Tech projects to stop your kids going stir crazy during coronavirus

With schools likely to close shortly for an extended Coronavirus inspired Easter break, and the possibility of offices closing as people are asked to work from home, I thought it might be an idea to pull together some tech related things you can get your kids doing over an extended lock down period. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest most of the below are a decent antidote to the current situation with the news drip feeding through to kids and worrying them. The best way to take your mind of something is to do something else.

You may need to work, they definitely need entertaining but if they’re left to their own devices, the chances are they’ll just watch YouTube or binge Netflix for 18 hours a day, and that’s if they’re not playing Minecraft or Fortnite incessantly. Anything you can do to help develop computer and IT related skills is going to be helpful in the long run, and whilst I’d love my kids to sit there all day long reading books, I’ve got to be realistic about it. The list of activities below is of course something you should consider in addition to screen free time and not entirely at the expense of it.

Younger kids

Not so much a project but useful none the less, if you’ve got a PS4 or Xbox One in the house, something like Just Dance 2020 will ensure that your kids get some physical exercise when/if you’re not allowed to let them out. If you don’t have a console or don’t want to buy the game, YouTube is full of uploaded videos from the game that you can dance along to, it just won’t score you. This is of course as relevant for older kids but with your youngsters, it might just stop them completely destroying the house!

Lots of Year 2 and Year 3 parents will be familiar with Scratch, the visual programming language that uses building blocks to make programmes. It’s available on iPad, Android and home computers, and is worth getting.

In a similar vein is Bloxels. The games that Ned has made at coding club using Bloxels are very entertaining, and he absolutely loves playing them. There are two versions; the educator version, which you can use if your school has set you up, or the app, which you can find on your favourite app store.

Our kids have also enjoyed making their own stop motion videos in the past, something that just requires a minimal investment, and plenty of imagination. The end results can be spectacular, and I know our kids were very proud of their results.

Older kids

If you’ve got slightly older kids, and I’m really talking about year 5 upwards here, get them to make a movie. Seriously, they can script, storyboard, shoot and edit a 5-10 minute film, starring each other. They can even do special effects. The sky is the limit.

Pretty much any mobile phone will do for shooting, and if you have a PC at home, DaVinci Resolve is a FREE professional grade editing suite. The best thing is YouTube is packed full of tutorial videos and what self respecting kid doesn’t love YouTube?

If you don’t have access to a PC that your kids can use, there are plenty of inexpensive editing apps like KineMaster and PowerDirector Video Editor you can have them use instead.

Scratch is good fun for kids but the older kids might want something a little more expansive. Enter Pico-8, a “virtual” games console that lets you programme 8 bit games.

It runs on PC, Mac and Linux (Raspberry Pi!!!), and costs $15. Again, the online help and manuals are VERY extensive, so you shouldn’t find yourself having to get involved too much. Kids can load in existing games and fiddle with them to see how things work.

If you want something a little less basic (pun intended), then Dreams on PS4 is a powerful game creation tool. It’s more expensive than Pico-8 but easier to pick up.

Raspberry Pi 3b+ in a Retroflag Megadrive case running Retropie

If you haven’t set your kids up with a Raspberry Pi, now is the ideal time to do so. Pis are cheap micro computers, starting at under a tenner for the Pi Zero W, rising to £54 for the top end Pi 4. They run an operating system called Raspberian off a microSD card. Although they come without a case, you can build cases from LEGO or buy a cheap case to go with them- it’s all part of the DIY computer ethos they promote. You can hook up a Pi to a TV, monitor, even build one into a case with a touchscreen, or a retro arcade machine. If you don’t want to stretch to a kit like that, retropie is a great free alternative.

You might be thinking, so what? We’ve got a computer that the kids can use. The Pi is a little different though, it’s entirely designed to be tinkered with. Since the whole operating system is on a microSD card, if the kids break the system, you can just format the card and start over. There are also plenty of hardware projects that are inexpensive to try- how about a wildlife camera, or even a weather station?

Personally I’ve used Raspberry Pis to make a twitterbot, and a retro game console. Both of which were great fun to work through- if anyone wants to beat my 497,000 on Bubble Bobble, they’re welcome to try!

Of course kids creativity and willingness to do stuff will only run so long. Both the Playstation Store and the Xbox store have regular sales and subscription based services. Just make sure they don’t spend all day in front of a screen!

The kids are now fully fledged thinking machines in their own right

WAR games, in more peaceful times

It’s funny when you realise your kids are completely able to be certifiably clever in their own right without taking the lead from you. It’s unsettling in some respects that they don’t need prompting but also liberating and makes you proud. Both the boys have done things this week that on their own merit a slap on the back but when you take them in the wider context of how they’re both growing up, make you think, gosh, they’re really ploughing their own furrow now.

Firstly the boy, now in year 8 and newly enthused to study and put the effort in after a near disaster in a maths test he didn’t prepare for properly prior the Christmas, did something in a science pop quiz that was quite brilliant. His team won the quiz, which in most situations would have been the achievement. Not this time though, because he named his team “Going to die old and alone”. When his team won, the teacher had to ask, “Who’s going to die old and alone?” to howls of laughter from the whole classroom, teacher included. Pure rank genius, and something I’d have been proud to achieve.

Ned (now a heady 8 years of age) managed to win a laser quest tournament at the local soft play with a score higher than his three nearest competitors added together because he’s the sort of cunning genius that will  probably crash international currency markets in 10 or 15 years time. All the other lads ran off at speed to hide and shoot each other, Ned ambled out slowly, then turned back and spent the ten minutes of that round shooting the targets on the three unused vests repeatedly, building up an unassailable lead whilst not getting shot himself. The bunch of dad’s on kids party duty were universally impressed with his cunning, and I was too.

The 20’s are coming and I think we need to look to the 1920s for inspiration

The 10’s started off well for us- Fifi turned one, Ned came along, I did some pretty cool stuff on the blog. They ended badly though- mum had a prolonged illness and passed away mid October, and since then we’ve had a series of firsts. First Christmas without mum, first grandchild’s birthday without mum, and so on. We’re interring the ashes on her birthday in February, so hopefully that will give me some of the closure I feel I’m missing. For someone who was terminally ill for most of the second half of the decade, mum went really quickly in the end. In typical mum fashion, her last communication to us all was “Sorry, I meant mortarboard” a realisation that saying to my wife she could just picture her graduating in her motorboat wasn’t quite what she meant. I’d have loved a note or a card left for me afterwards to remember her by but that wasn’t mum’s jam, so all I’ve got are the memories and as the time passes, the more recent memories where she was struggling and in pain are replaced by the bittersweet memories of my youth and earlier adulthood.

As we head into the 20’s on the back of an overwhelming Tory election victory, record food bank use and the prospect of a no deal WTO Brexit later this year (click here to see why no deal is likely), you’d be forgiven for thinking that we have little or nothing to look forward to. But for us the 20’s will be a decade where all our kids will turn 18, and we’ll both hit 50. As well as a decade of privation it’s going to be a decade of personal growth and exploration for us.

Much like the 1920’s, the Roaring 20’s as they were known, began with excitement (a post war boom in this instance), we can have our excitement and growth. I think the difference is, the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression of the end of the 20’s was somewhat unexpected. We can at least expect the worst and provision and provide as best we can for it.

Who knows, following on from a year when the eldest played in front of 3,500 at a local music festival, the 20’s could see our family put together a band that could play the modern equivalent of the gin joints and jazz clubs. I just hope that prohibition isn’t introduced at any point- I don’t think I could do without the odd jar and the idea of operating my own moonshine operation isn’t particularly appealing!

Form an orderly queue

As the nights draw in and it’s dark pretty much all day, apart from that hour or so that the brick wall outside my office window is bathed in sunlight, everyone is getting tetchy. Against the odds, despite it being dark from around 3pm, it is now completely impossible to get the children to bed. Or rather get them to stay in bed. Last night I tucked the younger two in at about 7:30pm and went to hide in the sanctuary* for a bit of peace and quiet. In the five minutes I was in there, I must have heard four or five extra-bedroom excursions from the two I’d put to bed, along with one from the oldest, who came out purely to see what the commotion was about. This happens at the end of the day, at the start of the day we often have Ned come in at around 6ish to ask whether he can have crisps for breakfast. When we say no, it turns out it was much like a retrospective planning application in that he’s already eaten half a tube of Pringles that we thought we’d hidden well enough to be safe.

It’s unrelenting but we normally get a small window of peace when we get home from work. The older two are old enough now to come home from school on their own, so it’s only Ned that goes to after school club. He normally disappears off to put a onesie on as soon as he gets home, on the off chance we’ll ask him to go out again.

Now though, it’s like some feudal nightmare in the early evenings. The peasantry line up impatiently to petition their king and queen with lists of grievances and demands for things that must be met or there will the the slamming of the doors and the stomping up the stairs. Recently I’ve not even managed to shut the front door before the litany of complaints has begun.

It’s all so wearing and I know I’ll miss it when they’ve grown up!

 

*it’s called the sanctuary as it has a lock on the door. And if you shout “I’m doing a poo!” at the top of your voice when people try to talk to you or get into the room, they tend to leave you alone for a bit.

Monday night is a rush- here’s my chilli recipe

Monday’s need to be carried off with military precision. Ned now goes swimming with a friend’s family after school on Monday, so we don’t have to pick him up from after school club but I have a 75 minute window to get home from work, cook and eat dinner and then leave to take Fifi and the boy to their respective drumming and piano lessons.

I’m pathologically against the idea of a jar of pesto over some hastily cooked pasta, or chucking chips and fish fingers in the oven, so I’ve been devising a range of quick to cook meals for Mondays (occasionally we go for jacket spud in the slow cooker but this generally meets with howls of disapproval, so it’s a worst case dinner) that can not only be cooked in under an hour but cooked and eaten in under an hour too.

First on my list is the patented Alex & Harry Lancaster university chilli from 1995. Or rather a modern variant on it.

There are two ways to cook this, both start with a 500g packet of mince (lamb or beef, we’re easy). The first method is the more straight forward in that it uses all 500g of mince. The second sees the mince split 60/40, with 40% used in chilli and the rest kept for another night to go into a spag bol or cottage/shepherds pie (there is a difference: cottage= beef, shepherds=lamb!). The reason for the unequal split comes down to the chilli having more additional ingredients in the sauce; kidney beans, black-eyed beans and maybe if you’re in the mood for it, some sweetcorn.

The key to this recipe is to make sure you don’t turn the hob up too high. It’s always a temptation when you’re in a hurry but you’ll end up with dry meat that’s hard and won’t absorb the sauce. If you let it brown gently, and then let the final chilli simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, you should have a luxuriant sauce that’s still taken you under half an hour to cook.

On a Monday I always tend to cheat with the rice and use the microwavable sachets that take 2 minutes to cook. I’m generally a bit rubbish at cooking rice anyway, and I’ve been meaning to get myself a rice cooker for ages.

If you do choose to use all 500g of mince, there will be a fairly high chance that you’ll have some leftover chilli- we tend to and that’s with 5 of us scoffing it. Chilli is one of those dishes that defies logic and actually tastes better once it’s been frozen, defrosted and cooked again, so never despair when you’ve got leftovers.

This is a meal that tends to sort the kids out prior to music but does leave them with an orange sauce-moustache if I’m not careful!

Where does encouragement stop and pushy parenting begin?

We’re at dilemma point with Ned (who is 8 in January) over his guitar playing. Like most of our children, practice is seen as a chore to him. In the past we’ve dropped the boy’s guitar, and Fifi’s guitar because they didn’t practice enough (the boy doesn’t practice his drumming as much as he should but is still heading towards grade 3 with speed, and Fifi is just about doing enough piano practice to justify continued lessons). The problem is, Ned doesn’t play anything else, so it’s not as if he is doing something badly while doing something else better.

We’ve talked about it with his teacher, who is great, and is also MY guitar teacher (I got a guitar for my 40th and am slowly but surely learning to play it), and he says Ned would regret stopping because he’s learnt a lot but there is no point in him continuing if he’s not going to put some effort in. As Ned and I have consecutive lessons on a Saturday morning, I thought this would mean that we could practice together. Well, I spent most of last nights masterclass by Arsenal (I don’t get to write that very often any more) learning how to play Wish You Were Here:

with Ned sat next to me, resolutely failing to practice Chasing Cars from the Grade 1 Rockschool book. He didn’t even do five minutes and while I wasn’t quite into Bryan Adams “played it til my fingers bled, was the summer of ’69” territory, my fingers were sore by the end of it.

And so we reach the conundrum. Ned will regret giving up and it will take forever to get him onto a waiting list and back into lessons if he changes his mind (and almost certainly not the lesson next to mine) but, and it’s a big but, the lessons, even his 20 minute a week lesson, aren’t cheap, especially if there isn’t any practice going on. At the moment I sort of feel like he’s trapped in that vicious circle of not practising as he’s not developed the finger tip callouses that practice gives you that means your fingers don’t constantly hurt but can’t break out of it. He knows all the major chords, can do some power chords, and is even getting better with his pinkie movement but there is only so much 20 minutes a week can do for you.

I’m the biggest lover of music in our house but I’m also the most unmusical when it comes to innate talent. It’s going to be such a shame if I end up being one of the best musical instrument players just because I’ve put the time in.

We’re still not sure whether to push Ned to keep it up or just let him give it in. I’m secretly hoping I can convince him to practice in the next week or two as we need to make a decision to give a half terms notice by 25th October…

And lo! the sentence is almost over

This school summer holiday has been a bit different to others. It’s the first summer holiday that the both of us have had full time jobs. It’s a good job I use maths daily in my job and was able to deduct two from six – two weeks family holidays away from home, taken from six weeks off school leaves four weeks where we have to cover the kids.

We managed to cover the school holidays but it did involve using a spreadsheet with more formulae that you would have necessarily expected. I realise that for many this isn’t an unusual occurrence but when you’ve got three kids and haven’t had both parents in full time employment for the better part of a decade, it takes some organisation and some getting used to. We’ve managed to avoid kids clubs which aren’t inherently expensive if you’ve got A child but when you have three tend to be very much so, mostly by relying on my wonderful in-laws and swapping kids with friends for the odd day either I or my wife have had off.

But we’ve now reached the stage where the kids are pretty much sick of the sight of each other and can’t spend ten minutes (dinner time, a car ride somewhere) together without bickering or fighting. We can’t wait to pack them off to school again next week, even though the autumn term is the hardest to deal with from so many perspectives. Hard? Well the primary school runs all the curriculum meetings about and hour and a half into my working day, and I work 2 miles from the office. The wife does the school drop off but works miles away in Tring, so an extra hour off her working day for a meeting means she doesn’t get into work until late morning. On top of that the kids obviously have to settle back into the routine of school, new teachers, and re-establish friendships that haven’t been maintained over the summer. It’s a hell-term but something we’re actually looking forward to it!

Review: Nozstock 2019

We loved the 2019 Nozstock the Hidden Valley music festival. We loved it so much, we’ve put our money were our mouth is (because bloggers tend to find free stuff “brilliant” all the time, don’t they?) and booked our tickets for next year. In fact we booked our tickets as soon as we got back (my wife did it while I unpacked the car).

Let’s take a step back though and talk about the Nozstock Festival. In it’s 21st year, Nozstock continues to be an environmentally conscious boutique festival, set in the rolling Herefordshire countryside on a cattle farm (it used to be a dairy farm but the current generation of farmers weren’t particularly in favour of the early starts).

This years Nozstock festival was a sell out, as was the previous year but even as a sell out, the sprawling site fits the 5,000 or so attendees comfortably, with plenty of space to swing a cat, or more pertinently some of those balls on a bit of string with streamers attached like some of the hipsters seem to like.

Everywhere seems to have a festival now, and the quality of course can be enormously variable. That’s one of the things I like about Nozstock; it’s kept it’s modest size and been happy continuing thus. It’s well organised, doesn’t overstretch either the organisers nor the facilities, and just works.

This years line up had more than a hint of reggae, folk and country about it during the daylight hours, reverting to some banging DJ sets and other more rambunctious acts after dark. My personal highlight was David Rodigan, some middle aged chap in a bright yellow suit I’d never heard of. Fortunately my wife filled me in on who he was (back in the day he was the Kiss FM DJ who introduced Jungle to an unsuspecting mainstream audience). He was absolutely fantastic and one of the key reasons festivals like Nozstock are so vital.

What do I mean by this? Well lets time travel back to 2008, before all this Spotify and Google Play Music stuff was popular. I had 500+ CDs in a rack next to the hi-fi. I usually played about 10 of them and ignored the rest. Even now, I have my playlists and favourite albums on Spotify and that’s pretty much all I listen to. Festivals are a brilliant way of stepping outside your own personal bubble and experiencing something new. Live music really is hard to beat.

Fifi’s personal highlight was the DJ set by Rudimental and if you’ve never seen a 10 year old pogo for over 90 minutes, let me tell you she managed it and was awesome.

Attending a festival as a family is a little different to attending a festival and this is another area that Nozstock shines. The site is sprawling but easily accessible, there are loads of free kids activities, and the food is both nice (not a given) and really reasonably priced. We were pitched in the family camping area, and since it’s policed (they don’t let people in without i) a family and ii) a colour coded family wristband), it was full of families.

There are some parts of the site that cater to EDM enthusiasts, be it jungle, trance or more rave influenced stuff and it was great fun to drop into these areas with the kids and experience an experience that is unlike any other- if you ever do the same, just make sure your kids have ear defenders and you might actually want a pair of foam ear plugs yourself! (And a word to the wise, if you decide to see the Sleaford Mods, which you should, they’re ace, remember they’re about as sweary as it’s possible to get live.)

Nozstock 2020 tickets are already up for sale, and the early bird discounts are too good to ignore, which is why we didn’t, put our money where our mouths were and purchased some tickets, guaranteeing a blooming great weekend of live music and entertainment next year!