Friday, 28 October 2011

The Little Red Farm cultural exchange has been launched!

I am really excited to be hosting a cultural exchange project!

If you don't know what a cultural exchange is here are the answers to some frequently asked questions...

What is the objective of the exchange?
The objective is to share information with a group of other families about the country in which you live (or that you will be representing) and in return learn something about their countries. This is achieved by sending a package to the family (usually addressed to the child or children) with bits and pieces that you have chosen to give a good overview of what it is like to live there.

How many packages will I send and receive?
Each group will be made up of 6 people so you will have to send 5 packages. You will receive 5 packages back.

What countries will be represented?
At the moment I have participants representing 14 different countries but please don't expect to receive packages from every continent as there are many more people in the US and Europe participating than the rest of the world. However, I will try to balance the teams and limit the number of participants from the US so that there are only a maximum of 2 in each group. If you are representing the US you should focus on sharing information about the state in which you live.

What do I have to send?
Anything you like but here are some examples of what might be sent:
  • a letter explaining what it is like to live in your country including information about local customs, geography and weather etc
  • a picture from the child sending the package
  • a traditional local recipe
  • a postcard
  • pictures of the country / town / famous landmarks etc
  • information about traditional crafts
  • the national flag or symbol
This is just a selection but you can look here for inspiration or do something a bit different. There are no requirements but don't spend much money.

What about the cost?
The package contents don't have to cost much at all and can be made yourself rather than purchased. In fact some of the best items I have seen have been homemade such as a drawing of your house or area from the child sending the package or a traditional recipe. However, shipping costs can be high so you must consider this when deciding what to send.

How do I take part?
Leave a comment with your email address (which I will not publish) and I will send you the information necessary to start.

When will the exchange start?
The exchange will start next week once everyone has supplied the information required. At that time you will be sent an email with the names and addresses of the others in your group so that you can start preparing.

Sign up for the 2012 cultural exchange here.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Montessori toddler materials update

This post is a follow on from this post, where I explained that I had bought some materials from China in order to compare quality and cost, and what an interesting experiment it has been!

First an explanation of why I decided to buy direct from China.  The difference in cost between Chinese manufacturers and European retailers was very appealing even after factoring in the high shipping cost and as I wasn't in a hurry for the items I could accept the long delivery time of 40 days.  My estimation was that the cost of each material would be about 1/3 of the price if I had bought them from a UK retailer even after adding shipping, handling and relevant taxes.

And what did I find?

Well the number one lesson is that you definitely get what you pay for!  Here is a summary:

There are very distinct differences in quality between manufacturers

Here is a good example of the variation in quality between different manufacturers.  Let's take the Imbucare Box With Large Cylinder:

If you buy this item from Nienhuis you will pay £30 for a top quality material that will stand up well to the very highest level of use in a classroom environment.  The paint on the cylinder is chip proof and you can see that the hinged door is mounted and sized so that it will only open outwards.  This is the 'crème de la crème' of the Montessori materials world but with a price tag to match.

The next quality level is found at most material retailers as either a standard or premium range.  This one retails for £11.99 from Absorbent Minds so less than half price of the Nienhuis version but there are a few differences:  the wood has a lower quality finish and the paint on the cylinder may chip with heavy usage.  Another interesting difference is that the hinged door swings inside and out.
Finally, here is the same item direct from China which cost $4.  In terms of design it is very similar to the Absorbent Minds version above with the door than swings inside and out.  The difference though is that the wood is a yellowish tone (a bit exaggerated here because of lighting but visible also in later pictures) and that the paint on the cylinder is much more likely to chip if dropped as well as being less bright in appearance as the other versions.

This example pretty well summarises my experience of purchasing materials from China but I have shown below a few more comparisons for your viewing pleasure.

Expect to get what you pay for 

This Multiple Shape Puzzle Set fro Nienhuis costs £53.70! The quality is exceptional as you would expect.

Here is the Different Sized Circles Puzzle from Absorbent Minds which costs £5.99. 

Now here are the puzzles that I bought from China. 

When you look at each one they are perfectly reasonable in terms of quality.  Each shape fits nicely into its space

The circles puzzle cost less than $2.

The three shape puzzle also cost less than $2 and is perfectly functional although the wooden knobs are a lighter shade of wood than the base which is the same yellow wood mentioned earlier.

The colour used for the blue circles varies though between the two puzzles which really isn't a big deal but worth pointing out if you care about that type of thing.

Personally after paying so little for each of these I wasn't too concerned.

Some things really ought to be high quality

When ordering the pink tower I wanted to be sure of a decent quality.  That is why I paid extra for the 'premium' version (still from China) which cost $17 with the non chip coating.

The same version generally retails for £30 in the UK.

I am really happy with this item and was pleased to see that it came with a spare 1cm cube as well.

Some things really don't need to be such high quality

This is the horizontal dowel material.  My one slopes down slightly which you can see in the picture but is otherwise good quality. 

Maria Montessori explained that materials should be beautiful and well made to encourage children to see them as special and so treat them with care.  I agree with this wholeheartedly but with an item like this I would rather save money that can be put towards a high quality brown stair for example.

Sometimes imperfections don't matter

This coin slot box has a few obvious imperfections:  the drawer knob is a different colour wood to the rest of the box and the drawer front does not fit squarely with the drawer.  However, neither of these things are serious in my mind considering the price tag of less than $4.

Sometimes imperfections do matter

This is the sandpaper globe which is designed to be the first introduction to our planet by providing a tactile difference between the land (rough) and water (smooth).

It is simple and clear and allows the senses to concentrate only on the land forms set against he water.

The one I received was not that accurate and just looked cheap.  It appears to foretell rising sea levels as the Bering Strait is much larger than I remember and if it were really accurate there would certainly be no need for the Panama Canal on this globe.

But worse than that the United Kingdom has had Wales and Scotland removed not to mention the fact that Ireland no longer exists.

Some things are a bit strange

This is the three colour vertical dowel material  As I remember the colours are generally the three primary colours i.e. red, yellow and blue.

This version cost £7.99 from Absorbent Minds.

But the one I got is red, yellow and green.  The quality is very good but I found the colour choice strange.

The only other time I have seen these colours is from IFit.

Does it matter? I don't think so but maybe you do?

A question of ethics

Some people feel very strongly about the ethical impact of buying from China.  What about labour conditions or chemicals? One concern that I do have is the question of where the wood is sourced from.  I hate to think that deforestation is happening as a result of these cheap materials.


All in all I am happy with the materials that I bought.  Some are a bit naff but most are perfectly suitable for me.  For a small homeschool I don't believe that it is necessary to spend lots of money unless you have plenty to spare.

That being said I think it is worthwhile spending more on key items that will be used often or those which are a bit special like the globes.

Would I do it again?  Yes.  I will place another order soon for 3-6 materials and I'll be sure to keep you posted.

The company website is here.   I have a pricelist I can send you if you request via the contact form (the file size is much too large to publish here).

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Cultural exchange package: Mexico

We are still in England  following the birth of Henry but my husband returned to France the other day to check our post box and guess what he found?  A post box full of cultural exchange packages!

This one is from Mexico, a country that I must admit I know very little about, and here's what was inside the package.........
  • A Mexican flag, small wooden maraca and a chilli shaped piñata.
  • Lots of information about Mexico including a letter from the family, national dress pictures to colour and some facts and figures.
  • A map of Mexico (which is always useful for the children to help them find the country on their map or globe). 
  • Pictures of costumes, places and animals from Mexico.
  •  Mexican money and bead craft.
  • A monarch butterfly finger puppet to colour in and a celebration banner.  I find it really interesting that this butterfly featured in the American package as well. 
  • A superb example of a traditional craft - the 'God's Eye' craft which consists of lolly sticks and wool to create a decoration.  I'm looking forward to trying this with Freddy.
  •  A beautiful little bowl and sandal.  I would love to know more about these; are they examples of local craft?
  • A set of picture cards to copy and make a matching game from.  Each picture has a Spanish word underneath so it's nice to use as a language game.  
  • A wonderful picture (perhaps a self portrait of one of the children).
  • A flower mask with instructions for decoration.
  • Corn husks which are used to wrap tamales in before they are cooked [note to self: find out what a tamale is].
  • Lots of sweets and colourful foam shapes.
I'm impressed that there was so much squeezed into this package and I really feel like it conveyed a great deal about Mexican culture.  Freddy will love looking through all of these packages when he is a little older but until then there is still time to connect with more families around the world and share a little bit about our lives.
Sign up for the 2012 cultural exchange here.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Stand back for a minute

On days like this I realise how important it is to let my children explore the world as they want to.  Not all learning experiences can be placed on a tray and presented to a child and every now and then it's wonderful to be reminded of that fact.

Homemade redcurrant cordial

It's refreshing, it's sweet, it's fun to make so I just had to share with you the gorgeous redcurrant cordial that my father in law made during our summer in Sweden.

But before I do I should explain that I have lots of new homemade things (mobiles, Montessori inspired activities and toys) to add to the blog but with a newborn baby I am having difficulty finding the time to take photographs during the day (hence this post from the summer).  We are still finding our natural rhythm but enjoying each and every day immensely as a family.  Not a day goes by that I don't think about how lucky we are to all be together everyday.

Anyway, back to the cordial....

Farmor and Farfar showed Freddy how to pick redcurrants from a bush in the garden.

Freddy loves to pick berries so this was the perfect activity in itself and great for fine motor skills.  He pointed to them before picking and was excited to find big groups of them hidden deep inside the bush.

We managed to collect a mixture of redcurrants and blackcurrants (Freddy ate most of the red ones).

The berries went into a large pan along with the stalks (which is handy because removing the stalks from all of those little berries would take a long time!).  Then water was added.  I think that the amount of water and sugar added was 'lagom' rather than a measured amount (in Swedish the word lagom means 'just the right amount' and it is a term used all the time to avoid the need to give a specific quantity).

The berries and water are then brought to the boil and simmered for a 'lagom' amount of time.

Now comes the fun part.....

A thick piece of twine is hung around the light just above the kitchen table.

Which is then used to hang a tea towel containing the softened fruit.....

 Which drains through the towel and into a bowl...

It takes a long time for all of the juice to strain through the towel so Freddy put together his own pouring activity with some left over berries.

And voila! Once the cordial has been transferred to a sterilised glass bottle it can be stored in the cupboard or fridge.   It is simply diluted to taste with cold water and can be kept for several weeks.

If you want to know the proper way to make this cordial you can see here.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Red sky at night

The other day I took Freddy (21 months) and Henry (2 weeks) to Farming World close to home in the UK.  This place is great for young children to get up close to farm animals and especially rare British breeds.

Freddy is really interested in farm animals and I'm pleased about that because my favourite toy as a child was my farmyard (honestly it was).

Here is a cute baby goat or kid to use the correct terminology; speaking of which did you know that a group of goats is called a trip?  Did you also know that goats discovered coffee beans?

These handsome cows were lying down and I told Freddy that when cows lie down it means that it will rain. Well, when I got home I checked my facts and it seems that this old proverb my be based on fact as falling pressure can affect the digestive system of cows, making them less willing to go to pasture, causing them to lie down. I thought it was just so that they could have a dry patch of grass to stand on but whatever.

It did get me thinking though about proverbs and old wives tales.  My favourite as a child was always 'Red sky at night - shepherd's delight.  Red sky in the morning - shepherd's warning' which was meant to indicate what the weather would be like the next day.

I decided to look this one up too and found out that when the western sky is especially clear, there is often a red sunset. That's because as the sun sets, its light shines through much more of the lower atmosphere, which contains dust, salt, smoke and pollution. These particles scatter away some of the shorter wavelengths of light (the violets and blues), leaving only the longer wavelengths (the oranges and reds.) If an area of high air pressure is present, the air sinks. This sinking air holds air contaminants near the earth, making the sunset even redder than usual. This would be the 'red sky at night.'

In the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere, weather systems most often approach from the west. Since high pressure generally brings fair weather, this type of red sky at sunset would indicate that clear weather is approaching, which would 'delight' a shepherd. If the sky is red in the eastern morning sky for the same reasons as above, then the high pressure region has most likely already passed from west to the east, and an area of low pressure may follow. Low pressure usually brings clouds, rain or storms.  How about that then???

Here is an Alpaca that we saw on the farm.  Freddy called it a giraffe but I can't criticise because I called it a lama.

And finally here is the absolutely awesome huge inflatable pillow that Freddy couldn't get enough of!  He has really perfected some fancy moves to show off on his cousin's trampoline next time we visit.

Friday, 7 October 2011

How to hang mobiles

This is just a short post to accompany my series on infant mobiles in order to give some advice about hanging mobiles.  It is in response to Kylie's question (thanks Kylie!) about how to hang a mobile if you don't want to have a hook in the ceiling or have other constraints.

There are several different methods you can use (some slightly unconventional) depending on what suits your house or budget.

Here is a summary of the methods I recommend:

Michael Olaf mobile hanger

By far the best way to hang a mobile in a fixed position (i.e. above the bed or crib) is to use the Michel Olaf perfect mobile hanger.  It is clear plastic so very unobtrusive and it fixes to the wall rather than the ceiling. I have one of these above Henry's bed and it's marvelous.   It costs $12.

  • Simple
  • Unobtrusive
  • Easy to install (with 2 screws in the wall)
  • If you are outside of the US it's virtually impossible to buy them anywhere else so international shipping fees, as well as import tax, must be considered
  • Only suitable for very light mobiles (card stock and paper only)
  • Not suitable for use with any of the reaching or grasping mobiles or ring on elastic etc
  • Once installed the position is fixed so you may need to buy several for other rooms in your house

Wooden tripod toy hanger

This wooden tripod toy hanger from Michael Olaf is great for hanging mobiles or toys above a baby without the need for fixings in the wall or ceiling.  Many different items can be hung including the rings and bells on elastic that are recommended during the reaching and grasping phase.  The three wooden legs are held secure by rubber rings at the top and it can be adjusted to a variety of heights. It is easy to fold up and move from room to room as the child spends time with his family in different areas of the home.

I don't think that it would be too hard to copy this design if you wanted to make your own but you must be careful about the feet being non slip.  Perhaps you could also use an old camera tripod?

  • Can be used as a frame for a tent as the child grows up
  • Suitable for reaching and grasping activities
  • Not suitable for hanging mobiles that need lots of space to move around e.g the Munari mobile would not work with this
  • Expensive at $95

Hook in the ceiling

If you want to hang heavy mobiles then the best solution is to install a ceiling hook.  Of course this assumes that the hook is hung properly and securely with the correct fixings.  Here is a video I found to show how to install a ceiling hook.

The hooks are readily available at DIY stores and you can always ask for advice on how to choose the best one for your house.


  • Suitable for mobiles and toys designed to be grabbed and touched
  • Cheap to buy and install as long as you have the tools
  • Fixed position only

Floor lamp

This is the method that I will be using to hang mobiles from in my living room when I return home.  It basically involves the use of a floor lamp (the one shown is from IKEA) to hang the mobile from by using a slip knot around the head of the lamp (not the bulb).

The mobile can then be positioned in just the right place without any unsightly additional equipment.  Just make  sure that the lamp is stable enough to take the weight of the mobile and will not topple over.

  • No additional equipment needed
  • Very portable solution
  • Simple alternative to wall or ceiling fixtures
  •  Potentially expensive if you don't have a suitable lamp available

Hanging basket or shelf bracket

Using a hanging basket or shelf bracket can be a good compromise if you are unable to buy the plastic mobile hanger from Michael Olaf.  There are many different types of brackets to choose from (IKEA has a good selection) and they are easy to install.

It is important to choose a design that allows you to securely attach the mobile.  If securely fastened the bracket could support the elastic hanging toys and mobiles for the reaching and grasping phase.

  • Simple and easy to install
  • Cheap
  • Provides a fixed place to hang mobiles in one place
  • More unsightly than the transparent version from Michael Olaf

Umbrella bucket and fishing rod

OK, don't laugh at this one until you have tried it!  If you don't want any holes in the walls or ceilings and you want to be able to hang your mobiles in any room you could try this method.  Take an umbrella bucket (or a similar tall narrow bucket) and fill it with heavy stones so that it cannot b easily knocked over.  Then buy an old fishing rod from EBay or a charity shop and strip off all of the fixings except the metal ring right at the tip.  You could then paint or spray the rod in a nice colour to blend in with your home.  When you want to place a mobile above your baby just put the rod in the bucket (so that it goes right down to the bottom) and hang your mobile from the metal ring at the end.

  • Quite a cheap solution especially if you already have these bits lying around
  • Fishing rods are usually very strong so in theory you could also hang mobiles that are meant to be grabbed and touched (although this will depend on your set up)
  • No holes in the walls or ceiling!
  • The mobile can then be hung in any room and it is easy to get the position just right
  • A bit of preparation is required to get the fishing rod looking a bit nicer especially if you buy an old one

An existing light fitting

We have several ceiling lights above our bed and right now a Munari mobile is hanging from a light fitting (with the bulb removed).  I know that some might not be comfortable with this method but I decided it would be fine for this mobile as it is much lighter than the lamp shades that were originally hung from the same fitting.  The string from the mobile is tied in a slip knot around the hanging pendant.

I would not use this method for grasping toys but it works extremely well for simple mobiles when Henry is hanging out on our bed (which he does often).

  • No cost solution
  • Very simple
  • Suitable for lightweight mobiles only and not toys designed to be grabbed and touched
  • Fixed position only

What do you think? Do you have any unconventional ways of hanging your mobiles?  I'd love to hear about them.

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