TP Toys Blog

21st October 2014Get kids interested in nature by feeding garden birds - the DIY way.

Get kids interested in nature by feeding garden birds - the DIY way.

We may have been enjoying something of an autumnal warm spell lately, but it seems that the weather has now turned and there's a definite chill in the air.

While this is a nice time for us to get cosy with our little ones in the home, spare a thought for our British wildlife, which must struggle on outdoors through the worst winter has to throw at them. Birds in particular often find it difficult to cope when their usual food sources get scarcer, especially if the ground is buried beneath snow and ice.

To help our wonderful garden birds out and also keep your children occupied over the forthcoming half-term week or during darker evenings in general, why not try making your own bird feeders?

The fat balls you can find in pet food shops are surprisingly easy to make yourself at home, plus you can tailor them to suit different species. Birds love them and they provide plenty of energy to ensure our feathered friends can stay warm.

In addition, they can help to foster a lifelong love of nature and conservation among your children, who will be delighted to see and count the visitors that arrive to eat your handmade creations.

Ingredients

All kinds of scraps can be incorporated into fat balls, including mild grated cheese and porridge oats. To adhere the dry ingredients together, melted lard or suet is best. Avoid using the fat from cooked meat, as it can coat birds' feathers and also become a breeding ground for bacteria. 

You should also steer clear of anything too salty, especially salted peanuts or bacon.

If you like, purchase special bird seed first and add it to your mixture, as this will make it easier to attract particular species. For example, millet seeds will bring in finches, sparrows and dunnocks, while blackbirds like maize and tits favour sunflower seeds.

Try to avoid mixtures that feature solely larger ingredients such as dried rice or lentils, as you'll tend to only attract things like pigeons and magpies.

Recipe

You'll need some sturdy twine or string, some old yoghurt pots and your seed and fat mixture. Mix all of the dry ingredients together in a bowl, then melt your suet or lard in a pan. It's probably best to get children to help out during the dry stage and ensure you do the hot fat part yourself.

Aiming for one part fat to two parts dry mix, combine the two and stir until the mixture sticks together. Meanwhile, make a hole in the bottom of each yoghurt pot and thread your twine through.

Again, the kids can help out with this next bit, which is spooning the mixture into the pots, ensuring the string goes through the middle and comes out of the top. Pack it all down and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

Once the mixture is hard, carefully remove the pots (you may need to step in and cut them away if they're tight). Tie a big knot in the twine to stop the fat balls from slipping down once they're hung up.

Finally, hang the fat ball in a high tree or bush out of the way of predators like cats and wait for the birds to come.

Top tips

If you don't want to use yoghurt pots, you can also put empty coconut shell halves to good use. These are reusable and look pretty when hung up.

Don't make your fat balls too big or put too many out as they may go stale or attract pests like mice or even rats. The birds may be hungry, but they can only eat so much at once!

Try to avoid putting your food out in high-traffic areas, as the birds may be reluctant to come too close. The climbing frame and swing may be high, but children will no doubt still be using them in autumn and winter and our feathered friends won't like the associated noise.

Get youngsters interested

Once the birds start feeding, it's easy to spark children's interest in nature and conservation. You can produce a picture chart and get little ones to tick it whenever they see particular species, or start a scrapbook if you've got a camera and printer handy.

You could even get the family involved in birdwatching for official research, such as that carried out regularly by the British Trust for Ornithology to gauge population levels.

DIY bird feeding will make you feel you're doing something worthwhile, occupy your little ones and help British wildlife - what's not to love?

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16th October 2014Enjoy darker nights with glow in the dark art.

Enjoy darker nights with glow in the dark art.

The nights are really drawing in now and it won't be long before the skies are dark by tea time. It's easy to think of this time of year in quite a gloomy way as the amount of daylight slowly dissipates, but we'd encourage you to embrace the cosiness generated by shutting the curtains in late autumn and winter.

One of the most fun ways of doing so with your children is to make an activity out of the reduced light by having fun with glow in the dark art. Kids love this and it's an ideal opportunity to get crafty and eliminate any residual fears about 'monsters' in dark bedrooms.

Pre-bought decals

If you're pushed for time, there are lots of shops both online and on the high street that seek pre-cut, self-adhesive decals that can be stuck on bedroom walls to glow when the lights are switched off.

You and your little ones can enjoy getting them out and coming up with fun ways to adhere them in order to make cute pictures or motifs.

Make your own

However, if you do have a spare afternoon or two, we'd strongly recommend rolling up your sleeves and creating your own glow in the dark artwork, as youngsters will be really proud of it and the creation process keeps them occupied.

The most useful tool you can get hold of for this activity is glow in the dark paint, which is available from most hardware or art shops and can be used on walls, paper or card.

A great project is a canvas that can be hung on the wall. First, paint the entire canvas in your glow in the dark pain, then attach stickers such as stars, planets and other celestial bodies. Paint over the entire thing in black paint, leaving the stickers in place for now. Once the paint is dry, peel off the stickers and the shapes underneath will glow in the dark.

Painting directly on the walls is an option if you've got a steady hand and aren't too precious about the bedroom decor - again, you could stick to dots to create a starry night sky or animal outlines such as sheep.

For a really simple idea, emulate the star stickers that were really popular a few years ago for headboards or ceilings. It's easy to make your own using a template, stiff card, glow in the dark paint and sticky pads to adhere them.

You could even take this opportunity to learn more about the constellations with older children, affixing the stars in the shape of The Plough or Orion's Belt - get them even more enthused about this with the night sky projections from our Glow Pets.

Don't forget

It's really fun to do this kind of project and both kids and parents can really go to town in creating something fun and unique.

However, remember that if the resulting art is going to be on display in the bedroom permanently, it shouldn't be too busy or you could find little ones have trouble getting to sleep.

It's amazing how much luminescence some paints can give off, so remember you're aiming for a comforting glow as opposed to dazzling Psychedelia.

Another good point is ensuring the finished product is soothing to the very young and even older kids. We took a look around on the internet for glow in the dark bedrooms and while many were undoubtedly so clever they should probably be on display in art galleries, some were also quite sinister.

Therefore, consider if the tiny owls' eyes you were going to paint into trees or the shadows you'd planned to emulate lamplight could prove to be nightmare-inducing - and ditch them if the answer is yes.

Shapes can look creepy enough in the dark without adding even more monsters for them to worry about!

Having fun with darkness and light should help you to make this time of year more fun and eliminate boredom that could crop up when outdoor play isn't possible.

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15th October 2014Why play doesn't need to have a goal.

Why play doesn't need to have a goal.

We read so many books and articles and watch so many TV programmes that demonstrate how we can help our children learn or keep fit by getting them engaged in particular types of play.

For example, a game might ensure they've learnt their numbers by the time they go to school, another could encourage burgeoning writing abilities and more may aim to combat childhood obesity.

Research finds play is focused on goals

However, new research has suggested that sometimes, we should be letting our children play simply for the sake of it - because that could offer enormous benefits that don't have anything to do with education and fitness.

The study was carried out at the University of Montreal and involved a photography and interview project with 25 youngsters aged seven to 11. Each one was photographed and had a chat with their interviewer about their favourite ways to play.

First author Dr Stephanie Alexander said the findings revealed children liked to play in a variety of ways, with activities including knitting, movies, video games and having fun with family pets all especially popular.

Interestingly, these hobbies also had no particular goal to achieve while the participants were enjoying them.

Yet Dr Alexander also pointed out that when promoting play, many public health authorities now concentrate on the physical activity benefits of active play.

Co-author Professor Katherine Frohlich said: "By focusing on the physical activity aspect of play, authorities put aside several aspects of play that are beneficial to young people's emotional and social health. Obviously, we must ensure children's development and combat obesity. But to get there, must we distort play?"

The benefits of aimless play

For example, the authors discovered that playing without a goal is an end in itself for children, plus it allows them to have fun, experience excitement, and fight "boredom, sadness, fear, or loneliness".

Even worse, well-meaning authorities could be turning children off play, as forced games can remove the spontaneity, fun and freedom that should be involved.

Another factor the study authors noted was risk. Free play in which children were left to their own devices included a certain amount of perceived jeopardy, whereas controlled games didn't expose the youngsters to this.

Dr Alexander pointed out: "Allowing children to take acceptable risks while remaining vigilant is indeed beneficial to their development. An overemphasis on safety may contribute to the emergence of a generation of young people that is less and less able to cope with the unpredictable."

This demonstrates how vital it is to take children's perspectives into account when planning learning and development strategies.

"We hope that our findings will inform and improve the way authorities and indeed parents approach playtime," added Professor Frohlich.

How you can do it

Parents may find it especially difficult to trust their own instincts and simply let children play when they need to, as they are constantly subjected to mixed messages about their responsibilities with regard to providing experiences for their little ones.

Similarly, push and pull factors such as having to drop kids off at nursery and then only spending a certain amount of time with them later can inhibit our appreciation of play for play's sake.

It's tempting to want to take them to parent-toddler activities or play with them in a learning-based capacity, knowing as we do how competitive the world of grown-ups is.

But it is important to sit back sometimes and let children take the lead. Here are some tips on how:

•    Encourage them to play with whatever they like (maybe limit the number to toys to a selection in a box to prevent confusion though) while you do a 'boring' job like wash the dishes
•    Ask 'what shall we do now?' or 'what happens next' while you play with them
•    Set them up with outdoor toys in warmer weather and watch how children interact with them - you may be surprised
•    Ask them what they like about their favourite games, just as the researchers did

Not only should this ensure children experience the range of benefits outlined by the University of Montreal, but you could also discover a sense of relaxation as the pressure to constantly achieve is taken off.   

Let's give it a try and bring back play for play's sake.

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8th October 2014How to enjoy the autumn changes with your children.

How to enjoy the autumn changes with your children.

The long, balmy days of summer are behind us and autumn is now well underway. Although it's always a shame to have to draw the curtains earlier at night and turn the heating on, it's important not to overlook the beauty of this very special season.

While spring is about nature bursting back into life again, autumn is a time when trees, plants and animals are getting ready for what could be a hard winter ahead - and it's therefore a period of rapid and fascinating change.

This time of year presents the perfect opportunity to entertain and educate your kids both outside and in, using materials straight from Mother Nature herself. There's still (hopefully) the possibility of some good weather and not-too-chilly temperatures ahead of us, so why not get your coats on and get your kids enthused about autumn? 

Here are our best autumn-themed ideas:

Tell nature's story

Seeing something in action is always the best way of explaining how it works, so take this opportunity to tell youngsters all about life cycles. The trees are dropping their leaves and turning them wonderful colours, so explain that this happens for a reason.

Seeds are all over the ground, so show little ones how these tiny acorns and sycamore spinners will make brand new trees one day.

Another good tip here is to start a weather diary - they'll have fun and it will also present a fascinating glimpse into this particular period of time if you keep it, too.

Create beautiful art

Take inspiration from the natural world by collecting pretty leaves and either varnishing them to be stuck on patterned paper or rubbing them with crayons. For a more temporary piece of decoration, glue them on a big sheet of paper for a collage.

Older kids will also enjoy picking up things like acorns, seed heads and bare branches to make into candelabras using florists' foam or wreaths. 

See how many animals you can spot

Animals will be busy at this time of year, so pretend you're Kate Humble or Chris Packham and watch them as they go about their business. Hedgehogs might appear in the late afternoon to fatten up ahead of hibernation, while squirrels might be around if you have trees for them to hide in during the worst of the winter.

Caterpillars may even be crawling along your paths in the last of the warm sunshine too - all you have to do is pick a comfortable spot on your climbing frame and get those eagle eyes ready. 

Get lots of exercise

Just because it's turning chilly doesn't mean you can't play out. Get children's hats and scarves ready and go for long walks at the weekends, or head to the park in the short period of daylight after school.

Race around, kick through piles of leaves and see how many autumnal items you can collect before you go home - you could even make a scavenger hunt sheet for things like oak leaves and conkers. Oh, and speaking of those...

Prepare your conkers for battle

Many schools won't let their children play conkers in the playgrounds any more for fear of injury, but you can still hold battles at home, whether it's between siblings or kids versus parents.

The best preparation tactic we've come across involves putting the conkers into a quarter of a pint of vinegar for two minutes, then placing them in an oven heated to 250 degrees C for a minute-and-a-half.

This should ensure they're really hard and ready to be drilled ahead of threading onto a string. The only better way is leaving them in a warm place to harden for at least a year, but that's not much good for this autumn's fights!

You've no doubt got lots of other ideas for fun this season, so do share any favourites you have with us and our other readers. We'd also love to hear about fun days out you enjoy using our suggestions.

It'll be winter all too soon, so make the most of autumn with your little ones.

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7th October 2014Don't let messy play disappear into the history books.

Don't let messy play disappear into the history books.

We recently read about a poll that caused us a great deal of consternation here at TP Toys - because it suggested that today's children aren't enjoying messy play for fear that it will clutter and litter their surroundings.

The survey of 2,000 people was carried out by Persil and it discovered that almost two-thirds of mums and dads are discouraging their offspring from carrying out tasks like baking and painting because they know it will create a lot of washing up and laundry afterwards.

Some 57 per cent of parents admitted they would rather see their kids playing with an electronic device than a paintbox as it keeps the house tidier - and it seems this is rubbing off on the youngsters.

Sixty-one per cent of the seven to 11-year-olds quizzed for the research said watching TV is their favourite activity, and a third insisted they don't like dirt and mess - we could be raising a generation of stainophobes.

This is despite the fact that 41 per cent of parents acknowledged they got much more involved in messy play when they were young.

Steven Chown of Play England warned mums and dads that they could be causing their children to miss out of they insist on a sterilised, pristine environment.

"Many parents are becoming more risk averse yet getting messy is part of a happy, healthy childhood and such play is linked with a range of cognitive and developmental benefits," he pointed out.

Bring back messy play!

It may be worth taking a moment to consider the playtime you enjoy with your own children. While quiet time is important, so is exploring and using the senses - have you ever considered getting the finger paints out, only to decide against it because the task involves a lot of preparation?

If the answer is yes, then why not challenge yourself to bring back messy play at least once a month? This needn't be difficult and is sure to be hugely rewarding, plus it creates some great photo opportunities.

All you need to do is a little preparation and you don't have to worry about the furnishings, either. Remember to:

•    Choose a large area that isn't surrounded by furniture that little hands will grab as they move around
•    Get hold of some plastic sheeting - shower curtains from the DIY shop will work if you like
•    Have paper towels and baby wipes close to hand
•    Instruct children that messy play must remain within the chosen area
•    Stock up on washable, non-toxic play materials - that way, it won't matter if some splashes do escape onto clothes or sofas
•    Have messy play outfits (old clothes) ready
•    Make tidying up afterwards part of the ritual - if kids join in, it's less arduous for mum and dad.

Ideas for messy play

There are dozens of ideas you can use to get messy and have fun with all age groups, as a quick internet search will reveal. One of our particular favourites is making your own finger paints with flour, water and food colouring, as the creation is part of the art.

You can also cook some spaghetti and put food colouring in it to encourage squidging, mixing and plenty of giggling.

Another popular idea is getting hold of some cheap, hypo-allergenic shaving foam and squirting it into a tray, then putting dots, lines and splats of paint on top. Mix it with a stick to create a fun pattern, then lie a piece of paper on top to pick it up.

Wipe off the foam and leave it to try - before long, you'll have a wonderful piece of marbling.

Let's share the love of messy play and get mums and dads all over the country enthused about letting their kids revel in it. After all, the thought of having a generation that's never known the joys of finger painting is too sad to think about. Do let us know about your own messy play sessions too!

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