The power of independent play

Lily, rosy-cheeked and sopping wet in her long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings, clambered aboard Carina. ‘Mummy, please come and look’, she begged. I put aside the supper I was mid-way through preparing and followed her off the boat.

All afternoon, in wind and rain, Lily, Katie and their friend, Ruben, had been hard at work. Having spent the morning making comfortable homes out of shoe-boxes for their army of pet snails, they had then turned to making a home for themselves. On a scrubby patch of overgrown hillside near the cemetery in Alcoutim, they had cleared a patch of land, woven branches into walls which they then covered with long strips of paper they had found. Bricks were carried in to make seats and shelves to store their precious found objects – cans, bottles, margarine tubs. Wandering up around the castle in search of objects for their den, they had found branches recently lopped off a lemon tree. They dragged these back to the den to give the place a pleasant aroma.

The rain had stopped but the ground was wet when I followed Lily off the boat and up from the pontoon in the gathering dusk. From the edge of the scrubby hillside there was no hint of their four hours of labour. But, as I scrambled down the slippery bank in my inappropriate Crocs (will I ever learn?), a circular gap in the canes and trees began to reveal itself. I peered in through lemon branches to see Katie and Ruben sitting inside, Katie with a big grin on her face, eager to show off what they had made. ‘How do I get in?’ I asked. Ruben moved a branch aside so I could step in and then closed the ‘door’ behind me.

I squatted on the floor of the low-ceilinged den as the three of them proudly showed off all the features of the den – the brick seats, the storage space, the front and rear entrances, the addition of the lemons.

After visiting for a little while I left them to it, and told them to come home in half an hour. The next day, after all, was Monday, the start of the new school week, and we all needed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. The next evening, and the one after that, as I prepared dinner, they went off to check on their den, to make sure no-one had disturbed it. They borrowed my head torch each evening and off they went in the dark.

What struck me about the whole endeavour was how palpably proud they all were of what they had achieved. These three – two seven year olds and an eight year old – had spent a good four hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon cooperating, planning, using their imaginations, designing, constructing, building. They had made something that was their own and that they had made together. There was no adult around to say ‘Maybe you should put this here’, or ‘Maybe it would work better if you tried this’. It was theirs alone. They owned it.

My children enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom and independence. They have boundaries and rules but, compared to living in a town or living in many other parts of the world, their boundaries are vast, as are the boundaries of most of the other children who live here. That’s just the way it is.

They spend a great deal of time outdoors, playing with stones and rocks, trees and soil, using their imaginations to create worlds of their own invention. At home they often plan and organise their next adventure, and when they are out and about they make up stories and worlds and make and transform objects on the spot. A friend from London once expressed her astonishment at how easily our children amused themselves, as we watched my daughters and her 11-year old daughter create their own ‘restaurant’ out of the stones and rubble and tree branches we found up at the old windmill. It was many years since my friend had seen her daughter so engaged and happily occupied for so long with objects that were decidedly non-technological or human-made.

We hear a lot these days about children not playing enough, or spending too much time indoors, or of having too much of their time planned and organised, so that they lack the time and freedom for their imaginations and creativity to run riot, and they lack the space to learn to organically cooperate, share and work together. My girls are technology savvy, and they play a little soccer and basketball in after school clubs. But far more of their time is spent doing things of their own invention.

As a parent, it can be difficult to give them that space and time to be themselves and to learn by themselves and from and with each other. Our lives are busy, we are constricted by timetables and schedules. But I think we also often create busyness for our children, when there is no need to do so. Give them space and they will keep themselves busy. Children are naturally curious and inventive. They want to learn and socialise and create and, left to their own devices, they will do so.

Ask anyone who knows me, I’m quite controlling by nature – I like order and I like everyone else around me to be ordered and organised too. So, taking a step back and recognising the children’s own agency and need for space to be themselves, is something I have had to learn, and something I continue to learn every day. But I want my daughters to grow up to be happy, confident, independent and capable women, and giving them the space and freedom to be playful, imaginative, creative and happy children, I hope, will influence the adults they will become.

Neither of them have mentioned the den in the past few days. Maybe they will want to visit it this weekend. Maybe they will never think of it again. Lily has now taken to cooking. She has been reading one of her cookbooks for days now. Yesterday evening she asked me to go with her to the shop, where she produced a shopping list she had written. We bought what she needed and this evening she plans on cooking dinner for Katie and me. Will I have the self-restraint to not get involved, unless she asks for my assistance? In my kitchen, my domain?! I’ll just have to try my best.

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Carnival

C—-‘s mother looks at me in horror. ‘You can’t have a blue nose’ she croaks, her heavily accented Andalucian Spanish all the more cackily for her 40-fags a day habit. ‘Clowns have red noses’, she cackles indignantly. We stand, clown-face to clown-face, both of us dressed in orange bin bags decorated with cardboard bowties, buttons and pockets, our faces covered in sticky face paint, yellow hats on our heads. ‘M—-‘, I say to her in rapid English, knowing she won’t understand a word. ‘Free yourself from convention. A clown nose can be any colour you want it to be. Live free M—. Live free’.
‘Qué?’ she croaks at me, before turning her attention to her children to make sure they will be the most spectacular clowns in the parade. I skip off to adorn my shoes with large yellow paper bows.

It’s Carnival. Two weeks late. But it’s Carnival. Around here, Carnival is staggered so that residents from different villages can participate in each other’s festivities. Kinda defeats the purpose of Lent, if you’re spending the six weeks before Easter dressing up and eating copious amounts of sweets. But hey, who am I to judge? To complicate matters further, the Sanlúcar village and school Carnivals are held on different days – the school Carnival taking place on a school day to accommodate teachers who don’t live in the village. Today, for the school Carnival, I am ridiculously dressed as a clown following weeks of intense preparation.

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It all started about a week into the new term. A sign went up on the wall outside Katie’s class informing parents we had to provide our children with black boots, red leggings and red long-sleeved t-shirts. And we had to give the teacher €5 per child so she could buy the rest of the items necessary to complete the costumes. We had none of the above (apart from the €5) at home, so I borrowed and improvised. I covered Katie’s pink rubber boots in a cut up pair of old black tights and borrowed leggings from Ana and a top from Hannah. It was all relatively easy.

The preparations for Lily’s class were somewhat more involved. Her teacher arranged a meeting with the parents to decide what the class would dress as. Various ideas were thrown around – clowns, rainbows, Peppa Pig. This last would involve the parents laboriously making papier maché Peppa Pig heads. We quickly ruled out that option. In the end we decided on making clown outfits, at which point the teacher washed her hands of the whole affair and left us parents to get on with it.

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A week later the parents met in the classroom. There were six mothers and two fathers present There are only nine children in the class, and only one mother was absent – the aforementioned M—. There was a clear cultural divide. The two English, one Dutch and one Irish mum just wanted to get on with it as quickly and painlessly as possible, make the costumes and go home again. The Spanish dads agreed with us, but the Spanish mums were aiming for perfection.

Heated discussions ensued concerning hats, the positioning of buttons, whether to use glue or staples to assemble the costumes once we had made all the constituent parts. After an hour, when we already have a production line of paper, scissors, glue and stickers going on, M— arrived in, talking loudly on her mobile phone and proceeded to loudly (while simultaneously talking on her phone and drinking a can of Coke) inform us that she was not happy with what we had achieved in her absence and she would have done things differently. The other Spanish parents have no patience for her and told her loudly, without any ado, to shut up, sit down and help out.

After an hour and a half we had achieved a little, but there was still much to do. We agreed to meet at the same time next week, to finish the costumes. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, getting to know the Spanish parents who I had only ever said hello to before, practicing my Spanish and listening hard to the rapid Spanish conversation going on around me. (One of the English mums and the Dutch mum are Spanish speakers).

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We met the next week and completed the costumes, but there was still debate about the necessity of hats on top of the clown wigs the children would wear and if we were to make hats, should they be top hats or cone shaped. The English/Dutch/Irish contingent argued that if there must be hats, they should be of the easier-to-make cone-shaped variety, but the Spanish mums thought difficult-to-make top hats would be better. No conclusion was reached and we agreed to meet again the next week.

In the meantime, I received a note from Katie’s teacher asking for parents to come to school to help sew costumes for that class. I arrived at the school on the day and, with five other mums and one dad (all Spanish), all speaking rapid and mostly incomprehensible Spanish, sat around a table sewing the costumes the way the teacher instructed. I discovered Katie was the only child whose red top was not a polo neck. How did everyone else know this and I didn’t? It was too late to do anything about it now. By the end of two hours I was exhausted, not from the sewing, but from trying to keep up with and participate a little in the conversation.

I went home for lunch and returned two hours later for my by now weekly meeting with the parents of Lily’s classmates. It was decided to not make hats for the children, but instead to make matching clown costumes for the mothers. The English/Dutch/Irish mums were none too keen – dreading the extra work involved as much as dressing up like bloody eejits – but the Spanish mums were rarin’ to go. So we set about making seven more clown outfits.

We didn’t have enough orange bin bags, so one of the English mums said she would buy some more a couple of days later when she drove down to Ayamonte. We arranged to meet yet again, on the day before the Carnival, to assemble the costumes.

The day before Carnival arrived, but the mum who had bought the bin bags couldn’t make it to the school, so she gave the bags to me and asked me to pass her apologies on to the other parents. The first person I met when I got to the school was M—. She looked suspiciously at the roll of orange bin bags I was holding in my hand and angrily asked me why I had so many. ‘We only need four’, she croaked, pulling on her fag in the school playground. ‘But they only come in packs of ten’, I replied, simultaneously showing her the number 10 on the side of the bag. She looked at me like I’d spoken to her in Klingon.

Another mum arrived with the key and we let ourselves into the school and set to work in Lily’s classroom. But horror of horrors – the new plastic bags were a slightly different shade of orange and slightly bigger than the other ones. The English/Dutch/Irish mums didn’t think this was a problem, but the Spanish mums seemed to think Carnival was now ruined. We assembled the costumes and, without anyone saying anything, the three sturdy shiny plastic bags ended up in the hands of the Spanish mums while the English/Dutch/Irish mums were left with the flimsy, less shiny other four.

I was ready to go home when one of the Spanish mums thought it would be a good idea if we all – children and mothers – had yellow paper bows for their shoes. We spent the next half an hour on a yellow paper bow production line. Finally, all was ready and I was not the only non-Spanish mum who made a beeline for the Chiringuito bar and a glass of chilled white wine.

The afternoon of Carnival finally arrived. The nine girls in Katie’s class were dressed as majorettes and Diego, the lone boy, as a ring master with a cat-o-nine-tails. The teacher and mums were also majorettes. Lily’s class and mums were clowns, the class above and teacher were Smurfs and the oldest class and mums were a Mexican mariachi band. Whistles and bags of confetti were distributed and we set off through the streets of Sanlúcar, led by Pepe the principal, amid great excitement and fanfare.

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For weeks Lily and Katie had been learning songs, and when we reached the village plaza each class sang its song. We then carried on back to the school where they all sang their songs once again. The smaller children were wonderful. But the older boys (aged 9 to 13) looked thoroughly embarrassed and ill-at-ease and only the enthusiastic and full-voiced girls in those classes saved the day.

When the parade was over we were treated to Coke, Fanta, crisps and chorizo sandwiches. For once, the kids didn’t run around. They were exhausted and just wanted to sit with their food and drinks. The festivities came to a sudden end when the heavens opened and a heavy shower of rain caused us all to run for the cover of our homes.

In two days time the village Carnival will take place. I’m looking forward to being an uninvolved bystander!

An educational perambulation

While we still had the hired car we’d used to get from Faro airport back to Carina, we decided to go for a hike a little farther downriver. We drove five miles back to Laranjeiras, parked the car, and we did an 8km circular walk up into the hills on the Portuguese side of the river. The 15th of November and it was already hot at 9am, the late autumn sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. The walk took us up through the tiny village of Laranjeiras, along steep paths so narrow you could almost touch the old whitewashed houses on either side. On the outskirts of the village we passed an olive grove with tarpaulin spread beneath the trees, catching the falling olives. We were soon out of the village, the winding path taking us past scrubby bushes festooned with dew covered spider webs, higher and higher up through olive and almond groves, higher than the mist that still lingered over the river.

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The path wound down again, through the village of Guerreiros de Rio, where we stopped for coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, and then the even smaller hamlet of Alamo, where the path once again wound steeply uphill through the houses and into the hilly countryside beyond.

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The path was dusty and rocky, the olive, almond, fig and other trees gnarled and ancient-looking. There was a species of tree that befuddled us. It had acorns growing on it, but didn’t look like any oak tree we’d ever seen before. The leaves were small and shiny, more akin to holly than oak. This tree too was gnarly and twisted in trunk and branch. The one-page leaflet with the trail map soon set us straight. It is the cork oak. The first cork oaks we saw were small, but later we saw bigger, older trees, that had been harvested of their cork coats on the lower parts of their trunks. We thought of the importance of this tree to the economy of the region. How the cork from the oak tree seals the bottles of wine from the vines and the bottle of olive oil and jars of olives from the olive trees. These three trees all looking so old even when they are young are the lifeblood of the region’s culture.

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As we walked along we looked out for rabbits and hares, guessed at the names of trees, and discussed what we knew of the border history of this part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. At the highest point of our climb was a windmill which had been in operation up until the 1940s. We could still see the cog mechanism inside. That got us thinking about food and we got the girls thinking about grain, the uses we have for different grains and how important this windmill would have been to the people of the area when it was in operation.

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Katie wanted a ‘math’s challenge’, something she’d picked up from her Oregon friend Kenna when we’d been out walking a few days earlier. So we challenged her, giving her easy addition at first, and making it more complicated as the morning wore on. Lily didn’t want to be left out, so Julian threw maths problems at her and she surprised us with the speed at which she solved them in her head and with her ability to add and subtract fractions – something we didn’t know she could do.

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We practiced Spanish on each other as we walked along. Because Julian and I know slightly different things and remember slightly different vocabulary, we’re able to challenge each other with what we know. So a game ensued of saying what we knew, making us sentences, all four of us trying to figure out what the others were saying.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been struck by how much learning happens when we go walking. My family loves to walk and the stream of consciousness that is inspired by what we see in the world around us as we walk inspires us to do all sorts of learning. Maths is somehow much more fun when practiced in the fresh air than when sitting at the table with books and pencils. Spanish too. Geography, botany, agriculture, history, ecology, meteorology are all around us, and it’s impossible not to learn.

We returned home from our walk exercised in body and mind, hungry for lunch and hungry too for the things we’d discovered we didn’t know – such as Portugal’s area and population, it’s recent history, and a plethora of Spanish words that we decided we simply had to know.

Another attempt

A year and a day ago I posted I am not superwoman, in which I stated, amongst other things, that I was giving up trying to study Spanish. I simply did not have enough hours in the day to do all the things I wanted to do and some things had to go. So I left Spanish study to Julian and Lily, while I got on with things that seemed more urgent to me. I was thinking about that blog post earlier today and only this minute have I realised that it is exactly a year since I wrote it.

For almost seven months I watched Julian progressing with his Spanish language ability. Following a taster course on the BBC language site Mi Vida Loca, he devoted himself to the learning website Duolingo whenever we had access to Wifi, and he practiced his newfound skills at every opportunity. Lily followed suit, first trying her hand at Mi Vida Loca and then getting her own Duolingo account. She and the Spanish kids she met at the playground on the beach in Aguadulce and elsewhere communicated in a mixture of pidgin-English and pidgin-Spanish and I could tell that her understanding was developing. I was disappointed in myself for not making an effort to learn Spanish, but I knew enough to shop and ask directions and to make basic polite conversation.

Then a strange thing happened. The girls and I flew back to the UK towards the end of May and I suddenly had this blinding urge to learn Spanish. And I wanted the girls to learn Spanish too. In the first few days we were back I searched the bookshops in Coventry and bought two textbooks suitable for children and a box of flashcards with 200 common Spanish words.

We played with the flashcards. I sent the girls on errands around their granddad’s house to find items on the flashcards and we tried to remember the Spanish names for things. We wrote the names of things on post-it notes and stuck them around the house – la puerta, la ventana, el escritorio, el ordenador, and so on.

One day at their grandma’s house, Lily asked if she could do some of the Mi Vida Loca programme on the computer. An hour later, when she’d tired of it, Katie took over, enjoying the interactive portions of the programme where she had to pay for a taxi, buy a glass of wine, etc.

In mid-June I decided to check out Duolingo. I’ve been hooked ever since, rarely missing more than a couple of days of study. Whenever the mood takes me I make time for ten minutes, half an hour, forty-five minutes of study – sitting up in bed with the laptop first thing in the morning or last thing at night, squeezing in ten minutes before dinner time, grabbing a few minutes on the Duolingo app on my phone.

I’m still way behind Julian, but I’m getting there. A couple of months ago I received an email from someone in Sanlúcar de Guadiana, written entirely in Spanish. I couldn’t believe that I understood the content of the entire email without having to resort to the dictionary or Google Translate.

These days Lily and Katie play on Mi Vida Loca; Lily practices Duolingo; Katie and I have fun with the flashcards; and we occasionally do pages of the textbooks and sing along to the songs on the accompanying CDs. Julian and I practice Spanish on each other and on the girls, often attempting simple conversations or testing our vocabulary while we eat meals or go out for walks.

Only eleven more sleeps until we fly back to Carina on the Rio Guadiana. I’m looking forward to testing out and improving my new language skills. I’ll probably never be able to seduce Benicio del Toro or Gael Garcia Bernal in their native language (or in my native language, come to think of it) or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels in their original Spanish, but I will, hopefully, be able to have conversations with the lovely people of Sanlúcar that go beyond asking for a loaf of bread or a glass of beer!

I’m glad I changed my mind about trying to learn Spanish. It’s not only provided me with a new and growing skill, but my enthusiasm has rubbed off on the girls and Julian now has someone to practice with. The whole family has benefitted from my decision to take a leap into a new skill and we all know a lot more Spanish than we did at the start of the summer.

It just goes to show it’s ok to change your mind about something and it’s never too late to learn a new skill. Just ask my mother, who has recently resumed piano lessons after a 56-year break!

Fractions with Granddad

‘Do you want me to do some colouring or reading with them?’ my father-in-law calls up the stairs.
‘They’re learning fractions at the moment’, I call back down, and leave it at that.
Fifteen minutes later, when I come downstairs, Lily, Katie and Granddad are sitting at the kitchen table, deep in learning.

Katie is colouring in a pizza on a piece of paper, to be divided into equal segments once it’s done. Lily has multiple pieces of paper in front of her, circles and squares. She has moved beyond the halves and quarters that she has recently become comfortable with. Granddad is challenging her with thirds, fifths, sevenths. And when that seems easy, he moves things up a level, challenging Lily to see that 1⁄2= 2⁄4, 1⁄4 = 2⁄8, and so on. Katie’s pizza is ready now (‘Katie’s pizza’…Katie reads it without prompting…horray!) and I join in the fun. We work out how many pieces we would divide the whole pizza into if greater and greater numbers of family members wanted equal shares. All this talk of pizza is making me hungry!

Fractions with Granddad

Fractions with Granddad

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed how the input of other people can lead to sudden or dramatic leaps in Lily’s and Katie’s understanding and skills. Partly, I think this is because of someone else taking a different approach to a problem, and partly because the girls enjoy the novelty and want to impress other people more than they want to impress Mum and Dad.

Katie is generally adverse to learning to read, but in the past few days has been making some progress, usually under duress. When I told Granddad about Katie’s amazing reading, she did a fantastic thing. Instead of scowling, she leapt up, grabbed the book she’s been reading and insisted that Granddad come sit with her in the sitting room so she could read the book to him. And, as I lay in the bath the other night, I could hear Grandma and Katie downstairs, writing together – Katie asking Grandma how to spell certain words and Grandma prompting Katie to figure the spellings out for herself.

Lily had been keen to learn to knit for some time. My attempts at teaching her didn’t get very far, but I was happy for her to get comfortable with the feel of needles and wool. The knitting would come with time and the improvement of her fine motor skills. About a year ago, Mammy came to stay and in the space of 15 minutes Lily’s knitting took a leap forward. Then, this summer, Julian’s mum brought Lily the final step. Lily can now knit (plain stitch for the moment) and is currently knitting a scarf.

Lily has learned to do underwater handstands by observing an older boy doing them at the pool and Katie has learned to cartwheel by observing teenage girls at the beach. I’ve been told I learned to write my name at the age of three and a half, thanks to my cousin Brendan.

Over the past few years I’ve observed the girls learning from adults and from other children, people they’ve known all their lives and people they’ve just met. I’m not fobbing off my duties and pawning off my children’s education onto everyone else who comes along, althought it might seem like it from what I’ve just written! As a home educator I’m always eager to involve as many people as possible in the children’s very informal education. Julian and I have two different approaches, but when we include other family members, friends, and people we meet along the way, the number of different perspectives and approaches to learning that the girls are exposed to vastly expands. The approach Granddad took to fractions was different to the approach I took. He used different words to describe things, he came to the problem from a different angle. I was tempted to jump in and use the words and phrases I had been employing to teach fractions, but I decided to keep my mouth shut, observe and see what happened.

Granddad’s different approach didn’t confuse the girls. Instead, it pushed their understanding of fractions further.

Life is complex and the best way to solve life’s problems are to approach them from multiple perspectives. As adults we engage with people who have different world views and who approach life differently to us. Developing the skills and aptitude to accept and be able to work with those differences is very important. I’m often reminded of my research in Arviat. One hunter would show me a method for skinning a caribou, one seamstress would show me a method for scraping a seal skin. Aha, I’ve got it, I would think. Until I did the same thing with a different hunter or seamstress, and I realised the method one person had taught me was merely one way to do things. There was no universal way to accomplish a task, but rather multiple and unique approaches that worked for each individual.

It inspires me to see how open the girls are to learning from a variety of perspectives and how quickly, when presented with an alternative approach to a problem, they come to an understanding of something that has been befuddling them for some time. As they learn maths, reading and writing from a variety of people they are also learning the very important lesson that there are multiple ways to approach a task and over time they will find the way that suits them.

Post-script: Yesterday morning Lily and I went out for a walk. When we returned home Katie had learned to strip an electrical plug and put it back together again, thanks to Granddad. This morning I had an appointment to see the nurse and left both girls at home with Granddad. When I returned they were both sitting at the table on the patio, screwdrivers, plugs, a disused iron and a broken electric kettle in front of them, busy stripping and wiring plugs! That’s my girls!!

Life’s big questions

A couple of weeks ago The Pixelated Parent sent me a Liebster Award. It’s a kind of blogger chain letter which, in a fun way, allows bloggers to draw attention to the work of other bloggers they like. Having already accepted a Liebster challenge earlier this year I was about to turn down The Pixelated Parent. But something prompted me to read the questions she posed. They made me smile and I couldn’t resist answering them, together with ten facts about myself. I’m not passing this on, but I want to say thank you to The Pixelated Parent for helping to pull me out of a recent writing slump. Here goes:

What is your ‘signature dish’?
Vegetable stir fry with noodles, refined and improved over many years and now, depending on what’s in the cupboard, served in lime or satay varieties. And, though not strictly a ‘dish’, I make a mean soda bread.

What initially inspired your blog?
Alun Anderson, former editor-in-chief of New Scientist magazine! I met him when I was an academic through our shared interest in the Arctic, and when I told him about my plans to buy a boat, he advised me to blog about it.

If you could go into Space, would you?
When I was a child one of my heroines was Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and first woman in space. I so wanted to be an astronaut. But, given the environmental footprint of each rocket launch and the insane amounts of money spent on space exploration when there is so much poverty here on planet Earth, space travel now seems morally and ethically questionable to me.

What is the most important thing you want to pass on to your children?
Kindness. Empathy. Wonder. Enthusiasm. Comfort in their own skin.

Where is the greatest place you have ever been?
Croke Park, late summer-early autumn when the GAA championship is at its height. More specifically, Croke Park, August 2nd 1998, when Kildare became Leinster Champions for the first time in 42 years. If I could relive one day in my life again, it would be that day.

What is the last book you read?
The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. Finished it last night. Beautiful, poetic, and helping me to re-imagine the meaning of wilderness.

If you could be anyone in The World for a month, who would it be?
I’d like to inhabit the body of Ellen Macarthur, so I could absorb her sailing knowledge and skill and return to Carina and my own sailing life more confident and experienced than I currently am.

Do you have any pets?
Sadly, no. I grew up with dogs and cats and I thought it would be impossible to bring up children of my own without having dogs in the family. I know a few live aboard dogs, and maybe one day we will add one to our family.

Do you have any weird and wonderful skills?
I can skin a caribou, flense a beluga whale and gut a fish.

In a dream universe, what would you be doing ten years from now?
Sailing in the South Pacific, flitting from one idyllic anchorage to the next with my husband and teenage (yikes!) daughters, and earning a comfortable living from writing.

Ten things about me:
1. I hate marmalade.
2. ‘You’re so vain’ is my karaoke song.
3. I played the taiko drum when I lived in Japan.
4. I have a humpback whale tattoo.
5. ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born to run’ are my all time favourite songs.
6. I am a devoted disciple of the Church of Wittertainment.
7. I’m scared of frogs.
8. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is my favourite book. I’ve read it four times.
9. I don’t get Star Wars.
10. I had a Sinead O’Connor-style shaved head for two years in my mid-20s.

Working at Warwick Castle

by Julian

As Martina mentioned previously, I have taken a seasonal job at Warwick Castle as a ‘Litter Assistant’ to see us through the summer until we can return to Carina. The job doesn’t pay much but it fits in well with the time that we will be around here and I cannot see any adverts for summer geophysicists!

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I started at the beginning of July, only a couple of weeks after returning to England and my first early morning shifts were lovely. Entering the castle grounds before the public and walking to the top of ‘The Mound’, which was built by the Norman’s in the 11th century, you get a beautiful view across the Warwickshire countryside. I wore a pedometer for an 8 hour shift, to find that I had walked over 22,000 steps.

My job involves walking the grounds of an historic monument all though the summer and getting really fit doing it. I can understand why people actually volunteer to litter pick at some National Trust properties! Other lovely views are from the peacock garden, along the Capability Brown landscaped grounds, to the bend in the river and also along the river itself, looking up at the walls of the castle. I have seen areas of the castle not generally accessible to the public, including the lovely ‘Ladies walk’ that looks down on the old ruined bridge over the Avon, the Mill Street gardens and over a row of old houses.

I have also had the opportunity to learn local history as part of my job. The ‘History Team’ do some entertaining and informative tours which are at no extra cost to the visitor. Unfortunately some people dismiss the castle as an amusement park, due to it being run by ‘Merlin’ who also run the UK’s biggest theme park ‘Alton Towers’. However, even without the history team, I have the major points of the the castle’s history imprinted on my mind by the ‘Horrible Histories’ stage show ‘Wicked Warwick’. The show is primarily aimed at children, but from this show I now know the names of the first 8 earls of Warwick and an interesting fact about each of them, I know what side Warwick took in the English civil war and about all of the major construction phases the castle went through. Some people get a bit sniffy about the castle entertaining families, but it is odd for people to dislike history being brought to life for children. I think that is one of the highest aims we can have for our heritage, one which will ensure it survives and flourishes in the minds and hearts of the next generation.

I have one admission to make. Of course I am a little partisan. I learned to sail from the age of 5 on the River Avon, looking up at the majestic walls of this castle and anyone who has regularly read this blog knows where that has led to in our lives. A place like this can be with you for a lifetime. Returning to the castle and keeping it clear of litter, however briefly, has been fun and an education for me, strange as that might sound. I hope I can make the most of my remaining time here.

Blackberry picking

Temporarily leaving Carina this summer to return to the UK was tinged with sadness for, among many reasons, lost foraging opportunities. At anchor on the Rio Guadiana, Julian often returned home with bags full of sweet oranges from an orange tree he’d found growing wild along the river bank. We ate them fresh, juice running down our chins, squeezed oranges to make juice for breakfast, and combined oranges with wild lemons and rosemary to flavour chicken for our dinner. We snacked on loquats plucked from a tree growing on the side of a street in Alcoutim, and made fresh mint tea from leaves growing in abundance on the sides of the roads in Sanlucar. As we prepared to fly back to the UK, I gazed with longing at plums only days away from ripeness, and hoped we would return to the river in time to forage the figs, almonds and grapes that grow in wild profusion on both sides of the river and would be reaching ripeness in summer.

Alas, the months have slipped by and autumn is almost here, and still we are in the UK. But even in the urban Midlands of England we are blessed with wild and cultivated food and the harvest spoils are upon us.

A few weeks ago, Jim and Jean, who live next door to Grandma, invited Lily and Katie around to pick raspberries. Grandma went with them, and they returned with bowls full of raspberries and extraordinarily sweet blackcurrants. We ate them as they were, straight from the bowl, our fingers and faces turning red with their juices. We had them with yogurt, added them to muesli and porridge for breakfast, turned them into crumble for dessert, and used them to make cupcakes. Grandma had plans to make jam, but she never got the chance – we devoured them all far too quickly.

The produce grown in the sensory garden at Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa is there for anyone who wants it. There are herbs and raspberries, courgettes and Swiss chard. I’ve left the courgettes for others, as we’re growing our own here at Grandma’s house, but the chard has become a regular feature of our meals. Each time I walk through Jephson Gardens I pick three or four giant leaves. We substitute them for baby spinach in salads, slightly cook them for dinner, chop them into stir fries and add them to vegetarian lasagne.

But what thrills me most is the wild food we have found growing in the city’s green spaces. It was Lily and Katie of course who first found the blackberries. They’re like trained sniffer dogs. Every summer and autumn of their lives has been spent blackberry picking. This time five years ago Lily and I were picking blackberries from the hedgerows of Boxworth until the day before Katie was born and we were back out there again the day after she was born, this time with Katie in her sling. They’re blackberry picking experts – and addicts.

A couple of years ago in Plymouth I discovered new and unexpected uses for a boat hook. Carina’s hook became an essential tool on our blackberry foraging expeditions along the Southwest Coast Path, allowing me to push aside thorny briars and nettles to reach the succulent out of the way blackberries inaccessible to the casual rambler. I did come a-cropper one evening, however, when a large nettle I had pushed aside sprang back and whacked me full-on in the face. But as I tell the girls, the nettle stings and thorns are the price we pay for such a splendid harvest. We can’t expect blackberry bushes to give their fruit away for free.

We’ve discovered a huge blackberry patch in Leamington and we share it with wasps, ladybirds, butterflies and many other small creatures. This morning, when we arrived with tubs and bags, we were thrilled to find a new resident in – or rather, under – the briars. In the few days since we were last here a badger has moved in. There is the tell-tale excavation of a sett, with the red earth fanned around in a wide semi-circle. We were very thankful to the badger, as it had also made forays into the briars, and the tramped down nettles and thorny branches allowed us to forage more deeply into the briars than before. There are moles here too and, given that our current bedtime reading is The Wind in the Willows, we are all very pleased that Mole and Mr Badger are hereabouts.

Seamus Heaney knew the temptations of picking too many blackberries, and each time I go blackberry picking I try to limit what I pick, but inevitably I can’t stop myself. This morning, with our tubs and bellies full of blackberries, we climbed to a hill-side meadow and the two plum trees we recently discovered. The grass grows taller than Katie here and we have to wade through it to get to the two trees, one bearing yellow plums and the other red. I warned the girls to be careful of wasps, who are also enjoying these ripe fruits at this time of year. People walked past on the path as we picked the plums. Two couples stopped, curious as to what we were doing. Some of the yellow plums are already overripe, so we left those to the wasps, but we filled a shopping bag with small sweet fruits from both trees, and brought our bounty home to Grandma, snacking from the bag as we walked along.

Back home, Grandma brought out Mrs Beeton and a couple of other cookbooks and we’ve been pouring over recipes for jams, jellies and chutneys. Grandma knows the whereabouts of a wild apple tree, heavy with fruit – we might have to check it out in a couple of weeks.

Julian’s itching to go mushroom picking, and behind the plum trees I found a big sloe bush and if we’re still here after the first frost, then we’ll be gathering sloes to make sloe gin and sloe jelly.

There’ll still be plenty of foraging to do when we return to Carina. But for now, I’m so happy to gather some of my old favourites, and looking forward to some busy days of baking and preserve-making ahead.

Blackberry picking
By Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

A well-structured summer

My diary is full to bursting. There’s art club and running club, art festivals, summer fêtes and swimming lessons. There are woodland volunteer days, plant a vegetable days, bat walk nights. There are brass bands on Sundays, movies on Saturdays, the home education group on Thursdays. There are days when I have to choose between conflicting events. And there are days, like today, when I decide to just stay home.

Shortly after we returned to the UK I wrote a blog about the many events keeping the girls and I busy in Coventry and Leamington Spa. This summer has provided the girls with some great opportunities for learning. A couple of weeks ago they had five mornings of swimming lessons, and I saw a huge improvement in their swimming skills as a result. Most Saturdays they run in Newbold Comyn with Kids Run Free, a fantastic charity that gets kids running. They attend art club at the Leamington Art Gallery, nature events at Jephson Gardens and a regular gathering of home educating families at All Sorts in Fargo in Coventry. Through these, they develop their art and craft skills, and have access to resources we otherwise wouldn’t have access to while we are temporarily staying with their grandparents.

All of which has got me thinking about how different our home education experience has been this summer. With the exception of when the girls were very little and we attended baby and toddler groups, our engagement with the world beyond our own door has generally been far less organised and structured. We generally don’t stay in any place long enough to get used to a pattern of activities, and because we have been in non-English speaking countries we have not always been aware of activities taking place.

So we explore the world around us according to our own rhythm. When we’re aboard Carina, we often set out on an adventure after breakfast, snacks, drinks and a picnic lunch packed, not knowing where we will end up. We find things to interest us – one day we might pick leaves, another we might spend an hour observing marching ants. We might pick flowers, or swim in the sea. We might find other kids to play with, or make a shell garden.

This summer our activities are more structured. I plan our week around my diary – a half hour of running here, an hour of art there. I don’t think one way is better than the other. I can see the pros and cons of both. One perhaps is more suited to country living, the other to city living. We have wonderful opportunities this summer to learn new things at the hands of experts, through organised classes and events.

But sometimes when I’m racing the kids here or there (we walk everywhere), I think my event-filled diary is perhaps running our lives just a little bit too much!

A lesson in empathy

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and today marks the same anniversary for Nagasaki. When I visited both cities during the mid-1990s I went to each city’s peace garden and atomic bomb museum. I was deeply moved by the sight of old men and women, then fifty years removed from the bombing, crying as they moved through the museums. Their pain had endured through all that time.

On Thursday, now seventy years from those horrific events, I watched BBC news coverage of Japanese men and women now in their eighties and nineties sharing their stories. Again I was deeply moved, partly because this is a horror that could be visited on any of us, and partly because this happened in a country that is dear to my heart. The old people telling their stories reminded me of the beautiful old obaasans and ojiisans who were my neighbours and my friends’ parents and grandparents when I lived in Japan, and their younger selves who experienced these horrors could have been, in a different age, my lively and fun-filled thirteen and fourteen year old students.

I had been watching some of the BBC coverage on the Internet after the girls had gone to bed. But Lily snuck out of bed and asked me what I was watching. I gave some thought to whether I should discuss it or not. I decided to explain it to her.

So I told her that on this day seventy years ago a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, a city in Japan, and hundreds of thousands of people had died and many more were made very sick. Of course, she wanted to know why this had happened. She knew about World War II and I explained that lots of different countries were involved, some fighting on one side, some fighting on the other. I explained that the Japanese army had done bad things in other countries, but that many people – including me – didn’t think that made it right to drop these two terrible bombs on Japan.

She asked some other questions and I tried to answer them as best I could. Then she said, ‘You know when I’m naughty to Katie, you always tell me to think’.
‘Yes’, I said, not sure where her train of thought was going.
‘You tell me to think how I would feel if someone pinched me, or called me names I didn’t like’.
‘Yes, I do’, I said. ‘Think about how you would want someone to treat you’.
‘Well’, Lily said, ‘I think someone should have told those people to think before they dropped that bomb. How would they feel if someone dropped that bomb on their land? How would they feel if someone made their house go on fire and if their family was killed?’

Well, Lily, I guess you’ve just figured out empathy.

PS: Here’s a link to a child-appropriate story film about Hiroshima.